It had been a day of eye-wateringly dull, calm, steady racing. The sort of day that leaves anyone silly enough to watch the stage from the flag drop snoozing on their sofa. Not even any riders from the smaller teams wanted to try their luck in a breakaway from the get go. The only entertainment was an intermediate sprint for green jersey points half-way through and a short-lived two-up breakaway by Anthony Delaplace (Team Arkéa Samsic) and Benoît Cosnefroy (AG2R Citroën Team). Riders were joking around and chatting, while commentators discussed what they’d had for lunch. That was all it was, until the peloton began to get a sniff of the finish line.
As the final kilometres of the stage approached, in a matter of minutes, the race was completely transformed. The boredom of the last four hours was forgotten by spectators as lead-out trains were formed and riders were barging at each other to try and hold position, ducking and diving around roundabouts at a the sort of speed that made your heart race just watching it unfold on a screen. From napping on your sofa stuff, it became the edge of your seat stuff. Which sprinter would take it? Where was Mark Cavendish? Would he get number 35? Was Jasper Philipsen going to do it again?
Then, once the peloton entered the gates of the Circuit Paul Armagnac in Negaro with 3km to go, where the inevitable sprint finish would take place, the vibe of the stage shifted all over again. With 1.7km remaining, Fabio Jakobsen of Soudal–Quick-Step hit the tarmac first, his bike clattering out from under him as he crashed down at high speed after one of the sweeping bends. He sat up in a daze, and the crash felt like it jarred things into reality regarding what we were really watching. Excitement turned into a sort of high-adrenaline sense of dread: this finish was very dangerous, and there was more carnage to come before the line.
At 600 metres to go, another crash. Bikes and bodies went flying towards the back of the group of riders hurtling towards the line. At 100 metres to go, another crash. Riders slammed into the barriers on the right hand side of the finish straight. More bikes broken, more people lying on the hot tarmac. Philipsen crossed the line just ahead of Lotto Dstny’s Caleb Ewan after a storming lead out from Mathieu van der Poel in the end, but the eventual victor of the stage almost felt secondary in comparison to the carnage that had come before. Perhaps accentuated in the light of recent tragic events that rocked the cycling community, this finish was a harsh reminder of the risks that come with bike racing.
And on paper, the finish of stage four looked straight forward. Complaints and criticism were fired at the race organisers after yesterday’s sprint stage when some riders argued that the narrowing of the road due to the barriers curving caused unnecessary risk, but today’s finish took place on perhaps one of the widest stretches of tarmac you can find in France aside from motorways. Most of the crashes in the final kilometres today didn’t happen on corners, they happened on the most open sections of road. It’s a misconception that wide, straight roads equate to safer finishes – a few roundabouts to split up the peloton in the final 3km today or some sharper bends to line things out could actually have been a blessing in disguise.
Whether the organisers are to blame once again for a finish that caused unnecessary risk, or if it is part and parcel of sketchy Tour de France sprint finishes, is a debate that may never be universally resolved; even riders appear to disagree about the reason for such a dangerous sprint.
“It’s a nice finish but I thought it would be safe on these wide roads but the turns were also tricky while going full gas,” stage winner Philipsen said in his post-race interview. Mads Pedersen blamed riders as well as the course design as he spoke to GCN/Eurosport after the race. “These corners make no sense in the final, it is what it is,” the Lidl-Trek rider commented. “It was such an easy stage, then people were riding into each other, no one knows they have brakes on their bikes, so of course we crash. It’s not always nice when the finish is so wide like this.”
Even Philipsen was wary of over-celebrating his win in his post-race interview, repeatedly commenting that he hoped the riders who crashed were okay. Cavendish shared a similar sentiment when he spoke to the press, concerned over the welfare of his teammate, Luis León Sánchez. Whatever the reason for such chaos at the end of stage four, it once again brings the issue of rider safety to the forefront, and once again leaves more questions than it does answers.