Team Sky pro Michael Barry’s written an open call for improved rider safety. I’m inclined to agree, especially as there are some easy steps and because dialogue with race organisers can improve a riders understanding too.
I think he strays into nostalgia and “things were better in the past” message. To quickly address this point, yes riders had a patron like Bernard Hinault but often they protested for their own advantage, not the collective interests of the bunch. We’ve seen Wacky Race things like downhill time trials in the 1980s, I’m not sure that could happen today. Plus Fabian Cancellara stopped the 2010 Tour de France after several riders crashed in the Ardennes. In the early years, Tour de France organiser Henri Desgrange deliberately tried to scare the riders, hyping up fears of marauding bears roaming the Pyrenees. Newspaper sales soared.
Similarly, Milan-Sanremo might have avoided a bunch sprint in the past but it has had fields in excess of 250 riders in the past and the Passo Turchino’s unlit tunnels were the end of many a rider’s springtime ambitions. Yet I note this year that RCS waived the rules to shoehorn an extra team a place in the Giro. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to argue with Barry. Instead I’m suggesting that was never a golden age for race safety. Riders have been expected to put up with hard conditions since the moment the bicycle race was invented.
Back to the present day
Anyway we’re in a modern era so lets deal with the real issues rather than revisit yesteryear. Let’s look at safety and the rider’s voice. When the climb and descent of Monte Crostis was scrapped in the Giro I noticed some comments on the blog saying things like “the riders are soft“. Perhaps but as Barry points out, this is a job. Employment practices have changed substantially over the past century. Visit a factory today and you’ll see plenty of safety warnings and measures. Even the comfort of air-conditioned offices is highly regulated. These days a road race is sporting spectacle, a promotion event… and a workplace too.
Business vs. pleasure
An amateur racing at the weekend knows the risks of a crash but it’s different for a pro. The hobby rider can sit up on a foggy descent, the professional risks their employment. Similarly, you can sit at home and do all sort of crazy things but step into a workplace and behaviour suddenly becomes quite defined, whether by culture, regulation and even the law. This difference between leisure activity and work is real and can explain why fans and pros have a different viewpoint. Both can be right but just remember they stand in different positions.
But improving race safety is no easy task. Barry calls for every parked car on the course to be cleared and surely we’d all agree… but it’s not without its costs and several races are struggling to keep going. Plus roads today aren’t just lined with cars but feature plenty of “street furniture”, from flowerboxes to railings, as well as traffic calming measures designed to slow traffic but dangerous when a bunch speeds through with no intention of being calmed and this just seems part of the terrain; but all the more reason to use warning signs and other cues to alert of the dangers. There are other cheap improvements, for example installing some temporary lighting in a tunnel featured during the descent of a mountain pass is value for money: a few hundred euros and it’s fixed.
But beyond practicalities, I think David Millar has the right answer. Speaking to cyclingnews.com’s Stephen Farrand after the Giro d’Italia (fast forward to 2m50s), Millar evokes race safety:
I think it’s time we all grew up. As riders, but also team management and UCI and race organisers. I’d like us to have a debriefing on this race with representatives from the peloton, team management, the UCI and RCS to find the good points and also the bad points. And before we even get to the presentation in October for the race we come to some sort of agreement. Rather than the race starting in May and decisions being made the next day [to cancel a climb].
Millar’s a little slack-jawed after three weeks of racing – who wouldn’t be – but it’s still an articulate point made by few others. Indeed Millar has made the same point before, complaining to Vuelta organisers.
If the roads of Europe and beyond are a workplace for the pros then some sort of consultation between parties is useful. Race organisers might be worried about having to listen to the riders… but as Millar says it’s much better than having to rejig the race at the last moment. TV images of booing fans don’t help anyone and there are some races on the calendar that top riders try to avoid simply because they don’t rate the safety: for example the Tour of Poland or the Tour of Britain. Events like this need to attract big names in order to grow and boosting safety will help. So some forum is a great idea: it’s achievable, it can help make changes and not every safety request can be implemented then at least organisers can explain why.
Riders have struggled to have a say in the sport since the early days. Since the beginning of the sport the riders have been ignored whilst race organisers and team owners arranged things to suit their needs. I don’t know if pro racing is more dangerous these days, it has always been risky.
Fans have different view than riders. What’s exciting for viewers can be unacceptable work conditions for riders and we’re seeing what I’ve called “stage race inflation” at times. But one way to keep this under control is to talk to riders involved. Change can happen, for example we’ve seen the Kemmelberg descent dropped after some nasty crashes, notably Jimmy Casper in 2007.
Riders’ unions have never worked, maybe it’ll happen in the future but for now, just a simple forum between riders, teams, organisers and the UCI would go a long way to making sure the riders get heard and some basic improvements to safety get done. It’s probably in the interest of race organisers to listen as well. But I suspect the day when Jean-Francois Pescheux and Angelo Zomegnan welcome the riders with open arms isn’t quite for tomorrow.