By Andrew Hood
Wednesday’s spectacular crashes on the sketchy Kemmelberg cobblestone descent in Ghent-Wevelgem had some critics suggesting the road is too dangerous to be part of the otherwise flat 220km route across western Flanders.
More than a dozen riders crashed in two harrowing descents off the narrow, twisting road. Among the victims in the spectacular, high-speed spills were American Tyler Farrar (Cofidis), who broke his kneecap, and Frenchman Jimmy Casper (Unibet.com), who suffered major cuts to his face and nose and was in hospital awaiting surgery.
But UCI officials said they had no intention of asking organizers to remove the Kemmelberg from the route for 2008. And most riders said Ghent-Wevelgem wouldn’t be the same without it.
“It’s a dangerous part of the race, sure, but everyone knows it’s there. Do we take the Aremberg out of Paris-Roubaix just because it’s dangerous?” said T-Mobile’s Roger Hammond, who finished second. “The Kemmelberg is part of Ghent-Wevelgem. If we took it out, it would lose its identity. What do we do, just have a race on highways?”
The Ghent route tackles the Kemmelberg climb twice in the final 60km, and the hill proved decisive Wednesday. The peloton split both times over the climb and allowed the leading breakaway riders to stay clear.
Water bottles popped out of cages as riders topped 70kph down the bumpy descent. Nervous riders hit their brakes by instinct and that proved fatal on the dry, but slick cobblestones.
Among others crashing were Luke Roberts (CSC), Wim De Vocht (Predictor-Lotto), Wilfried Cretskens (QuickStep-Innergetic), Matthew Haymen (Rabobank), Fabio Sacchi (Milram) and James Vanlandschoot (Landbouwkrediet-Tonissteiner). Cretskens injured his right arm, and while no fracture has been diagnosed he has been ruled out of Sunday’s Paris-Roubaix.
“It’s dangerous, but all races are dangerous these days. The level between the riders isn’t so great anymore, so everyone thinks they should be at the front,” said Oscar Freire (Rabobank), who sprinted to third. “We crash all week. It’s part of racing. You cannot remove all the dangers.”
Journalists swarmed UCI president Pat McQuaid and peppered him with questions about safety of the course. McQuaid defended the presence of such emblematic, if dangerous highlights as the Kemmelberg.
“You cannot sanitize a race. If there were an organizational problem or a clear safety hazard, then we would address that,” McQuaid said. “You want to make safe routes and avoid clear hazards, but at the same time, you don’t want to take out something like the Kemmelberg. That would change too much the character of these races.”
Hammond suggested that some riders ride too fast for their bike-handling abilities.
“It’s more of the irresponsibility of some of the riders who take too many risks,” said Hammond, who avoided the carnage by being away in a breakaway all day. “I haven’t seen all the replays, but you could see riders hitting the brakes. It’s fatal, but it’s a reaction. You cannot brake in a situation like that. You have to steer to avoid the crash.”