The day saw dangerous gusts to nearly 60 miles per hour, sending wind chills down near zero and smashing riders against each other as they fought for control of their bikes.
Thursday’s second stage of Etoile des Besseges should have been canceled, or at least postponed, according to riders. They stopped, en masse, not once but three times, unclipping in protest of the conditions. But there is no extreme weather protocol within the UCI’s regulations, and the organizers and commissaires at the race were clear: the show must go on.
“The protest was for the wind, not the cold,” Trek Factory Racing team director Alain Gallopin said. “It was very, very dangerous for the wind in the first hour and it was for the security of the riders they spoke with the organization.”
“The officials were even considering canceling the stage, because the speed of the wind reached almost 100 kilometers per hour. The peloton had to stop [a] few times because it was impossible to move forward and it was the only safe thing to do,” CCC Sprandi Polkowice sport director Robert Krajewski said.
The absolute cause of the danger, be it from wind or cold or lightning or snow or any other act of nature, is largely immaterial. The UCI does not have a clear protocol in the case of any extreme weather, relying instead on the judgment of its on-the-ground commissaires. This needs to change, according to the Association of North American Professional Cyclists (ANAPRC), a new branch of the international riders union, the Cyclistes Professionels Associés, or CPA.
“It’s not fair to the race, or the riders, or the sport in itself to have a decision like that come down to an official, and what sort of day they’re having,” BMC Racing’s Brent Bookwalter, a board member of the ANAPRC, told VeloNews. “I think having some clear and concise rules would really help.”
Calls for a clearly defined extreme weather protocol are nothing new. Last season saw a weather-related polemic on the Stelvio during the Giro d’Italia, when some riders continued over the top of the climb amid a snowstorm while others stopped, apparently neutralized, to pull on jackets. There was another controversy in Colorado during the second stage of the 2014 USA Pro Challenge, as riders descended through rain and mud on Kebler pass.
The frustration in both instances was focused just as much on poor communication and a lack of clear rules as the weather conditions themselves, riders said.
The rider protests at Besseges come just as the ANAPRC finalized and submitted to the UCI a draft of extreme weather protocol. The protocol focuses on the proper course of action in “predictable conditions,” namely extreme cold combined with precipitation. It requires that a backup plan be in place for all events where such weather is a possibility.
“We have been pushing UCI for a new rule for many months,” said Michael Carcaise, interim executive director of the ANAPRC. “They recently committed to a working group that will make a new rule for 2016.”
The panel convened by the ANAPRC to flesh out its extreme weather protocol includes doctors, current racers, former racers, and race directors across multiple continents and levels of the sport. “It’s a good resource of people who are trying to establish tangible and precise parameters for extreme weather, and then how that decision is communicated,” Bookwalter said.
The ANAPRC’s proposal is relatively simple. It states that in the event of weather conditions being deemed unacceptable, Plan B should be triggered. The group proposes a temperature threshold of 37 degrees Fahrenheit (3 degrees Celsius) with precipitation; anything under that threshold would be unacceptable.
The group put forth several backup plan options, each tailored for different weather and course issues.
The first would be to “shorten the course by rolling a neutral start (to keep host towns happy), riding out of town to team buses, transporting peloton to a new start line 50 or 75 km from finish line, then run a race to the original finish line,” said Carcaise.
The second option would be to use the same start and finish, but re-route sections of the course to avoid dangerous areas.
The third would be to neutralize certain sections, but, very importantly, neutralize using a well-defined and predictable process that teams and riders understand ahead of time.
The fourth and most extreme option would be to cancel the race or stage, but it would be required that a certain number of riders perform fan-friendly activities at the start line.
The group proposed that a few early-season races, including Paris-Nice and the Giro d’Italia, be used as test events for the temperature threshold rules.
The UCI is currently reviewing the ANAPRC’s proposal. “Last we heard from [the UCI’s Matthew] Knight is he agreed to review with his colleagues and then get back to us. We expected to hear early this week but haven’t heard anything yet,” Carcaise said.
Cycling isn’t held in stadiums, under roofs, or on a single pitch; it’s on open roads, in the elements. But riders still need to be protected, Bookwalter said, and communication channels need to be perfected.
“When these weather issues come up, or when controversy comes up, I don’t think it’s fair for the riders to have to stand up and take the blame and take the heat,” Bookwalter said. “Behind the scenes, the riders can be unified, and the spokesperson, they can take the heat. That’s in everyone’s best interest.”