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Big bang theory: Crashes in the pro peloton

Richard Moore
24 Jul 2018

Crashes are more common than ever and are affecting the outcome of races. At least, that’s the theory

Illustration: Garry Walton. Photos: L'Equipe/Offside

It happened to Alberto Contador at the 2014 Tour de France, at the 2015 Giro d’Italia and then again, twice, at the 2016 Tour.

It also happened to Bradley Wiggins at the 2013 Giro, to Chris Froome at the 2014 Tour and to Richie Porte and Alejandro Valverde at last year’s Tour.

Also to Geraint Thomas in last year’s Tour, last year’s Giro, and, unfortunately for the Welshman, in many other races too over recent years.

What all have in common is that they have suffered serious crashes in a Grand Tour. Worse, they were crashes that in all but one case – Contador at the 2015 Giro – led to the rider pulling out.

And because most of the riders in question were expected to have a big impact on the races in question, their crashes helped to shape the final result and influence who was on the final podium.

For example the 2014 Tour may well have been a completely different race had the two overwhelming favourites, Froome and Contador, not both retired early.

Such crashes are accepted as inevitable in pro cycling, but they seem, to some if not all, to have increased in frequency and severity.

Speak to former riders or current sports directors and many share the view that there have been more serious incidents over the last decade or so than in years previous.

There isn’t any readily available data to back up this impression, although a scan through the records suggests that throughout the 1970s and 80s there were only six occasions on which a fancied rider was eliminated by a crash in the early stages of one of the three Grand Tours.

The trend was remarked upon recently in a conversation between retired riders Allan Peiper and Philippa York (formerly Robert Millar).

While York was unsure, Peiper, who’s now in charge of the BMC team, said he did believe there were more crashes and broken bones these days and wondered whether it was because the racing was so intense, or whether helmets were a factor, since with a helmet on ‘you feel safe… it’s like a cloak of invincibility’.

Even more speculatively, Peiper wondered whether the increase in fractures could owe something to today’s riders being thinner, with more brittle bones – something he put down to them riding their bikes year-round rather than running in the winter, as riders of his era used to do on the basis that running can increase bone density.

If there are more crashes, there are more theories than hard facts as to why. Potential reasons include faster races, the possibility that riders are distracted by the information coming to them through their computers or radios, carbon wheels, road furniture and even in some instances, as one doctor suggests, the use of painkillers.

Hard knock life

The opening stages of Grand Tours have always been dangerous. Take the 2017 Tour, where Valverde and Gorka Izaguirre crashed out on day one.

Twenty-four hours later, Froome, Romain Bardet and Porte were all involved in a mass, albeit non-serious, pile-up. Then Thomas crashed with a kilometre to go on day three, before Mark Cavendish collided with Peter Sagan to fall more seriously in the final metres of the stage, and ultimately had to pull out the race with a broken shoulder.

Then came a day of carnage on Stage 9, when Porte (broken pelvis) and Thomas (broken collarbone) went out in separate crashes, and a separate incident forcing Robert Gesink (fractured vertebrae) and Manuele Mori (broken shoulder and collapsed lung) out of the race. Nobody could recall a day like it.

The trend was bucked at this year’s Giro d’Italia, which was light on crashes. It was the first Grand Tour since team sizes were cut from nine riders to eight.

Safety was one reason given for the change in team sizes, yet many are sceptical about crediting the change for the reduction in crashes.

Education First-Drapac’s Joe Dombrowski, who was competing in his second Giro, suggested it was because the race started in Israel.

‘There’s this nervous tension in the bunch in the first few days of a Grand Tour, when it’s almost ridden as a Classic. No one wants to touch the brakes in the first four or five days.

‘But at the start of the Giro we were on these huge highways in Israel rather than on little Italian roads, racing through small villages with a ton of road furniture. That allowed people to ease into the race a bit more before we got to Italy.

‘The other thing is that there were fewer top-class sprinters,’ Dombrowski adds. ‘The danger comes when you’ve got sprinters and their teams and GC riders and their teams fighting for the same space. That’s not to put the blame on the sprinters, but the GC guys want to be up there at the end to not risk a time gap, and it’s not a good mix.

A tall skinny guy built like me isn’t meant to be fighting for position with a sprinter. We’re not good at it. We don’t have the skills. If someone leans on me, I don’t push back in the same way that sprinters do. That creates danger.

Geraint Thomas crashes on Stage 16 of the 2015 Tour de France

‘From a safety perspective, I think sometimes it’s on us,’ he admits. ‘How many risks are we prepared to take? I also have a theory about modern bikes and in particular modern race wheels – how fast they are, how flickable and twitchy they are, and the fact we accelerate so fast – that I think makes the bunch collectively more twitchy.

'Imagine if we all rode on old-school 32-spoke wheels, like some guys still do in training. I think that would cut down on crashes.’

The speed has certainly gone up too. The equipment is faster, and the materials are different from the ones used even a decade or two ago.

Former rider Marco Pinotti, who is now a coach with BMC, believes carbon wheels are a factor in some crashes.

‘It needs to be properly investigated rather than just speculated about,’ he cautions. ‘But my feeling is that carbon wheels make racing more dangerous.

‘It’s true that the number of crashes at the Giro was down on other recent Grand Tours, but at the other races this year, and the Classics, there seemed to be no difference – there were still a lot of crashes.

‘So I don’t think we can say there were fewer crashes because of the smaller teams. We will have to sit down at the end of the season and look at it.

‘Personally, I think there are multiple reasons why there are maybe more crashes,’ Pinotti adds. ‘One is the increase in road furniture. In the environment we race in, everything is designed to slow vehicles down, to bring the speed of vehicles down, but the speed of the bike race is the same as ever, or even higher.

‘And when it’s faster that’s another reason why there are more crashes. Now, all the riders come to races physically well prepared. There are fewer guys who are tired, who are not racing. The group of fast guys is bigger and more competitive. There are more people fighting for the same space.’

Misery loves company

Another theory for the increase in crashes is that, since the introduction of radios that link riders with their sports directors in cars, more teams are riding together, with the domestiques surrounding their leader or sprinter.

This means teams are moving around the peloton as seven or eight-man groups, which inevitably creates more danger – woe betide the lowly domestique who loses the wheel of his teammate because he decides not to try to go through a gap that is barely there.

For the teams themselves, there’s also an inherent danger in riding as a group. In a big crash they might lose an entire squad rather than just one rider. It happened to the Garmin-Sharp team at the 2012 Tour on stage six to Metz.

‘Oh yes, the massacre of Metz,’ recalls the team’s then doctor, Prentice Steffen. They had been moving up the peloton en masse, shepherding Ryder Hesjedal, when there was a touch of wheels up ahead. David Millar, riding for Garmin, said afterwards they’d been going at 78kmh when it happened: ‘The scariest crash I’ve ever been in… a sea of bikes and people.’

Five Garmin riders went down and at the finish their then-director, Peiper, could only hold his head in his hands. ‘We’ve lost most of our chances for everything in this Tour de France,’ he said at the time.

Steffen, who has worked as a doctor in cycling teams since 1992, has another, more sinister theory for at least some crashes. ‘Three or four years ago the use of Tramadol came up in a doctors group meeting of the MPCC [the Movement for Credible Cycling], and it raised lots of interesting questions,’ he says.

Tramadol is an opioid pain medication used for severe pain, with possible side effects including dizziness and loss of concentration. It’s not on the World Anti-Doping Agency banned list and, although MPCC teams now prohibit its use, it has been widely reported as having been abused by several teams and riders.

For Prentice, the use of Tramadol might explain some of the recent crashes. ‘I can’t fathom why WADA has not banned it when it’s so clearly a problem,’ he says. ‘My concern initially was less to do with the crashes and more the performance enhancement – the doping aspect.

‘I freely admit I passed it out, at the request of riders, but I was uncomfortable with it. I brought it up in the MPCC doctors’ group and argued that not only is it ethically incorrect, it might also be dangerous. We made it part of the MPCC code, but this is like a gentlemen’s agreement.

Alberto Contador crashes on the descent from the Col d'Allos

‘I’m not sure if it’s true that there are more serious crashes occurring,’ Prentice adds. ‘I haven’t seen anything scientific to support it, but it’s my general impression that more crashes are happening.

‘One of the arguments against making helmets mandatory was that people would feel safer and take more risks, whereas before you were more careful. Although I think that might be a strawman argument…’

Chris Boardman, who retired as a professional in 2000 and who now, among other things, is a cycle safety campaigner, isn’t comfortable with the ‘massive amount of supposition’ behind the theory, or the impression, that there are more crashes.

‘There were quite a few crashes when I was around,’ he points out. And it’s true that he suffered a few nasty ones himself, crashing out of the prologue in the 1995 Tour and tumbling out of the race while in the yellow jersey in 1998.

Radio ga-ga

If there are more crashes, says Boardman, then the unintended consequences of some recent innovations could be another factor. Take race radios, for example. On the one hand they allow a sports director to communicate upcoming danger to a rider – such as what’s around a blind bend.

‘The potential problem there is that it could encourage a rider to go faster than he would have,’ Boardman says. ‘You’re not going to go tanking round a corner if you don’t know what’s around it, are you?

‘The other thing about radios is that the riders are told if, say, there’s a crosswind coming up in a kilometre – and every team is told to be on the front.’ And as one or two others have noted, there isn’t space for everyone.

As Boardman is quick to point out, there is an absence of data to back up the sense that many have that crashes have become more common and more serious. There’s no denying, however, that they have eliminated an unusually large number of favourites from a lot of recent Grand Tours.

Perhaps they have also hinted at another change. It used to be said that the safest place in the peloton was the front, but perhaps, with entire teams all competing to be close to the front to protect their leader or their sprinter, this can no longer be said with the same certainty.

What is certainly true is that in the never-ending quest for gains, marginal or otherwise, avoiding crashing should be front and centre for the sharpest minds in the sport.

Hard headed business

Has the introduction of helmets actually made racing less safe? 

It was the death of Andrey Kivilev after a crash at Paris-Nice in 2003 that led to helmets becoming compulsory in professional racing. The UCI had tried to enforce this rule as far back as 1991, only for the riders to protest.

There was some resistance in 2003 too, but helmets were mandatory when that year’s Giro d’Italia got underway and the rule has been in place ever since.

Some argue that making people wear helmets doesn’t make cycling safer, because it can subtly alter the behaviour of the rider and also the motorist.

The second point isn’t relevant to pro racing, but the first one could be. It relates to the theory of ‘risk compensation’, whereby more protection can lead to more risk-taking.

There is some evidence for this. Ian Walker of the University of Bath’s Department of Psychology studied the behaviour of 80 people wearing baseball caps and cycle helmets and his findings suggested people’s attitude to risk-taking and potential danger changed when wearing protective headgear.

‘This is not to suggest the safety equipment will necessarily have its specific utility nullified, but rather to suggest there could be changes in behaviour that are wider than previously envisaged,’ he said.

Could helmet-wearing pros be more inclined to take risks, potentially leading to more crashes? Allan Peiper thinks so.

Chris Boardman, who argues for personal choice when it comes to helmet use, is familiar with the studies that support the idea that wearing a helmet can encourage more reckless riding.

But he points out that without a fresh study, it’s hard to know to what extent that applies to pros, given that they are a self-selected group of risk-takers whose job is inherently dangerous – whether they wear a helmet or not.

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