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Brace for impact: pro cyclists on the UCI’s new safety rules

In-depth
30 Apr 2021
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The UCI has introduced a raft of new rules aimed at making pro racing safer, but are the riders happy about them? Cyclist finds out

Words: Richard Moore Illustration: John Holcroft Photos: Offside

The first time many people can remember seeing the ‘super-tuck’ position was at the World Championships in Florence in 2013.

The 19-year-old Slovenian, Matej Mohorič, announced himself not only by winning the under-23 road race one year after winning the junior title, but by contorting his body on descents in a way most had never seen.

While previous extreme descending positions had seen riders place their hands in the centre of the bars and their nose almost on the stem, or slide off the back of the saddle and hover over the rear wheel – think Marco Pantanti in the 1990s – Mohorič went the other way.

Sliding forward to sit on the top tube, and with his hands gripping the tops of the handlebars and his elbows bent like a frog’s legs, he pedalled like fury to the under-23 title.

It wasn’t pretty. It looked precarious and unstable with the rider’s weight thrown so far forward, but it caught on, albeit not immediately. It wasn’t until three years later, when Chris Froome attacked on Stage 8 of the 2016 Tour de France by going clear over the summit of the Peyresourde and then descending in the Mohorič style, that the cycling world really sat up and took notice.

Froome might have looked, as one journalist put it, like a frog on a skateboard, but in racing to the stage win and the yellow jersey he turbo-charged the idea that this was the fastest way to go downhill (an idea later disputed by aerodynamics researchers in Belgium, but this didn’t really matter when the position had been endorsed by the Tour winner).

As other high-profile riders adopted the super-tuck – among them Peter Sagan, who flirted with it at the 2015 World Championships, and Michał Kwiatkowski – it gradually became ubiquitous until on 1st April 2021 it was banned by the UCI as part of a raft of new safety measures announced a few weeks earlier in February.

Don’t come crying to us

In truth, the UCI didn’t actually have to ban the super-tuck position because it was already banned. The position had however been tolerated, along with the flouting of other rules, such as the one that says you must not remove your hands from the handlebars. No more, said the UCI.

The new rule reinforces the prohibition of extreme positions, including the Pantani one, the Graeme Obree one(s) and others deemed non-standard, including draping your hands over the tops of the bars.

It reads, ‘Riders must observe the standard position as defined by article 1.3.008. Sitting on the bicycle’s top tube is prohibited. Furthermore, using the forearms as a point of support on the handlebar is prohibited except in time-trials.’

Cue outrage from some pros. Kwiatkowski said that it was ‘just a way of putting responsibility for crashes on the riders’.

Others pointed out that there didn’t appear to be much evidence for these positions causing crashes, at least not in pro races. It might look dangerous, but among professionals at least there doesn’t appear to be data to support the idea that it is.

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But two considerations seem to have influenced the rule change on positions. One is that professional riders are role models, and what’s safe for them might not be safe for amateurs or younger riders. The second is that the UCI will see itself as acting before, rather than in response to, a major incident.

The new rules, which also cover minimum standards for safety barriers, the introduction of safety managers at races and a database to log all incidents and accidents, were drawn up by a working group that included representatives from the UCI as well as teams, race organisers and two riders.

Those riders were Philippe Gilbert, the 38-year-old Belgian who has won four of cycling’s five Monuments, and Matteo Trentin, the 31-year-old Italian who has won stages in all three of cycling’s Grand Tours.

Trentin was irritated when so many of his fellow pros reacted so negatively to headlines dominated by the outlawing of the super-tuck position. His frustration resulted from the fact that this ignored all the other work that had gone into trying to make the sport safer.

And while Trentin had committed time and effort, he felt that some of his colleagues only really got involved by taking to social media to protest the super-tuck ban.

‘I’m sorry to say that they need to check their emails and download the new rules,’ said Trentin.

‘To tweet that they were not informed is easy, but emails were sent to more than 800 riders and I can tell you that only 16 riders downloaded the information. If someone wanted to disagree when the proposals were made they had many chances, but there was very little response.

‘I don’t know who they want to blame but it can’t be me, Phil [Gilbert] or the CPA [the professional riders’ association]. Not this time. Maybe riders should spend less time on TikTok and be more proactive when it comes to making their workplace a safer place.’

Breaking down the barriers

At Paris-Nice, a few weeks after he’d made these comments, Trentin had calmed down. He was back on speaking terms with his fellow riders.

‘Yes, we talk about the new rules a bit,’ he said at the start of Stage 5 in Vienne. ‘The problem was there was a lot of discussion about one single rule. Of course we cannot have agreement on everything within the whole peloton, but at least we now have a bunch of rules about safety and if there is a problem with something we can appeal them.’

The new safety rules were merely a starting point, he pointed out. ‘We were starting from below zero. Imagine: we only now have a rule that says barriers need to be straight.’

Never mind the super-tuck ban, as Trentin says, a new minimum standard for barriers on finishing straights is far more important.

‘It’s something that every single sport in the world should understand, but in cycling there was no rule about this. Now there is a rule that organisers need to respect. If you see the safety book for most sports, it’s pretty big. But for cycling there wasn’t a safety rule book at all. It didn’t exist.

‘Now we have only just started and of course it will take time, and it will take more rule changes. What I’m happy about is, even with the arguments, at least some of the riders are now getting involved in these decisions and getting involved in the process, because the process is not easy.’

Trentin, in the peak years of his career, is not sure how much time he can continue to devote to making his sport safer, although it sounds as though he doesn’t really feel he has a choice.

‘I don’t know if I’ll stay involved,’ he says. ‘I enjoyed it and for me it was an important thing to do. Of course it would be nice to have more [riders] involved in terms of participation. I can be in the meetings no problem but we need more buy-in from the riders.’

The view from the road

For some of the riders at Paris-Nice there was still a focus on the positions that were to become punishable a few weeks after that race.

The new rules, though not yet enforced, were already having an impact – some riders were draping their hands over the bars, or sitting on the top tube on descents, then having second thoughts. Some were doing it regardless, gambling (correctly) on getting away with it before the official cut-off point.

When riders were asked about the new safety rules, they tended to talk most about the soon-to-be-banned positions.

Tim Declercq, the Deceuninck-QuickStep domestique whose rangy build is a regular sight on the front of the peloton, took a pragmatic view: ‘I like that they think about safety, but I think there could be other measures that have a bigger impact.

‘When I’m riding on the front on my own I do put my hands over the front to find a more aerodynamic position, and I think the danger for us is limited in doing that. But I understand that young guys could copy it and it might be dangerous for them. But on the other hand, you don’t go and drive your car at 300kmh because you see them doing it in Formula One.’

Oliver Naesen, the former Belgian Road Race Champion and Classics specialist at AG2R, made a similar point. ‘If it were me making the rules I’d say keep it simple and make sure the finals are safe,’ he says.

‘With the super-tuck I can imagine it’s a bad example for kids. I’ve seen a video of young kids doing it on a descent, on the wrong side of the road, and it was scary to watch. But honestly, when you’re doing it in the breakaway, like I was today, there’s no risk at all.

‘For the professionals it isn’t dangerous, but if I have kids who are 16 years old I wouldn’t like seeing them do it. I did it once today and I’m sure my dad will send me an angry message – he always does if I do it.’

Lizzy Banks, the double Giro Rosa stage winner who rides for Ceratizit-WNT, takes a stronger position. ‘There are loads of things that you do in races that you don’t do out of racing,’ she says.

‘We race on closed roads so we use both sides, but I would never do that in training. The argument that it should be banned because people will copy it – well, they don’t ride on the wrong side of the road, do they?’

‘I’ve never seen anyone crash because of it, and there are so many more important things we should be doing [to make racing safer]. Even at La Course by the Tour de France, when we were doing the recon I thought: this can’t be the same barrier setup as for the men’s race.

‘I couldn’t believe how dangerous it was – a super fast run-in by the seafront and the barriers just went in and out, or they’d kick in suddenly.’

To her horror they were the same barriers, demonstrating that even at the Tour there is room for improvement. And this season, too, has already highlighted other problems: Kwiatkowski crashed on an oil spill at Étoile des Bessèges, then one of the revelations of the early season, Simon Carr of EF Education-Nippo, had a sickening fall at Tirreno-Adriatico, crashing into an unmarked piece of road furniture.

A safer future

Making finishes safer is a priority after Fabio Jakobsen’s injuries following his crash at last year’s Tour of Poland were perhaps exacerbated by substandard barriers. Many of the changes, including the rules on improved barriers, will come in for the 2022 season.

Richard Chassot, a former rider and the organiser of the Tour de Romandie, has been appointed to the new role of safety manager at the UCI. He was at Paris-Nice to speak to riders and observe how things were run, but his job will involve overseeing the new event safety managers and it should also go hand-in-hand with the project, undertaken by an external agency, to collect and analyse crash and accident data from WorldTour events over the past five years.

This is an initiative that Trentin is particularly interested in, given that it could help organisers mitigate against some risks in what is, and always will be, an inherently risky sport.

From the analysis of the data, Trentin hopes that riders will be able to work with organisers to make races safer in the future. ‘The next thing, for sure, is to have a commission or a kind of system where the race is analysed months before and we can have a say in what’s good and what’s not good,’ he says.

‘We don’t want to change the parcours – if it’s an uphill finish or a sprint we don’t want to change that. But we need to have a say. We need to be able to speak to the organiser and to be involved. Most of the time we finish in places that are not really good in terms of safety.

‘We need to take into consideration that the bunch now is not the bunch of 25 years ago. Back then, three-quarters of the bunch was out of the race, so they weren’t involved in the final. Now, three-quarters of the bunch is still involved in the run in to the finish.

‘I think the riders can help to make those run-ins and finishes safer,’ Trentin adds. ‘If you keep it safe, you ensure that we still have the spectacle.’

Throwing away the victory

The new UCI rules on safety and sustainability could see riders lose races for littering

Where safety and sustainability merge is in the issue of discarding waste items, bidons in particular. Geraint Thomas had his challenge for the 2020 Giro d’Italia ended when his front wheel collided with a full water bottle in the neutralised zone of Stage 3.

Under new, tighter rules, riders must not ‘jettison food, musettes, bottles, clothes, etc outside of the litter zones provided by the organiser’. And whereas infringements of the approved riding positions will attract only fines, littering transgressions can now be punished with time penalties (in addition to fines).

In stage races it will be 30 seconds for a first offence, two minutes for a second offence and then disqualification.

These are serious penalties when you consider that each of the three Grand Tours last year was won by less than a minute. It raises the possibility of someone losing the Tour de France for throwing away a gel wrapper in the wrong place.