Thrills, Spills and Bellyaches

Without a doubt this has been one of the least predictable openings to a Tour de France for a while. Without a prologue time trial there have been no days in yellow for Fabian Cancellara and with the “flat” stages almost all having a sting in their tale the sprinters have been denied their usual high-speed processions to the line. True, Mark Cavendish won a hard fought sprint without the HTC train on Stage 5 but we have also seen stage wins for the King of this year’s Classics, Phillipe Gilbert and would you believe it a win in week one for Cadel Evans ahead of Alberto Contador. The week has also seen its fair share of crashes with some teams and riders coming off worse than others. Contador has hit the deck several times along with Robert Gesink of Rabobank (According to his Rabobank team, Gesink was “involuntarily acquainted with the asphalt”‘ What a poetic way of putting it). Both Quickstep and Radioshack appear to have had all riders hit the tarmac in the opening days. Today has seen a perhaps unprecedented withdrawal of big names with the loss of Tom Boonen, Chris Horner and our own Bradley Wiggins as a result of injuries sustained in these spills. And the parcours has been the subject of debate and criticism all week. Watching yesterday’s action on Eurosport we witnessed the moans of Andy Schleck that the roads of Brittany have been too narrow and twisting for a race like the Tour de France. I’m sorry Andy, but these are the roads you have to play on. They are closed and they are safer than most of us on our commutes to work or training ride on a Sunday. Following Wiggin’s abandon today, teammate Michael Barry tweeted:

“Terrible watching the Tour today. Sad for Wiggo–heartbreaking after all the work and sacrifice. Change is needed to improve rider safety.”

Such as Michael? I know we’ve had a rude awakening in the last few months about the dangers of professional cycling but as the saying goes, stuff happens. The oft cited cause of accidents is road furniture and unfortunately the need for it is the result of road traffic and a need to protect no vehicle based road users. But as I have indicated previously the riders in professional cycling need to take some responsibility. Professional cyclists are better looked after now that 20 or 30 years ago. Whilst in some respects this has aided the sport’s development, increasingly it is becoming for some a bubble in which they feel they should be immune from misfortune and day-to-day risk. Listening to the commentary on both Eurosport and ITV the point is made that the best place to ride is at the front. Unfortunately 198 riders will not fit across a road and so some people cannot be on the front. This means you must have your wits about you. This means you have to take some responsibility.

Of course, accidents happen and ultimately there is nothing you can do to prevent them. Ging back to Brad’s fall it happened on a wide, straight road. How rider safety can be improved in this instance is hard to fathom. As MrsAB said to me, maybe Twitter is to blame with its facilitation of quick reactions which have not been properly thought through. It was nice to see Wiggin’s teammate Geraint Thomas tweet the same thoughts I have articulated here:

All this talk of rider safety… It comes down to us riders!! There are some right muppets in the peloton, even some GC riders!!

It is not my place to speculate about the muppets but I have some ideas.

All in all, this is bike racing. Yes the first week has been great, yes it has been edgy in many respects and yes we’ve had our fair share of bellyaches (not including Cancellara’s dodgy tum). But I’ll leave the final words to former British pro (and one of my heroes) Steve Joughin:

“Gutted that Brad is out !! real shit, but that’s bike racing for ya”

So true Steve, so true in every way.

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Risk and Responsibility?

How do you write a post which raises issues which many people will feel need talking about but for which you feel the time might not be right? I’ve been mulling over this post for a few days following the tragic death on Monday of Wouter Weylandt in the Giro d’Italia. I hope it is a considered piece which takes into account some of the responses seen in the media, both professional and blogosphere/twitterati since this incident. I know I run the risk of losing some readers and followers as a result but I hope it opens up a mature and sensible discussion on this one incident and some issues which are strongly connected to it.

Monday’s events were for many of us who follow cycling truly shocking. Nobody expects to see a rider killed in a race.  As so many others I can only imagine the pain that Weylandt’s family and friends must be going through and nothing can make that process any easier for them. I do not wish for one minute to detract from their grief.

However, the coverage that has followed has been mixed.  Having criticised David Harmon in a previous post this year I, like others, can only praise the way in which he commentated on an extremely difficult situation for any reporter, let alone someone who is covering a sporting event.  There have been several blog pieces which have followed. Yesterday I highlighted the piece by Flammecast. Today I saw another piece by Ian Claverly in Rouleur magazine.  Both thoughtful, reflective and definitive in their own way.  Yet on the other hand there have been some very quick reactions and whilst I initially felt that it was too early to write around them, I think the debate needs to be tempered and balanced in a number of ways.

Firstly, from the reports that have emerged the only definitive thing we can say about Weylandt’s accident was that it was freak bad luck.  Unfortunately we cannot legislate for bad luck. A moments lack of concentration, as would appear to be the cause of this, is something we are all prone to in life. Immediately after the stage Angelo Zomegnan, director of the Giro, stated “”Since the crash, we’ve gone to great lengths to ensure the security measures already in place are being checked and reinforced by specialist teams.” What more could be done in the name of security I am nsure and as we have all witnessed in the coverage, medical teams were on the scene within seconds.  Nor will a knee jerk reaction to make “safer bikes”, as uttered by the UCI president himself and in doing so promotes his bike labelling scheme. I have yet to see any connection to component or frame failure over and above what might happen given the materials already used and approved by the governing body.

The second element relates to the safety of the parcours.  I do not know first or even second hand what the road surface was like on the descent where the accident took place.  Some say it was potholed and needed resurfacing.  Unfortunately again this is a fact of life.  Racing takes place on public roads not bespoke venues or courses.  To this end we have to make do with what is available.  As any of you who ride on public roads know too well, potholes and poor surfaces are part of the deal.  During the time of fiscal crisis for public authorities this is unlikely to get better.  There would appear to be no quick fix in this regard without investment by organisers, governing bodies and teams.  Furthermore, there is some criticism of the routes being chosen by some race organisers and Zomegnan in particular has come in for criticism that he is putting spectacle above safety.  There may be some truth in that.  Yet consider yesterday’s stage across the Strade Bianche – as a spectator tell me you didn’t like that spectacle either this year or last? Yet the riders criticised parts of the parcours for being dangerous.  There is a balance to be struck part of which is with the race organisers in their choice of route but equally the riders must take some responsibility in riding the conditions as they are.

But the final point is perhaps the hardest to raise and I only mean to do this in a tactful and meaningful way, not as an attack on any individual or group nor to belittle the problem it addresses.  Yesterday Team Leopard-Trek announced a “donation account” for contributions with a statement that: “We have created a donation account to support them financially as much as we can. Everyone of you can donate to this account. All donations will go directly to Wouter’s family.” Clearly this is an important issue. Like so many of us Wouter was doing a job because he had financial responsibilities.  Yet what has perturbed me is the lack of clarity about this account and as cycling fans what exactly is our role in this account?  In debating this with others on Twitter part of the discussion has focused on insurance.  Some people have argued that insurance and assurance is the responsibility of the rider as it is with you and I.  Yet if we were killed doing our jobs, under a duty of care our employers would likely have insurance coverage to compensate for this.  So is this not the case in cycling?  Team Leopard-Trek is back by a group of multi-milionaires and sponsored by a large bike manufacturer.  Rider deaths are thankfully few so is it the proper thing for the public being asked to contribute when it remains unclear what the team is doing to ensure the appropriate financial security for his family?  When I put this question out on Twitter earlier one of the responses that got me thinking was from @ivromc who said: “they should allow the cycling public to express themselves in more than words. Let’s see them match the money raised.”  So here we have the desire for fans to express their grief and the responsibilities of an employer.  This is the crucial differentiation here: Weylandt’s family do need some financial security which should be a matter of insurance; our abilities to express grief might be better placed in some other memorial.  In this situation we are not all as lucky as Weylandt.  Let me briefly put this into perspective: the same day that the Save a Cyclist campaign reported Weylandt’s death on their Facebook page they also reported the death of 35 year old woman in London on her way to work.  Unlike Wouter her death did not have global news coverage nor did it grab our attention yet it would have just as huge an impact on the lives of her families and friends and potentially the same financial ramifications.  Therefore I’m not criticising those who want to contribute but this needs some perspective, some balance and some thought about whose responsibilities and what outcomes are needed in this process.

Life is a game of risk.  Without that risk much of life would be boring.  We cannot eliminate all risk not would we want to.  Some parts can be better controlled.  Unfortunately much of it has to manoeuvred around.  Wouter Weylandt dies doing the job he loved.  We watched him and his colleagues doing this and it gave us pleasure.  We need to recognise our role in this but also know where the boundaries begin and end.  I hope I have not angered you through this piece but I felt it needed a place in the debate.