Dear Explainer, By now, we’ve all probably seen the crash that highlighted the final kilometer of this year’s Giro d’Italia. While I was actually hoping for Danilo Di Luca to pull off a miracle win, I am pleased that he didn’t do it by having race leader Denis Menchov crash and lose enough time to lose the Giro.
By Charles Pelkey
By now, we’ve all probably seen the crash that highlighted the final kilometer of this year’s Giro d’Italia. While I was actually hoping for Danilo Di Luca to pull off a miracle win, I am pleased that he didn’t do it by having race leader Denis Menchov crash and lose enough time to lose the Giro.
Watching riders whose position on GC was such they didn’t need to go all out that day got me wondering. Jens Voigt, for example, rode that time trial like he was commuting to work. Even Lance Armstrong took it easy. Wet cobbles, rain, lots of turns — it seemed downright dangerous. Aside from what looked like a bad choice of course, are there ever times the UCI commissaires decide that conditions are just too dangerous to ride? What do the rules say? And if the UCI is enforcing its rules, wouldn’t the UCI be the one responsible if something goes wrong? Can a rider sue the UCI if dangerous conditions or a dangerous course result in injury or significant economic loss?
New Haven, Connecticut
I have to agree that the finish to this year’s Giro – and the weeks of tight standings on GC – made this one of the best grand tours we’ve seen in years. One of the real heroes of the day was Rabobank mechanic Vincent Hendriks, who jumped out of the team car before it had even come to a complete stop and in seconds handed a new bike to Menchov. It was spectacular.
But was it safe? Well, a lot of people said the course was not safe that day. Astana manager Johann Bruyneel said the course was “a joke” and no way to end a grand tour. From a rider’s perspective that’s probably true. Menchov, had things turned out badly, would have undoubtedly agreed.
The UCI does have rules regarding course design and safety, but the way those rules are written appears to put the onus entirely on the organizer. Indeed, the rules appear to be carefully crafted with potential liability in mind, and the UCI seems to have distanced itself from any suggestion that it has a “duty” to ensure safety at any event. In the latest version of the UCI rulebook, Article 1.2.033 makes a point of saying that
Monitoring by the UCI, national federations and by the commissaires of the conduct of the race shall concern only the sporting requirements and the organiser alone shall be answerable for the quality and safety of the organisation and installations.
The UCI further notes, in Article 1.2.035, that
The organiser shall take whatever safety measures caution demands.The UCI goes on to say that it is not the party responsible in the event something does go wrong, with the language in Article 1.2.061:
The organiser shall ensure that the race may take place under the best material conditions for all parties concerned, riders, attendants, officials, commissaires, journalists, security services, medical services, sponsors, the public, etc.
Unless otherwise specified, the organiser must provide all the equipment required for the organization of the event, including all timing equipment.
Without prejudice to the relevant legal and administrative provisions and the general duty of care, the organiser shall ensure that the race course or the competition grounds include no places or situations that could constitute a particular safety risk to anyone (riders, attendants, officials, spectators, etc.).That key passage, placing the “general duty of care” on the shoulders of the organizer, is essentially lawyer-speak for “Hey pal, don’t blame me, I’m just here for the free food and to wear this nifty sports jacket with the official logo on it.” But just in case you didn’t catch that message, the UCI underscores the entire theme by reminding us in Article 1.2.063 that
In no case can the UCI be held responsible for defects in the course or installations of for any accidents that may occur.Nonetheless, the UCI is aware that its rulebook is just that, a rulebook, and doesn’t necessarily carry with it the weight of law, so just to make sure that this CYA exercise is comprehensive, the UCI also requires the organizer to
… take out insurance covering all risks relating to the holding of the race. This insurance must nominate the UCI as a jointly insured party and cover claims that may be made against the UCI in connection with the event.
So the UCI makes it clear that safety is the promoter’s job. As you recall, it was the riders who objected to the course chosen for the ninth stage through the streets of Milan and staged something akin to a work slowdown in response. We have seen similar objections to unsafe conditions present at the end of long road races – particularly when they involve narrow, twisting roads for stages likely to end in a mass sprint – but for the most part, riders tend to let their competitive juices override those concerns.
Weather is a factor promoters consider when allowing the peloton to roll off the start line. Races have been rerouted, shortened or canceled due to snow or other adverse conditions. The 2004 Omloop Het Volk, for example, was canceled due to snow. This year’s Tour de Romandie saw its first stage shortened and re-routed due to snow in the Swiss high country. The Tour, Paris-Nice and the Giro have also had last-minute changes made due to conditions. Here in the U.S., we’ve seen one of our favorite domestic races, Colorado’s Iron Horse Bicycle Classic, canceled due to snow and even shut down mid-race due to conditions out on the road.
Of course there are some who suggest that weather conditions are a natural part of the sport and cancellation should occur in only the most extreme conditions. Remembering that snow-covered 14th stage of the 1988 Giro would make one agree that some of the sport’s most memorable moments happen when conditions are at their absolute worst. Of course, we make those judgments firmly ensconced in the press room, where the only hazard is missing some of the race when the video feed goes out.
So what happens when a promoter is accused of failing in that “general duty of care” to “take whatever safety measures caution demands?” Well, the inevitable. He gets taken to court. While it’s rare that riders sue major tour promoters like the Giro, Tour or Vuelta, we have seen suits involving spectators’ injuries, but those are often settled quietly before they reach the courts.
There are suits involving claims that promoters have violated their duty of care to riders, though. Here in the U.S., a current example involves the ongoing suit filed against the promoters of Pennsylvania’s Tour de ‘Toona by cyclist Sarah Scott, who remains paralyzed from injuries sustained in a crash at that race in 2005.
Scott fractured several vertebrae in a crash that occurred when she went off the road on a turn and landed in a 3-foot-deep ditch. Scott’s suit claims that the organizer failed to provide adequate warning or safety measures at a dangerous part of the course. Attorneys representing the organizer have recently sought to have the case dismissed, noting that Scott had signed a liability waiver (a topic for another column) and that bicycle racing is an inherently risk-filled activity and that no promoter can eliminate all dangers present in such an event.
Ultimately, when a rider is aware of risks – and Scott’s attorneys maintain that the risk of the ditch was not something she or other riders were aware of – the decision to race or not may fall to the individual rider. Much like Jens Voigt approached that final time trial in the Giro on Sunday, it may just make sense to exercise caution and prudence when the risks are apparent. Does that absolve a promoter? Absolutely not — it may not even absolve the UCI. But they sure won’t cop to having a duty to ensure the safety of an event.