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  • Journal
    Racing
    01.04.15

    Touchpaper: the dangerous rise of professional cycling crash porn

    There's no skill in a crash, only pain and shock, so why constantly replay it? Andy McGrath questions the voracious consumption of moments in a race that could lead to injury or worse

    Words
    Andy McGrath
    Photographs
    Offside-LeEquipe
Racing cyclist, fluorescent yellow jersey, sat on ground, crashed, Jesus Hernandez, Tinkoff Saxo

What did you feel when you clicked on photographs of Geraint Thomas being blown into a ditch at Gent-Wevelgem? What crossed your mind when seeing Gert Steegmans’s bike floating in a Belgian canal in the same race?

Pretty much nothing, I’m guessing. Same here; I consumed it without much emotion, and that scared me a bit. Thomas walked or rather rolled away unscathed from his accident. Lucky for him.

The denouement of Gent-Wevelgem saw some thrilling racing, but I didn’t take much pleasure from what came before, the neutralisation and inevitable crashes while fighting to keep bikes upright in 80mph winds. That’s not sport – although if I had to choose one, wind-surfing would be a closer approximation than cycling – but a crazy lottery, too reliant on blind luck. Where’s the skill in that?

As the ways of viewing professional cycling – and crashes, that inevitable part of the sport – multiply, we’re becoming increasingly passive viewers of crashes. Just click through the photographs and let them wash over you. Maybe even share it with friends on Facebook.

The appetite for cycling crashes is not a new phenomenon in the sport. They have fascinated fans for decades. From Wim van Est climbing out of the ravine (they even used the image to advertise Pontiac watches: “My heart stopped down there, but my Pontiac kept going”) at the 1951 Tour and the pained grimace of race leader Luis Ocana after being hit by Joop Zoetemelk twenty years later through to Johnny Hoogerland’s brush with barbed wire at the 2011 Tour, it goes down in history. They are unexpected jolts from the narrative and often represent the apogee of when cycling can go wrong.

Painful cycling crash compilations on YouTube have millions of views. With many more ways to film it – fixed camera, helicopter, motorbike, surely drones soon – and multimedia platforms galore, it’s slowly building into a passive-viewing frenzy. The sport isn’t alone. Trawl a video site and it’s the same for football with leg-breaking tackles; rugby with concussing hits, Formula 1 with cartwheeling crashes. Has it become so difficult to discern real life from entertainment?

Several parties are complicit in this. Once the producer has decided to broadcast what the camera-men transmit, there’s a waiting media, hungry for page views, who would rather accompany a Ghent-Wevelgem story, where possible, with images of airborne, crashing riders rather than, say, the more mundane moment that the race was won. They might talk of the carnage with exhilaration, not sadness. Fans will devour the fare and will increasingly think less, the more they see of it. Race organisers, too, will be satisfied with the viewing figures and hoopla around it all.

Watching a crash unfold on TV from the armchair is dangerously easy. The camera coldly does an action replay from the beginning of the fall, then pans away to the aftermath: mechanics running around, the last injured rider gingerly picking himself up and remounting. It’s so routine, so detached, so seamless: the race carries on, and so do we as the spectator.

What’s it like inside the crash? If you’ve ridden or raced, you’ll have an idea. Pain and shock. Riders are down before they know it, 50km/h to zero in a split second, lycra-clad skin scraping on metal and road, other riders tumbling around them and on top. The soundtrack is agonised shouts, broken equipment, the klaxons of passing cars. The sensations range from a scratch to stinging road rash and the heavy agony of broken bones.

With the rise of crash porn, we’re treading a fine line. Had Geraint Thomas stayed down and broken his pelvis in his fall, Ghent-Wevelgem would have been talked about as much as a farce, or turning point for the extreme weather rules, than a cycling epic.

Sometimes people’s consciences only seem to flicker back on at the darkest moments, when it is potentially too late, like Dario Cataldo’s concussing crash at the 2014 Vuelta, when it briefly seemed he was in serious trouble.

Crashes are an unavoidable part of professional cycling, but we needn’t consume them voraciously. So for the rest of the Classics campaign and the racing season, it’s worth thinking and having a bit of empathy, not just blindly devouring.

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