French railway seeks legal action against Roubaix riders

Riders at the front of the race quickly passed through a closing gate at a railroad crossing before a train whizzed by

PARIS (AFP) — The French state railway company on Monday demanded police action against “irresponsible” Paris-Roubaix riders who breached a safety barrier seconds before a high-speed train hurtled by.

The SNCF company made an official complaint to French prosecutors, saying the action in Sunday’s prestigious race had risked a deadly tragedy.

The last of the riders went through the barrier in northern France about eight seconds before the TGV train arrived at the Waller crossing, 87 kilometers from the end of the race dubbed “Hell of the North.”

One rider from Lotto-Soudal was clipped by a barrier as it came down.

John Degenkolb (Giant-Alpecin), winner of the race made famous for its 27 sections of bone-jarring cobbled roads, was among the group of riders who went through the barrier as it closed. Race organizers said it had not been possible for the leaders to stop in time.

“Several riders deliberately, and against all safety rules, crossed a closed safety barrier,” reads a SNCF statement announcing the complaint to French prosecutors.

“Millions of television viewers saw live this extremely grave and irresponsible action which could have been tragic.

“A few seconds later, a TGV ran on this line and could have hit the peloton.”

When the last rider had gone through the crossing, a police motorcycle was in place to stop more riders from going through.

Normally, riders who go through a closed safety crossing are disqualified. But Guy Dobbelaere, president of the jury of race commissioners, defended the action of the riders on Sunday.

“It wasn’t possible for the leading riders to stop sufficiently safely,” Dobbelaere said.

“The peloton was 10 meters away when the barrier started to close.”

Race director Thierry Gouvenou added: “By neutralizing the race for a few moments to not penalize those who stopped, we respected the spirit of the rule.

“In theory, those who pass when the barrier is down are thrown out of the race.

“This time, that would have been unjust in respect of those riders who weren’t identified.”

Christian Prudhomme, the director of both Paris-Roubaix and the Tour de France, seemed to side with the SNCF over the incident, suggesting the riders should have stopped.

“The SNCF are doing their job, their reaction is legitimate,” said the head of the ASO organization that runs many of the biggest races in cycling.

“We will try to make the riders more sensitive to this subject. There were three policemen and a gendarme [at the barriers] but several riders didn’t yield to the gendarme’s signal [to stop].”

Farther down the road, race officials slowed the leading riders so that those held up by the barrier could catch up.

The UCI, cycling’s world governing body, released a statement saying safety must remain paramount.

“Following two extremely worrying incidents that occurred over the past week during the Vuelta Ciclista al Pais Vasco (Tour of the Basque Country) and Paris-Roubaix, the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) would like to reiterate that safety should at all times be the No.1 priority of all those involved in a cycling race,” the statement reads.

“The UCI is taking both incidents very seriously and has requested that a comprehensive report on each of them be submitted as soon as possible for review and potential action. It is everyone’s duty to make sure that our beautiful sport of cycling is not tarnished by incidents that appear to have been avoidable.”

In 2006, three riders were disqualified for going through a closed railway crossing.

The three — Leif Hoste and Peter van Petegem of Belgium and Russian Vladimir Guseve — were less than 10km from the finish.