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Is the Tour de France more dangerous than in the past?

Felix Lowe
8 Jul 2016

Is the Tour de France more dangerous than in the past? And can it be made safer without detracting from the spectacle?

The grim aftermath of the high-speed crash was captured on the GoPro of a team mechanic. It wasn’t merely the sight of dazed riders writhing in pain alongside a heap of twisted carbon that made the scene so grotesque. It was the sounds of their moaning amid a confused medley of shouts, car horns and the helicopters overhead. That and the smell of burning rubber, apparently. 

Caused when Frenchman William Bonnet touched a wheel in a peloton rampaging along at high speed, the bomb blast of a crash that marred Stage 3 of last year’s Tour de France was so severe that the commissaires took the rare step of neutralising the race. A wise move, given that the Tour’s four ambulances and two medical cars were all tending to the injured. 

Suffering from a ‘hangman’s fracture’ of the neck and wounds all over his body, the bloodied Bonnet was one of six riders to abandon that day, alongside the maillot jaune Fabian Cancellara, who had fractured his spine. Three days later Tony Martin – also in yellow – shattered his collarbone. It was the first time in history that two yellow jerseys had abandoned the same Tour, let alone its opening week.

Commentators talked of the ‘Tour de Carnage’ after 12 riders had withdrawn by Stage 7. But although almost 20% of the peloton didn’t make it to Paris, there have been fewer withdrawals per year in the past five Tours than the average since the turn of the century, and going into stage seven of the 2016 we are yet to witness a single abandon - a Tour record. If pro cycling is getting more perilous, it isn’t necessarily borne out by the figures.

Treacherous tactics

‘The Tour is not more dangerous than in the past,’ race director Christian Prudhomme assures Cyclist, stressing last year’s yellow knockout was an ‘unfortunate coincidence’. Prudhomme blames ‘race tactics and the way teams ride together in the peloton. All the riders of one team now gather around their leader and fight to be on the front of the pack. Images from above show four or five teams occupying the first 30-odd places. If you’re stuck behind, in the words of Marc Madiot [Bonnet’s manager at FDJ], “You’re in the drum of the washing machine.” You have to roll with the punches.’

Cycling has never been more professional. Technological advances, intensive training and the culture of marginal gains have levelled the playing field to the extent that, according to Eurosport commentator Carlton Kirby, ‘there’s a greater number of riders capable of going much, much further. Every team has at least one potential Grand Tour winner in their ranks and all the riders protect this man in a phalanx.’

Throw in the dirty laundry of the sprint trains – a phenomenon that only really started in the late 1980s – and you start to get an idea of that washing machine. 

Radio gaga

Cycling legend Sean Kelly, who voices the major races for Eurosport alongside Kirby and Rob Hatch, attributes much of the nervousness to eager directeurs sportif barking orders down the radio. ‘They’re shouting in the earpieces all the time. It drives the riders crazy – and they’re going to take more risks to be on the front.’

Radios have long been a cornerstone of the safety debate, with arguments for and against. In 2011 Jens Voigt wrote an impassioned defence of radios while sniping at those who called for them to be banned to encourage spontaneity, while in 2015 Bauke Mollema described how radios caused riders ‘undue stress’ and insisted racing would be safer without them. 

Such contrasting views show how polarised the safety debate is from within the peloton. This is nothing new. It was the riders (on the grounds of potential heat-stroke) who protested when officials tried to make helmets mandatory in the early 1990s. It wasn’t the death of Fabio Casartelli in 1995 that saw the rules change, but that of Andrey Kivilev a whole eight years later.

The UCI had long flirted with a radio ban in WorldTour races before backing down in 2015. Yet radios aren’t the only technological issue to divide opinions and elicit open letters (and open wounds) in the peloton – just ask Fran Ventoso.

Disc inferno

When Spanish veteran Ventoso sliced his leg open during April’s Paris-Roubaix he blamed the disc brakes being trialled by two teams. While the UCI can be applauded for acting swiftly to suspend the use of discs, you could ask why no one thought to demand a protective cover in the first place. 

Many pros, including Chris Froome, believe it should be ‘all or nothing’ when it comes to the use of discs in races, and he’s not alone. ‘Do we really need them in the peloton?’ Hatch mused on a post-Roubaix episode of the Cycling Podcast. ‘Not if half the guys are braking quicker and with more power and half are not.’

Since the suspension many have questioned whether Ventoso’s injuries were even caused by rotors. The UCI later announced that the trial would be reinstated in June after necessary modifications were made – including rounded rotor edges. Prudhomme remains unconvinced, admitting to Cyclist that ASO, which organises the Tour de France, ‘does not necessarily see their use favourably. Given the need to constantly improve race safety, adding another element of insecurity seems inadequate.’ 

Collision course

Prudhomme’s desire to reinstate the ban is understandable given the volume of high-speed crashes that pepper his blue-riband race. And yet ASO and other organisers must take some responsibility when it comes to course selection, which at times in recent years has seemed driven by the desire for spectacle over safety. ‘Routes have changed since my time and that increases the risk,’ says Kelly. ‘Sometimes the route the organisers choose – especially in the early part of the race – makes good TV, but they’re increasing the danger. Some of the finishes in town centres are flipping dangerous.’

Modern roads abound with roundabouts and street furniture such as speed bumps and central reservations, and it’s rare to watch a stage of the Tour without seeing riders bunny-hopping kerbs and traffic islands or, in the case of Damiano Caruso last year, ploughing into barriers covered by a hay bale. It’s for these reasons that the Tour employs countless stewards with hi-vis vests, whistles and flags.

One of the main tools to deal with the myriad challenges of holding a race on public roads is, of course, the very motorbikes that have made headlines this spring for all the wrong reasons. When young Belgian rider Antoine Demoitié was killed following a collision with a race ‘moto’ at the Gent-Wevelgem classic in April, the general consensus was that this was an accident waiting to happen. Even when the experienced driver in question was entirely exonerated of blame by Demoitié’s Wanty-Groupe Gobert team, the UCI was lambasted for not having acted sooner.

Moto mayhem 

The past six years has seen 10 collisions in pro races between riders and motorbikes and six incidents involving cars. The Tour alone has witnessed eye-catching but entirely avoidable incidents involving Johnny Hoogerland being catapulted into a barbed wire fence and Jakob Fuglsang, floored by a motorbike on the Col du Glandon last July.

Prudhomme is quick to defend the Tour’s safety standards, claiming ‘almost all of our car and motorcycle drivers are former riders, policemen or gendarmes with experience of driving beside the peloton’. All moto pilots undergo courses at an ASO-approved training centre and must prove themselves in smaller races before being allowed on the Tour. 

But that doesn’t deny the fact that Demoitié’s death was the tragedy cycling had been bracing itself for. Kelly notes the number of motorbikes has increased ‘tenfold from my time 30 years ago – and I got knocked off myself a few times’. 

The problem, according to the man who shares the mic with Kelly during the Tour, is the ‘yee-hah mentality’ displayed by pilots who ‘start to think they’re in the race’. Kirby – both a motorcyclist and bike rider himself – frequently calls out the drivers on TV and says he took no pleasure in seeing his concerns vindicated. 

Traffic marshals and police escorts are clearly needed to ensure rider safety on races, but throw in support and organisational vehicles, team and medical cars, the numerous TV, press and VIP vehicles, and you start to appreciate the organised chaos of a bike race – and that’s before you take the anarchy of the peloton into account. Add to this combustable mix the unpredictable nature of fans, variables such as the weather, plus the increasingly aggressive racing, and it makes you wonder how the fatality count is not higher. 

Such was his concern that Jim Ochowicz, the general manager of BMC, wrote two open letters to the UCI shortly before Demoitié was killed following collisions involving his own riders. ‘I wasn’t even thinking that something as catastrophic as Demoitié’s death could happen,’ he tells Cyclist. ‘It was more along the lines of riders losing their chances to compete and perform without external interference.’ 

Mark McNally, a British cyclist at Wanty, says he hasn’t seen ‘any dramatic change’ since his teammate’s death. Like most people, the 26-year-old from Lancashire has called on the UCI to introduce stricter sanctions, a more rigorous training process, and maximum speed and minimum passing distance guidelines. ‘We, the riders, are the only ones with any sort of disciplinary system. I think that needs to change.’


Cycling’s Catch-22

The sad thing is that most motorcyclists perform a vital function in races. ‘Ironically, a lot of them are there for safety – it’s not as if they’re just having a jolly,’ stresses Richard Moore, anchorman of the Cycling Podcast. The paradox of coming down on the race entourage – particularly the media motorbikes that rile fans watching on TV – is that they’re a by-product of cycling’s modern era and the demand for instant gratification, which increases pressure on media outlets to release footage and images quickly. 

‘Years ago the race didn’t happen until the end but nowadays the racing’s on right from the start and the photographers and TV crews are trying to get up close and into the peloton,’ says Hatch. ‘And the reason why the parcours have changed so much is that no one wants to watch a six-hour flat stage. So they’ll put a climb in early and people have to take those risks.’

With Tour stages and Classics now broadcast in full, more motorbikes are involved and for longer periods of time. Hatch is adamant that the media has to take some responsibility – even if the riders are complicit. ‘Which cog do you take out of the machine, though? Take away TV and the sponsors lose out, and suddenly the riders start to earn less money.’ 

Striking a balance

Racing each day from kilometre zero is alien to cycling’s old guard. ‘There’s no way in the first week, when a race is already nervous, that it would be allowed,’ says Kelly. ‘If you’d had that in Bernard Hinault’s time there would have been a strike.’ The retiring ‘Commissaire Cancellara’ is the last rider with realistic patron credentials in today’s peloton. In his time the Swiss has presided over many a go-slow, and if the era of sit-down strikes seems archaic, riders have  renewed means to reassert their authority.

‘The Extreme Weather Protocol and rider safety are new battlegrounds for the riders, who have not had a voice for so long,’ says Moore. This year’s introduction of the UCI’s Extreme Weather Protocol was seen as a victory for riders’ associations such as the CPA, yet critics still see it as a vague means of codifying common sense. Its implementation in Paris-Nice (too late) and Tirreno-Adriatico (too early) also emphasised – again – just how far the peloton was from being a homogenous unit when it came to safety. 

When Vincenzo Nibali complained that the cancellation of Tirreno’s queen stage had denied him a chance of a victory, Ireland’s Matt Brammeier labelled him a ‘narrow-minded, selfish moron’ in what Moore deemed a ‘slightly unpleasant’ public hounding of the Italian. In an era where cold-weather clothing has never been better, the unsavoury spat was a reminder of what the sport could lose if overly sanitised.

For fans and many riders, hardship is part of the appeal. Andy Hampsten, whose 1988 Giro victory was secured on the snow-clad Gavia Pass, has called for a balance between caution and challenge. Or, as McNally puts it, ‘I understand we could race in minus temperatures and snow, but then everyone gets sick. We’re not just racing once a year. I’ve done 37 race days and we’re only a third of the way through the season. We need to look after ourselves.’

Complex solutions

Following Demoitié’s death, UCI president Brian Cookson wrote movingly about the sport’s loss while outlining the different safety challenges facing modern cycling. His assertion that ‘complex problems require complex solutions’ and call for patience during the full investigation were derided by many, but not all. ‘It would have been wrong for the UCI to have reacted in a knee-jerk fashion,’ says Moore. ‘You hope that the authorities will take a longer-term, more considered view of it, and come to the right decision rather than the quick decision.’

So what are the viable solutions to the safety issues that sprinter Marcel Kittel believes deserve the same attention as the fight against doping? More barriers may protect riders from the run-along fans who create extra tension on climbs, but the sport must avoid going down the route of what Kirby describes as ‘stadium Grand Tours’ or lose some of its magic. Besides radio bans, Mollema and riders such as American Joe Dombrowski have flirted with the idea of GC times being taken as far as 5km before the end of flat stages to avoid pitting the GC riders against the sprinters. Even that won’t guarantee safety, as proved on Stage 12 of this year’s Giro d’Italia when, despite GC times having been taken after the first of two 8km laps of a circuit, there was still a crash 2.5km from the line.

Meanwhile, figures such as Ochowicz have also called for the UCI and race organisers to be held accountable for dangerous courses and for a reduction in the size of the peloton. 

Prudhomme tells Cyclist that ASO is in favour of reducing teams to eight riders on the Tour and seven on other races – ‘because a smaller peloton is less dangerous’. 

‘It’s a monster’

It’s left to McNally, who rode alongside Demoitié during his final race, to deliver a balanced view. ‘What happened to Antoine was just a terrible tragedy. It doesn’t soften the blow or anything but tragedies are a part of life. Cycling is a dangerous sport – but that’s almost the beauty of it. People don’t like to watch it if it’s safe.’ 

The riders, McNally says, understand that crashes are a question of ‘when, not if’. And for all the debate about motorbikes and road furniture, most accidents occur on straight roads and when a rider has made a mistake. If the Tour appears more dangerous it’s down to the style of racing, the type of course, the road conditions, the improved athletic ability of riders and the sheer size of the spectacle – all these things create a sport less controlled than before.

‘It’s a monster,’ says Kelly. ‘And how do you tackle that monster?’ For its part, the UCI has recently unrolled new regulations relating to vehicle safety. 

Meanwhile, 198 riders will be put through the Tour washing machine this July on a super-fast spin setting, with more GC riders and sprinters in the laundry basket than ever before. William Bonnet, with a metal plate fusing his neck together, is there too. And as of 2017 all stages will be broadcast live from kilometre zero. Kelly’s monster shows no sign of rolling over soon.

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