A crash in professional cycling is bad. A crash breaks bones and puts people in hospital. It can ruin a season, even a career, cause all sorts of injuries. A nasty business.
Despite the above, as a rule people don’t tend to die in pro cycle race crashes. That doesn’t make mitigating the risk of them any less important but could go some way towards the UCI’s apparent inaction after some nasty incidents this year already - and the season hasn’t even really started.
The difference with the most recent events compared to your everyday peloton accident, which while admittedly awful is also almost inevitable, is that they have been largely preventable.
Collisions with street furniture are absolutely unacceptable. Posts and kerbs etc should be adequately highlighted and riders directed well away from them.
But the case of Antoine Demoitie, who died after being hit by a support motorbike is less straight forward. Granted, there have been calls for better training of motorcycle riders and drivers of vehicles, demands for limits on the numbers allowed onto the course and for vehicle speed limits, in-depth investigations of each crash. But will this actually make any difference?
The first consideration from the point of view of someone whose experience of a peloton is of travelling in a team car, and as a run-of-the-mill spectator, is that no one drives fast amid a peloton of cyclists for the hell of it. No one is sitting there on these motos or in these cars thinking “let’s see how fast this baby will go,” or “I fancy scaring the shit out of Cav today by riding really really close to him.” The drivers of these vehicles actively avoid coming into contact with the riders, because they all exist to service them in one way or another, be it mechanical support, team support, stopping traffic in the case of the police, or providing them with a living by filming the race which, regardless of your level of sporting puritanism you can’t deny is what puts the pro into pro cycling.
Limiting the numbers of motos is tantamount to denying those who bankroll the sport the exposure they demand and in a worse case scenario could lead to an exodus of sponsors. It will certainly make cycling less attractive an advertising proposition. The bottom line is that no company is going to sponsor a team on the basis that the only people who will notice it will be a few farmers who have taken the day off in rural France.
There are other ways to film a race of course, but not many. Suggestions so far have included drones, on-bike cameras and motos detouring away from the course to film the action at various junctures. They are already using helicopters, but for those dreamy aerial shots of the peloton winding up a mountain, that sort of thing.
These suggestions also seem to ignore the medium of still photography, which regardless of progress and the proliferation of videos, remains a highly valued form of documentation. You’ve only got to look at the success of Instagram.
The only sensible course of action, when you analyse it, is going to be to demand a higher level of driving skills. At the moment anyone who drives in a professional cycle race must be in possession of a UCI certificate, issued by the relevant cycling federation of the country of the applicant’s residence. In the case of the UK that would be British Cycling, which demands evidence of “operational involvement” in road cycle racing plus additional endorsements to support their application. This might not necessarily be the case in other countries but it follows that people who operate vehicles in a race are all aware of the risks they pose to the cyclists themselves. The moto rider who collided with Antoine Demoitie had years of experience of cycle racing.
The sad fact is however that professional cycle races take part on narrow roads, many of them single track country lanes, upon which you wouldn’t even be able to get two cars down side by side. We funnel full pro tour convoys along these lanes, from support cars and motorbikes to cyclists and team cars, and they are all necessary to the race.
No matter whether we ride professionally or for fun, it is rarely in a perfectly straight line. Look behind you and you are in danger of veering towards the centre of the road. Evasive action, such as avoiding a pothole, will result in unexpected variations in direction.
This tragic accident will no doubt spark a series of inquiries and some in depth investigation into the involvement of vehicles in professional cycling. And so it should.
But health and safety precautions can be the ruin of many an adventurous pursuit and the last thing we need is the red tape brigade coming along with rulers and setting minimum distances and exclusion zones and taking other extreme measures.
Common sense is one thing, overreaction is something completely different.
* The death of Antoine Demoitie was one of two among Belgian cyclists on the weekend of March 26-27. Daan Myngheer, 22 suffered a heart attack on the same day Antoine was killed. Our sincere condolences go out to the families of both riders.