Sunday 24 September 2017

Stakes are high with skin in the game and your skin on the road

The needle and the damage done have left no room for empathy, writes Paul Kimmage

Dan Martin crashes during the Giro d’Italia team time trial last week
Dan Martin crashes during the Giro d’Italia team time trial last week
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

Consider my father riding his bicycle. He is 15-years-old on a summer afternoon in 1953 and there's a bike race speeding towards him in the Phoenix Park. He has never seen a bike race before. He dismounts and steps onto the grass and suddenly the pack are under his nose and about to pass.

He has no idea what caused the crash. Perhaps a racer got too close and 'touched' a wheel; maybe it was a front tyre that blew out or a pedal that ripped some spokes. There was a bang and a screech of metal and within seconds, almost the entire bunch had been skittled and the road was littered with bodies. He watched them stagger to their feet and snatch at their machines, cursing and swearing as handlebars were straightened and brake levers realigned. The blood and the bruises didn't seem to matter – within minutes they were off and chasing to get back on.

When the last rider had gone, he stepped onto the road and was surprised at the way the surface had been scoured by the metal and skidding rubber. But the thing that absolutely fascinated him were the small white patches of arse and elbow and knee and hip the racers had been left behind.

Skin! That was skin on the road!

It was, he says, the moment he knew he'd become a racer. "Although I'm not sure what that says about me," he smiles.

Consider my first conscious memory of my father racing his bicycle. I am four years old on a grey Sunday morning in the Phoenix Park and I am standing with my mother on Chesterfield Avenue as the race is about to finish. There's a gasp from the crowd; a rider has hit a parked car in the sprint and sailed over the top onto the grass verge.

I leave my mother's side and peer through the legs and it's the blue leather crash hat that gives him away. My mother is distraught. An ambulance arrives and he is whisked straight to hospital but I can hardly contain my excitement.

"It's him! It's Dad!"

And from that moment, there was nothing else I wanted to do.

Nobody ever explained the levels of pain involved; the pain in your ass as it tries to adapt to the saddle; the pain in your legs as they try to adapt to the road. My father always insisted it was the hardest sport in the world but it wasn't until my first bad crash that the penny began to drop. The left side of my body was scorched from head to toe but I was tough. I could handle it. The real test, two days later, was when it happened again.

We watch them on Eurosport, sliding off on corners.

"Oooooh!"

"He's gone!"

"Oh my goodness!"

It almost looks like fun. But show me a racer, and I'll show you a man who will spend the rest of his life jumping from his bed in the middle of the night because he has just touched a wheel. The fear never leaves you. It haunts all our dreams.

I was reminded of it a lot watching the Giro last week. Dan Martin's horrific crash during the team time trial in Belfast, the pile-up as the race exited Lusk on Stage 3, the sprinters falling like skittles on the fourth stage to Bari, the dramatic scenes at Montecassino when almost half the bunch went down.

Twist an ankle in football and you're escorted to the sideline, offered a cool drink and rubbed with a magic sponge. Strain a calf muscle in tennis and they'll stop the game and bring your physio on. That never happens in cycling; snap a collarbone, wrist or thumb and the race goes on.

On Thursday, after the crash in Montecassino, Philip Deignan reported that his team-mate, Ben Swift, had almost fainted (from the pain) in the shower. Yesterday, in his diary for the Irish Independent, Nicolas Roche spoke of the problems he has been having sleeping.

"Every time I moved in the bed, I could feel the effects of my crash, the 'road rash' that you get when you take some skin off by sliding along the road. Like a carpet burn, it stings whenever you touch it and my twisting and turning meant I didn't get a great night's sleep."

The good news was that he had survived to fight again. The bad news was that three-quarters of the peloton (my estimation) were nursing similar injuries and there are still two weeks before the race concludes in Trieste.

Cycling has always been a dangerous game but the dangers have increased threefold since I retired in 1989. Back then, we wore vests under our jerseys (better to leave your vest on the road than the skin off your back) and weren't that bothered about wearing helmets but that seems incomprehensible now.

The roads have got narrower (traffic islands, sleepers, directional bollards) and the pressures on the riders have increased but because of 'Festina' and 'Puerto' and 'Armstrong', and the needle and the damage done there has been no empathy for the extraordinary bravery and feats of courage we witnessed last week. No marvelling at the skin on the road.

And that's sad.

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