Belgian star Tom Boonen (Quick Step) abandoned the Tour de France on Friday. About 90km into stage 7 from Le Mans to Châteauroux, he stepped off his bike. After crashing on his head during stage 5, it seems clear after the fact that he suffered a concussion.
Friday's withdrawal marked the fourth time that Boonen has abandoned the Tour de France. In his career thus far, he has won six stages and one green jersey.
After being driven to the team bus, Boonen sat down to talk with the press but this clearly wasn't his usual self. He was pale and talked quietly. Almost at the same moment, Cavendish crossed the line after winning the stage's final bunch sprint. It didn't matter much to Boonen.
"I've got a huge headache," said Boonen. "Every kilometre was one too many. I was wondering, 'who am I pleasing by continuing?' Not myself, that's for sure.
"I was a danger for the other riders, too. I think I suffered a concussion. Noise, colours... I couldn't stand them. A honking car that passed was echoing a thousand times in my head. Yesterday was a dark day - due to the rain - and maybe that's why it went better."
There was a huge contrast between how Boonen appeared after Thursday's stage finish and his downbeat self after abandoning on Friday afternoon. The Belgian rider had had a rough night during which he couldn't sleep. On Friday morning, he threw up, yet still started the stage.
In hindsight, starting the stage didn't seem like such a good idea. "That's cycling," said Boonen with a sigh. "If you can put on your racing number you can race."
Once on the bike, Boonen struggled. Riders like Fabian Cancellara (Leopard-Trek) and Carlos Barredo (Rabobank) informed Boonen's director sportif Wilfried Peeters that Boonen was a danger for the other riders and himself. He dropped back to the team car with director sportif Wilfried Peeters three times.
Boonen received painkillers and Peeters told him to give it one more thought after reminding him that stepping off the bike was the end of the Tour.
Peeters reported that Boonen had tears in his eyes when he dropped back and made his final decision. Boonen told his DS that he couldn't do it and Peeters responded that he would not force him to continue.
"This wasn't just a grazed elbow. This is my head," said Boonen. "Yesterday I saw footage of the crash. I went down head first, without putting my hands out. There was no other choice. I might have reached the finish, but it wouldn't be responsible. I rode on automatic pilot in a stage that was the perfect one for an injured rider, but not for me."
The combination of a moderate spring season and getting beaten by Philippe Gilbert (Omega Pharma-Lotto) at the Belgian Championships has made for a lackluster year for Boonen so far.
"Too bad. I was focused for this Tour, and today was a stage for me too. That's why it hurts so much. It's a small catastrophe," said Boonen. "The good form has been there for a couple of weeks now, and I haven't been able to do anything with it. That is tough, but all the work hasn't been useless. There are some more goals ahead. My program will be modified. First I'll recover and then I hope to ride a strong Vuelta and world championships."
The Tour de France and Boonen have not made a good combination in recent years, but Boonen promised he'll be back another year.
"This is just bad luck. [Before this crash], I crashed on my knee in this race, and I've been ill," said Boonen.
In 2010, Boonen skipped the Tour due to a knee injury. The year prior, he abandoned with stomach problems, and in 2008, he was not included on his team for the Tour due to problems with cocaine.
"There have been good moments, too, for example winning on the Champs Elyssées in the green jersey," he said.
When asked whether the Tour de France has become too dangerous, the Boonen replied, "No idea. There is action every day, but sometimes it's bad for us."
Boonen will head to Belgium on Saturday where he will undergo an examination in a hospital. He is expected to travel back to Monaco next week.