Beijing’s Bad Air Day

If the government says healthy people should avoid outdoor activity should a bike race go ahead?

That’s the question facing the organisers of the Tour of Beijing which starts tomorrow as air pollution levels in Beijing today reaching a red-alert score of 397, a level declared as hazardous for all. Is it safe to race?

First let’s put the current level of pollution in context as 397 probably doesn’t mean much. The score is issued hourly. The pollution indices and codes below are defined by China’s Ministry of Environmental Protection:

As we can see, 397 is well into the red alert level where “healthy individuals should avoid out door activities“. If 200 points is light pollution but 300 means heavy, then going 97 points past the severe pollution threshold is a big deal. So if the Chinese government tells people to stay indoors, should a bike race take place?

Bike racing is a risky sport with wet roads and sharp corners. The difference here is these conditions can be tackled, riders can change tires and use their brakes. If the sun shines then some riders use sunscreen. When it rains in Belgium there is no government advice to avoid the cobbles.

The Chinese authorities and health professionals warn against exercise and there’s little riders can do to mitigate the risk. If teams could find masks to filter the pollution the riders could not breathe through them.

What are the heath risks?
Air pollution is a matter of degree, the higher the AQI score, the worse the air. Then it’s all about duration, the longer you spend outdoors, the greater the exposure. But it’s also dependent on what you do outdoors. A race means you’re breathing at a rate that’s maybe 20 times the normal airflow of a sedentary person so a few hours of racing is the equivalent of spending much longer outdoors walking. And hard exercise in polluted air puts a strain on the cardiovascular system because the reduced lung function sees the heart trying to compensate, putting an additional strain. At worst it can provoke a heart attack but this appears unlikely in a fit cyclist.

Scanning the PubMed database and its extracts, it seems there’s no particular threshold for time or pollution. But exposure can increase your chances of becoming asthmatic and getting other long problems, both in the short term and longer term problems. So if it’s a matter of nuance we fall back on the government advice. Given the Chinese authorities advise against exercise, what should be done? Fortunately the UCI sets out plenty of guidelines for rider safety. First up, safety of a race is a factor in awarding a race “World Tour” licence:

2.15.149 In addition to meeting the conditions set out in the regulations, the following selection criteria shall be taken into consideration by the licence commission in deciding to refuse a licence, grant it for a reduced duration or to select between events falling in the same class under article 2.15.147:
…3. the quality of organisation, particularly as regards safety;

I suppose we’ll never know if the UCI officials sat down to evaluate the obvious risks of air pollution and if they decided on any precautionary measures. Once again the danger here is that as both race organiser and governing body awarding the licence to the race, the UCI straddles a conflict of interest, where the duty of care competes with money.

As employers the teams have particular duties to their riders, here’s the UCI rulebook again:

1.1.079 The team manager shall constantly and systematically strive, wherever possible, to improve social and human conditions and protect the health and safety of the team’s riders.

13.1.002 Each Team taking part in cycle races shall constantly and systematically ensure that its members are in proper physical condition to engage in cycling. It shall also ensure that their members practice the sport under safe conditions.

Here the burden is obvious. If a team has to ensure its riders “practice the sport under safe conditions” then if the government says it is not safe to exercise outdoors then a team has a duty to heed this advice. Perhaps though it can obtain a second opinion, for example seeking the advice of the team doctor or a respiratory illness expert.

Now UCI it, now you don’t

Where does the buck stop?
The race organiser is “entirely and exclusively responsible” under UCI rule 1.2.032. So any decision on safety from the race has to come from GCP, the UCI’s 100% owned race promotion subsidiary, and its partners in Beijing.

However others have a duty too. Commissaires normally think of safety in terms of adequate barriers to hold the crowds back near the finish line or making sure danger spots like narrow roads are pointed out. But they can’t miss the smog. Similarly the UCI rules are also clear that teams have a duty to their riders. If health risks beyond the normal dangers of a race exist then a team is responsible for the riders

The UCI’s advice is clear (my emphasis):

Out of respect for the riders, the organiser should avoid heavily polluted areas as much as possible (industrial towns, etc.), particularly if there are other options for the race route

Are there other options for the route? Perhaps the race shouldn’t be in Beijing at all and it’s late to re-route; these are questions for another day. There is the possibility to cancel the urban stages and only race the rural roads. But this depends how much the race has tried to escape the smog of Beijing. Indeed they could cancel a stage or even the race. The UCI’s own race handbook says:

The organiser must consider that it may be necessary to cancel the event, for example in cases of force majeure (adverse weather conditions, political reasons, etc.).

If the conditions are beyond the control of the race, the UCI and everyone else then cancellation is reasonable. But given the Tour of Hangzhou went up in smoke the UCI’s push into China would face crippling humiliation if the race was cancelled. Don’t forget the UCI was caught pressuring team sponsors this time last year to “encourage” their squads to take part, this showed just how vital this race is to the governing body. Even if it might be the right thing to do, don’t expect safety to trump money.

Perhaps the best solution is to shorten the stages. It happens when snow blocks the road (see the Tour of California or the Etoile de Bessèges this year) and Chinese climate conditions could also make shortening the stage safer. Instead of 120-150km, riders could be driven along the route and perhaps complete the final 40km and then stage a “sprint” to satisfy the locals, preferably without awarding World Tour points so everyone is encouraged to ride tempo instead damaging their lungs. This would represent a compromise between health and the UCI’s desire not to lose face in front of the Beijing government.

For all the talk of safety and reading the UCI’s own rules the history of the sport is very different. From the earliest days riders have faced inhuman conditions and the sport has become associated with suffering and danger. However most of the legends are tales of overcoming adversity, whether climbing over a mountain or riding through a snowstorm. It seems quite unlikely that we’ll remember Tony Martin’s overall win in Beijing last year as a triumph over adverse air pollution.

Indeed in the modern era things are quite different. Riders are employees and have rights. Gone are Albert Londres’ “convicts of the road”, today a riders sign employment contracts just like anyone else in, say, Belgium or the USA and have corresponding expectations of safety in the workplace, albeit adjust for sports. However if things have improved, we rarely see riders take much of a stand. So even if their lungs are at risk, don’t expect to see the riders stage a protest.

Finally let’s spare a thought for the locals. Whether it’s kids walking to school or the elderly, this is a daily problem for residents of Beijing. Many workers have to endure the pollution whilst our riders can jet in and jet out. But I’m not blogging about China or environmentalism so I’ll leave this broad topic for others. Nevertheless, local cyclists have the choice not to exercise whilst the riders in the race will probably be told to start as normal.

Cycle racing is dangerous enough but we take steps to mitigate the risks. Tunnels have to be lit, sharp corners come with warning signs, whistles and even bales of hay. So when the city government advises its citizens to stay indoors, staging a bike race in these conditions is certainly contradictory and maybe even reckless. Unless fresh air arrives in time for the race making riders complete the full distance seems unnecessary.

It’s a shame for everyone that the weather and pollution are conspiring to reach such hazardous levels whether fans in Beijing or riders who want, or even need, a result in this race. Pollution is part of life in the Chinese capital as the country rushes to catch up to the standard of living enjoyed in Western cities via rapid industrial growth and perhaps locals accept pollution as the price to pay? We’ll leave this question for others.

All this blog knows is that the UCI’s own rules and guidelines state the race organisers and teams have responsibilities when it comes to health and safety, that air pollution is at severe levels and the local advice is not to exercise.

64 thoughts on “Beijing’s Bad Air Day”

  1. I wouldn’t want to be be partaking if I was a rider – its not worth the health risks. We read plenty about the effects of riding behind buses on our daily commutes and they do not make for pretty reading, just stepping outside in Beijing creates the same effect. Its a truly filthy place and I remember all the debates about the Olympic games being held there.

    Unfortunately for riders and athletes alike, China has money and money talks – clearly a lot louder than rider health.

  2. Looks to be a cut off sentence in the Summary section, “Nevertheless, local cyclists have the choice not to exercise whilst the riders in the race”

  3. If the riders think the environment is dangerous they should have a sit-down strike; it wouldn’t be the first time that riders protested unsafe working conditions or other such grievances.

    • As I found last year there’s plenty to cover during the winter. If I had more time to dedicate to the blog I could cover many more things a day…. or spend more time editing a piece to spot the typing errors and more.

  4. Nice piece once again. I hope for the riders sake it’s canceled if the values are so high. I live in a city where the levels can reach ca 100 on that same scale on a bad day, and already at that level it is a noticeable factor.

    Actually lol’d at the pun. Ahh the shame..

    • Yes. The crucial thing is the reading when the stage is happening. It should go down overnight and then rise again in the day once factories start and the traffic gets busy. I can’t find a working forecast for pollution so it’s hard to know what will happen.

    • Aaaaaaand like magic, hours before race time (10am), it’s at 74 – Moderate.
      Is this like when I was living in Qatar and BBC weather was always forecasting a temperature about 5-10 degrees cooler than it actually was?

  5. Being a confirmed, mild athsmatic (although there are a disproportionally high number of TEUs for athsma medication in the peleton, a topic for another time and place I guess), I certainly wouldn’t want to be earning my bread sucking that soot down. Having spent time in China, I’ve always struggled, even going on a mild jog.

    Talansky sufferred quite a severe reaction in the Tour of California to poor air quality, I can’t even imagine how he’d fair here….

  6. The sport needs a charismatic leader ala Bernard Hinault to stage a strike against racing in these conditions. Of course the team directors should say something too, but just like speaking out against doping, who wants the risk of reprisal, especially when it’s the UCI as promoter? I remember a few years ago when the big protest against the Giro’s Crostis stage was supposedly about rider safety, but in the end the directors whined more about not having team car access on this stage. So when it’s just a rider’s health issue, with the worst thing that could happen to the DS is he might not be able to SEE his rider through all the pollution, it’s no big deal I guess?

  7. Given the global nature of the Olympics in 2008 and the massive exposure the Chinese government temporarily restricted traffic in the city and shut down heavy industry leading up to the games to (successfully) reduce pollution levels.. Unfortunately cycling won’t get that honour anytime soon. Resident’s heart health improved over that period according to studies, only to return to normal levels after the chimneys were fired up when Bolt et al scarpered..

    • Yes, they took special measures then and even used cloud seeding rockets loaded with silver iodide to make it rain before the games in order to rinse the air clean. As you say this probably won’t happen.

      None of this is good for anyone. Beijing is getting publicity as a health risk, the UCI is caught between competing interests and the riders don’t seem to get any say in this for now.

      • Be interesting to see if Taylor Phinney is ignored or even gets a slap on the wrist for voicing his opinion.. (Although it was more a statement of fact rather than an opinion)

    • I’ve been watching since last year had problems but the idea came this morning from seeing others mention the air pollution, credit goes to Gerard Vroomen who first tweeted about it this morning.

      As for the racing, it’ll be interesting to see what is done. As the photo at the top shows they did it in pollution last year too although the levels were not so high.

  8. I’ve no objection to a WT race being held in China – the country has some amazing scenery and the backdrop is an important ingredient of a race. And I like the occasional race in a similar timezone to my own (NZ time). But these conditions around Beijing are impossible. It is just arrogance to want to hold the race there.

    Teams should not ask their employees to work in such conditions, that much is clear when everything else is blanketed in smog. But there is another reason why some teams must feel compelled to race – WT points. These points mean big money. I’m not up to speed on standings – could a team risk losing World Tour status if they don’t pick up some points here?

    Despite those massive financial concerns, I hope the riders find the courage to neutralise the stages in the city. I also hope one of the riders complains to the International Labour Organisation or someone like that – a good way to embarrass the UCI and get in deep trouble but there must be someone bolshie enough to do it…

    We can do something too. Don’t watch the race, and tell your broadcaster why; Eurosport/whoever will notice.

    • I agree. I have big concerns about the race being fast-tracked to World Tour status, about the UCI’s creation of GCP and the multiple conflicts of interest and more.

      But the sport merits a good race in China and I’ve written on here before that the Hangzhou race could have been more interesting with a varied course and some good scenery.

      But UCI governance and the construction of a race calendar are longer term issues. Right now the health of riders is at stake. Hopefully the risks are not grave but nobody should have to suffer in these conditions.

      As for the points, yes, several teams are really hoping to do well. Last year Ag2r was almost saved from World Tour demotion by Roche’s stage win and this year Euskaltel-Euskadi are probably in the ejector seat unless they win this race.

  9. Here is a bizarre quote from the Andy Schleck on stating the smog in Beijing is no great concern:
    “Paris is not perfect as well and we finish the Tour there every year,” he said. “Maybe the air quality here is not like the Swiss Alps, but I don’t think it’s any unhealthier than racing in 3C and cold during the classics in Belgium. At the Volta a Catalunya, we were racing in snow. I’m not sure that’s so healthy. I don’t see (smog) as a big issue. Until now, it was sunny every day.”

    Really Andy? I think he hit his head and not just his hip!

    • Wait until he tries racing and if the score is >400 he might change his mind. Until then, air quality can be measured precisely. As for snow, you can put gloves on and take other measures, here’s there’s not much you can do.

    • I think Andy’s confusing smog with fog there in terms of health & safety.. I don’t know what the research says but if there was any that suggested a risk of non-reversible lung or related health issues no matter how small there’s a serious duty of care and exposure to charges of negligence, a responsibility that would probably lie with the teams as opposed to the UCI as their employers. Airborne pollutants can take years of exposure to damage you or minutes so the devils in the detail. The fact that the US Embassy updates so regularly & so diligently despite recent diplomatic pressure would suggest that the dangers are real on a daily basis as opposed to a 20 year build-up.

  10. and what about the politics on tour of beijing?
    are there japanese riders? perhaps the team nippo there’s…..
    if there’s a race to boycott I think is that.
    but maybe these are not the POINTS.

  11. I wouldn’t want to race 150 km in Beijing smog, no thanks. I don’t think it would be good for you. But when it comes to health risks, I’m fairly sure that the crashes which occur so frequently in the pro peleton are way more dangerous.
    What would you prefer, purely from a health perspective: riding a race on large, well paved roads* in smog, bombing full speed down a tricky Alpine descent in the rain, or storming into the Arenberg forest with a full peleton?

    * Hypothetical, I don’t know how the roads are that they race in Beijing

    • To be honest, as an asthmatic, I’d prefer the Alps or the cobbles. Until anyone actually has an asthma attack they don’t realise how scary and serious it is. Breaking your collarbone is painful, but not being able to breath is terrifying.

  12. Good piece, the interesting question is would a UCI, not involved in making money and focussed on the good of the sport, pull the plug on the race as the health risk which it clearly is?

    I guess we’ll never know with the current leadership! No wonder I choose to race in a non UCI environment.

  13. Most of these teams are sponsored by companies with strong ties to China and if you don’t think that is the driver here, you are eating too much fried rice. They could care less about the health of the riders. It’s about brand promotion internationally. Next time you hop on that carbon bike with almost all components sourced in Asia, think about it.

  14. If the UCI has more than $ and expansion in its site it will force race organizers to have a controlled start until the race gets out of town and the air is clear. I have been to Beijing and those conditions are more than the norm lately but they are not pervasive in the country side. Another option is for riders to put their combined foot down and simply refuse to ride in those conditions. Not likely though as too many of them need points or a good result here to ‘save the season’.

    • Brad,

      You’re painting weed smokers in a bad light with the foul language.
      In this instance Forget UCI!! would work as would Foul UCI!! that’s good because smog can smell bad. Darn UCI!! Crooked UCI!! Greedy UCI!! Wretched UCI!! Despicable UCI!! Loathsome UCI!! Incompetent UCI!! Contemptuous UCI!! Idiotic UCI!! etc. etc.
      I’m with you there but something to think about.

      Haz a good night.

  15. They are a Professionals.

    If they were so concerned for their health they would specifically spell out in their employment contracts when signing to ride for a team ” I shall not be required to race if conditions are detrimental to my health; A. Smog ratings above xyz.. etc. Do they have agents represent them?

    Alas, remember these are the same guys who take physically active drugs which your or my doctor would not give us because of the obvious detrimental health implications.

  16. Come on boys! I live, train, race in Hong Kong which rarely has a day where we get a “Green light” from the HK Govt for people to participate in strenuous outdoor activities.

    Admittedly the air quality here is a little better than Beijing and Shanghai however I haven’t suffered any health complications! Yet…… 😉

  17. I live in China and have been to Beijing a number of times. Yes Beijing, no doubt, can have bad pollution levels. But I have been there during days where the skies are gloriously blue and visibility is amazing. The air is crisp and cool. Right now the pollution index says 45, which is way below the figure of 397 quoted on this blog post. I live in Hangzhou where the other World Tour is going to be held in 2013, its a much more prettier city with more natural scenery and the famous West Lake. Looking out the window from my office, the skies are blue and the pollution haze or fog is not bad. Air quality is 95 here today. Riding in China is actually not that bad, its just when you are subject to the passing trucks and buses that have black smoke coming out that make it quite uncomfortable..

  18. Not sure if it is mentioned above in the comments – if so, sorry – but people should note that the US Embassy conducts its own pollution testing (and that a number of western businesses actually use these levels as the guide for managing their employees’ safe activity). This is because it is widely believed that the official figures produced by the Govt can be understated – so if the offical number is 300+, there is a risk that it could actually be significantly worse than that.

    Glad to hear it is much better today: officially “good”.

    • Looks like god’s been on the side of UCI. My Dad flew into Beijing yesterday and saw a “yellow sea” beneath when he landed and it’s Crystal clear today.

      I do agree that the race could have been hold elsewhere in China. There are plenty of places with cleaner air and good scenery. HangZhou for one. Then there also used be the Tour of Qinghai Lake (a vast salt water lake inland).

      Well, I suppose whilst not all the tours in France had to have anything to do with Paris, you can’t have all the tours in France have nothing to do with Paris either.

  19. At 05:30 on the morning of last year’s fifth stage (which started at Beijing’s Tiananmen square), the air pollution rating was over 400. Foolishly, I decided to go for a hard 90 minute ride (leaving from the Intercontinental hotel where most teams were staying) anyway. The air was tactile, and grit built up in my mouth and nostrils. On return, my lungs felt heavy with particulates (real or imagined I don’t know) and I had a metallic aftertaste on my palate until the next day. It seemed plausible some teams may have objected to starting, but I’m not sure any of them were actually looking at the available air quality data.

    I can’t load my tweets from October 2011, but I think the level had dropped to 260 (from memory) by the time the stage started. Pre-stage interviews with riders yielded comments that varied from “it’s fucked up” to “no worries”. In the end, only one rider (Jack Bobridge) DNS’d and one rider, out of 139 starters, DNF’d (Zhao Yiming from China).

  20. Gents – I live in Beijing, and ride around 250km a week there. The air pollution can be terrible, as per yesterday, but it can likewise be pretty good. I ride when the levels are below 180, and have missed only two weekends in the past year.
    The riding around Beijing is simply stunning, it has beautiful mountain scenery and the road surface is as good as I have ridden anywhere in the world. Last week I rode two to the tour of beijing mountain stage routes and was amazed to see that Beijing city council have resurface the roads for the race….a significant investment. The mountains are within 10-30km of the 5th ring road, so easily accessible.
    I believe that China should be staging a world tour race, and that the world tour should have at least a couple of races in Asia.
    I fully understand all the concern about this race being funded by the UCI’s globalisation project, but what if in 3 years this race is making a healthy profit and no longer requires support; look at the race sponsors, 360 clothing, UCC bikes, Hyundai cars all companies going through great expansion in China with pockets deep enough to fund a larger part of the race organisation.
    I spoke to a colleague working for shimano (they fund bike mechanics in most major city bike shops); they advised me that shimano pulled out as technical sponsor/support for the race before argos/shimano team pulled out, and that the pull out of shimano as technical sponsor to the race made the teams position untenable.

    • Thanks, both for the local info and the Shimano idea.

      Like you I think China should have a big race but ideally outside Beijing, maybe with today’s stage as the final one so the race finishes in Beijing. If it working great in three years…. great!

  21. What about the exhaust fumes that are expelled by the cavalcade that surrounds the peleton in every race?

    I love this blog and have little respect for the UCI but more and more articles seem to be written with bashing the governing body in mind.

    • It can get a bit smelly in the race sometimes but the air quality is much better. Remember a bad smog day in Los Angeles scores >100 on the AQI. Yesterday we had five times this.

      As for the UCI, let’s separate the bashing from the rider health story here, governance issues are one concern, riding in unnecessarily dangerous conditions are another. As said above, fortunately a strong wind got up overnight – so strong the finish line bridge was blown over during the night – and let’s hope the air stays fresh.

  22. I’m glad the air cleared, at least literally. A riders’ protest might not have been looked upon very kindly; China is not Europe. Riders concerned about air quality and who had the clout — e.g. agents, contract clauses etc. — could have chosen to avoid the race entirely. For those who could not, shame on the UCI for not protecting the riders. There should have been a clause in the race agreement requiring postponement or rerouting if pollution exceeded a set limit.

  23. Good piece.
    They can take their Chinese race and stuff it and shove it wherever European fans don’t hear about it. What can fans do to destroy the World Tour and its stupid logic and rules?

  24. Er.. CCTV coverage ; BJ shut down; thousands of police on duty; BJ CCP hierarchy attending and invitees from the central government; big chinese potential corporate sponsors; months and months of planning and millions of RMB already invested ; formal banquets; glasses being clinked; speeches made; backslapping and grandstanding all around – yeah the chance of UCI saying anything to offend their Chinese hosts (read government) in a country governed by “loss of face” is zip, nada, zero.

    But it does highlight the need though for rider representative and real power at UCI level at the planning stage though ..

  25. Well, weather and pollution looks okay per sky website photographs and the Beijing race provides more protection (in terms of padded barriers) on tricky descends than most European races.

    Just curious, since most of the Beijing Pollution problem is sand storm which while pops up more than quite frequently also clears away quite quickly, how hard is it to shift a race a few days around the calendars at last minute? I mean if there is a day during the race when air quality is bad, can’t they just call a rest day and resume later?

    I suppose it depends on the planning of the organisers as well.

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