In this country, it is wise to kill an admiral from time to time to encourage the others
Pour encourager les autres is French for “to encourage the others”. It’s a line from Voltaire’s Candide. After the naval battle of Minorca between France and Britain in 1756, Voltaire describes the British practice of shooting naval officers if they fail in battle, not so much to punish them for mistakes but to send a signal to the others not to let down His Majesty. A curious form of motivation.
Today we read the news of riders being expelled from Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne after going through a level crossing when the warning lights were flashing. It’s obviously important for safety. Riders might complain about having to slam on the brakes but if one day someone meets a train, guess who is going to come off worse. For this reason, commissaires want to make an example of riders, to punish a few to set an example for the others.
Yet it’s not the first time this has happened with the classics season upon us, it’s worth a quick look at the rules. Rail crossings exist all over the world. But parts of Northern France, Belgium or Holland are densely populated and often industrial. Roads and railways intersect a lot and if level crossings are slowly being replaced by bridges and underpasses, there are still thousands around. It’s inevitable that races get interrupted.
The rules allow riders to cross if the warning lights are flashing and according to reports from the race, the barriers had not started to move down. It’s only when the barriers are moving that riders must stop. A ringing bell or a warning light might require traffic to stop under the local traffic rules but when a race is under UCI rules, the commissaires are tasked with the UCI rulebook. Here’s the relevant bit:
2.3.034 Level Crossings
It shall be strictly forbidden to cross level crossings when the barrier is down. Apart from risking the penalty for such an offence as provided by law, offending riders shall be eliminated from the competition by the commissaires.
Similarly the next rule goes into detail on how to stop and restart the race:
The following rules shall apply:
1. One or more riders who have broken away from the field are held up at a level crossing but the gates open before the field catches up. No action shall be taken and the closed level crossing shall be considered a mere race incident.
2. One or more riders with more than 30 seconds’ lead on the field are held up at a level crossing and the rest of the field catches up while the gates are still closed. In this case the race shall be neutralised and restarted with the same gaps, once the official vehicles preceding the race have passed. If the lead is less than 30 seconds, the closed level crossing shall be considered a mere race incident.
3. If one or more leading riders make it over the crossing before the gates shut and the remainder of the riders are held up, no action shall be taken and the closed level crossing shall be considered a race incident.
4. Any other situation (prolonged closure of the barrier, etc.) shall be resolved by the commissaires.
This article shall apply equally to similar situations (mobile bridges, obstacles on the route, etc.).
On track or not?
Were the K-B-K commissaires right to expel the riders? Under the strict rules, it appears the riders are allowed to cross despite the flashing lights. But how picky do we get? In the heat of a race it is near-impossible to watch the barrier for movement and to impose a sudden ban if a rider’s wheel crosses the rails just as the barrier moves. Yet if the riders say braking just for the red lights would cause a crash, perhaps they have a point?
It might be unfair but rail crossings are just bad luck, a “racing incident”. For every breakaway stopped by a train there can also be moments when the bunch chase is thwarted by a crossing. There’s not much that can be done. Indeed organisers of big races task someone to talk with the local rail network to get the timings of trains so any incidents can be foreseen.
It might be unfair but when many riders want race radios for safety reasons, the policy of “pour encourager les autres” is arguably in tune with these safety-first expressions.