Rider safety, time for dialogue?

Giro crash

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.

17 thoughts on “Rider safety, time for dialogue?”

  1. I believe one of the problems is that the routes are often announced well in advance, but the majority of complaints from riders & directors don’t occur until 2 weeks before the race. While the concerns expressed are typically valid, they need to be voiced earlier, and directly to the organizers, not in the media or over twitter.

    Expectations regarding parked cars along course have to be reasonable. The races don’t own the roads, and in the minds of municipal authorities residents will have priority over special events and guests. If some tolerances aren’t accepted, much of racing might be restricted to criteriums and circuit races.

  2. Yeah, I was right with Barry until the nostalgia kicked on. More safety concern in the old days? As if! There 210 riders in the 1986 Tour; the 1980s are the era when cycling got so big that large fields were a serious safety problem for probably the first time. It’s not too had to find footage of Stephen Roche complaining that the organizers of the Tour are putting money ahead of rider safety. And how about the bikes they were riding? Whether they were more durable (and whether this makes for a big safety improvement) is a fair debate, but does anyone really think that racing down alpine passes with single-pivot brakes was less dangerous than it is today?

    Still, he has the right idea, and if anything, it’s just more evidence that a more constructive approach to safety is long overdue.

  3. While I can sympathise w/ Barry when it comes to the proliferation of road furniture, I’m less sympathetic when he complains about descending. Sure, Monte Crostis was a bit over the top, but to have a go at Liquigas for trying to string out the peloton over a mountain pass is a bit much.

    He twice invokes Wouter Weylandt’s tragic accident as proof that descents are too dangerous, yet Weylandt crashed because he wasn’t looking where he was going. Cardoso stated that Wouter’s pedal caught on something while he was turned to look behind him trying to decide whether it would be better to wait for pursuers or to push on.

    Descending well is just as much a part of a rider’s armoury as a high VO2Max or W/kg. Those riders who excel at descending, like Cancellara or Nibali, shouldn’t be penalised by sanitising descents so other riders can keep up, any more than Bertie should have to carry a weight penalty uphill.

  4. In regards to safety, cycling has fallen behind its motorized cousins. Serious injuries and deaths have declined significantly in autosports. While course design and driver regulations are major factors, improvements in equipment regulations played a role and safety gear. As cyclists, we seem more willing to accept injuries as an unavoidable part of our sport. Even the pros focus mostly on the courses, rather than requesting that the industry develop new ways of minimizing injuries in the event of a crash.

    In the UCI’s defense, there have been attempts at equipment regulation, but they often leave manufacturers confused or the rules are inconsistently applied. In recent years, it seems that most equipment regulations are attempts at homologation, rather than safety.

    As far as safety gear is concerned, there have only been two significant inventions in cycling history: polycarbonate lenses for glasses and helmets. In fact, since the “hairnet” was replaced with the modern helmet, standards have been relatively static and manufacturers have focused on comfort. The same has been true industry wide. Manufacturers, in response to consumer demand, continue to improve comfort and efficiency with nary a thought given to improving safety. Where are the tear-resistant fabrics that would control or curb road rash? Is there a way to include minimalist padding or armor that does not significantly hamper motion or comfort, but blunts impact?

    As cyclists, we should be supporting the pros in the efforts to improve course safety. We should also expect that safety become a bigger concern throughout the industry.

  5. Re: parked cars; Belgians love a good car towing. Perhaps a joint operation with the EU & UCI? I’m sure they’d love to help out by clearing the route prior to any races. They’d have a big boner doing it too.

  6. I love seeing exciting, varied racing – but I have no problem with the pro’s complaining about dangerus conditions. The Monte Crostis descent was, for me, a classic example of this. It was just stupid.

    But I do object to the pro’s complaining aout “uncomfortable” conditions. Examples of this would be the ‘cobbled stage’ at last year’s TdF, or the flatter strade biancha stages at the Giro. That seemed more about “its not fun” rather than “its dangerous”. In those cases – as a spectator I say ‘harden up!!’.

  7. It is all about getting a balance. If organisers are struggling to pay for races already can they afford extra expenses?

    From what I’ve seen a fair number of crashes (in televised races anyway) seem to happen on open roads or in sprint finishes. They are down to people losing concentration for a second or riding dangerously. Other crashes are due to things like potholes. A great example of that is Nicolas Roche in the Dauphine. I believe that he hit a pothole, with no riders in the peloton having signalled that it was there. We can’t expect every mile of every race to be pothole free.

    For me, the riders have a big part in the safety issues. They can warn each other of impending dangers (those not already communicated via the microphones in their ears). Once the riders themselves have done what they can do to improve safety, then they have a right to complain about other causes.

  8. I believe that you can not apply the employment safety standards to professional cycling. Pro cyclists are not employees (factory workers), they are freelancers/contractors. Given this, when concluding the contract with the team, they are aware that their commitment to the race for money involves relatively high inherent risk. As a consideration for accepting such a risk, pro riders are compensated with quite a lot of money (significantly higher than employees) and other benefits. And they push it to the safety limit also because they want another contract (more money) when the current one expires.

    Bike handling and descending is similar craft/art as time trialing or climbing. Being pro/expert also implies that you know your own limits. Thus, if you push it over the limit it is your personal choice and you are aware of the consequences.

    I consider the safety of the riders as a matter of self-governance/self-policing/ethics. There are only 200 riders involved in the race. Considering that every team has a designated leader, it should not be that hard for 20 people to agree on reasonable safety ethics. If the riders are unable to reach reasonable agreement it is because they are not willing to compromise own objectives. But is much easier to blame somebody else, i.e. race organizers.

    I would also like to point your attention to Mr Vroomen blog (gerard.cc). He provided very interesting views on the Mt Crostis affair.

  9. Oh no another radio in radio out debate on the horizon. Organizers have a tough job but the riders should be skilled enough to able to deal with whatever route is on the schedule. Lights in a tunnel sounds great but there are a LOT of tunnels both closed and open especially in Italy and to do the job right, even temporary, would be logistically very difficult. It would have to be set up the day before the stage and then they would need a security guard to keep an eye on the 200 quids worth of spots. Besides they would create shadows that can be often time worse, like in a crit at night. How about a simple light rubber strap Cateye or whatever light on their handelbars that they can take off easily? They only need to see and judge the wheel in front like in a notturna. I think riders will always have to deal, cycling is on open roads over mountains and through cities. If the organizers can manage to control the oncoming traffic and stay on top of that then riders just have to know that there will be parked cars, gravel on roads and obstacles. The whole Crostis thing was caught up within the context of a tragedy and the debate was actually mostly hype. Did anyone see the last 20 min of stage 3 of the Tour de Suisse? Technically way more challenging than Crostis and equally as dangerous if not more. Why no complaints there? Not only was the descent about as tough as they get on asphalt but it dropped like a snake right onto the finish line. Wow!

  10. @inrng: Bernard Hinault lead a protest in 1978 against a tough 2 stage per day regimen during the TdF — surely that battle benefited other riders, no? In that sense it was clearly better in the past. Today what’s left of the corporate sponsorship simply would not allow it.
    I thought Barry’s piece was spot on and a welcome piece of truth telling in a world of cycling that’s so full of biased story tellers from the organizers to the media.
    Note the comment about wanting a safety inspector preferably independent from the UCI: I guess it’s open secret in the peloton that the UCI cares about cyclists health in as much as a pimp does for his stable.
    On a lighter note (pun very much intended) a welcome bit a truth telling on the ever so taboo subject of carbon frames: it’s clear this pro at least thinks they are more fragile and prone to break than steel. They don’t ride them by choice. I am always staggered by the amount of amateurs riders who do in light of the inherent danger of riding of what is essentially a super light plastic bike. Go alu!

  11. I think radios are mentioned at least twice above. Perhaps you are now just a teeny bit surprised? Or not surprised at all? Whats the word for that – expectant?

    Anyway – safety is important. When people feel safe, they race harder and faster I think. Safety includes illegal drug use too though chaps……

  12. How are the riders or teams supposed to check out the routes month in advance. With what time and what resources? The reason it’s left to a few days before is that’s when the routes are reconned.

    Street furniture seems to claim at leats one rider in every race I watch. The crashes from it always seems much more damaging as the riders always seem completely unaware when they hit it.

  13. Thanks for all the comments. It is difficult to make the race safer, some measures can help but the presence of 200 riders racing means crashes are inevitable. But if this can be reduced, all the better.

    Whether this happens by immediate things like lighting or better warnings, or other factors like avoiding 250km stages and long transfers that make riders into zombies… it’s good at least to give the riders an open channel to race organisers, no?

    CD: by the use of an independent observer perhaps, at least for the biggest races. Teams do drive the routes well before, some months in advance of the race.

  14. Fair point Nick; although this wasn’t obvious to me.

    Salient topic which has been sadly highlighted by the nasty crash of Juan Soler in ToSwitzerland overnight.

  15. IR – I think for the big races they may drive the course early but they probably don’t ride course thatr don’t change year to year so they can’t know what holes, construction or street furntiture has popped up. Plus even at race like the TdF, I’m doubtful anyone drives the entire length of a flat stage. Just isn’t worth the time.

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