"This was a crash test for my back. And my back passed the test. Phew."
Those were the first words from Edward Theuns after a late crash ended his bid to repeat his win of last year in the first stage of the Baloise Belgium Tour Wednesday. Instead, a touch of wheels in the final 150 meters thrust him full-force to the ground.
The high-speed crash occurred near the front as Theuns prepared for the sprint, causing numerous riders to fall and blocking most of the peloton.
"I didn't crash, but I hit the brakes full," said teammate Matthias Brändle. "I saw Eddy lying there, and he looked pretty bad, but luckily after a few moments, he was standing up. I was happy to see that because he didn't look good, his bike and shifter broke – it was a high-speed crash. I didn't crash, but whew, when you see Eddy… that hurts!"
It was a frightening moment for Theuns competing in his first race after back surgery one month ago to remove the screws, the last remnants of his traumatic crash at last year's Tour de France. Theuns fell hard, the first to go down as riders and bikes piled into and onto him.
"Luckily everything feels okay, and it's just superficial wounds," said Theuns sporting a ripped jersey, shorts, and some nasty road rash. "It was not a nice experience one month after the operation. That was the first thing I thought of was my back, but luckily I don't feel anything there."
The ending to the 178-kilometer opening stage was tricky. Like all mass finishes, the fight for positioning was vital, all occurring at top speeds. In the last kilometer, his Trek-Segafredo teammates positioned Theuns well, and the bunch was rushing at 60km/h for the final sharp uphill to the line, when a slight cross of wheels, a small movement, caused a massive pileup.
"I was trying to find some room to move to the front, and I was a couple of centimeters on the right side of someone's wheel, and he moved a little, and my front wheel went away, and I just went down," explained Theuns. "It was my own fault a bit… It stings that it happened in a sprint.
"I feel the form is not super yet, but I was there and I was ready to do a good sprint; I was feeling okay. It's a pity because the team also did a good job to get me to the front. We were far back but had moved up in the last straight, and I think I was still in a good position to sprint. But the luck was not on my side today."