Magdeleine Vallieres Mill (EF Education-TIBCO-SVB) tried to yank her stuck foot from the spokes of a competitor's wheel as riders and bikes lay tangled together, strewn across the pavement all around her. The worry and chaos was palpable.
The mass crash that shook the peloton during stage 5 at the Tour de France Femmes avec Zwift saw upwards of 30 riders go down and 16 with injuries ranging from cuts, scrapes, abrasions and bruises to more serious trauma.
"It was chaotic, people were screaming everywhere, and mechanics, directors and doctors came running – it was chaotic," Vallieres Mill told Cyclingnews upon reaching finish line.
The 175.6km fifth stage of the Tour de France Femmes from Bar-le-Duc to Saint-Dié-des-Vosges was the longest stage of the eight day race. There was nothing of note that indicated any danger spots as it was relatively flat with three small climbs, a day for the sprinters.
Journalists in the press room watched the race live on television while awaiting the peloton at the finish line and simultaneously gasped at the footage. The peloton, through the middle, seemed to collapse upon itself.
Someone said it was a slow race and riders may have lost concentration, another said it was a touch of wheels and, in what is perhaps the likely scenario, others said a few riders swerved to avoid a water bottle in the middle of the road.
"I'm not sure, it was a bit in front of me, and then everyone fell over each other and there was no place to go. I didn't have a choice," Vallieres Mill said. Her ankle was a little swollen but she thinks it will be fine for the start of stage 6.
"I tried to stay calm, figure out how to get out and back to the race. I was looking around to see what was stuck, and how to get out without hurting each other."
She immediately communicated with her directors across the team radio channel to notify them of who crashed. "I had one girl, maybe two girls on top of me. I have no idea how I got my foot stuck in the wheel. It was someone else's bike. It took a while because it was really stuck and we had to take off the wheel to get my foot out. My foot will feel OK tomorrow – I got lucky."
She was indeed lucky as several riders required medical attention. Emma Norsgaard (Movistar) sustained trauma to her head, shoulder and cervical vertebra and was transported to the Epinal hospital for evaluation.
Also injured in the crashes were Coralie Demay (St Michel-Auber93), Marta Bastianelli (UAE Team ADQ), Letizia Borghesi (EF Education-TIBCO-SVB), Anais Morichon and Yuliia Biriukova (Arkéa Pro Cycling Team), Jesse Vandenbulcke, Gladys Verhulst and Marjolein Van 't Geloof (Le Col-Wahoo), Olivia Baril (Valcar Travel & Service), Grace Brown (FDJ-SUEZ-Futuroscope), Chantal van de Broek Blaak (SD Worx), Marta Lach (Ceratizit-WNT), Rotem Gafinovitz (Roland Cogeas Edelweiss), and Lily Williams (Human Powered Health).
"I have some stitches in my elbow but I don't have pain so, it's OK, it could have been better but..." Van den Broek Blaak told Cyclingnews. The rider had visible injuries on her elbow and arm that required medical attention from the in-race doctor.
"In the race, I went to the medical car because I could see that then it didn't stop bleeding, and they already helped me at the team car with a towel and a hairband from Anna [van der Breggen]. When I went to the medical doctor, he said you need to come back after the race for stitches. I did and it looks good. I don't have pain so it's no problem."
Van den Broek Blaak, the road captain for SD Worx who normally provides guidance to the team from within the peloton, handled the crash with characteristic composure.
"I'm always really calm and today we had good communication on the radio, and it was super boring and with nothing to do," said Van den Broek Blaak. "I didn't have pain from the crash, I knew there was nothing broken, and I could continue."
EF Education-TIBCO-SVB director, Daniel Holm Foder, also stressed the importance of staying calm during a crash in order to assess the situation and better help the riders. He also explained from a director's perspective how the team handles a crash and the steps taken to get the riders back in the race or the medical attention they might need.
"We were already near the front in the cars so we could see it. It was a long straight road and the speed was not super high but if one goes down, the rest do, it seemed to be in the middle of the peloton. They are all sitting there and it's a long day and the heat," he told Cyclingnews.
"The mechanic is always the first staff member at the crash. Then he can see who needs a bike, or is ready to go. If someone crashed and needs to see a doctor we can wait with the wheels and bikes. Normally, always in a crash there is only one mechanic and two or three riders who need assistance. He must decide who to help first."
At Trek-Segafredo, World Champion Elisa Balsamo needed a bike change, but otherwise the team didn't have any riders involved.
"It was a crash, it was a slow day, a long day. Someone touches a wheel and they crash, it's like the guys, it's like the Tour de France," said Trek-Segafredo head director Ina Teutenberg.
"For sure, I was relieved," she said of the minimal involvement of riders from her team. "I don't know how bad the injuries are but, it's nice not to see anyone [from Trek-Segafredo] on the ground there. You never want to see the riders injured, and we have had this happen before, but sometimes there's just nothing you can do."
Vallieres Mill was upset to learn of Norsgaard's injuries, with the Movistar rider the only rider to record a DNF because of the crash on stage 5, but was grateful that there weren't more bad injuries as well given the number of riders involved.
"I'm happy that there weren't too many riders who got hurt. It's the bad part of cycling, but it's part of it."
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