AJACCIO, Corsica — Behind Jan Bakelants, the Belgian who rode with guts and guile to win Stage 2 at the Tour de France, there were other smaller but no less impressive victories Sunday that don’t get so widely noticed – by the race’s riding wounded.
In other circumstances, logic would prescribe rest, recovery and TLC for the likes of Geraint Thomas, who was among the more badly beaten up of the dozen or so riders who slammed into the tarmac in a vicious high-speed pileup a day earlier in the frenetic end of Stage 1.
But the moving circus that is the Tour waits for no man, even those with deep cuts, evil bruises or, like Thomas, teeth-grinding pain in his left hip that made it difficult for him to walk, let alone hold his place in the world’s toughest bike race.
In other sports, players who pick up knocks generally get at least a few days to heal before the next game. But the Tour’s injured are afforded no such luxury. For them, the choice is either to soldier on with their aches and pains, hoping for a better tomorrow, or be among the first to quit. Which, for many of them, isn’t much of a choice at all.
So a whopping 17 minutes and 35 seconds after Bakelants gave the chasing pack the slip and got the stage win that also secured him the race leader’s yellow jersey, Thomas hauled himself across the finishing line.
“It feels a bit like a win in itself,” said the 27-year-old Welshman who rides for Sky, the team of Chris Froome, this year’s favorite.
Bakelants got to celebrate on the podium and share his joy.
“It’s fantastic,” the RadioShack team rider said.
Thomas just got to fight – make that suffer – for another day. From the field of 198 riders, just two finished behind Thomas. The other 195 were ahead.
He said Saturday’s pileup is a bit of a blur.
“I remember just flipping straight over and, you know, just landing straight on my back,” he said.
Froome’s most dangerous rival for overall victory, two-time former champion Alberto Contador, was another of those caught in that crash.
The Spaniard said he, too, was sore on Sunday, although he rode well – staying in the main pack that finished behind Bakelants.
“It was difficult to start off. There is pain in your whole body,” Contador said.
“You feel bad here, here and here,” he said, pointing to his shoulder and elbow and hip.
Froome and other candidates for overall victory also were in Contador’s group. So going into Monday’s stage, the third and last on Corsica before the Tour crosses back onto the French mainland, the contenders remain on equal footing.
Froome, however, looks particularly fresh and strong. On the road into Ajaccio, the Briton made an impression and maybe scored a few psychological points by sprinting away from the pack for a while. It was a tactical move that perhaps would have impressed Ajaccio’s most famous son, Napoleon Bonaparte, the wily military and political leader of France born there in 1769.
Froome said the burst of speed was merely to keep him safe and out of any more crashes. But with a smile, he added: “It’s always good to keep people on their toes.”
There were no smiles from his teammate, Thomas. He climbed gingerly off his bike. Later, sitting in a Team Sky car, he took an age to pull on fresh socks, wincing from the effort.
“The start was just unbelievable, just so much pain round here in my hip,” he said. “Toward the end, you know, it definitely felt a lot better than at the start. But it was still really sore. It hurts.”
An X-ray Saturday after the crash didn’t show any break. To be sure, Thomas was taken for a scan after Sunday’s stage.
The race doctor, Florence Pommerie, said she gave Thomas some painkillers as he rode Sunday. Bakelants completed the stage in 3 hours, 43 minutes, 11 seconds. The course featured four climbs, through spiky mountains with patches of snow and past villages clinging to hillsides.
“The wake-up the morning after a crash is tough. You have to get the carcass moving again,” Pommerie said. “No one wants to fall and quit in the first few days.”
Thomas’ boss, Sky manager Dave Brailsford, said their hope is that Thomas will get better on the road, over the next three weeks to Paris. With only eight riders to support Froome, Brailsford doesn’t want to lose one of them so early in the race.
“Basically you just hope that he can suffer enough in order to keep on going, which will give him time for the injury to heal. But it’s a very fine line. You either aggravate it and make it worse or … depending on the injury, it might be possible to make it better.”
“These guys,” Brailsford added, “won’t quit unless there is something really, really badly wrong.”