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Touchpaper: professional cycling is sleepwalking towards another rider death

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Photographs: BrakeThrough Media

One of the most worrying trends of the racing season has been the proliferation of “extra-curricular” crashes around professional races.
Peter Sagan’s recent tangle with a Shimano motorbike on stage eight of the Vuelta, leaving him with injuries that forced him to abandon the race, was the tip of the iceberg.
This season, more than any other, the convoy – that fleet of motorbikes, neutral service vehicles, team cars and emergency vehicles, which ought to orbit the riders in close proximity and perfect harmony – seems to have been responsible for several incidents.
In 2015 alone, we’ve seen Jesse Sergent (Trek Factory Racing) knocked off by a passing Shimano neutral service vehicle at the Tour of Flanders; Jakob Fuglsang and Greg Van Avermaet were upended by motorbikes while leading at the Tour de France and Clasica San Sebastian respectively. And now it’s Sagan’s turn; gallingly, he was fined 300 CHF for “insults, threats as well as behaviour that damages the image of cycling.”

One would argue that seeing one of cycling’s biggest stars fetched off by a support vehicle affects how the sport appears far more than the Slovakian’s anger in the aftermath. (Incidentally, it’d be nice if the money from Sagan’s fine went towards training people in the convoy too, but one imagines the UCI won’t use it for that.)
More significantly, what exactly is the governing body doing about this? This kind of incident is becoming worryingly commonplace and lessons aren’t being learned.
The incidents with Sagan, Sergent and company are all human errors; the drivers of the vehicles involved are doubtless mortified and regretful. But in this steady drip-drip of rider-race vehicle incidents where the competitors escaped relatively unscathed, it’s only a matter of time till there’s a far more serious accident.
It feels stupid to even state it, but the riders should be competing in as safe an environment as realistically possible. They should certainly never be hindered by vehicles there to help them.
Of course, professional cycling itself cannot be sanitised. Crashes will always happen: you cannot put crash mats on dodgy corners or temper the hunger of 180 young men fighting for a living and every inch of road.
Or can you? A separate issue to all this is whether the riders can take fewer risks. Forced to abandon after his involvement in the serious crash on stage eight of the Vuelta, Dan Martin posted on Twitter, saying that more crashes were happening because of less respect and caution and more risk-taking. Sadly, that kind of sensible, rational view can quickly go out of the window in a race’s fog of war. In such a dog-eat-dog sport, any kind of easing from a rider might be perceived as a weakness.
Some of the most serious crashes happen at arbitrary moments, down to the sport’s inherent danger of pushing man and machine to the limit.
My worst cycling moment of the year – putting urine throwers and deathly-dull races into perspective – is Domenico Pozzovivo’s crash early in the Giro d’Italia. His front wheel slipped from under him while following a fellow rider on a descent; it was a racing incident like any other. But he didn’t get up; he didn’t move. You could tell from the reaction of his team-mate, worried fans on Twitter and the grave-voiced Eurosport commentators: it looked like he was dead. Watching that unfold gave me a lingering feeling of dread.
As it transpired, it wasn’t quite as serious as feared; after a few days in hospital, Pozzovivo was up and about. But it was a real scare. The same goes for Kris Boeckmans’s recent Vuelta crash, which left him in an induced coma.
From putting all this year’s varied accidents together, I’ve got the fear again. Another fatality will happen in professional cycling – that is a sad certainty – because it is an inherently risky sport with many uncontrollable factors. When it does happen, the governing body should feel that it has at least done due diligence and provided as safe an environment as possible.
Could it claim to do so in the current circumstances? Despite this succession of near-death moments – Peter Sagan got off lightly with first and second-degree burns from his fall – nobody is acting. The riders won’t take less risks and all these vehicles-rider entanglements show that there is far more professional cycling can do to train the convoy and safeguard against similar repeats in the future. For instance, that could be a case of the UCI and race organisers asking for rigourous training of drivers.
Ultimately, if the governing body cannot learn from these near misses, it’s a case of sooner rather than later. The sport is sleepwalking towards another fatality in a professional race.

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