It should never have been allowed to happen.
The sight of Pieter Serry being taken down by a sports director in a team car in the final kilometers stage 6 of the Giro d’Italia was a shocking one. Mercifully, Serry was ok – if a little miffed – and could continue his race.
But the incident shed light on how even the best-intended of recently imposed laws can misfire.
On a day where the weather had battered the riders, the BikeExchange car had been collecting rain jackets that had been discarded in the commissaries’ car by its riders.
Whatever the consequences of it were, it was an inexcusable incident, and it was only right that BikeExchange sports director Gene Bates was expelled from the race. Races might be contested on closed roads but there is a lot going on and one can never afford to be inattentive, at any point.
Hopefully, he will learn from this incident and realize it could have been far worse, but more needs to be actively done to prevent incidents like this from occurring.
— Justin Britton (@Justin_Britton) May 13, 2021
Thursday’s crash was by no means an isolated incident and, over the years, there have been many incidents involving riders and race vehicles. Who can forget Jonny Hoogerland being turfed into barbed wire after being hit by a car during the 2011 Tour de France?
Three years later, Jesse Sergent and Sébastien Chavanel were hit by Shimano neutral service vehicles in two separate incidents at the 2014 Tour of Flanders.
Those are just two of the incidents that we have witnessed on the television, but there are many more that happen off our screens, such as Bob Jungels being felled by an ambulance (of all things) during the 2020 Tour de France or Bernard Eisel being hit by a team vehicle during the 2018 Tirreno-Adriatico.
Thankfully, the riders in these incidents avoided really serious injuries, and the crashes where the worst happens – such as the one at the 2016 Gent-Wevelgem where Antoine Demoitié was killed – are few and far between.
Impressed by all your messages of support. I’m feeling okay and was able to finish the stage today. Thank you to @GreenEDGEteam for the apologies 🤝. I’m happy to continue this @giroditalia with our strong #WolfPack! 💪 pic.twitter.com/fiG4HwhzgM
— Pieter Serry (@Pieter_Serry) May 13, 2021
How do you solve a problem like a rain jacket?
Some changes have been made, particularly in the wake of Demoitié’s tragic death, to race safety. In its recent rules update on April 1, the UCI issued new guidance on the circulation of vehicles within the race. It details how vehicles must remain at least five meters behind a rider and the speed at which they’re allowed to pass riders.
At the time it was moving up, the Team BikeExchange car was following the rules, but the situation changed dramatically – as so often can happen at a bike race – when Serry dropped off the back of the bunch.
EF Education-Nippo rider Alex Howes, who is not at the Giro and was watching the action on television, gave his view on the matter on social media. He said that it was another of the April 1 rules that had helped to create the situation.
“With the new rules, riders are no longer allowed to drop jackets for the team car to collect. Rider gave Com car a jacket and the bike exchange [sic] was collecting that jacket. Definitely a WTF situation but a product of the new UCI rules,” Howes wrote on social media.
With the new rules, riders are no longer allowed to drop jackets for the team car to collect. Rider gave Com car a jacket and the bike exchange was collecting that jacket. Definitely a WTF situation but a product of the new UCI rules.
— Alex Howes (@alex_howes) May 13, 2021
In other words, the new rules around dropping litter – whether it be a bidon, gel wrappers, or a piece of kit – is preventing riders from leaving rain jackets on the side of the road for teams to collect as they pass.
There is not always time to go all the way back to your car when the race is developing dramatically, as it did on stage 6. This has led to riders dropping it at their nearest convenience, which is generally the commissaire car immediately to the rear of the bunch.
To a certain extent, there is truth in what Howes said – and that is not to defer blame from an inattentive driver. However, the issue is not the rule itself or even the unintended consequence of it but the failure to recognize what might occur as a result of the updated rules and how to mitigate against it.
The laws of unintended consequence
The cycling bubble of riders and race caravan is a delicate ecosystem and, as with any ecosystem, one small change can have a ripple effect. If riders are being barred from dropping bits of their kit where they please – which I see no issue with – a system then needs to be put in place for how it can be dispatched with and subsequently retrieved if that is necessary.
Two vehicles should not be blocking the road like that at any time during a race, but particularly on a climb where riders slipping off the back should be expected. In reality, there should never be a situation where people are attempting to pass items between vehicles during a race.
Trying to maintain a level with another moving vehicle requires concentration that should be focused on the road ahead.
It is highly questionable if the BikeExchange car actually needed to collect its riders’ rain gear with about 11km to go. Had the rain started to fall again in that short distance, how many of the riders would have wasted time donning it?
In that situation, it should be left until the end of the stage to collect the kit. A small bit of extra admin for the team at the end of the day, but worth it to protect the safety of everyone within the race.
There are of course days where the weather will change without warning — one minute you’re bathing in the warmth of the sun and the next it feels as though you’ve fallen into a swimming pool, or have stepped into a freezer.
On days such as those, a static system of handing rain jackets between occupants of a car should be in place. If that’s not feasible then riders should either be expected to retain their additional layers for later use or teams should have spares.