June 13, 2011

Organizers — and riders — need to take responsibility for race safety

As we reach the town’s limits, the peloton dives off a four-lane road into a tight bend. Brakes screech. Our speed drops from 60 to 20 kilometers an hour. The peloton balloons then bottlenecks going into the corner. Over 200 riders funnel onto the narrow street and accelerate towards the maze of the city center. As the peloton files out of the bend, it has become one long ribbon. The line of cyclists will snake through the town, skimming signposts, jumping speed bumps, and bouncing over cobbles and tram tracks. Using blind faith, we follow the wheels of the riders ahead of us closely. The effort is exponentially harder for the riders at the back because of the elastic effect of the peloton. Some riders will be blurry eyed from the intensity. Tired, panicked, or both, riders lose focus. Inevitably, mistakes are made and crashes follow. Within the town, we hear the occasional shrill whistle from a road marshal at a roundabout. But few of the dangerous elements on the course are signaled. We rely on instinct and experience.

Cycling is inherently dangerous. We accept that we’ll race over cobbles, rub elbows in sprints and descend mountains at high speed. But most cyclists agree that crashes are now more frequent than they were just a few years ago. While we accept risks are part of our jobs, we shouldn’t accept conditions that are overwhelmingly dangerous and avoidable. Cycling doesn’t need to become an extreme sport to be intriguing, exciting and dramatic enough to captivate a television audience. A few simple changes could make them even more intriguing while minimizing the risk to the riders’ health and, indeed, their lives.

During this year’s Giro d’Italia few riders wanted to race up the Monte Crostis, a narrow mountain road with a steep dirt descent. The mountain was included in the course to create a spectacle. Monte Crostis is picturesque and I’m sure the images would have been dramatic. But it wasn’t worth putting the riders’ lives in danger. Most riders feared the descent. In response, the organizers placed snow fences at the corners in the hope that they would catch riders before they plummeted to the valley below.

Tragically, one of our colleagues, Wouter Weylandt, died on a technical descent on the second stage of the Giro, adding to our fear as Monte Crostis approached in the final 10 days of the race. The night before the stage, however, Monte Crostis was removed from the course. But it was not concern for the riders’ safety that ultimately brought the change. Rather it was complaints from the directeurs. The road up and down Monte Crostis was too narrow for team cars. Our health was secondary. Finally, the Giro organizers gave in to the race commissaires’ demand to eliminate the climb. But they were clearly disgusted and publically critical of the decision. The cyclists, like the animals in a dodgy circus, are just a part of the show.

Not only was the organization frustrated. In protest to the decision, fans threw eggs at the team cars and jeered at us for not riding the climb. Only days before, the spectators had plastered the roadside with signs memorializing Weylandt’s death. The hypocrisy is incomprehensible. We, the racers, already take significant risks and, surely, our opinions should be respected.

A journalist recently asked me how I had sustained multiple fractures during my career. He had just finished interviewing Steve Bauer, who retired in 1996 and said he had never broken a bone. Twenty years ago cycling was much different: speeds were lower, a high percentage of bikes were steel and heavier, courses weren’t as technical, the professional peloton was smaller and less international, and there was more respect among the riders. It is now rare that a rider isn’t seriously injured in a race. Carbon snaps, bike frames splinter and riders come crashing down, inevitably breaking bone and tearing skin.

Racing has also become increasingly dangerous as European cities have become more congested. To slow traffic in pedestrian or residential areas, roundabouts, traffic islands, signposts and curbs have been built. For the speeding peloton, they cause havoc. In the midst of the peloton they’re only seen at the last minute, often when it is too late. Crashes on the open road between cyclists usually result in little damage. But when a cyclist goes rocketing into a pole or a curb his injuries are severe. Often the courses are designed to be technical, to add to the spectacle, and very rarely are they altered for our safety. As the risks have increased, the riders have almost become numb to them.

What initially differentiated professionals and amateurs was that one rode their bikes to make a living, while the other rode for fun or perhaps in an effort to one day become a professional. Within the professional peloton there was an understanding that a rider’s future depended on his body. Together, often under the leadership of one rider, the peloton protested. It wasn’t the directeurs, or the management who made the decision not to race, but the riders. The peloton has lost that unity and solidarity it had not long ago. During the 1978 Tour, Bernard Hinault, nicknamed le patron or the boss, led effective rider protests against overly demanding racing conditions. In the 1980’s, Francesco Moser, who was known as the Sheriff for his leadership, led the Italian peloton. Now, the peloton’s voice is weak and is often overwhelmed, or muted, by the team management.

But, the riders also need to take more responsibility for themselves and for each other. Marco Pinotti tweeted “Most heard words in the radio at the Giro: “dangerous downhill coming up, Liquigas at the front.” A kilometer from the top of every technical descent, Liquigas would storm the front of the peloton and accelerate over the summit in the hopes of lining out the peloton, pushing many riders to their limits, and causing splits in the group. Putting the entire peloton at risk isn’t the right way to win a bike race. Two days after posting that tweet, both Marco and his HTC teammate, Craig Lewis, crashed into a poorly marked sign pole, which sat in the center of the road as we entered a small town. Both Marco and Craig sustained severe injuries, which will keep them off their bikes until late in the racing seasons.

As the disparity between the weakest and the strongest rider is diminished in a more competitive racing environment, the peloton is increasingly larger when near the finish line. Before the 1980s, Milan-San Remo rarely finished in a sprint. Now it is rare when a sizeable peloton doesn’t come charging towards the line. As the courses no longer pare the peloton down before the finale, crashes are inevitable. In an effort to avoid group sprints, race organizers are now increasing the difficulty of the courses, paradoxically introducing other dangers. Perhaps a more effective solution is smaller pelotons with fewer riders on each team.

Parked cars or dumpsters in the roads should be moved, technical finales where crashes are bound to occur should be avoided, tunnels should be lit, the list goes on. An independent safety inspector, ideally one who is even independent of the UCI, needs to make the decision on whether or not the course is acceptable.

As the risks increase, changes towards developing safer courses have been slow. In 2009 Pedro Horrillo crashed on a technical descent in the Giro d’Italia. After plummeting sixty meters and fracturing many bones he miraculously survived. After the crash, riders protested the courses were too dangerous, yet again this year we were racing in the same conditions with an even more tragic result. Throughout the season, the cyclists, organizers, team management and spectators, all need to be more considerate of our safety. Changes must come.

18 Responses to “Organizers — and riders — need to take responsibility for race safety”

  • Posted by Dougie Kerr | June 13, 2011 at 11:58 pm

    All you say M….is right on….stay safe

  • Posted by Dougie Kerr | June 14, 2011 at 12:00 am

    all you say…is right on…..stay safe ciao

  • Posted by Jim Morehouse | June 14, 2011 at 2:16 am

    The sport is so dangerous, even at the amateur level; what professional cyclists have to endure is unbelievable. I have been doing this since 1973, and the danger has increased exponentially; without any good reason, really. I mean, yes, there are more people in the world taking up space, etc., but more importantly, the organizers have become so immune to what it means to break bones, rip skin, and break bikes. There has to be some sanity in all of this, to those of us who love cycling, and racing in particular. Thank you for this post.

  • Posted by Geoff Martin | June 14, 2011 at 3:29 pm

    Thanks Mike – for the insight you generously share from the pro peloton – and for posting this important information.

    Fellow readers: we should cross-post this as much as possible to let everyone read for themselves the implications of modern-day pro bike racing.

  • Posted by Jeff Medlock | June 14, 2011 at 9:15 pm

    Michael, your best post yet. I have been involved in cycling for nearly 50 years and it has always astounded me for most of those 50 years that the riders have not spoken out more often about the conditions that they are asked to race in. When will the riders realize that they have the power to change things, they are the race, without the riders there is no race, if the riders strike then the organizers will have to bend to their demands. Pro cyclists need a strong union that will withhold the riders labour if races are deemed unsafe by the union head.

  • Posted by Pauline Bird | June 15, 2011 at 10:55 am

    I really can’t see that increasingly endangering riders lives and physical safety makes for better sport – the attitude to athletes as performing animals whose lives and health are expendable in the interests of a dramatic camera shot is unacceptable. If there isn’t already, there should be rider representation in agreeing the routes of races. I simply can’t get my head around fans jeering riders for not doing a bascially dangerous climb and descent – if they’re that keen to see someone risk their life, they could of course always give it a go themselves, but I bet the majority of them would do no such thing.

  • Posted by Brian | June 16, 2011 at 5:20 pm

    Soler crashes into a spectator while in 2nd place on GC in the Tour of Switzerland and is air lifted to hospital with a suspected fractured skull.

    This only reinforces the danger to riders that Michael highlights in this post.

    When will the madness end?

  • Posted by Yves Ameline | June 16, 2011 at 11:59 pm

    Amen! Well said Mike. I hope all race organizers read this and act accordingly.

  • [...] to see through it and say ‘its just sport’ because its not, its larger than that. Michael Barry spoke out just this week about cycling race safety he postulated some excellent points and explanations for the vast increase in cycling trauma and [...]

  • Posted by Peter Leiss | June 22, 2011 at 1:52 pm

    Well said Mike and very brave of you to state this publicly. We are currently in the Central Massif and have ridden parts of tour route. Some of the descent roads are very narrow and rough. It is hard to imagine the peleton racing down these and then squeezing throught the towns on route.
    Keep up the good and ride safe.

  • Posted by Peter | June 24, 2011 at 12:50 am

    Word. Hope all is well Mike.

  • Posted by Ricky Stokes | June 24, 2011 at 1:59 pm

    I truly think that the riders owe it to themselves to band together and speak with one voice. Like the arab Spring- let there be a Rider’s Spring. Excercise your voices to enable your safetey and compensation. Look to the US athletes who regularly go on strike- typically out of greed- but sometimes for fair treatment.

    Be safe and thank you for riding so hard and well.

    Ricky

  • Posted by Larry T. | June 24, 2011 at 3:38 pm

    With all due respect to a long-time pro, I think it’s time for Mike to hang up his wheels. When the time comes it’s either “things are too dangerous” or “everyone else is doped”. More dangerous than when? Are more guys getting terribly injured now? More guys getting killed? Those same directors that “saved” the riders from Crostis were seen watching MOTOGP on the car TV while servicing a rider! They don’t care about safety, it’s all about control. If the riders want to have a union, let ‘em! But make it a RIDERS union with secret ballots and such so the sponsors and directors have no say in their decisions. But I fear in the name of safety, racing will be sanitized into boredom the way modern F1 is these days. Cycling deserves better.

  • Posted by Ed Smolinski | June 24, 2011 at 4:21 pm

    Michael,

    An excellent article!

    Told by someone whose knowledge and experience should be respected.

    Ed

  • Posted by ab | July 11, 2011 at 4:05 pm

    Sadly cycling has become the Nascar of endurance sports, people and the media like to tune in on the crashes. Totally agree with this article, its definitely more dangerous, more riders , more technical courses.

    Cycling can be a great spectator sport, and you see that on the climbs.. where speeds are lower and fans are in the hear of the action… there tends to be fewer spills up a hill then on a descent..

    The riders to need to speak up!

  • Posted by ian stewart | August 23, 2011 at 4:41 pm

    Check the newspapers (North American), if it bleeds it leads. The public who is ignorant about cycling is attracted to crashes and so it is delivered for market share. Actual cyclists are such a small number that they can’t influence the media. Long term planning…teach your kid to ride a bike.

  • Posted by Chris Babb | October 19, 2011 at 3:54 am

    I have been interested to know how the professionals feel about what I see as insane course arrangements in professional races. At the amateur and perhaps the professional level I think there is also a disconnect from what is proper conduct in cycling and what is money driven conduct. At the lower levels less people are taught the proper way to conduct themselves as riders in races largely because there are more and more people entering the sport and less and less skill full individuals to teach them, I am sure this stretches to the professional levels though to a lesser degree. The same thing that is happening to the lower level riders is happening to the upper level directors. They have forgotten that cycling is not an extreme thrill seeking sport, though that portrayal seems more profitable but rather that it is a time honored grand contest steeped in tradition which is inherently dangerous but which in the long run more profitable and sustainable when respect and integrity are allowed to survive.

  • Posted by Donald Huschle | July 8, 2012 at 1:11 am

    I feel the most crashes occur during the first week of the GT’s when they are doing the flat sprinters stages. This seems madness to lose GC contenders when it is meaningless. If the riders want to do something, they should agree to ride neutral until the last 20 kms then let the sprinter teams go to the front and battle it out and the other teams follow along behind. Sure there will still be crashes in the sprints but at least the open flat road where GC contenders are lost would be eliminated and it does add anything to the race to see these wrecks.

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