Imagine for a second that you’re poor, poor Tom Veelers, the workaday Dutch cyclist who crashed super hard in the middle of a frenzied sprint after colliding with master sprinter Mark Cavendish just seconds before the finish line of today’s exhausting Stage 10. (See the wince-inducing video below.) Today’s stage was flatter than the Pyrenees, but still very hilly. Sprinters who’d been holding on for dear life in the previous two mountain stages were champing for the chance at an exciting sprint finish. But that kind of sprint requires the entire field finishing together, and, as often happens in the Tour, a few rebel riders had a different ending to the day in mind. Five men (none with a real chance to affect the overall results, but all with the potential to steal the stage win) broke away pretty much right after the start of the 122-mile route, forcing the entire field to ride harder than they’d wanted, into a relentless headwind, for the 104 miles it took to catch up to them. They were swallowed up eighteen miles from the end, all that effort for naught.
So, it sucked to be those guys, but it probably sucked even more to be Veelers. The 28-year-old is what’s known as a lead-out man on team Argos-Shimano, a very specialized position in the already specialized subset of TDF sprinters. Veelers is in no way a contender for any prizes. He’s in his first TDF and constantly on the edge of being eliminated on time, in 179th place overall. Like the wing-man domestiques whose job is to exhaust themselves on mountains to serve their team leaders, lead-out men exhaust themselves all day to make sure they’re at the front of the peloton with the finish line in sight. When the sprint starts, the lead-out men battle headwinds and elbows, even head-butts, amid a vicious pack of dudes all trying to do the same thing, in order to to clear a path for their team’s lead sprinter.
Then, just before the finish line, the lead-out man peels off and lets the lead sprinter take the win and the glory. It’s a pretty thankless job, and Veelers was doing his when he bumped into Cavendish (one of the top sprinters in the world) and was thrown completely from his bike onto the pavement, with a sea of riders, mid-sprint, bearing down upon him. It’s a miracle that no one rolled right over him, and that he was the only rider to fall. Still, it had to hurt, and he was so near the front that his fall prevented a lot of the adrenaline-fueled guys behind him from getting their sprint on.
Veelers eventually weaved his way across the finish line, where a controversy was brewing over who was to blame: him or Cavendish. Race Jury president Vicente Tortajada Villaroya cleared Cavendish and blamed it on Veelers for losing his concentration and looking down. The riders behind Veelers who’d had to swerve to avoid him, like Australian Matt Goss, badmouthed him to the press. (Goss said the incident was “more ass than class.”) Meanwhile, Greg Henderson, a lead-out man for Andre Greipel, took to Twitter to call out Cavendish as “not professional.” And Cavendish got so upset when cornered by reporters at his trailer that he temporarily ran off with the tape recorder of an Associated Press reporter who asked him if the crash was his fault. Then as the Internet blew up at him for possibly leaning too far to the left into Veelers and causing the crash, he took to Twitter to defend himself: “Can all sprint experts on twitter go & try flicking their bike right at 65kph without leaning your body left to balance & come back to me.”
Then again, perhaps the pavement slam was worth it. Veelers’s Argos teammate, Marcel Kittel, who’d already won that crash-filled, bus-blocked Stage 1, ended up with his second win of the 100th Tour de France and his twelfth win of 2013. Once he’d calmed down and been cleared of wrongdoing, Cavendish admitted that Kittel, 25, is likely the sprinter to watch. “In other (kind of) non-related news,” Cavendish wrote, “am starting to think @marcelkittel is the next BIG THING. Congratulations again.”