The sound of the crash is almost as haunting as watching it. The clatter of carbon frames snapping as they hit the tarmac, the airy pops of tyres blowing, the shouts and of riders, the shrill pitch of the horns of team cars. Crashes are moments in cycling that put a dagger of dread and worry in everyone involved in the race – a harsh reminder of how dangerous this sport really can be.
At the 2023 men’s Tour of Flanders, the crash that ripped through the bunch with 141km to go was one of the biggest seen in cycling so far this season, maybe even in the sport’s recent history. It was caused by one split second misjudgement by Bahrain-Victorious’s Filip Maciejuk, a dire mistake that will likely stay with the Polish rider for the remainder of his career.
As the bunch was hectic with riders fighting for position, Maciejuk appeared desperate to move up to the front of the peloton, coming off the road and zooming up the outside of the bunch. Things went wrong very quickly for the 23-year-old when the gravel he was riding on turned into wet, boggy grass. As his front wheel hit a deep puddle, Maciejuk lost control, swerving back and across into the front of the bunch, taking down Tim Wellens (UAE Team Emirates) first, who ended up breaking his collarbone in four pieces. Behind, it can only be described as a domino effect. The majority of the peloton found themselves face to face with the Belgian tarmac.
At the finish line, riders staggered in hours later with ripped shorts and gaping wounds dripping with sticky, dusty blood. And these were the lucky ones. Riders like Wellens, Ben Turner (Ineos Grenadiers), Peter Sagan (Total Energies), Julian Alaphilippe (Soudal - Quick-Step), among others, never made it to the finish at all, their assault at Flanders ruined by the aftermath of such a horrendous pile-up.
Injured riders arrived at the finish (Image: Zac Williams/SWpix)
Matteo Trentin of UAE Team Emirates was one of the most vocal after the race about his discontent with the number of crashes that took place during this edition of De Ronde, blaming it on a lack of care among riders.
“It’s impossible to barrier the whole parcours, we need to be smarter sometimes and avoid these stupid moves,” the Italian rider said. “Sometimes better to pull your brakes and survive one day more than kill 25 riders.”
Trentin also pointed to races getting more intense and hectic as one of the key causes of an increasing number of big crashes in today’s peloton. “We go faster and faster, every race is important, every corner becomes important. We are in the kind of mood where everything is important but I feel like sometimes we forget we have brakes or something.”
While Trentin’s points are valid, it is worth keeping in mind that moves like the one Maciejuk made are extremely common in professional bike racing, and it wasn’t out of the ordinary for a rider to try something like this to gain an advantage on the peloton.
The Polish rider has since apologised on Twitter for his actions, understandably regretful about making the decision he did. Maciejuk was disqualified and told to leave the race soon after the crash occurred, but this punishment from the race organisers will likely be nowhere near as hard to cope with for the 23-year-old rider as the onslaught of criticism he has received on social media.
It was a hectic race for many (Image: Zac Williams/SWpix)
It is commonplace in cycling for riders to be punished based on the consequences of their actions, rather than the actions themselves. We see it often in bunch sprints at the end of races – riders are lauded for impressive race craft if they squeeze through gaps without causing any mishaps, but they are criticised and disqualified if they do so and it ends up leading to a crash.
Had Maciejuk made his move and reached the front of the bunch with everyone unscathed, it’s probable that no one would have bat an eyelid, we see riders move up on bike paths and on the outside of the road all of the time in professional racing.
There is no arguing that Maciejuk’s disqualification was the right call of action in this case, but are these sorts of crashes really avoidable in racing? As Trentin himself said, the stakes are becoming higher and higher and riders are forced to take risks in order to get ahead. Yes, Maciejuk should not have done what he did, but it was bad luck at a bad moment to hit the deep pool of water when he did. It’s clear from his response that no one regrets it more than Maciejuk himself, but mistakes do happen.
Like Trentin mentions, riders pulling their brakes and taking more care would be a welcome change in the peloton, but in such a competitive, fast-paced environment, this does seem a bit like wishful thinking.
Cover image: Getty