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A Fateful Crash By the Numbers: the Wheel Touch

Tony Martin went down today thanks to an innocuous but fairly typical occurrence, and some really bad luck.

Today's crash at the sixth stage of the Tour de France that took out race leader Tony Martin seemed to come out of nowhere, and that's a pretty good description of why it happened. Let's see who did what and went flying where. First, the video:

As Tour crashes, or cycling crashes in general, go, this one was pretty non-violent, so I don't mind posting it. Still the outcome was devastating anyway, at least to one team and a lot of fans. Here's a numbered screen-cap to show who was where, and talk about what came next.

martin crash number

1. Bryan Coquard, Europcar

Coquard was lining up for the sprint, following the front of the bunch and trying to hang on over today's climb of the Côte du Tilleul. He is fairly routinely following Peter Sagan in the white jersey and yellow helmet, a good wheel to be on. Sagan is sure to surge to the front at some point, and Coquard can catch a lift from a potential stage winner, poaching the glory for himself. Perhaps.

2. Tony Martin, Etixx-Quick Step

The central character in our one-act play, Martin is powering up the climb, and may even have teammate Zdenek Stybar on his wheel. The video is a little fuzzy and the screencap is no better, but Stybar, the eventual stage winner, is either the guy right on his wheel or the guy who swerves through the carnage and keeps going. Anyway, Martin has clearly touched Coquard's rear wheel with his front wheel.

What happens in this case is the guy in front, whose rear wheel is fixed in line and not subject to swerving, gets knocked slightly sideways, and you can see Coquard veer to his right, maybe a foot off his line. He corrects it and goes on.

Martin is far less lucky -- as is usually the case in wheel touches. The person behind is responsible for "overlapping wheels" and it's cycling 101 to avoid doing so, since it can cause what we see here. Martin can see that he has overlapped, whereas Coquard is totally unaware. If you want to assign responsibility, it's on Martin. Unless Coquard has swerved into Martin's line unreasonably, as happens often enough, but this isn't the case here.

Martin's front wheel is not fixed like a back wheel. As it comes rightward and touches Coquard's wheel, it jerks to the left. Martin's body weight has not moved, so when his bike goes left, his balance tips him to the right. Martin handles it well, and doesn't let his bars turn to knock him over, as would happen if your front wheel suddenly turned sideways. He is good.

But he's not lucky.

3. Warren Barguil, Giant-Alpecin

Barguil is coming up fast on Martin's right hip, and he's the reason Martin is out of the Tour, though he's blameless as can be. Barguil happens to be there when Martin's body comes across, and bounces off his side. The pinball effect temporarily stands Martin back up, effectively correcting his sudden rightward lean. Maybe this will turn out OK after all...

Except Barguil is in a narrow space, and Martin jolts him into his neighbor to the right, Vincenzo Nibali. Barguil's front wheel appears to twist on him, and down he goes. Either that or the bump from Martin was enough to simply send Barguil all the way over onto his right side. Down goes Barguil, to his right. Up go Barguil's wheels, slightly to the left. Into Martin's wheels. Martin's front wheel seems to just disappear, like Barguil's bike grabbed it and held it still, and Martin goes down, not to his side but straight over the front of his bike. It's a hard fall, directly onto his left shoulder, and we know how that turned out.

4. Vincenzo Nibali, Astana

Nibali, meanwhile, gets body-checked on his left side by Barguil, and lands on the ground, crashing on his right hip. This was almost the moment his Tour ended. By coming down in the center of the road and spreading out across a few feet of lateral space, he takes down several other riders and ends up on the bottom of a pile. Nibali later complained of soreness to his hip and spoke cautiously of how he was feeling. Being underneath even skinny bodies is a bad feeling. But my guess is, he's OK.

Because of...

5. Chris Froome, Sky

Froome comes up on the right side of Nibali and is there to absorb a lot of the energy of Nibali being sent flying sideways. Nibali goes down, but not nearly as violently as he might have if Froome had not been there to partially cushion the blow. For his part, Froome is knocked sideways too, but he's the last of the dominoes and with some space to swerve into Froome expertly recovers his balance with little more than an unclipped shoe. They say he's a bad bike handler, but I'm not seeing it. [OK this kind of impact happens to every rider dozens of times, but still.]

Froome and Nibali would go on to have a small shouting match about who tried to crash whom, each pointing at the other. This is almost comical from our point of view, but it goes to show you that crashes happen in an instant and it's tough for the victims themselves to ascertain all the facts. Nibali goes from Barguil to Froome in a millisecond, and thinks maybe he hit Froome first, or rather that Froome hit him. Anyway, both riders eventually saw the video and apologized to each other.

6. Nairo Quintana, Movistar

The Colombian climber is sitting on the wheels of the favorites when the house of cards comes down. He's actually a couple bike lengths behind Nibali, but as the crash happens and he starts to react, he's taken down by Tejay van Garderen's wheel. It's a medium-speed jump into the pile, and the Colombian is OK, but for a knock on his hand. Even there, he's lucky. Landing on a mess of bodies, bikes and roads can involve sticking out a hand and breaking a wrist.

7. Tejay van Garderen, BMC

Identifiable by his yellow helmet for the fact that his BMC team lead the teams classification, van Garderen is also sitting innocently behind Nibali, whom he's following home to safety, when he goes down. Tejay brakes hard, it seems, since he sees it all unfold and he slows down quite a bit before tumbling onto the Italian. He also sticks out his left hand instinctively, as pretty much every one of us would, and in doing so is lucky to not have a broken wrist.

By the way, the only rider missing from this Pile of General Classification Favorites is Alberto Contador. I honestly don't see a single Tinkoff kit in there, besides Sagan, meaning Contador is farther back. Is this because he rode the Giro? Maybe it was a good thing after all.