Opinion: Individuals aren’t to blame for crashes at the Tour de France Femmes, it is part of bike-racing

Drawing conclusions about particular riders or the structure of women’s cycling from the mass pile-ups in stage two is unfair

There was a video of the Australian national champion, Nicole Frain (Parkhotel-Valkenburg), crashing into Marta Cavalli (Team FDJ-Suez-Futuroscope) that did the rounds on social media after stage two of the women’s Tour de France. It showed Frain approaching Cavalli, who was rolling slowly in the road to avoid a crash in front of her, and hit the rear wheel of the FDJ rider, causing them both to fly up the road dramatically. 

Luckily, both riders remounted their bikes afterwards, but Cavalli’s helmet was split in half. Her team decided to stop her from racing due to the high risk of concussion. The Italian was one of the pre-race favourites for the Tour de France Femmes having won La Flèche Wallonne Féminine and Amstel Gold Race earlier this season.

As the video of the crash was commented on, retweeted and liked by masses all over social media, comments began to be directed at Frain, lamenting her for not seeing the crash and coming to a stop before hitting Cavalli ahead. The vitriol towards the Australian rider was so intense that she was forced to turn off comments on her Instagram post because she was “already receiving too much.” The team FDJ-Suez-Futuroscope general manager, Stephen Delcourt, spoke to press after the stage and expressed his disbelief at Frain’s lack of ability to see the crash ahead, saying he had “no words” for what had happened.

Bici later reported that Frain had called Cavalli personally to apologise for the incident. “I won't tell you what we said to each other, I prefer it to remain reserved, but of course, I apologised to them and to her,” she said.

Of course, it takes guts and bravery to approach a rider and her team after the race to apologise for your actions, and Frain should be applauded for this. The problem I see, however, is the pressure that social media and the wider cycling community put on Frain to do this.

The 29-year-old was chasing back to the bunch in the Tour de France Femmes, the biggest race of the year, riding hard with her head down, no doubt with adrenaline pumping through her veins and a tunnel vision which solely focussed on catching the bunch ahead. The heat of bike racing, especially in ones as hectic as stage two of the Tour de France, is enough to blur the rationale of most people. If riders thought rationally and about every single manoeuvre they made in the bunch, they wouldn’t be very good bike racers.

Riders being forced to make split decisions is why cycling is an exciting, high risk sport. Part of the game is taking risks and seeing if they pay off. Often they don’t –as Frain exhibited yesterday – but if the gap the Aussie rider claimed she saw in the gaggle of riders who had crashed ahead of her was there, she may have saved her race yesterday and regained contact with the front group.

Those of us behind screens and keyboards will never understand the thousands of decisions bike riders make during every race: they’re thinking of eating, drinking, moving up, moving back, finding their teammates, not sprinting too soon, too late. It’s a minefield out there, and we have to give them leeway for mistakes in this environment.

The discourse about Frain’s actions extended into a wider discussion about the potential problems with the current peloton at the Tour de France Femmes. Some commented that the reason for the number crashes in stage two was the mix of inexperienced riders (who represent small UCI teams) and the WorldTour teams who have plenty of race days in their legs already. There are seven UCI teams who received wildcard invites to the race this year, the lowest ranked being Stade Rochelais Charente-Maritime and St Michel-Auber93.

“I don’t agree with that at all, it’s just racing,” said Natalie Grinzner, a rider for Stade Rochelais Charente-Maritime, after the stage. “There were crosswinds and it was very fast.” 

Even Cecilie Uttrup Ludwig, whose team was most affected in the carnage of yesterday’s stage, agreed with Grinzcer’s sentiment. “It’s not that,” she said when questioned afterwards. “This is the first time we raised the Tour de France, and everybody wants to show themselves and everybody wants to fight for positions.”

For me, Uttrup Ludwig hit the nail on the head with her answer. This is the Tour de France – look at the first week of the men’s Tour and it’s the same amount carnage and chaos. These crashes can’t be blamed on particular people or teams, it’s all part of this crazy sport. It’s the hard part, the one we don’t like watching or seeing the consequences of, but it’s bike racing. Riders like Nicole Frain shouldn’t be targeted just because she made a mistake on camera. Taking those risks is part of the sport, regardless of if it is men’s or women's cycling.