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TEL-AVIV, Israel (VN) — When Jakob Fuglsang turned pro 13 years ago, there was a clear pecking order in the peloton.
When a big name pedaled through or if there was a dangerous section of a course coming up, riders eased up, gave way, and raced with a more structured protocol.
Flash forward to 2021, and Fuglsang said all that’s evaporated.
As the 35-year-old heads into a new season with a high-profile transfer to Israel Start-Up Nation, Fuglsang said the peloton today is nothing like what he entered the WorldTour in 2009.
“I think there is less respect in the peloton,” Fuglsang told VeloNews. “It’s not something I think; it’s true. People race closer, they use their brakes less because they want to be there. Every little gap gets used, and everybody wants to be in the front.”
Professional racing always has been a dangerous game that requires nerves of steel and world-class skills, yet Fuglsang said something else is amiss.
The writhing, twisting peloton can be unrelenting, but Fuglsang said today’s peloton doesn’t have that same sense of respect and or built-in pecking order in the bunch as when he switched full-time to road racing from mountain biking.
It’s a combination of factors — higher salaries, more pressure to perform, and faster speeds — that all add up to an ever more dangerous house of cards built on pavement.
For Fuglsang, it all comes down to respect inside the bunch.
“I’ve seen a lot of changes in my years in the peloton, but the biggest one is a lack of respect between the riders,” said Fuglsang, without pointing any fingers. “You cannot leave one meter distance because you want to be safe because someone will drop into that hole.”
Fuglsang said that the growing lack of mutual and professional respect is leading to an ever-increasing rash of nasty and dangerous crashes.
Riders are simply unwilling to give way or race even a bit prudently for fear of missing out or to be perceived as not being able to keep up.
Some riders have left the sport citing ever higher speeds and creeping danger. Tony Martin, the veteran German team captain, said he retired this year perhaps earlier than he could have simply because it was getting too intense and too dangerous in the bunch.
Others point to pressure piled on by teams and sponsors, and an ever-younger peloton where riders are turning pro in their late teens, an age that most young pros feel invincible.
“We can talk safety measures, barriers, and other things, but we as riders we have the biggest responsibility for the safety,” Fuglsang said during a break at a pre-season camp with Israel Start-Up Nation. “There are more of these dangerous crashes, and we need to say, OK, we don’t want it to be like that.”
‘Motorbikes are able to decide a lot of races’
Fuglsang didn’t stop there.
He also pointed out how riders use TV motorcycles, sometimes with more subtlety than others, to gain an advantage.
The logic is simple: when the lumbering motorcycles roar past or hover at the front of the bunch to beam live images, riders naturally seek shelter from the wind or even pace off the bikes.
“They are able to decide a lot of races or if a breakaway stays away or not,” Fuglsang said of riders trailing after the motorcycle. “They can have a huge impact on a race.”
Fuglsang said it’s another sign of a lack of respect that many believe is rife within the peloton.
“There could be a rule or a mutual agreement that you don’t chase the motorbike,” Fuglsang said. “It has to be a gentleman’s agreement and respect between the riders. I do not think you can have yellow and red cards. You can also say to the motorbike you cannot be closer than 25m, but they want their images for the TV cameras.”
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Fuglsang suggested there could be a rule against trailing after the motorcycles, but said enforcement at the UCI level would get messy.
Yet he added that the apprehension that some rider somewhere is chasing after the motorbikes only leads to more people doing it when they can.
“You can make a rule that the motorbike can be on the left side of the road and you stay on the right,” he said. “If the bunch will chase the motorbike from one side to the other, and we go like a snake over the road.
“It’s up to us riders,” he said. “If you knew the breakaway would not do the same thing, you think OK, but if you have in mind the breakaway is using the motorbikes, we also have to use the motos.
“It’s not that I think they do it on purpose,” Fuglsang said when asked if certain riders see an advantage from home-race TV crews. “It’s just how it is. If there was an agreement if the motorbikes were there just to do the TV images and not to profit from it, maybe …”