'The bike was bouncing': Itzulia riders lament treacherous, season-jeopardising corner

The Basque race has been completely reshaped by the loss of the race favourites on a single corner on stage four

So far it had been an unexpectedly anomalous and bland edition of the Tour of the Basque Country; nothing to do with its characteristic steep hills, narrow roads and leg-breaking terrain. However, crashes and tension marred the start of the race and, unfortunately, the fourth stage turned out to be the worst chapter in the story. One of the bends on the descent of the Olaeta pass was the scene of a serious fall at the front of the peloton.

Among those involved were the three big names of the edition: Jonas Vingegaard, Primož Roglič – then the overall race leader – and Remco Evenepoel. All three have dropped out.

The trickle of medical reports on Thursday evening from the teams has been devastating. The Danish Visma-Lease a Bike rider, who was evacuated on a stretcher, suffered a broken collarbone and several ribs; the Belgian from Soudal–Quick-Step, a broken collarbone and right scapula; the Australian Jay Vine, from UAE Team Emirates, suffered worse with a fracture of the cervical vertebrae and two of the thoracic spine. The location of the fall and the lack of protection given the presence of a concrete ditch and the succession of stones made the consequences even bigger. 

Hours later, TotalEnergies team also confirmed injuries to Belgian Steff Cras, with a right pneumothorax, several broken ribs and two dorsal vertebrae fractures. The EF Education-Easy Post team later followed suit in a statement explaining that Sean Quinn suffered a concussion during the crash, as well as a fractured sternum. Meanwhile, Eritrean Natnael Tesfatsion (Lidl-Trek) has several bruises and abrasions, while Roglič got into the Bora-Hansgrohe car looking both worried – it was his second crash in consecutive days – and relieved at the apparent lack of injury.

Amidst the noise from social media that came immediately as soon as spectators watched the fall and knew about the consequences, Euskaltel-Euskadi rider Mikel Bizkarra tried to explain what happened: "On that road there are a lot of tree roots under the asphalt that make the road very 'bouncy'. You can't see them but without realising you're bouncing around and if you don't have a good grip on the handlebars it's easy to get blown up". The Basque rider, who was not taking part in the race, is familiar with the terrain as it is one of his usual training areas.

Louis Meintjes won the GC-neutralised stage from the breakaway (Image: Sprint Cycling)

When reaching the finish line, Mikel Retegi, from the Kern Pharma Team, said: "The curve of the fall was a bit broken and the bike was bouncing. I went through a few seconds before and I had a little scare". In fact, at the same point one of his team-mates in the breakaway, Mathieu Burgaudeau, also lost control of his bike and went long, although he was able to rejoin the race after a crossing. Both the Frenchman and the Navarrese rider contested the stage victory – which finally went to Louis Meintjes – after the neutralisation of the stage and the decision of the judges that the six escapees would fight for the victory in Legutio without times for the general classification.

That lack of knowledge of the poor state of the road, insufficient signalling at a critical point and the speed of the peloton were the breeding ground for a catastrophic outcome. In these situations, listening to the voices of the main players is essential to understand nuances that are difficult to understand from a television broadcast. Pello Bilbao, native of Bizkaia — that region of Basque Country where the Itzulia was passing through — spoke sensibly at the end of the stage and invited us to reflect on whether it would be necessary to rethink the way we compete. "Maybe we cyclists are the ones who create the danger. The asphalt in that corner is blocked by roots and if there was a corner to highlight it was that one, but even so I think that we entered at too high a speed", he said, taking stock of what happened while acknowledging that he was riding at the back, overwhelmed by the speed.

This crash not only has implications for this Itzulia, but could also condition the rest of the season between three of the main candidates for the Tour de France. In the particular context of the Basque race, the final two days of the race are in a terrain that is difficult to manage and has lost some of its appeal. On top of that, it comes at a time when the race was beginning to gain mountainous protagonism with the climb to Urkiola on the way to Amorebieta on the fifth day and the intrinsic toughness of the stage in the vicinity of Eibar with the ascents of Azurki, Krabelin, Trabakua or Izua.

Mattias Skjelmose, who did not want to wear the jersey on the podium as a sign of respect for those involved in the crash, is now the new leader of the Itzulia. The Danish Lidl-Trek rider will be looking to defend his four-second lead over Juan Ayuso, the six seconds that separate him from Frenchman Kévin Vauquelin (Arkea-B&B Hotels) and German Maximilian Schachmann. 

What can we expect from the last two stages?

The GC is extremely compressed. Beyond the seconds that separate the podium positions, as many as 37 riders are within a minute of each other. This uncertainty, in an atmosphere dominated by Thursday’s crash, does not come in the desired form, but it does open up a range of possibilities in the final two stages. The fifth day presents an interesting route with the final circuit in Amorebieta, and the double passage through Muniketagaina (3.4 km at 7.3%), which could generate long-range moves in an Itzulia kept quiet so far by a not very explosive route.

However, everything will be decided in Eibar. The final stage does not feature the venerable ascent to Arrate, but it maintains the idiosyncrasy of a terrain that accumulates many metres of tough gradient with short passes and high percentages. The central block, which includes Krabelin (5 km at 9.5%), Trabakua (3.3 km at 6.9%) and Izua (4.1 km at 9.1%), as well as small slopes in the centre of the town of Arrate above 11%, seems to be the ideal place to attack, bearing in mind that the organisers have opted for a "softer" finish with the steep Urkaregi (5 km at 4.6%) as the final stage 13 kilometres from the finish.

Cover image by Tim De Waele/Getty Images

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