Dangerous road ahead

by Sadhbh O'Shea

The joy of a cycling season in full swing with thrilling, dramatic racing, has been tempered in recent weeks by a series of crashes that have been caused, or exacerbated, by poor course design and management.

The incidents raise questions about race organisers’ responsibility to protect riders, the UCI’s management of that and just how effective the riders’ union is. 

Let’s be frank, crashing and injuries are a part of bike racing. A touch of wheels, pushing it too hard on a descent, a mechanical or a momentary loss of attention can be enough to result in a visit to the tarmac. For the most part, these crashes can’t be helped but there are those that should never happen. 

It is only a couple of weeks since fans gasped in horror at the sight of Fabio Jakobsen smashing through a set of barriers. Since then we have seen a Steven Kruijswijk and others felled by a dodgy road surface, Max Schachmann taken out by a car on course and Remco Evenepoel pitched into a ravine on a notorious descent. There are recent examples but there have been many more instances over the years and the atrocious route design at the Tour de Wallonie shows that this will continue if something is not done. 

Dylan Groenewegen must take responsibility for causing Jakobsen’s crash, and he will be rightly punished for that, but his move was no more serious than we’ve seen other top sprinters do. The resulting impact of the crash was made so much worse by a downhill finish, which has been repeatedly complained about, and barriers that were not up to scratch. Riders were hurtling down the road at speeds we wouldn’t ordinarily see outside of a mountain descent and the barriers were not constructed in a way that could withstand the impact, leaving Jakobson to whatever was behind them. 

Tom Dumoulin did not mince his words following the penultimate stage of the Criterium du Dauphine. “It was a disgrace that descent was in a race,” he said of the Col de Plan Bois, where his teammate Kruijswijk crashed. Meanwhile, Andre Greipel said it was “disrespectful” to include the descent, which was packed with gravel and potholes. 

On the face of it, Evenepoel’s crash at Il Lombardia was a simple rider error but the result once again demonstrates a lack of foresight and concern about rider safety. The descent of the Sormano has gained notoriety, particularly since 2017 when several riders crashed over the roadside barriers. The bridge where Evenepoel came unstuck should have been identified as a danger point well ahead of the race and duly protected with netting or something else. Could you imagine a downhill skiing competition without some measures in place in case a competitor gets it wrong? Mistakes will happen and they must be mitigated against. 

I still shudder to think what could have happened, as I do with Schachmann’s crash. A car on course is unacceptable at any race, never mind in one of cycling’s five monuments. Race routes are difficult to man thanks to the often hundreds of adjoining roads, tracks but this was within the finishing town just moments after the race winner had crossed the line. There is no excuse.  

The Schachmann issue aside, the other three incidents show race organisers in the search of grit and drama over the safety of riders. It shows them putting their race before those that compete in it. It shows a lack of risk assessment and counter measures to relieve those risks. Anyone who has filled one out knows that completing a risk assessment is a pain, but they are there for our safety and organisers do not appear to be taking anything like this into account when creating race routes. 

Rightly, the UCI has been quick to set up an investigation into how a car entered the course at Il Lombardia but it has been less forceful when it comes to incidents of poor course design and bad health and safety measures. It largely abdicates any sort of responsibility on this matter, putting the emphasis on the organiser to take whichever measures it wishes. This often means there is a disparity between the safety measures taken in each event. It relies on common sense rather than a set of rules that can be applied equally across all races. 

What these events have also revealed is a riders’ union that lacks teeth and does not appear to represent those it is supposed to protect. The protest on the final stage of the Criterium du Dauphine is a good, though small, step but so often the CPA seems be reactive rather than proactive when it comes issues. Rather than open letters, it needs to be at the door of the UCI and race organisers demanding the safety of the riders is unflinchingly protected. It needs to develop a proper relationship with riders, seeking out their concerns rather than waiting for them to be brought to them. Jumbo-Visma manager Richard Plugge said after the Dauphine that he has “no confidence” in the UCI’s measures and it’s likely that he’s not the only one. 

We all love thrilling and dramatic racing, but it cannot be at the expense of riders. It must not be forgotten that riders are people, they are brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, husbands and wives. Without their sacrifices we do not have the sport that we love, and they should not be taken for granted. Riders need to stand up for themselves because, so far, the organisations that should be protecting them are failing in their duty.  

(Photo: ilario Biondi/LB/RB/CorVos/SWpix.com)

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