At the finish line above San Jose, there were hundreds of people saying “no,” too. If he were a boxer, the fight would have been stopped. If he were an NFL player, he’d have been yanked. Those moments passed in single slides; each one that clicked by was more terrible and slower than the next. Nothing could happen fast enough.
“Hey Toms looks real bad,” I texted to Jonathan Vaughters, our team boss, as Toms staggered in the road.
“What happened?” he wrote.
“Ah shit,” he fired back.
If you work for a team, if you care about the person on the road, if you have eyes and a heart that beat, you would have taken in images like these and felt yourself coming apart a little, or a lot. When I saw Toms was put back on his bike, I wasn’t actually wondering why, because in the moment it didn’t matter: We just had to get him back off as soon as possible. It wasn’t a singular responsibility, but a collective one. Even so, a current of helplessness moved through us all.
The still frames sped up again.
From that moment on, it became a blitz to get information to those who could pull Toms off his bike. People don’t realise that when a bike race is on and strung out, information is a piece of paper in the wind. Our directors at the race couldn’t see the images on television and weren’t close enough to see the immediate aftermath.
Team staff and race officials make up pieces of a whole; in the moments after Toms’ crash it was a matter of all those pieces coming together to make something so fragmented whole. There are long moments of blindness in a bike race we try to fill in for one another.
Four people on our staff began an effort to reach the directors inside the race, Tom Southam and Jonathan Breekveldt. Alie Hopper is our director of sponsorship and marketing. She was in Boulder, Colo., when Toms crashed. Jessi Braverman handles social media for the team and was at the finish line in San Jose. Vaughters was at the team camper down the road from the finish line. I was in Colorado Springs, Colorado. While Toms bled and swerved hopelessly, texts and calls bounced off of each other.
“When I looked up, I saw the scary images all the viewers saw: Toms stumbling, falling, Toms walking into the chase group,” Braverman said. “There was a collective sort of grief as the scenes unfolded. People yelled at the TV when Toms got on his bike. At that point, I realised we had a very serious situation.
“Given our reception issues, I thought it was entirely possible that the directors would only know that Toms had crashed, not the extremely important details.”
For a time, they didn’t even know that much. Race radio was in and out, but mostly out. By the time the race doctor arrived, Toms was responding normally again. Those who didn’t see the crash for themselves only saw a tattered bike racer who’d basically been run through a paper shredder. It’s scary, but it’s normal.
“I sent out a tweet acknowledging we’ve seen the same images everyone else has seen. We’re scared by what we saw, too. We are working to get Toms off his bike,” Braverman said. “That tweet took 15 minutes to send due to reception issues.”
Eventually, the call that mattered got through. Vaughters was able to tell Southam about the danger Skujins was in, and to pull the Latvian out of the race immediately. Southam was in front of Skujins in car 1. Breekveldt was well behind in car 2.
“We didn’t even know where Toms was because we didn’t have Radio Tour most of the day, we didn’t have cell reception,” Breekveldt said. “When we finally did get reception, we got a phone call saying: ‘Toms has crashed, he’s concussed, can you pull him out?’ But from where we were [in car 2] to where Toms would have been was about 8km. We went through about six or seven groups of riders and communicated with the medical staff.
“From the phone call until we stopped searching for Toms was [about] 15 minutes: It was a shit fight—the terrain was rough, the communications didn’t work, the cars don’t have TVs. It was the perfect storm from a communication standpoint. We never saw the crash. So when someone tells you there’s a crash, you have zero idea the severity of it. We tried every medical car, every broom wagon. Everyone was in the dark.”
Up ahead, Southam began to wait for Toms, who was pedalling in no man’s land.
“As soon as he saw me, I think he realised… his collarbone was broken,” Southam said. “It was more of a discussion of him trying to explain. A rider like that, half the time they’re apologising not because we put any expectation on them for anything, but they’re so into the race, so into doing what they’ve worked for and everyone is geared toward, they spend a lot of time apologising. Once we said: ‘It’s over, you’re done,’ he got his head around it pretty quick.”
Those minutes stretched on, an elastic piece of time. They were only minutes, somehow packing in so many things: Somewhere in there, race officials told us that Toms was awarded the most courageous rider jersey. You couldn’t make it up, bike racing.
As an organisation or person, you always want to learn something from an incident like this, to be better in the future. Personally, I learned to just call the cars in the race straightaway. In this case it wouldn’t have mattered due to the communication barriers, but that’s my takeaway.
Toms says he doesn’t remember falling. He doesn’t remember getting back on his bike. He doesn’t remember getting into the car.
None of us can forget.
From the inside of the medical tent at the finish line, he saw Braverman. “No triple,” Skujins said. Toms had won stages at the Tour of California over the past two years. Not this year. Braverman nodded.
“No triple,” she said.