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Giro d'Italia

Giro d’Italia: Bumps and shunts part of life in the convoy, but safety for all remains major concern

Incident between Team BikeExchange and Pieter Serry this week highlights how safety is the responsibility of everyone working on a race.

Throughout the 2021 Giro d’Italia we will be running columns from La Course En Tête.  

Until about a decade or so ago, I used to drive a press car in the convoy during major races — that is in among the team cars, TV motorbikes, guest cars, and yes, the bike riders. The peak of this experience would be a stage of the Tour de France, when the intensity of ebb and flow, back and forth, of vehicles, motorbikes and riders, was nerve-racking.

There were often several other press cars in there — jostling with the VIPs, the TV motos, the team cars and the commissaires. It was sometimes terrifying and mostly unnecessary. I wasn’t filming, just observing. It never really added that much more insight, beyond reinforcing how brutal and dangerous professional road racing is.

The last time I drove a Tour stage ‘in’ the race, my passenger ended up crouched in the footwell, quivering, after a high-speed downhill slalom through a pretty village somewhere in the Auvergne, induced a near panic attack. The next day I decided that maybe I’d had enough of the stress too.

Besides, I felt that driving ‘in-race’ was getting increasingly dangerous and that there had been enough near-misses. My presence, no matter how good a driver, was just taking up more space. I’d learned an important lesson. When you’re alongside another car, close enough to the driver to chat about what they had for dinner last night or to read the screen on their phone, you’re probably too close.

A couple of years later, came the infamous and shocking Johnny Hoogerland incident, in which a French television media car sent the Dutchman flying through a barbed wire fence, after it misjudged the gap between the breakaway and a gnarled tree.

Thankfully, things are different now. There are far stricter controls on who drives in the convoy and how skilled they are. Luckily most of those who drive in professional bike races are ex-pros who are skilled drivers, operating in a high-pressure environment and under intense scrutiny, much as they did as a professional rider.

When, in full view of live TV cameras, Team BikeExchange sports director Gene Bates shunted Pieter Serry’s back wheel towards the end of stage six of the Giro d’Italia, as he pulled alongside a commissaire’s car to collect clothing, it was a silly accident caused by a moment’s inattention. Serry, who landed hard on the tarmac, was understandably furious, but managed to finish the stage.

Bates however will not see Milan. The UCI threw him off the race, while also fining his passenger, fellow sports director and former pro, Matt White, two thousand Swiss francs. There was an outraged reaction to the shunt from social media and some pundits, but really, was it an overreaction to a banal accident, one of a kind that is much more common in the convoy than some would like to admit?

“Of course we were sorry,” White told La Course En Tete on Friday. “It was totally an accident and Gene spent 20 minutes apologizing to Peter Serry after the stage. There’s no bad blood with Deceuninck-Quick-Step. They understood it was an accident. We admitted that and understood it was worth a sanction, but not that it was bad enough for Gene to be thrown off the race.”

Serry later thanked Team BikeExchange for their apologies, while White added that Team BikeExchange had protested against Bates’ expulsion. “The UCI’s head commissaire listened to our arguments and went back to ask, but was told by a higher power that the decision to ban Gene stood.”

“The irony is that it was the commissaires that called us up there in the first place,” White said. “They told us they had some rain jackets for us to collect – that was at the bottom of the last climb. We didn’t need them then, we’d have happily waited to pick up the jackets until after the stage.”

But White also argued that responsibility for improving safety, across the board, applied to all those working on the race.

“Twenty-four hours before, a Qhubeka-Assos car totaled a Team DSM car, but that wasn’t even mentioned in a communique and the car’s a write-off. Isn’t safety in the convoy about all of us? Look at the stage finish to Cattolica (in which Mikel Landa was among those who crashed). Who got sanctioned for that?”

“We have now lost a DS for the whole Giro,” White said. “The most hypocritical part of it by the UCI is that they wouldn’t reduce it to a five-day ban so he could come back on the race later on, but they did say he could go and work on the Tour of Hungary. So it’s not a ban from UCI races, it’s just a ban from the Giro.”

Now, the Australian argued, a precedent has been set. “We asked them what the race ban was based on and they mentioned an incident with a driver of an ambulance a couple of years back, but that’s a different situation to a team car working in the convoy.”

In fact, over the years there have been numerous incidents of riders being clipped by, or colliding with, in-race vehicles, from Hoogerland’s crash, Peter Sagan at the Vuelta, Julian Alaphilippe’s tangle with a moto during last year’s Tour of Flanders, Bob Jungels being sideswiped by an ambulance in last year’s Tour de France and so on — once you start totting them all up, it’s a very long list.

For Team BikeExchange, racing on many fronts and running a women’s team, it’s a member of staff that they can ill-afford to lose during the second biggest stage race of the season. “We will manage,” White said of the loss of Bates. “You can do it with one less DS. We’ll still get the work done but it’s not ideal.”

“What we do is dangerous,” White added. “Bike racing is inherently dangerous, but the vast majority of drivers in team cars are experienced and very careful and are ex-bike riders themselves.”

Experienced enough to wait until the finish to collect discarded rain jackets, rather than collect them during the finale of a rain-soaked mountain stage, as White says the UCI commissaire directed.