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Analysis: Banning bottle toss could cause safety issues in trash zones

Race organizer Flanders Classics is considering restricting entry to litter zones if they become unsafe as fans try to get bottles from riders.

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All actions, even those done with the best of intentions, can have unintended consequences.

The UCI introduced controversial new rules April 1 preventing riders from throwing bottles during races unless they’re in a designated “litter” zone or passing them to a team member. The governing body insists the rule is as much a safety measure as an environmental one, to ensure that nobody is injured by a wayward bottle toss and to prevent stray bidons from skittling into rider’s wheels.

However, the UCI’s new regulations could move the problem elsewhere as fans hunt out these so-called “litter” areas to pick up a bottle.

As a result, at least one organizer is considering closing the zones to prevent a dangerous situation as fans congregate in the hope of collecting a souvenir from their day out.

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“We’ve been discussing that in future we’ll have to close off the litter zones because they might create an unsafe environment,” Tomas Van Den Spiegel, CEO of Flanders Classics, which organizes the Tour of Flanders, told VeloNews. “There is a lot of nervousness around feed zones and litter zones, and this is something we are looking into.

“I saw during Scheldeprijs a social media post from a parent who lived by a litter zone and they had the dishwasher full of bottles, from every team. They said they were lucky to live by a litter zone because every kid wants these bottles.”

Though it was implemented with the admirable goal of reducing the amount of garbage left in the wake of a bike race, the UCI’s rule on tossing water bottles has proved contentious. Two weeks in, it was forced to amend the punishments for rule-breakers in the wake of an uproar following the disqualification of Michael Schär and Letizia Borghesi at the men’s and women’s Tour of Flanders.

Despite the wave of backlash, the UCI has stood firm in its decision to maintain an almost outright ban of tossing bottles. Outside of dropping one in a “litter” zone or passing it to a team member, riders can only discard a bottle if they directly pass it to someone on the side of the road – not an entirely practical option if you’re eyeballs out at the end of a race.

After he was thrown out of the Tour of Flanders, Schär published a heartfelt post on social media about what it had meant to him to receive a bottle from a rider at the 1997 Tour de France. Several other professional riders also shared their experiences and called for a more sympathetic approach. A native of the cycling mad Flanders region, this is something that Van Den Spiegel can empathize with.

“Bidons are more than just a bottle; they are trophies for fans. They are part of cycling and they have been part of cycling forever,” Van Den Spiegel said.

“Even myself as a kid, I was hoping for guys … they weren’t throwing them probably but losing them because it was low-level racing, but I remember that I got some bidons. They’re part of the popular culture in cycling and this Schär incident has created a platform that leaves room for discussion.”

Also read: Race juries disqualify two riders for banned riding positions

Despite the UCI amending its punishments, riders’ group the CPA is still unhappy with the overall rule and has said it will challenge it. Van Den Spiegel agrees that something needs to be done to tackle environmental concerns but not at the expense of a unique part of the sport.

“I think, we need to be in favor of anything that promotes sustainability. I think the litter zones are a very good idea,” he said. “I can understand that if you’re on a road in the Tour de France where there are almost no fans and there’s no one living there, and bottles end up in nature. This is pure littering.

“At Flanders, every bottle that gets thrown away gets a new owner or at least 90 percent. We need to discuss it a little bit and look into how we can organize this in a safe way, so we don’t lose this unique part that makes cycling more attractive.”