Screenshot: EF Education First - Drapac p/b Cannondale (YouTube)

Less than 100 miles into the 2018 Tour de France, disaster struck American rider Lawson Craddock. TV cameras didn’t capture precisely what happened, but with around 80 kilometers left in Stage 1, Craddock emerged behind the peloton bloodied and bruised after hitting a water bottle and falling during the feed zone. He suffered a fractured shoulder blade, and his bruised eye socket sent blood streaming down his face. Many riders wouldn’t have finished the stage, though Craddock suffered through it and survived to Stage 2, already more than eight minutes behind the day’s winner.

It seemed that Craddock’s best-case scenario at the time would be to hold on and sacrifice whatever he had in his legs for the team time trial, then abandon. Riders leave the Tour de France for far less than a broken shoulder and a fucked up eye, and there would be no shame in quitting at any point really. Shit happens.

But Craddock didn’t quit. He started and finished Stage 2. He rode the team time trial. He survived across northern France’s brutal cobbled roads. Craddock rode off the back of the peloton every day, in order to stay out of the thick of things and minimize his chances of going down again. His Cannondale team rallied around him, and after leader Rigoberto Uran abandoned on Stage 9, the focus turned to getting Craddock as far into the Tour as he could go. The fracture in his shoulder was not deemed structurally dangerous, though he was constantly in pain when he was on the bike.

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Craddock promised to donate $100 for every stage he finished, and he began a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for the Alkek Velodrome, a Houston racing track that was severely damaged by Hurricane Harvey. The campaign raised over $200,000, and more remarkably, Craddock made it all the way to Paris. The mountains were brutal, and Craddock wound up finishing dead last in the Tour, 4:34:19 behind eventual winner Geraint Thomas. Earning the “Lantaerne Rouge” prize, given to the rider who finished dead last, probably feels like an actual award this year for Craddock, who had to suffer for three weeks, jumping on his bike in horrible pain everyday to make it across the line. When he finished the time trial on Stage 20 and earned the right to ride to Paris, he could barely talk.

This is, in essence, what the Tour de France is truly about. The race is both a glitzy spectacle and a place where athletes find career-defining successes, but it is now and always has been primarily a cathedral to suffering. Racing thousands of kilometers in three weeks with only two days off is a brutally difficult athletic undertaking, and it hollows you out. Fancier bikes, refined tactics, and an emphasis on off-the-bike pampering can allay some of the inherent suffering of the Tour de France, but nothing can erase it entirely. Fans primarily focus on who can win the race, and we can lose sight of how difficult it is to even finish the race. It’s a race of pain, and no rider more acutely embodied that than Lawson Craddock.

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The Texan didn’t want this, of course. Craddock is a capable rider in the mountains, and he probably came to his second Tour de France hoping to steal a stage or help Uran to a win. He sure was up for what his Tour turned into though, and I’m not sure that many riders in the peloton would have been.