Has road racing got a speed problem?

by Peter Cossins

Words by Peter Cossins | Photo by swpix.com

Held primarily on public roads that are increasingly affected by speed-calming measures, cycling is getting faster and faster and that surely spells trouble

When the 2019 Tour de France passed through our village, my mum and my two kids walked down to the main road to watch the race go past. They went primarily for the publicity caravan and came back laden with blue Krys bucket hats, handfuls of key rings and enough Leclerc shopping bags to see us through into the next century. Their attention had really been caught, though, by the speed with which the race flashed by, and particularly by the team cars. “There was fire coming off the speed bump as they went over it. They didn’t slow down at all,” my son told me.

The speed bump that you meet coming into our village when descending from the Col de Péguère is a little bit special. I view it as a small homage to the Mur de Péguère, the fearsomely steep ascent which climbs into our valley from the parallel one to the south. It only rises 30cm above the road, but does so very abruptly, just like the Mur. It’s one of those that you need to bunny-hop onto rather than hitting it front on. The speed bump will win that latter contest every time.

“Jonas [Vingegaard] had already warned us about that specific race and descent six months ago”

markus Laerum, CEO of Safe Cycling

Foix is probably less cluttered with road furniture than most French towns, but, like every other, its traffic policy is focused on reducing vehicle speeds and prioritising pedestrians and soft mobility – cycling’s is very much part of this, but road racing isn’t. When Visma-Lease a Bike team manager Richard Plugge appeared on the RadioCycling podcast before Christmas, he quipped that I was living in a county that’s filling its road with obstacles, and he’s right. And most European countries are exactly on the same path, including Plugge’s.

I started thinking about this article after watching the finale of Scheldeprijs a few days ago. It was a typical edition, fast almost throughout, windy in parts, and ultimately a bunch finish, won by Tom Merlier. Yet, as with many other recent bunch finishes, I found myself watching it between my fingers. This is partly down to the recent purchase of an UHD monitor at the request of my optician (Krys of course!), who counselled against working and watching on the far smaller screen on my laptop. It’s meant I’ve not only been able to pick out riders much more easily, but can also see the ripples and waves of movement through the peloton and the traffic-calming measures that are often the cause of them. I’ve repeatedly asked myself, should we be asking bike racers to perform at the level that we and they expect on roads that are increasingly designed to reduce speeds?

Thanks to bumps, narrowings, chicanes, islands, posts and pillars, racing in towns and cities is rapidly becoming a lottery when it comes to safety, particularly as average speeds creep up due to better aerodynamics, equipment, nutrition and other factors. At the same time, though, finishes in urban remain fundamental to the sport because they are where the sport finds a large section of its roadside audience, and this interaction is of course key to investment by the sport’s sponsors. Quite how the fundamental need to reach an audience and the elemental requirement to ensure rider safety plays out in the long term remains to be seen.

Twenty-four hours on from Scheldeprijs, the question of security on races came to the fore much more obviously on what appeared to be a pretty standard descent in the Itzulia Basque Country. Several riders went down on the same bend, including Tour de France favourites Jonas Vingegaard, Remco Evenepoel and Primož Roglič, all three forced to abandon the race, the former pair with injuries that will considerably complicate their preparations for the Tour. Following the stage, a number of riders said that there were ripples in the road surface on that bend that was due to tree root growth.

Basque Pello Bilbao was one of a number of riders who said that the descent was renowned for being in poor condition. It was subsequently revealed by Safe Cycling CEO Markus Laerum, whose company supplies safety signage to bike races, that he’d been told by Vingegaard that this descent was dangerous. “Jonas had already warned us about that specific race and descent six months ago,” Laerum told Sporza. “One of our discussion partners at the time was Jonas. He shared a lot of insights with us. About the general dangers of the race, but also about specific stages. And that’s where the Basque Country and this descent came up.”

Laerum went on to say that Safe Cycling had contacted Itzulia’s organisers about the descent, “but we never received an answer from them.” He suggested that this lack of communication is typical in these situations, but concluded: “It’s often difficult as an organisation to change your course, but you can tell your riders yourself and we can help by warning them, of course.”

If Itzulia’s organisers were aware of Laerum’s warning, their inaction is very concerning to say the least. The situation highlights the need for the SafeR road cycling project, the project aimed at improving race safety that is a collaboration of the riders, teams, organisers and the UCI. It’s due to be fully operational from next season, and its remit is sure to include a procedure that will better ensure that feedback like Laerum’s is acted on, as well as providing a means for riders to voice their own concerns about potential hazard points on race routes.

I suspect it will also examine broader ways though which racing can be made safer. In the wake of the Itzulia incident, riders proposed a variety of options, from making teams race on the same tyres, to the banning of earpieces (yet again!), imposing gearing limits and increasing the width of handlebars, which have narrowed considerably in the search of optimum aerodynamics.

I also suspect that organisers will welcome SafeR’s input. Much has been said and written recently about how safety standards need to be improved, with the Tour de France often held up as the exemplar of what can be achieved. Yet comparisons with the sport’s marquee event aren’t always useful. It’s by far the richest race on the calendar, one that can rely on the free supply of police and other emergency services, while it’s held on a 3,500km route that probably doesn’t feature a pothole of note. Among the many benefits that hosting a Tour stage brings, one key one for locals is that the roads on which it takes place are fixed up or even completely resurfaced before the race comes to town. In this realm, like so many others, the Tour is in a class of its own.

A huge injection of cash would be required to bring all of the WorldTour races up to that same level, an investment along the lines of that mooted by the proponents of the One Cycling project perhaps. If that doesn’t happen, cycling will continue to muddle by in much the same way it always has, albeit with SafeR providing what seems likely to be a very useful means of boosting security.

Ultimately, though, concerns about safety offer another indication that the sport needs to adapt. It takes place on public roads that can’t be redesigned in the same way that, say, a golf course can be in order to react to players hitting the ball greater distances. Cycling takes place on roads that are used 99.9% of the time by the general public and the sport has to make do with what it’s got. Going ever faster on roads designed for ever-slower speeds and that are cluttered with furniture is simply not viable.

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