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Organizers — and riders — need to take responsibility for race safety

Cycling doesn’t need to become an extreme sport to be intriguing, exciting and dramatic enough to captivate a television audience. A few simple changes could make them even more intriguing while minimizing the risk to the riders’ health and, indeed, their lives.

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2011 Giro d'Italia stage 16: Michael Barry
The author during the Giro last month. Photo: Graham Watson |

Michael Barry is a Canadian professional with Team Sky. He has been writing for VeloNews since 2003.

As we reach the town’s limits, the peloton dives off a four-lane road into a tight bend. Brakes screech. Our speed drops from 60 to 20 kilometers an hour. The peloton balloons then bottlenecks going into the corner. Over 200 riders funnel onto the narrow street and accelerate towards the maze of the city center. As the peloton files out of the bend, it has become one long ribbon. The line of cyclists will snake through the town, skimming signposts, jumping speed bumps, and bouncing over cobbles and tram tracks. Using blind faith, we follow the wheels of the riders ahead of us closely. The effort is exponentially harder for the riders at the back because of the elastic effect of the peloton. Some riders will be blurry eyed from the intensity. Tired, panicked, or both, riders lose focus. Inevitably, mistakes are made and crashes follow. Within the town, we hear the occasional shrill whistle from a road marshal at a roundabout. But few of the dangerous elements on the course are signaled. We rely on instinct and experience.

Cycling is inherently dangerous. We accept that we’ll race over cobbles, rub elbows in sprints and descend mountains at high speed. But most cyclists agree that crashes are now more frequent than they were just a few years ago. While we accept risks are part of our jobs, we shouldn’t accept conditions that are overwhelmingly dangerous and avoidable. Cycling doesn’t need to become an extreme sport to be intriguing, exciting and dramatic enough to captivate a television audience. A few simple changes could make them even more intriguing while minimizing the risk to the riders’ health and, indeed, their lives.

During this year’s Giro d’Italia few riders wanted to race up the Monte Crostis, a narrow mountain road with a steep dirt descent. The mountain was included in the course to create a spectacle. Monte Crostis is picturesque and I’m sure the images would have been dramatic. But it wasn’t worth putting the riders’ lives in danger. Most riders feared the descent. In response, the organizers placed snow fences at the corners in the hope that they would catch riders before they plummeted to the valley below.

Tragically, one of our colleagues, Wouter Weylandt, died on a technical descent on the second stage of the Giro, adding to our fear as Monte Crostis approached in the final 10 days of the race. The night before the stage, however, Monte Crostis was removed from the course. But it was not concern for the riders’ safety that ultimately brought the change. Rather it was complaints from the directeurs. The road up and down Monte Crostis was too narrow for team cars. Our health was secondary. Finally, the Giro organizers gave in to the race commissaires’ demand to eliminate the climb. But they were clearly disgusted and publically critical of the decision. The cyclists, like the animals in a dodgy circus, are just a part of the show.

Not only was the organization frustrated. In protest to the decision, fans threw eggs at the team cars and jeered at us for not riding the climb. Only days before, the spectators had plastered the roadside with signs memorializing Weylandt’s death. The hypocrisy is incomprehensible. We, the racers, already take significant risks and, surely, our opinions should be respected.

2011 Giro d'Italia, stage 5: Tom Jelta Slagter crash
A crash during stage 5 of the Giro. AFP PHOTO

A journalist recently asked me how I had sustained multiple fractures during my career. He had just finished interviewing Steve Bauer, who retired in 1996 and said he had never broken a bone. Twenty years ago cycling was much different: speeds were lower, a high percentage of bikes were steel and heavier, courses weren’t as technical, the professional peloton was smaller and less international, and there was more respect among the riders. It is now rare that a rider isn’t seriously injured in a race. Carbon snaps, bike frames splinter and riders come crashing down, inevitably breaking bone and tearing skin.

Racing has also become increasingly dangerous as European cities have become more congested. To slow traffic in pedestrian or residential areas, roundabouts, traffic islands, signposts and curbs have been built. For the speeding peloton, they cause havoc. In the midst of the peloton they’re only seen at the last minute, often when it is too late. Crashes on the open road between cyclists usually result in little damage. But when a cyclist goes rocketing into a pole or a curb his injuries are severe. Often the courses are designed to be technical, to add to the spectacle, and very rarely are they altered for our safety. As the risks have increased, the riders have almost become numb to them.

What initially differentiated professionals and amateurs was that one rode their bikes to make a living, while the other rode for fun or perhaps in an effort to one day become a professional. Within the professional peloton there was an understanding that a rider’s future depended on his body. Together, often under the leadership of one rider, the peloton protested. It wasn’t the directeurs, or the management who made the decision not to race, but the riders. The peloton has lost that unity and solidarity it had not long ago. During the 1978 Tour, Bernard Hinault, nicknamed le patron or the boss, led effective rider protests against overly demanding racing conditions. In the 1980’s, Francesco Moser, who was known as the Sheriff for his leadership, led the Italian peloton. Now, the peloton’s voice is weak and is often overwhelmed, or muted, by the team management.

But, the riders also need to take more responsibility for themselves and for each other. Marco Pinotti tweeted “Most heard words in the radio at the Giro: “dangerous downhill coming up, Liquigas at the front.” A kilometer from the top of every technical descent, Liquigas would storm the front of the peloton and accelerate over the summit in the hopes of lining out the peloton, pushing many riders to their limits, and causing splits in the group. Putting the entire peloton at risk isn’t the right way to win a bike race. Two days after posting that tweet, both Marco and his HTC teammate, Craig Lewis, crashed into a poorly marked sign pole, which sat in the center of the road as we entered a small town. Both Marco and Craig sustained severe injuries, which will keep them off their bikes until late in the racing seasons.

As the disparity between the weakest and the strongest rider is diminished in a more competitive racing environment, the peloton is increasingly larger when near the finish line. Before the 1980s, Milan-San Remo rarely finished in a sprint. Now it is rare when a sizeable peloton doesn’t come charging towards the line. As the courses no longer pare the peloton down before the finale, crashes are inevitable. In an effort to avoid group sprints, race organizers are now increasing the difficulty of the courses, paradoxically introducing other dangers. Perhaps a more effective solution is smaller pelotons with fewer riders on each team.

Parked cars or dumpsters in the roads should be moved, technical finales where crashes are bound to occur should be avoided, tunnels should be lit, the list goes on. An independent safety inspector, ideally one who is even independent of the UCI, needs to make the decision on whether or not the course is acceptable.

As the risks increase, changes towards developing safer courses have been slow. In 2009 Pedro Horrillo crashed on a technical descent in the Giro d’Italia. After plummeting sixty meters and fracturing many bones he miraculously survived. After the crash, riders protested the courses were too dangerous, yet again this year we were racing in the same conditions with an even more tragic result. Throughout the season, the cyclists, organizers, team management and spectators, all need to be more considerate of our safety. Changes must come.