Romain Bardet waved in apology as he walked gingerly past a group of waiting reporters and climbed slowly aboard the AG2R La Mondiale bus after stage 2 of the Tour de France in Liège. The Frenchman’s bloodied knee told the tale of his crash 30 kilometres from the finish, but the half-smile suggested that it was but a flesh wound, albeit one he could have done without.
There is rarely a dull day on the Tour, not even beneath a grey sky slung so low over the Belgium-Germany border it could have been borrowed from a Jacques Brel song, and a seemingly routine stage was shaken into life by a mass crash at the head of the peloton on the outskirts of Battice.
Bardet, second in last year's Tour, was among the fallers, as was the man who beat him, Chris Froome (Sky), and the television cameras focused on their efforts to remount and re-join the body of the peloton as rain fell heavily over the race.
At Paris-Nice in March, Bardet was ejected from the race for taking a tow from a team car following a crash in the finale of the opening stage, and he seemed to take additional care to avoid the slipstreams of cars in the race convoy as he chased back on in the company of a group of his teammates.
Bardet – and Froome – finished the stage safely in the main body of the peloton as Marcel Kittel (Quick-Step Floors) sprinted to victory on the Quai des Ardennes. Bardet lies 56th in the general classification, 51 seconds behind the maillot jaune Geraint Thomas (Sky) and 39 seconds down on Froome.
"He hit his right knee when he went down and the doctor is checking him out now," Ag2r La Mondiale directeur sportif Julien Jurdie told the reporters grouped outside the team bus. Such are the perpetual risks of the Tour's ever more anxious opening act. "When it's nervous and wet, these things can happen. There's permanent danger on the Tour de France."
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Vincent Lavenu, the team manager and paterfamilias of the Ag2r La Mondiale set-up, stepped back from the huddle to check on Axel Domont, who arrived at the bus with his kit torn and bloodied, having gone down in the same crash. The official medical bulletin later listed his injury as a blow to his right knee, and he is expected to start on Monday.
By then, Lavenu had already spoken briefly with Bardet, and he appeared confident that his team leader had not sustained any lasting injury in the incident. "The great riders are tough and they're able to get back up straight away," Lavenu said. "It doesn't seem to be too bad. He has a bruise on his back too, but hopefully it hasn't affected his ribs. The doctor will examine him more closely and decide if he needs an x-ray or not. It was a bit alarming at the time and he has some pain now, of course."
Received wisdom says that the front of the peloton is the safest place to be in order to avoid crashes, but Bardet, like Froome, was well-positioned near the head of the field when the crash occurred. Reto Hollenstein (Katusha-Alpecin) slid on a rain-soaked roundabout, and the riders behind him – including Froome, Bardet, Richie Porte (BMC) and even the yellow jersey Thomas – were unable to avoid being caught up in the incident.
"I was well-placed, but there was a chicane and there was a crash in front of me," Bardet said when he later emerged to speak to reporters, where he offered an upbeat prognosis. "I'll know more tomorrow, and I hope that I'll have a decent night's sleep tonight in spite of it. The main thing is that I didn't lose time, I was able to get back on my bike quickly."
Beyond its physical effects, a crash so early in the race can have a deleterious effect on the psyche of a rider, particularly with another brace of tense stages to come before Wednesday's summit finish at La Planche des Belles Filles. Bardet, however, insisted that he was not discouraged by the incident, but simply relieved to have emerged without losing time.
"It's never good news when you fall but that's part of the job and the important thing is to get up again," Bardet said. "It could have been worse, that's for sure. There are crashes where you don't get up again. Me, I was able to get up. Sure, I have some pain, but that's normal when you crash at 50kph. The Tour is only starting and my morale is excellent."