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It may have only been two-and-a-half weeks, but rider safety has been put under a glaring spotlight in the post-COVID pro racing season.
From super high-speed sprints to sketchy descents and on-course public cars, an otherwise-spectacular restart to racing has been blighted by horrific incidents leaving Deceuninck-Quick-Step pair Remco Evenepoel and Fabio Jakobsen seriously injured, and a swathe of Tour de France contenders injured with less than two weeks until the race rolls out of Nice.
For classics veteran Philippe Gilbert (Lotto-Soudal), the risks are all a part of the racing.
“I have already ridden more than 1,000 races in my career and there was perhaps one without a crash,” Gilbert said. “Unfortunately, it is part of it.”
The latest high-profile crash came this weekend at Il Lombardia, which saw Evenepoel pile into a wall on a perilous descent, toppling over the other side into a deep ravine. The youngster had been hot on the heels of the lead pack, driven by super-descender Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo).
“Putting pressure on other riders is part of the tactic of the race,” Gilbert told Sporza. “That descent in Lombardia is not the problem, but that it is at a decisive moment in the race. I myself once won in the descent, by putting the others under pressure. That is part of the tactics of the race.”
Gilbert, 38, has been racing this week at the Tour of Wallonie. Monday’s second stage saw riders competing over both deeply pitted roads and through typically cluttered narrow Belgian streets, where road furniture almost outnumbers riders at any one time.
Trying to avoid the put holes in the road during today’s stage @ the TRW = Mission impossible! pic.twitter.com/X7xjjQPj1W
— Iljo Keisse (@IljoKeisse) August 17, 2020
“It is of course the case that there are many more obstacles now than 15 years ago,” Gilbert said. “Sometimes you have a ride with as many as 200 roundabouts. If you want a safe sport, then you just have to race on a car circuit. On normal roads, it is very difficult to eliminate the risks. ”
The past few days have seen a wave of calls from within the peloton for greater safety measures, with Jumbo-Visma director Richard Plugge leading a call of no confidence in the UCI’s safety measures, the Critérium du Dauphiné peloton neutralizing a descent in protest, and riders at the Tour of Wallonie rounding on race organizers.
Note to ALL race organisers. We won't stand for it much longer! Downhill starts, dangerous circuits, crazy decents and your pathetic apologies afterwards. We want to RACE! Not dodge potholes, islands, road furniture. As a cyclist watching today, I felt sorry for the riders racing https://t.co/7IZaHqLNzo
— Daryl Impey (@darylimpey) August 17, 2020
However, with riders always looking to do whatever it takes to win in a real-world, unenclosed environment, Gilbert feels that for as long as there’s racing, there will be risk.
“Everyone is working on it, but it is difficult to improve it,” he said. “Fenders, nets … that’s all possible. Otherwise, you will ride two by two. The level has increased so much in recent years. In the past you could make a difference faster, now if you want to be ahead in a final you have to take risks .”
“I also take those risks when I get on a plane. Or drive a car or take the bus. If you don’t want to take risks, you stay at home. If you want to live, you take risks. That is part of life.”