Crashes, falls and… fallacies

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

L'Equipe chutes

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.

Rohrschack inkblot

A patch of oil?

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.

Smaller field
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.

Summary
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.

Loonytoon July 13, 2011 at 12:19 pm

I don’t buy the tricky roads thing (narrow etc) simply because last year saw a jolly romp across the Pave and although a higher than average attrition not as high as this year.

It probably all and none of the above depending on the crash in question as you correctly mention.

ChrisO July 13, 2011 at 12:29 pm

You could also have included the Intermediate Sprints as one of the factors.

It seems to me the peloton is less likely to let big groups get away and is chasing them down harder and faster – combined with other elements such as roads, field size, stage profile it adds up.

We aren’t seeing those stages where the peloton just rolls along easily for 180km.

Neil July 13, 2011 at 12:31 pm

It would be pretty easy to take the last 30 years worth of data then do some statistical modelling to statistically prove or disprove all the questions you’ve posed.

Personally I think it’s down to them being bad at riding bikes and taking unnecessary risks. There is a good quote from Richie Porte that they’re constantly being told to get to the front.

Having personally ridden and done large bunch races on carbon wheels they’re definitely more skittish than alloy wheels and I’ve found the braking performance a lot worse regardless of what anyone says. The braking is especially bad in the wet. As such i’ve moved back to alloy wheels which are easier to service and almost as light.

flammecast July 13, 2011 at 12:35 pm

Neither has the speed increased over the past few years either according to the average speed of the winning rider ?

http://bikeraceinfo.com/tdf/tdfstats.html

pjay July 13, 2011 at 12:48 pm

If you want to reduce the size of the field, why not un-invite a few teams such as Katusha, Astana and Vacansoleil, rather than penalising legitimate teams by reducing the number of their riders.

Paul L July 13, 2011 at 12:54 pm

“I’ve read some claims that riders losing weight for the mountains get more brittle bones, meaning a crash causes bone fractures”

Lots of studies has shown osteoporosis in cyclists, but that doesn’t cause crashes. What would be interesting would be to contrast the current health of pro cyclists (where nutrition, medical attention and science reign) with those from previous generations (where a ‘less’ professional or specialised trade may have meant riders were generally less likely to specialise (at least to the same extent) for the mountains…

Oliver July 13, 2011 at 12:54 pm

I do think that the variables of this race can in part explain in part the number of crashes. One of them that sands out is that most stage were contested by the sprinters and the GC contenders (due in part to Clentador’s early loss of time) creating an incredible and dangerous bottleneck at the front, when “normally” the GC teams take a back seat in the first week.

In re: your post, when you write that cyclocosm’s work has been “refined” you must mean to say “refuted.” His “work” (if you can call it that) was a hastily assembled set of figures (withdrawals due to crashes were included alongside withdrawals for doping or any other reason) that purported to say that so far the 2011 Tour was not more dangerous than previous editions.
As suggested by the later, more seriously done study you quote, the “cyclocosm study” was egregiously wrong. Still, the error laden cyclocosm study got a quote in L’equipe and elswhere in the French virtual and b&M media. Why? Because it does the bidding of A.S.O. (which owns l’equipe) who want folks to believe all is well in the most well organized cycling event in the world. So in effect an independent blog did shoddy work and it ends up serving the interest of a huge powerful group whose main interest is certainly not the cyclists welfare. Nothing to get excited about.

Ankush July 13, 2011 at 1:01 pm

Thorough job on the most hotly debated point yet in the Tour. UCI has this unbeatable knack of coming up with ludicrous ideas and this time it’s the investigation of the Tour crashes. For once I wish they spend the resources on better things like doping controls and rider safety. As you mentioned, it’s a combination of different factors which has led to crashes but in my opinion lack of prologue/short ITT and intermediate sprints are the main reasons for the nervousness of the peloton.

cthulhu July 13, 2011 at 1:07 pm

Maybe it is something the ASO should investigate. I read in an interview with Tony Martin in which he said, that the course is not more dangerous than others but dangerous passages are often not/not properly indicated. Now combine that with Tour nervousness and a bit bad luck, et voila!

And then there is the word “muppet” flying through the net. And rough convoy drivers, though their crashes haven’t lead to a abandon yet.

Duncan July 13, 2011 at 1:21 pm

A lot of riders seem to be referencing a lack of respect from other riders in the bunch as the main cause. I think the riders are so restricted by modern contracts and PR officers that they can’t say anything negative about another rider in public. Rider X causes a crash by recklessly forcing his way to the front, no one can say anything. Obviously this is not 100% true but it seems to be a trend.

Duncan

Anonymous July 13, 2011 at 1:24 pm

My theory is that with the supposed but unproven global warming effect the force of gravity is exerting a stronger influence on the downward pull towards the centre of the earth.
More seriously, the shame this year is we have lost some key riders who were potential podium spots. This has narrowed the field down, unfortunately. I really enjoy watching Vino on the attack and the Wiggins factor gave the tour added uncertainty. Other losses have had a similar effect.

Bundle July 13, 2011 at 1:55 pm

Of the aforementioned recommendations, I would especially favour:
– Team size reduction to 8 (or 7). Not only a clear improvement in safety, but a reduction in costs and, crucially, a better show because there would be less possibilities of controlling the race.
– No radio for riders. We don’t say it often enough. It’s proving to be more of a threat to safety than a guarantee, and in terms of the quality of the drama, it’s a disease.

Starr July 13, 2011 at 2:00 pm

Riders now race less days throughout a season.
They also train solo, or in small groups quite often.
All in the name of “personalized” training.

Not saying the current crop of riders aren’t good bike handlers, just that it isn’t something ingrained through repetitive runs in a large bunch at high speeds (120x a year).

Gingerflash July 13, 2011 at 2:23 pm

“Lots of studies has shown osteoporosis in cyclists, but that doesn’t cause crashes”

I’m not sure there are more crashes this year, but more retirements. particularly of the major GC riders, the lightweights, not so much the chunky sprinters and rouleurs.

It’s a theory I heard from Sean Kelly a couple of years ago, saying that for GC riders and climbers, the smallest fall seems to break a collarbone, whereas in his day, they’d be a bit more resilient, but they were generally heavier and there wasn’t such a focus on bodyweight.

I doubt it explains why this year is worse than the lats couple of years though, as it’s a gradual trend over the last couple of decades, not something new this year.

Anonymous July 13, 2011 at 4:09 pm

I’ll throw in another possible cause, aerodynamic rims and frames. A gust of wind blows through and the bikes turn into sails that get pushed off line.

Neil July 13, 2011 at 4:22 pm

I’ll throw in another possible cause, aerodynamic rims and frames. A gust of wind blows through and the bikes turn into sails that get pushed off line.

Good point, try riding deep sections in Lanzarote where it’s almost always windy, you just don’t do it because it’s dangerous!

huphtur July 13, 2011 at 4:30 pm

The boys at Sporza have a crazy theory that it’s due to the fact that teams don’t let their tubular tires “age” anymore.

mdfrank July 13, 2011 at 7:04 pm

I think it was the introduction into the peloton of adolescent rugby players that has increased the tension this year. I say that half jokingly but it was not a woman at the side of the road that the Astana crashed into, but a 13 year old rugby player that caused the accident that took dozens of riders down or held them up including Contador. What happened immediately following this following this accident was that the peloton led by LEOPARD TREK* accelerated. Now, to be fair there were only 10 k left in the stage so it would be unreasonable to expect the race to neutralize but what I saw was a team not looking for stage glory but one looking to grab extra time from others misfortune on a predictable stage 1 crash. If the riders were nervous anyways they now had a another reason to worry about being caught behind a crash. The result is that even more people feel the need to be at the front and are in a stressed state for 4 -5 hours at a time.
The riders make the race what it is, if they are smart they will look at the big picture and try to control things better as a group as they apparently are lacking a patron. If they don’t, well the UCI might come up with a cure or two. If that doesn’t scare them straight maybe nothing will.

*Not my emphasis, they want all capitals.

Larry T. July 13, 2011 at 7:08 pm

If you take out the idiot factor where motorized vehicles have crashed into riders, are the actual “racing” crashes that much more frequent this year? A lot of them seem to be on perfectly straight, flat roads rather than caused by dangerous roads or routes. I’d like to hear from those who claim the directors yelling into the rider’s ears results in more safety…do they think it would be worse without radios? I have a pet theory that super-rigid bikes and wheels have less roadholding ability but these crashes rarely seem to have much to do with that, it’s a moron spectator taking out a guy who then takes out the field or a clueless TV car pilot….none of that can be blamed on the bikes, riders or their directors. La Gazzetta is having a field-day with the chaos in LeTour after hearing all the crap thrown at them during the Giro. Perhaps it’s a victim of its own huge success and popularity?

Matt July 13, 2011 at 7:15 pm

I think the increase in crashes and chaos in the field is mirroring the current state of the sport. Riders are nervous and not paying enough attention to the road. Team sponsorships and rider contracts are getting harder to come by forcing racers to take more chances to make a name for themselves.

No doubt all the negative press the sport is receiving due to doping is at the heart of it all. It is ironic that a lot of the teams with the worst luck so far this tour have been the ones with many riders/directors implicated in the past; i.e. RadioShack, Astana, Saxo Bank, Sky, Vacansoleil…

LeBurger July 13, 2011 at 8:12 pm

I think a main factor is the absence of a real “patron” in the race. The race is very open and no rider has the power over the field as LA for example. Schleck is too nice and hasn’t won a TDF yet, and AC doesn’t have carisma; he’s very strong but nothing more.

PS: I always hated the power LA seemed to have over the bunch; today we see the opposite.

Maybe next year Andy will be the “patrone” #wishfullthinking

ZachOlson July 13, 2011 at 9:26 pm

outliers happen.

Duncan M July 14, 2011 at 1:26 am

Oliver
The cracks that you and your ilk are having at Cyclocosm on this topic puzzle me. It’s like a scene out of Lord of the Flies. The Cyclocosm blog is, regularly, insightful and first rate. We all try to do a 9 out of 10 job in all our endeavours, but everyone sometimes pulls a 5. When that happens, it doesn’t mean you should descend like a bunch of rabid, perjorative dogs, who I suspect lack the balls and intellect that is required to regularly stand in the glaring torch that is a leading online blog. And to even suggest that he is pandering to an ASO agenda is fallacious. Some of your points have merit, but your indulgent tone does you a disservice.

Mark July 14, 2011 at 2:07 am

Get rid of the Carrots!
And yes, there may be some merit in the theory of the growing stiffness of bikes & wheels. There will always be dramatic differences in bike handling skills but there are clearly some riders who aren’t as comfortable or as safe on stiff bikes.

C Grade Cyclist July 14, 2011 at 5:02 am

My main concern isn’t the number of accidents per se – its the number caused by ‘external influences’.
In the context of this Tour, I mean spectators and the race caravan.

Accidents in the peloton itself will always occur – that’s just racing. But accidents caused by spectators getting in the way, cyclists getting hit by cars (still can’t beleve that happened), etc, are happening too often. The plethora of motorbikes and cars zooming around the riders are just over-the-top – the only surprise to me is that serious accidents haven’t occurred before. he ‘caravan’ vehicles need to be severely curtailed in number…

On the idea of reduced riders per team – I am a fan of that. Not from the safety perspective though. I just think a reducton to 8 or even 7 rider teams just opens the contest up more, and makes the ‘art of team selection’ a bigger part of the race (which is important to me).

Markk July 14, 2011 at 10:20 pm

Well there is a big change in dangerous falls this year and another big change in the rules: new intermediate sprint rules. So the peloton is going a lot faster earlier. No proof, but my first guess would be the new sprint rules. They make a lot more riders go a lot faster for a longer time in close proximity.
I would guess that speed/density/time are related to number of dangerous crashes.

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