Lawson Craddock can't stop—literally.
On Stage 1 of the 2018 Tour de France, the Texan hit a loose water bottle on the ground in the chaos of the race’s feed zone and tumbled off his bike onto his left side. “As soon as I hit the ground I knew I’d hurt something,” he says. “But it’s the Tour and you want to keep going."
Dazed, banged up and with blood dripping from a cut on his eyebrow, he remounted and, after a hard chase, regained contact with the pack. But once there, every time he hit the brakes as the pack slowed, his weight shifted forward onto his hands and agonizing pain shot through his upper body.
After the finish, x-rays showed that the fall had fractured Craddock’s left scapula. Blinking tears through the pain and crusted blood, his voice faltered as he contemplated the prospect of dropping out. “I put too much work in” he said, voice trailing off.
A week later, Craddock is still in the race. He’s fighting through pain, through lost sleep, through compromised bike handling abilities. It’s taken everything he and his EF Education First team can do to keep him in the race. He finishes last, or next to last, most days, yo-yoing off the back of the pack in what’s partly a strategic attempt to avoid those painful braking episodes, and partly an inability to keep the pace sometimes, since until Stage 5 he couldn’t stand up out of the saddle to accelerate.
On Sunday’s ninth stage, he faces what may be the biggest challenge he’ll confront the entire race as the Tour visits the famed—and feared—cobblestone roads of the spring Paris-Roubaix classic. “It’s a pivotal moment of the Tour for him,” says team doctor Kevin Sprouse.
When a pro cyclist crashes, his first instinct is to immediately get back on the bike and chase. There are no injury timeouts; no one waits when you hit the deck. And no one wants to drop out of the Tour de France. Despite a number of high-speed crashes, just 6 of the original 176 entrants have abandoned after the first week (two from illness, not injury). Immediately after his crash, Craddock’s team staff was most concerned about a head injury but, despite the gash on his brow, he escaped a concussion that would have prevented him from continuing.
But riding with injury compounds the already significant challenges of a three-week Grand Tour. The fracture itself doesn’t hurt; most of the damage is to his shoulder and neck muscles and tendons. “If I pull on it the wrong way, the pain comes back and it’s a constant reminder of my limitations in the race,” he says. But the biggest challenge is that Craddock is in a recovery deficit; he’s not getting nearly enough sleep, largely due to the constant muscle pain. “After a couple of nights of not sleeping in a race like this, you can’t function,” says Craddock’s coach, Jim Miller. “The body just quits on you.”
So when he’s not racing, recovery is a full-time job for Craddock. The typical recovery routine for a Tour rider is post-race refueling and a 45-minute massage. Sprouse says Craddock is getting that massage plus another 90 minutes a day of deep-tissue manipulation from team chiropractor Matt Rabin. Every day, Craddock sees Rabin when he wakes up, again before the stage and then at the hotel post-stage.
On the bike, Craddock’s strategy is to stay at the very rear of the pack (he’s unmistakeable in his pink jersey and helmet and an upside-down “13” race number). Late-race, when the accelerations get sharper, he drifts off the pack if the pace is too high and rolls in on his own.
Cycling is rare among sports for its wealth of data. On-bike power meters, first used 30 years ago, are ubiquitous in pro cycling, and offer a precise measurement of a rider’s power output, including hard accelerations, time in each training zone, and total work done. Miller says that Craddock’s surf-the-back strategy means that despite having to spend energy yo-yoing on and off the main group of riders, his daily power files show he’s around the same total workload he’d do ordinarily.
Craddock and the team have another tool, a wearable called WHOOP that tracks his recovery. It uses metrics like sleep time, resting heart rate and a relatively new measurement—heart rate variability—to assign him a recovery score. “Without this, we’d be going on how he feels,” says Miller. “All these guys have huge pain thresholds, and if you ask them how they’re doing, nine times out of 10 they’ll say, ‘I’m good.’ But every day, I can see how he slept and his HRV and how he recovered overnight, and it’s not subjective.” (Craddock and WHOOP partnered to publicly share his daily data from the Tour, but Miller has no formal relationship with them and says he buys product for elite riders he coaches.)
The team puts extra effort into making sure Craddock can sleep well. They block out all outside light, and he wears headphones to counter the noise of the portable A/C units that the Tour provides (most of the team hotels lack air conditioning). As a side sleeper normally, Craddock says the switch to sleeping on his back hasn’t been entirely smooth. “Every time I roll over there’s a jolt of pain that jerks me awake,” he says.
But the data are encouraging. Craddock’s power data show he’s handling the workload. The WHOOP recovery data over the first six stages show a deep deficit early, but an encouraging trend back toward baseline. Craddock is an optimist; he’s even tried to make some good out of his crash, pledging to donate $100 for every stage he finishes to repair Hurricane Harvey-driven flood damage at Alkek Velodrome in Houston, where he started riding as a kid. (Through matches and other donations, the GoFundMe is at almost $68,000 already.)
But Sunday is a major obstacle. Every Tour has what’s known as a “queen stage,” a day that is most decisive in the fight for the yellow jersey. Craddock’s queen stage will be this mostly flat, 156.5-kilometer ride across northern France. That’s because of those cobblestone roads. These ancient, narrow cart paths are surfaced with large, irregularly spaced granite stones. Riding them is like holding a jackhammer, and the Tour will race over 22 km of them in 15 different segments.
For most riders, the goal will be to avoid the inevitable crashes and splits in the pack that cause them to lose time. For Craddock, it will be simply finishing. But the issue isn’t safety. Sprouse is careful not to reinforce the myth of the hero athlete pushing through injuries where he probably shouldn’t. Craddock’s fracture is stable, he says; another crash is unlikely to make it worse, although it certainly wouldn’t be ideal. “The challenge will be how much pain he can tolerate,” Miller says bluntly.
If he can get through Sunday, Craddock will be rewarded with the race’s first rest day, where he’ll try to undo the damage of the Roubaix stage and reset his recovery. If he can finish, he not only has a shot of making it all the way to Paris, but of re-assuming a role helping his team leader, Rigoberto Uran, second overall last year.
“I can climb pretty well on my best days, and as long as I can continue to progress (recovery), I can start to contribute to the team,” he says. But first: the cobbles. “To be honest, I haven’t thought much about it,” he confesses. “It’ll be 22 kilometers of torture. But if I can get through it, who knows where I can go from there?”