On 26th June 2021, 184 riders departed from Brest to begin an infamous three-week Tour around France. During that time, they’d visit the Alps, Pyrenees and almost everything in between before circling back to Paris.
Although many have ambitions for jerseys and stage victories, for some riders a successful Tour de France simply means completing ‘La Grande Boucle’. However, for one reason or another, not every rider can make it to Paris.
In fact, the Tour had been reduced to just 142 riders after Mike Woods and Miguel Ángel López failed to take to the start line prior to stage 19. With the mountains finished and López out of GC contention, Movistar stated that López would focus on resting for upcoming events. The two departures meant that 42 of the 184 riders that began in Brest had dropped out with two stages still remaining.
Abandons can occur at any point of the Tour de France. Some riders failed to make it past the first stage, with a series of mass crashes destroying Jasha Sütterlin, Ignatas Konovalovas and Cyril Lemoine's chances. Whilst Marc Soler made it to the stage 1 finish line in Landerneau, the Spaniard was immediately forced to abandon after suffering fractures in both of his arms.
After just one stage, 184 riders had become 180. A brutal start.
Marc Hirschi after crashing on stage 1 (Image credit: Fred Mons - Pool/Getty Images)
Many of those that did survive, including Marc Hirschi, didn’t do so without incurring scars. The Swiss breakout star suffered a separated shoulder, but he battled on. Hirschi finished outside the top 100 in every stage in the first week, but managed to recover and contribute to Tadej Pogačar’s winning ride in the second half of the race.
Primož Roglič, one of the pre-race favourites, was another to suffer early on. He was pushed into a ditch, and although he fought for a few days, he was ultimately forced to abandon prior to the first rest day.
In a race which has been dominated by Tadej Pogačar and Mark Cavendish, for many, the 2021 Tour de France has become a race of what could have been. Had a single crash and subsequent abandon been avoided, we could be looking back to ponder entirely different storylines and riders.
So, how brutal has the 2021 Tour de France been?
Stage of first abandon
- 2021 - Stage 1
- 2020 - Stage 1
- 2019 - Stage 6
- 2018 - Stage 2
- 2017 - Stage 1
- 2016 - Stage 8
- 2015 - Stage 3
- 2014 - Stage 2
- 2013 - Stage 3
- 2012 - Stage 3
- 2011 - Stage 3
In the previous ten Tour de France, riders have dropped out during the first stage in the 2021, 2020 and 2017. John Degenkolb finished over the time limit after suffering through the rain in Nice in 2020, while Ion Izagirre and Alejandro Valverde both crashed out in the treacherous opening time-trial in 2017. It’s a rarity, but not completely unheard of to see a rider unable to progress through the first stage.
The 2021 Tour de France began in one of the more brutal manners when compared to recent years, but how has it fared overall?
Total Number of Abandons
- 2021 - 42
- 2020 - 30
- 2019 - 19
- 2018 - 30
- 2017 - 30
- 2016 - 24
- 2015 - 37
- 2014 - 33
- 2013 - 28
- 2012 - 45
- 2011 - 29
- 2010 - 26
On average in the previous ten years, 30.5 riders have dropped out of the Tour de France. Only one of the previous ten editions of the Tour has seen more riders fail to make it to Paris — in 2012, 45 of the 198 riders starting dropped out. That year, a mass crash on stage 6, which prevented eight riders from starting the following stage, was partly to blame.
Although the 2021 Tour de France has been one of the most cruel in recent memory, the number of riders abandoning has been generally trending in the right direction. Back in 1998, almost 100 riders failed to make it to the finish.
On a foggy, slippery descent of stage 10’s Col d’Aubisque, a large group of riders crashed forcing numerous retirements. This wasn’t the main cause of the extraordinarily high number of abandons, however.
Richard Virenque of the Festina team at the 1998 Tour de France (Image credit: Andreas Rentz/Bongarts/Getty Images)
The Tour was overshadowed by one of the most infamous doping scandals in the sport: the Festina Affair. After numerous members of the Festina team admitted to doping, the team were expelled from the Tour de France before stage 7, wiping out nine riders instantaneously. Following increased pressure and suspicions aimed at other teams, numerous rider strikes and ultimately, the withdrawal of several more teams and riders meant mass abandonments.
Luckily, the Festina Affair is something of an anomaly — no Tour de France has seen so many riders depart since the Second World War.
The 2021 Tour de France has been one of the most savage in recent times, beginning with mass crashes forcing key riders to leave the race early. The stage design has been criticised by some, particularly on stage 3 which caused the crash that forced Jack Haig and Primož Roglič out of the race.
Not every rider can make it to Paris, whether it is caused by outside factors or finishing outside the time limit on a gruelling mountain stage. There will be crashes in cycling no matter what. However, reducing the number of incidents which force riders out of the world’s premier bike race, whether it be by improving safety or course design, must be constantly kept in mind and carefully refined. It's one of the few ugly sides to our sport.
Cover image: BENOIT TESSIER/POOL/AFP via Getty Images