How close is too close? The dilemma of coming across a crash in the Tour de France

Dries Devenyns has abandoned the Tour de France.

At first this was all that came over the race radio as the peloton sped down the descent of the Col d’Izoard on stage 14, approaching the final summit finish to Risoul.

However, this only tells some of the story. Back near the summit of the Izoard, the highest point in this year’s Tour at 2360m in the clouds, Devenyns had crashed and was lying on the ground.

We’d driven to watch the race ascend the second climb of the biggest Alpine stage of this year’s race, pulling up alongside the 1km to go banner and hopping on the back of the race convoy once the last rider had passed (which in this instance was French national champion Arnaud Démare, a popular fan favourite).

As we crossed the summit and began to descend, we came upon a hold-up. Around 15 cars up the road, we could see a race ambulance and a Giant-Shimano team car. A rider was on the tarmac.

The southern side of the Col d’Izoard is a breathtaking place. The scene of many a heroic Tour exploit in years gone by, one side of the road is bordered by a sheer drop of over 100 metres; the other soars up to the craggy peaks of the casse deserte.

Col d'Izoard descent, Tour de France 2014

Col d’Izoard descent, Tour de France 2014

With one colleague remaining at the wheel, two of us jumped out of the car and walked towards the scene.

Approaching the crash, we began to ask ourselves how close we could get. Or how close we ought to get.

It’s a journalist’s job to report on the race. Yet, inevitably, memories of some of the sport’s worst incidents, such as the death of Wouter Weylandt during the 2011 Giro d’Italia, begin to resurface.

‘What if the crash is a bad one?’ we asked ourselves. ‘How much space will the doctors need?’ ‘How can we report on the event, and respect the rider and the situation?’ ‘Is it appropriate to take any photographs?’

As we approached the ambulance, Devenyns was taken inside on a stretcher, wearing a neck brace. Looking inside the back of the vehicle, he was wiggling his toes, lifting his legs, and moving his arms.

Dries Devenyns crash, Tour de France 2014

Dries Devenyns is put inside an ambulance, Col d’Izoard, Tour de France 2014

We asked a Giant-Shimano staff member, who had parked the team car just behind the ambulance, who the rider was.

“Devenyns,” was the short reply, the man visibly upset after seeing a close colleague ending his Tour in such a way.

“Is he OK?” I asked.

“Don’t think so,” was the response.

Devenyns suffered, according to the official race communiqué: trauma to his right shoulder and neck, cranial trauma, but didn’t lose consciousness. With the sides of the ambulance stretcher inflated by a foot pump to stop him rolling about on the hairpins, he was evacuated down the hill to a hospital in Gap.

His team later issued a statement, adding that the Belgian domestique had suffered brain concussion, a minor collapsed lung, a fracture to his right shoulder blade and a dislocation of the joint between his shoulder blade and collarbone.

“On the Izoard descent there was a little rock on the road in a curve,” Devenyns told the team. “I couldn’t see it, and hit it with my front wheel which made me crash.”

Col d'Izoard, 2014 Tour de Frane

The convoy continues down the Col d’Izoard, 2014 Tour de France

Devenyns was kept in hospital overnight for observation. His remaining teammates will have spent the night thinking about the sprint stage the following afternoon.

By the end of the Tour, Devenyns’ withdrawal will be a very minor footnote. In fact, his abandon was a relatively small story even in relation to the day’s stage.

Nevertheless, a few metres here or there and the outcome could have been very different indeed. It was a stark reminder of the fine line ridden by the cyclists of the Tour de France every day.