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Commentary: Much ado about motos

Think the race motorcycle problem has an easy solution? Think again.

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Before we discuss the latest kerfuffle involving a race motorcycle hitting a pro cyclist, we need to settle on a name for this scandal. I’ve included a few political-themed options below:

The Sagan-Crasha Affair
Tinkoff-Pot Dome
Paulinhica Lewisnky
The Vueltaquiddick Incident

OK, those last four are pretty bad. Let’s just call it Motogate and move on.

For fans keeping score, Motogate now encompasses no less than four separate incidents from 2015 alone. A motorcycle hit Jakob Fuglsang during Stage 18 of the Tour de France. Greg Van Avermaet was bumped off his bike at Clásica San Sebastián. Tinkoff-Saxo’s Peter Sagan and Sergio Paulinho were knocked out of the Vuelta by motorcycles on separate days.

Does this represent an uptick in annual motorcycle vs. cyclist crashes? That’s a tough call. After a morning Internet binge, I have yet to find year-by-year metrics. The significance of this year’s incidents, however, is that the crashes altered each race’s outcome. Fuglsang had a decent chance to win the Tour stage. Van Avermaet’s attack could have been decisive. Sagan would have competed for the sprint, and Paulinho could have given stage winner Mikel Landa a run for his money.

For fans searching for a simple, knee-jerk answer to Motogate, I refer you to the Vuelta’s announcements from earlier Thursday. Vuelta organizers ordered all motorcycles to maintain a 10-meter gap between themselves and the riders. Management ordered all vehicles to prioritize rider safety over other objectives. And the organization says it will “assess the status of all drivers,” whatever that means.

Alas, like cycling’s other scandals, Motogate stems from a series of complex problems. The current structure of pro cycling requires motorcycles to exist in this delicate harmony with the cyclists. Preventing future crashes will likely require a more thorough strategy than the Vuelta’s Band-Aid.

As you may know, the typical race caravan is comprised of more than 100 cars and dozens of motorcycles. Motorcycles carry water bottles, neutral support wheels, photographers, time-gap trackers, referees, and TV cameras. Unlike the cars, which by and large drive behind the riders (car vs. cyclist crashes happen too, just ask Sylvain Chavanel or Johnny Hoogerland) these motorcycles are constantly whizzing ahead of the cyclists, driving between groups, and stopping on the side of the road.

The number of motorcycles is determined by the race budget. For example, the Tour de France pays for an army of water bottle motorcycles. And how can we forget the Amgen Tour of California’s charming back-of-the-bike TV updates from Steve Porino? Apparently, Steve’s fancy setup adds two “talent bikes” to the race’s fleet.

So here’s the tricky part. As he zips between riders, his driver must balance conflicting interests and conflicting orders while simultaneously navigating a chaotic environment of horn honks and rowdy spectators.

The TV motorcycle driver, for example, is connected via radio to the broadcast director, who barks out orders from the television trailer. The driver must remember to stop frequently at noteworthy landmarks along the route. Race management requires them to shoot things like chalets, museums, and the ever-present bike crop circles.

TV directors always want the drivers to get closer to the riders. They love those up-close images of the pedals spinning ‘round and ‘round, and of the chain tugging at a cassette. And the current crop of HD lens-stabilized cameras gets the clearest pictures when they are operated close to the riders.

This order to get closer always puts the driver at odds with the race referee. If you watch enough cycling, you’ve seen a motorcycle-mounted referee waving his arms at the camera.

Let’s tally the distractions: TV directors, shouting commissars, honking horns, rowdy fans, and bike crop circles. That’s a lot to process. In fact, that seems like a recipe for constant crashing.

“The director wants you to get closer, but the commissars want to make sure we’re not getting too close,” said veteran motorcycle driver Jason Jenkins. “We then have a crib sheet of all of these sites we need to film that day. Meanwhile you’re driving to a mountaintop finish, you’re driving through these huge crowds, just praying nobody runs into you. You’re balancing all of that stuff while still thinking about safety.”

Jenkins works full-time as a motorcycle driver at bike races, and his company, MediaMotos, only employs full-time drivers.

Here’s the next part of the problem. Not all of the motorcycle drivers at your typical pro bike race are full-time. Many are volunteers, part-time drivers, or local stunt drivers. They show up once a year to drive in the caravan, or they know someone within the race management who hooks them up with a gig. For all intents and purposes, it is a hobby.

Yes, they must obtain a driving license from the UCI, which requires a class, test, and fee to obtain a certificate. But anyone who works in a chaotic environment will tell you, the only way to learn is repetition.

The options for this type of repetition in pro cycling, however, are limited. A race’s TV production or neutral service provider subcontracts with drivers. ASO has its preferred subcontractors, as does Medalist Sports, RCS Sport and the other management companies.

And like all aspects of the professional cycling industry, the piece of the pie is too small to ensure that everyone is gainfully employed. Even Jenkins says that pro bike racing provides a fraction of his business. Triathlon, marathons, and gran fondos do the rest.

So let’s put this into a scenario we can all appreciate. You must navigate a foreign city’s clogged thoroughfare on a sightseeing trip during rush hour, while two bosses scream differing orders in your ears, and drunk people run alongside your motorcycle. You only get to do it three times a year. Every time you crash, someone gets hurt, and a loudmouth Russian calls for your head via Twitter. Care to sign up for that?

I know — stupid cycling and its complex problems. If only we could snap our fingers and make scandals like Motogate go away. When I asked Jenkins why we don’t just get rid of motorcycles, he had a surprising answer.

“It’s a challenge because everyone wants us there while simultaneously not wanting us there,” he said. “We’re there to try and assist the riders to get on TV and help their quest to get a contract. We’re there to promote the sponsors, to promote the region we’re traveling through and to promote the race. We really are part of the race.”