ALGERHO, Italy (VN) — What did a handful of former UCI WorldTour pros, race officials, photographers, and a few journalists have in common? They were all sitting in a UCI driver’s safety course on the eve of the 2017 Giro d’Italia.
Following a string of high-profile collisions between vehicles and racers, including a fatality with Antoine Demoitié in last year’s Gent-Wevelgem, the UCI is doing what it can to try to keep the roiling beast of a high-speed peloton, and its retinue of up to 100 vehicles that travel alongside it, as safe as possible.
Part of that effort is a push by the UCI to inform race convoy drivers of their responsibilities and obligations.
It’s a driver’s safety course unlike any other. So far through 11 programs in 2017, more than 350 people have taken part.
“Safety is important, and we had a bad year in Belgium. We cannot stress how important this is,” said UCI international commissaire Philippe Mariën. “The UCI is not here to tell you that you’re doing a bad job, but sometimes we need to look at ourselves in the eye to see if we are doing a good job. Now it’s a wake up call.”
Driver safety during a bike race used to be something that was largely taken for granted. A generation ago, the convoy was relatively small, and only a handful of motorcycles and team cars plied the roads alongside the peloton. Most of those drivers were ex-pros who knew the unique pacing of a bike race. They often went from race to race along the entire calendar.
That’s evolved over the past few decades, especially at larger international events, as more media, VIP, team support, and official vehicles are squeezed into the race convoy. Add modern-day traffic furniture, designed to slow down every-day traffic, and driving inside the race caravan requires unique skills and awareness.
Yet until recently, none of the convoy drivers needed any sort of special permit or instruction before jumping behind the wheel to chase the peloton.
That changed after 2011, when a VIP car clipped a leading breakaway in stage 9 at the Tour de France, knocking Juan Antonio Flecha to the ground, and hurling Johnny Hoogerland into a barbed-wire fence.
Following that high-profile incident, by 2013, the UCI required all Tour de France media to attend a driver safety class. The UCI soon expanded the safety course to include all drivers, except police, for any UCI-sanctioned event.
The class on the eve of the 2017 Giro lasted about one hour. It’s designed for the unique challenges, dangers, and rules of professional road racing.
Mariën and UCI road manager Vincent Jourdain headed up the session, and the general themes were awareness, anticipation, and respect.
“Almost all accidents [involving a rider and a vehicle] are caused by human error,” Mariën said. “It is important to ‘feel’ how the race is developing. Cycling is not a precise science. We must be able to react.”
The hour-long class involved a power-point presentation outlining the basics, with discussions about different scenarios that can unfold spontaneously during a race.
The course explained what vehicles are involved in a race convoy, and their respective roles and responsibilities. For an event as large as the Tour de France, it’s big.
A fleet of police motorcycles patrols the front and end of the convoy ensuring the roadway is clear for the race. A parade of cars and vehicles inside the convoy contain media, VIPs, photographers, TV cameras, two columns of sport director vehicles (two cars per team), a fleet of UCI and race official vehicles, neutral mechanical support, medical support, race radio and time-board vehicles, ambulances, and, last but not least, the broom wagon. There’s even a tow-truck to get broken down vehicles out of the way. In total, the convoy can top more than 100 motorcycles and cars for major races.
The race regulator, an in-race “traffic cop,” keeps this unwieldy convoy rolling along safely and efficiently. The regulator is on a motorcycle and allows vehicles to move up and down the convoy.
There are a few basic rules. First off, racers always have priority. The race regulator controls when vehicles can move up inside the caravan. This is key during breakaways or when echelons split the bunch. There is no overtaking the peloton in the final 2km of the race, or before or after (and certainly not during) feed zones, sprints, king of the mountains summits, or within congested urban areas. All vehicles must tune in to “Race Radio,” a live, real-time broadcast of events on the road and also the movement of vehicles.
In order to drive inside the convoy, drivers must have a valid UCI racing license from their respective cycling federations (which also includes insurance) and attend one of the safety courses, as well as drive with seatbelts, lights, and adhere to normal traffic rules and decorum.
For major races, like the Tour and the one-day classics, the UCI now requires two sport directors to handle the lead race car. This way, the driver is solely focused on driving. The other director can hand up water bottles, manage the race, and make calls over race radio.
There can be sanctions, including fines, loss of in-race driving privileges and, for the most serious errors, a permanent ban. Major events also started surprise DUI controls throughout the race.
Also, since 2016, the UCI tapped ex-pros Robbie Hunter and Thomas Rohregger as well as former Tour de France technical director Jean-François Pescheux to act as technical advisors on organizational and safety issues. Working with Jourdain, they travel to various events across the calendar. They identify potential shortcomings and ensure improvements are put in place before each race.
They helped the UCI produce a 38-page handbook outlining the rules and regulations released this year.
“Everyone ‘knows’ how to drive in a bike race, but it was never written down,” Jourdain said. “There were never any formal rules or protocol. That’s why we came up with a document. The goal is to have a universal standard. There are races all over the world, and each UCI race should have the same level.”
It’s almost impossible to prevent crashes and mishaps. In fact, just days after the course, an Italian police motorcycle caused a pileup in stage 9. This altered the GC outlook in the Giro d’Italia. It’s just those kinds of incidents that the UCI and race officials are hoping to diminish.