Road

Commentary: Why horrific crashes will keep happening until there’s real change

Sprinting is inherently dangerous, but more can be done to mitigate risks.

Wednesday’s horrific scene at the end of the opening stage of the Tour of Poland is one that shouldn’t have happened, but one that will likely repeat itself until there is a fundamental change in safety conditions at races.

Crashes in sprints are inevitable. It’s a high-risk game. When riders come barreling to the line at 65kph or faster — riders reported Wednesday’s sprint hit 80kph — the margin for error is minuscule. Dylan Groenewegen is receiving the brunt of the blame for the crash that sent Fabio Jakobsen to the ICU, and rightly so. The Dutch sprinter was way too aggressive on shutting the door on his compatriot.

Yet the blame shouldn’t end there. A chain of events led to Wednesday’s tragic conclusion, and simply throwing Groenewegen under the bus won’t stop the same scene from replaying itself over and over. The way Jakobsen flew through the finish-line barriers and smashed into a pole reveals more troubling problems than one rider’s aggression.

The perfunctory line of press releases calling for “studies” and “investigations” have been issued, but riders have been sounding the alarm for years.

Talk to racers when the microphones are turned off, and they’ll tell you cycling is more dangerous than ever. The combination of race organizer’s push for more dynamic finales on roads more crowded with modern-day road furniture, coupled with inconsistent application of safety standards means that riders oftentimes feel like little more than cannon fodder. The peloton is faster than ever, and there’s more pressure to win at every race. It’s a vicious cycle that never seems to end.

Remember Peter Stetina and his crash at the 2014 Tour of the Basque Country? The former roadie struck a three-foot metal parking bollard that was left in the middle of the roadway, striking it at full speed in the closing kilometers. Stetina, who is now racing gravel bikes, was lucky he was able to resume racing.

Stetina’s unnecessary crash was an inflection point, and standards have improved, but Wednesday’s finish-line fiasco is proof that the decentralized, mobile nature of professional racing — when every race is its own entity and every stage is a new project — requires a stricter and more consistent application of safety measures.

While there have been improvements the past several years — for example, barriers with protruding leg stands are no longer allowed — it’s the inconsistent application of standards that sometimes lies at the root of the dangers.

Riders have long complained that the downhill approach used in Wednesday’s stage, traditionally one of the finales during the Poland tour, was too fast and narrow. Riders and teams have constantly warned that descending finishing sprints always raise the risk, yet several races finish with racers hitting speeds of more than 70kph after carrying speed off a descent. Any crash at that speed — quality barriers or not — will have consequences.

Yet there it was again. Riders have expressed their misgivings to teams, to the CPA rider’s group, to the race organizer, and to the UCI, and nothing changed.

It’s hard to say if there is a systemic problem at the Poland tour. Everything was assembled Wednesday to meet the existing WorldTour standards, but it was obvious something went terribly wrong for Jakobsen to fly through the finish-line barriers. So far, it seems everyone simply wants to blame Groenewegen.

A comparable crash involving Mark Cavendish and Peter Sagan during the 2017 Tour de France saw the British rider similarly impact against finish-line barriers. It’s likely Cavendish wasn’t moving as fast, but it was clear the barriers appeared more fortified. It was an advertising banner protruding from the fencing — which are still being used — that provoked Cavendish to crash so nastily.

There is a litany of other issues that riders consistently raise, which many say fall on deaf ears.

For example, riders have grumbled that the UCI race jury needs to take a firmer hand at handing down sanctions for dangerous sprinting. With pressure to win, riders take risks. Part of the jury’s job is to tamp things down.

Closing down a rival in a sprint is an old trick, and it’s clearly against the rules. Once a sprint opens up, rules clearly state that a rider must maintain their line. Yet riders deviate from their line again and again, and it’s only in the most extreme cases does the jury typically stir. Sprinters know if they can get away with some well-placed elbows and aggressive sprinting, and not get called out for it, they will keep doing it. Some have even suggested creating a sort of “blue zone” similar to track racing along the edge of the barriers, and that any rider who tries to pass outside a sprint too close to the barriers would also be sanctioned.

Sprinting is inherently dangerous, and no matter how wide the road or how safe the barriers might be, riders will inevitably crash.

Everyone agrees what Groenewegen did was wrong and dangerous. The aftermath is what could have had a very different ending. What needs to be absolutely assured is that race conditions are as safe as they can be if something goes wrong.

The missing link seems to the riders themselves. They’re the ones taking the ultimate risk, but many will say that their voice is the last to be considered.

Riders were already muttering Thursday morning that despite the gravity of what happened in stage 1, things probably will stay the same. At least until the next horrific crash.