Races and railway lines

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.

Big but
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.

Safety first
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.

11 thoughts on “Races and railway lines”

  1. The last incident of this type I can recall was the ’06 P-R, and I believe the barriers were already lowered in that case. Curious that a still-open crossing would even be considered – the lights are there to warn that the gates are about to be lowered, not to indicate that the crossing is closed simply by virtue of their flashing.

  2. Andrew: yes, the rules should be re-written to say riders should stop if the lights flash, a bell goes etc, saying riders “must stop if the gates are closed or if the hazard warning lights are flashing” etc

  3. Nice post . I like your french culture .A recent comment asked you :”who are you ?” i suggest him to read the memory of Saint Simon in Anonymous letter to the king:
    ” sire ,quel que doive etre d’ordinaire le sort d’une lettre anonyme , je sais que Votre Majesté à qui rien n’échappe , et qui en a recu assez souvent dans sa vie , n’a pas laissé souvent aussi de les lire et de donner ainsi accès jusqu à elle des vérités qu ‘aucun autre canal n’eut été en état d’y porter .”

  4. For me, rail crossings are yet one more reason that northern europe racing is so interesting. Particularly if the race has settled down to a group off the front with a peleton maintaining a gap, and then the helicopter shot shows an approaching train with a crossing. Definitely throws a curve ball into the race.

  5. Does every single crossing have working barriers? It wouldn’t surprise me if in some cases the barriers didn’t work or were not even installed. The design of the crossings assumes that traffic will stop with the lights flash so the barriers may only start to move seconds before a train comes.

  6. stopping for the signals would be a requirement of the belgian road rules, which take precedence over the UCI race rules, assuming the KBK isn’t granted an exemption (which the UCI rule itself suggests may not be the case, by referencing the potential for being sanctioned under the road rules).

    it would be interesting to understand whether UCI races are bound by road rules, as they don’t seem to follow them. and if so, whether breaching them is grounds for being sanctioned by the UCI itself. in that case, the penalty applied in this case may be justified.

  7. We have lots of level crossings in Australia, many without barriers. Officials brief the riders before and during the race that flashing lights are the equivalent of barriers for the purpose of stopping, proceeding and disqualification. There is no leeway given.

    In general, a breakaway is not penalised if it’s got a reasonable (30 seconds or more) break:
    “2.3.036 Where one or more riders with a 30 second advance on the field are held up at a level crossing and the rest of the field catches up while the gates are still closed, the race shall be neutralized and restarted with the same gaps, once the officials vehicles preceding the race have passed. If the advance is less than 30 seconds the closed level crossing gates shall be considered a mere passing incident.”

    If there is a (say) 40 second breakaway held up at a level crossing, the smart thing for the bunch to do, is slow down and NOT catch the break at the crossing while it (the break) is stopped. Better to have a 5 second gap after the crossing than for the commissaires to neutralise and restart.
    Unfortunately “the bunch” is rarely smart enough collectively to work together like that.

  8. Yves: thanks, interesting quote.

    Don: true and there are less crossings in other parts of Europe / less population density.

    James: most if not all.

    Jules: yes, the traffic laws get suspended. Traffic lights, going the correct way around a roundabout, one way streets: none of these matter in a race.

    sillyoldbugger: that all sounds fair. As you say getting the bunch to stop is hard, it is like herding cats. If one rider goes, nobody wants to give them a lead, so everyone else jumps.

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