What it’s like to ride the Tour de France with a broken elbow

On stage 1, Torstein Træen was the first crash victim of the 2023 Tour de France. He’s been riding on with a broken elbow ever since.

Iain Treloar
by Iain Treloar 12.07.2023 Photography by
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The Tour de France is a tough enough event without crashing, but reaches new levels of discomfort for the battered.

For Grand Tour debutant Torstein Træen, this is something he’s learning the hard way. Having entered the race in fine form following a top 10 at the Critérium du Dauphiné, hopes were high for the 27-year-old Norwegian – until halfway through the first stage on the roads outside of Bilbao. 

Crashing hard on the side of the road, Træen landed heavily on his elbow. That event marked the milestone that nobody wants: the first crash of the entire race. He took a while to get up, but caught back up to the main bunch, rode mid-pack over the punishingly steep Côte du Pike, and arrived back in Bilbao bleeding and with torn kit. Assessing the damage, it was clear that something was amiss, and he was taken for scans which revealed a broken elbow. 

Træen inside the race medical trailer after stage 1.

“I felt it quite fast that there was something that was not normal,” he explained, more than a week later. “Like, when you brake and you’re hurting? Then it’s quite special. And then if you shift gears – even though we are using electronic gears – it was still hurting. So I was thinking – this is not good.” 

Nine days after the crash, standing in the baking sun of a volcano theme park outside of Clermont-Ferrand, Træen’s elbow was bare, unbound. He pointed at the inside of the elbow, in-line with the artery, to show the source of discomfort. “I think it’s inside here, somewhere – I don’t know what the name of the bone is,” he said. Had he considered leaving the race? “When they did the x-ray, I was a bit unsure about what to do,” Træen admitted, but he’d responded to treatment and in the morning had decided to continue – after all, you only ride your first Tour de France once, even if it was a day-by-day equation and required a total recalibration of his ambitions for the race. 

Steadily, Træen’s discomfort eased, and with it came impatience to show the good legs he’d come into the race with. “My elbow is actually coming on quite OK,” Træen said. The skinny Norwegian had begun to make his presence more felt in the bunch; on stage 5 he’d even been in the breakaway. At the one-week mark of riding one of sport’s most demanding events with a broken elbow, he felt “quite good. I just wanted to get into it, have a feel of it again, because I hadn’t really done it for seven days,” Træen explained. But Torstein Træen’s Tour de France seems fated to not be a straightforward one.

“I crashed again,” Træen continued, wearily. “I hit my knee, quite badly. So now the knee is hurting.” That checked out: his left knee was covered in gauze, with a smattering of other bandages. “There’s a wound on top of the kneecap – it’s not a nice place to have a wound,” Traeen said with some understatement. 

Elbow, knee – we started tallying it up together. I pointed to his other elbow, which had a little web of grazes across it. First or second crash? “I don’t even know, to be honest,” he said, smiling wryly. “And also my back is completely full of scratches.”

Despite a broken elbow, a knee wound, and a back full of scratches, Torstein Træen rides on. Which is, in its own way, a neat kind of metaphor for his past year. Last May he was diagnosed with testicular cancer after a tumor-marker – Human Chorionic Gonadotropin – was discovered in a routine anti-doping sample. This Friday will be the one-year anniversary since he returned to the bike after surgery; a year that has seen him achieve his greatest successes as a professional cyclist, and seen him courted by WorldTour teams. Torstein Træen has encountered obstacles, and he has learnt to overcome them.  

In that context, perhaps a few crashes at the Tour de France feels a little more manageable, and perhaps it helps explain Træen’s zen outlook. At the stage start today in Clermont-Ferrand, the Norwegian spoke graciously with his home media and with spectators on the other side of the barricade. At one point he opened the back of a team car and dug into his kit bag for a gilet to give to a fan, then walked back to the bus for a marker to sign it. Smiles all round. 

“Do you think you’ve got all your bad luck out of the way this Tour?”, I’d asked him a day earlier. “I hope so,” he’d responded with a grin. His favoured terrain is on the horizon in the next few days, and the pain is lessening with each day. “When we hit the Alps I’m hoping the legs are there, and I’m not hurting too much from all the crashes,” Træen said. 

As he turned to get out of the heat and back onto the bus, I caught a glimpse of a logo I’d never noticed before on the back of his race suit.

It read, simply, ‘MOT’ – the Norwegian word for courage.

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