Unfortunately, it has become a matter of not if, but when. A brutal crash during the first week of the Tour de France is de rigueur for the contemporary race.
Last year, Alberto Contador went down in both of the first two stages. In 2014, Chris Froome was the highest-profile casualty of the first week falls. The so-called ‘Metz Massacre’ came in 2011. This year, the prologue claimed a brace of GC scalps: Alejandro Valverde and Ion Izagirre both forced to throw in the towel after an encounter with the Düsseldorf tarmac. Chalk it up to nerves, high stakes and abundant energy, with everything to race for before the mountains establish some order.
It is the diminutive Tour doctor Florence Pommerie who scoops up the sport’s fallen giants and assesses them accurately in a matter of moments. The sandy-haired Frenchwoman spends the race behind the bunch in an open-top white assistance medicale vehicle, where she can offer on-the-fly remedies. A good day on the job is never leaving her Skoda.
For urgent injuries, there are ambulances and wailing sirens. For those who can wait until after the race, there is the Centre Médical Mobile, parked a stone’s throw from the finish line every day. Introduced in 2013, it’s a 16-tonne truck that has changed the game for the Grande Boucle’s bashed-up bikers.
The air-conditioned unit contains two electric beds, a radiology area and even defibrillators and emergency respirators. Patients can be scanned, treated and put in plaster. There’s even ultrasound – yes, while something is awry if a rider turns out to be pregnant, it’s also invaluable for detecting subtle fractures. Local radiologists take turns to staff the unit as it tours France.
“I think it was a very good move, they can finish, have some X-rays or an ecograph with a surgeon there,” Pommerie says. “It’s fast for them and for us too because we get news quickly. They don’t have to go to the hospital to wait three hours.” The mobile unit is well used: after that day on last year’s Tour alone, which led to the abandons of Fabian Cancellara and William Bonnet, 15 riders were treated at the finish in Huy.
The Centre Médical Mobile is there for the entire nomadic Tour de France band too. Everyone from Chris Froome to race volunteers have been treated on board. It has been rolled out at other ASO events, such as the Dakar Rally.
“Well, the weather is not the same,” Pommerie, who also works on the South American event, says. “The Tour is different, but hard. There are a lot more journalists here. You have pressure on the Tour de France.”
Which riders does she remember? “Alexandre Vinokourov. Because it was my first Tour de France [in 2011] and he fractured his femur. I saw him falling and said to myself ‘he’s going to hit the tree.’ I was so afraid. Just a few seconds before, he turned his head and glanced it. That’s a big memory.”
Crashes are a fact of life on the Tour de France, but Pommerie and team are well covered for every eventuality. The Centre Médical Mobile is one weapon in an arsenal that includes ten emergency doctors, seven ambulances and two doctor’s cars. Plenty of elements wax and wane during the Tour, but adequate medical provision is a constant.
This article is an extract from Rouleur #63.