Followers of professional cycling are conditioned to seeing the grisly, bloody and breath-taking lengths that riders put their bodies through in the pursuit of sporting glory or pride. At Paris-Roubaix, the most physically violent one-day race in the calendar, those norms are even more perverted. At that race we don’t just accept the extreme, we expect it.
Nonetheless, the sight of Lewis Askey’s knee in the infield of the Roubaix velodrome on Sunday afternoon was shocking even to someone desensitised to the occasional brutality of the sport.
The British Paris-Roubaix debutant came to a halt after crossing the line, half fell off his bike, slumped over on the grass and poured a can of raspberry flavoured Oasis onto his parched, cracked lips. Wrapped round his left knee was a tatty bandage. Streaks of dried blood and mud poured down his shin like rain down a pane of glass. He was unable to lift his torso off the ground and so rested on his forearms, occasionally drinking, and processed the conclusion of his ordeal.
Remarkably, he was soon helped back on his bike and pushed out of the velodrome towards the famous block of showers. There, sat on a chair, staring out a thousand yards, he clutched his thigh and awaited the doctor.
(Credit: Jojo Harper)
Lewis Askey’s elite Paris-Roubaix debut had in fact off to a rather good start; he found himself with great legs and in the front group as the race split unexpectedly under pressure from Ineos Grenadiers in the opening hour. With all of his Groupama-FDJ teammates in the bunch behind, Askey’s job was simply to roll through. But by the time the race thundered onto the third sector of cobbles, a four-star secteur pavé from Quiévy to St-Python, things went badly wrong.
“There was maybe a burst water pipe, something, and for a section of the cobbles for a couple of metres it was really wet,” Askey explains. “Basically, the guy in front of me decided that the best thing he could do when he saw wet cobbles was slam on his brakes in a panic. Obviously, that is the worst thing you can do on wet cobbles.
“That meant he locked up both wheels, went sliding, and everyone piled into the back of him. It was right at the start of the sector, it blocked the road, and I couldn’t go anywhere. I tried as much as I could to keep it going straight but I just went over the top, then everyone else came piling into the back of me as well, because no-one could stop, so I was still getting hit when I was on the ground.”
Speaking the following afternoon as he made his way home, Askey believes the offending item was a spinning disc brake rotor. When he untangled himself from the pile of bikes and limbs he noticed a slice down the side of his left knee too clean to have come from a chainring or a cobblestone. Adrenalin got him going again, making the pain bearable, but he soon realised that a little attention was needed.
“I could see inside my leg, pretty far inside my leg,” he says. “So I went back to the medic car and I just asked him for a big bandage to wrap around my knee to stop it bleeding out and not getting any dust in there. Fortunately we were in one of the places where there was a couple of kilometres between the sectors [of cobbles] so they had time to wrap it up nice and good before we hit the next sectors.”
By the time he and his fellow crash victims were up and running again, the main bunch was breathing down their necks. Askey now had a job to do so he set about doing it: ride on the front, pull back the dangerous lead group and position his leader, Stefan Küng, inside the Arenberg Forest sector of cobbles.
“I managed to help bring the two groups back together, and in the Arenberg I managed to do some good work for Stefan, to make sure he was in the right place at the right time. [My knee] was getting worse, but I still had a job to do so I was doing it, and I was still in the race so I had the adrenalin.”
Askey exits the Arenberg (Credit: Zac Williams/SWPix.com)
Such is the chaos of Paris-Roubaix that neither Küng nor the rest of the team quite realised at the time just what had happened to Askey. Not long after they were out of the Arenberg, however, the pain in his knee began to get worse and he dropped back out of the main bunch. Without the distraction of a job to do and with the adrenalin slowly wearing off, things really started to go downhill. His knee began to stiffen whenever he stopped pedalling to go through corners. His little group of dropped riders fractured, with some drafting up behind team cars and others dropping further back. Askey found silent support in a rider from Quick-Step-Alpha Vinyl and another from TotalEnergies; without them he believes he wouldn’t have made it to the finish.
“The last hour and a half was a real tough hour and a half,” he says. “Realistically the best thing to have done would have been to have stopped straight away, but at that point I didn’t think it was going to be so bad. So I didn’t.
“By the time I’d realised, ow, this is actually really not good, I’d already put myself through too much pain to not finish it. If that makes sense.”
Askey rode 155km over some of Europe's worst roads with an injury that would, in any other context, require an ambulance and immediate hospitalisation. He finished in 42nd place. To anyone who knows bike racing it makes perfect sense, even though to the general public, it might not. “If I turn up to a race, I’m there to race,” Askey says. “I don’t turn up to make up the numbers. You always sprint all the way to the line. That’s the mentality I have, to give everything 100%, even if it’s tough sometimes.”
Askey and his brothers in arms made it to Roubaix but there was no time to enjoy the roar of the crowd or soak up one of the most spine-tingling moments of the cycling year. The joy he felt there when he won Paris-Roubaix Juniors in 2018 was replaced by sheer relief that he could finally begin to sort himself out. The ordeal was over.
Askey is wheeled away from the velodrome (Credit: Zac Williams/SWPix.com)
The ordeal was not over. He was finally discharged at midnight from a jam-packed A&E at Roubaix. The diagnosis was a severe laceration but mercifully the cut hadn’t touched the muscle fascia and surgery wasn’t required. However his stitched up knee couldn’t bear much weight and severe bruising to his hip will require a period of several weeks off the bike. To add insult to injury, when he disembarked the Eurostar in London on Monday afternoon, all trains home from London Euston were cancelled.
“It’s a crazy sport,” Askey says, reflecting on his day at Roubaix. “It’s not expected, but that sort of thing happens and it’s not even that much of a big deal, because it’s just what happens, and it’s Roubaix as well.
“I think at the end of the day we’re super, super lucky to have the jobs that we do, just riding around and racing our bikes. It’s something I did for free – actually my parents paid a lot of money for me to do in the first 18 years of my life – so to actually get paid to travel the world and do it, we’re pretty fortunate.
“At the same time, there is something, this is the reason we get paid to do it. There are some messed up things about it, and that’s just part of what we do.”
Enduring such personal injury may be part of what he does, but there aren’t many people who could do it. Perhaps that’s what makes professional cyclists unique; what would in any other workplace lead to compensation and considerable paperwork is - rightly or wrongly - simply brushed off as part of the game. Askey actually reflects on his race with happiness.
“I know and the team know that if I had not come down in that crash, if I had been one position further forward, I could have come away with an actual result at Roubaix. Not just a placing. I hadn’t put in any effort, I was feeling so good. I don’t know what it is about cobbles but there’s something with the way I pedal, the way my body is, that race really does suit me.
“I’m a little but gutted, I did all the right things and didn’t get to have that real good result at the end of it, but at the same time there was nothing that I could have done differently.”
Professional riders are a unique breed, able to endure such risk and such hardship with a stiff upper lip and a will to get up and put themselves through it all again the following weekend. But behind the pain and the pride are fragile humans. They put themselves through hell for our entertainment. It’s important that we don’t forget it.
Cover image: ASO/Pauline Ballet