With the Tour de France on the eve of the mountain stages one thing that has characterised the racing so far has been the crashes. This is often the case, the first week is a nervous time. But this time it has been different, work by cyclocosm has been refined by an architect student and you can see the results on his tumblr blog. Here’s the summary which measures the withdrawals by Stage 9 over the past 10 years:
2002: 189 starters, 5 withdrawals due to crashes, 2.65% attrition
2003: 198 starters, 6 withdrawals due to crashes, 3.03% attrition
2004: 188 starters, 10 withdrawals due to crashes, 5.32% attrition
2005: 189 starters, 8 withdrawals due to crashes, 4.23% attrition
2006: 176 starters, 4 withdrawals due to crashes, 2.27% attrition
2007: 189 starters, 9 withdrawals due to crashes, 4.76% attrition
2008: 180 starters, 4 withdrawals due to crashes, 2.22% attrition
2009: 180 starters, 5 withdrawals due to crashes, 2.78% attrition
2010: 197 starters, 9 withdrawals due to crashes, 4.57% attrition
2011: 198 starters, 16 withdrawals due to crashes, 8.08% attrition
From 2002-2010 the average “attrition rate” was 3.5%, so the 2011 Tour has seen twice as many riders retire with injury as before.
But what’s behind this high rate. It’s here that things get difficult. The UCI is now going to investigate this but for me the subject is like a Rorschach test, the (pseudo-) science method to evaluate someone’s mental state where participants are given an ink blot and asked for what they see. It’s a random pattern but the shapes supposedly help tease out what’s on the patient’s mind. In other words it’s not what you see, it’s what’s on your mind.
I think the subject of crashes could be the same. There are many compelling arguments out there but it’s hard to find the proof, we see a complex picture and should be wary of those drawing quick conclusions. There’s a danger some construct a fallacy based on hunches or bias. Here are some of the suggestions I’ve read so far.
- Some say the race has used too many narrow roads (but others counter that many crashes haven’t happened at tricky points)
- Some blame carbon rims and over-rigid frames (but these were in use last year)
- Perhaps the weather is a factor (but it has rained a lot in past editions when the race crosses northern France)
- Maybe the lack of a prologue has left too many riders in contention, making the bunch more nervous?
- I’ve read some claims that riders losing weight for the mountains get more brittle bones, meaning a crash causes bone fractures
- Some say race radios mean riders can’t hear what’s going on because of the crackle in the ear
- Similarly team orders barked over the radio mean riders are “forced” by their team manager to go the front
- The size of the field is too big in relation, especially in relation to the multiplication of “street furniture” in recent years
- There could be a feedback loop with more crashes making more riders nervous, so more pressure to fight to get to the front
- And what about sheer bad luck?
There are probably more. The difficulty for me is that many of these arguments are valid but it’s hard to pin the blame on one factor, or even start to rank the factors in order of risk, run too far with these ideas and we might come to the wrong conclusions.
Each crash needs to be reviewed individually, in the same way traffic police might reconstruct the events leading up to an accident but this is going to prove very difficult, “witness statements” are hard to get and often video footage is lacking because the cameras can’t focus on the whole bunch.
As I say people might reveal their bias when suggesting ideas. My suggestion is that a smaller field could help, to have less than nine men per team. Shrinking to eight riders would go from 198 to 176 riders and this could make things safer. But it reveals my bias for more exciting racing as teams would not be able to control the race quite as much, although eight is still a big team. Certainly in the Giro d’Italia we saw the organisers get a waiver on the maximum size of the field to squeeze in another team and I didn’t agree with this.
Crashes have always been part of the race and I don’t share it but their drama is part of the appeal for many viewers. The start of the 2011 Tour has seen twice as many riders crash out than normal. But it’s hard to pin down a reason behind the crashes, perhaps there’s a variety of causes and a random element of sheer bad luck?
I’m slightly wary that those making suggestions reveal more about their view on the race rather than analytical approach to each crash, that it’s more an “I reckon” rather than a reconstruction of events.
Here’s hoping the UCI gets to the bottom of this, it’ll be interesting to see if the results are published.