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.

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We are the Robots – a postscript

The discussion about radios and doping goes on unending, though hitherto they have been unlinked in most discussions (particularly the communiques of the main protaganists).  After posing the previous piece about the robotocs of the professional peloton I picked up the latest issue of Procycling, complete with an article on Dr Eufemiano Fuentes. The cycling readers will be only too familiar with this name which leaves a lingering bad taste in the mouth. For those unaware of him you can read a potted history here, but in brief he is alleged to have assisted in the doping of numerous top pro-cyclists.  It is an interesting if brief article but there is one stand out quote which connects straight to the argument I made in my previous post:

“A cyclist suffers more than any other athlete. He becomes quite easy to manipulate. He has a character that can be dominated before even he has gained domination over himself.”

Who gains control over this week and malleable mind is seemingly at the heart of the doping war. Who wins is unclear. But we cannot rule out scenes reminiscent of those for Luke Skywalker in Star Wars where a rider is torn between the good and the bad, the light and the dark sides of cycling culture.

Not that this ends here.  Another interesting snippet I picked up was Greg LeMond’s lecture at the Play the Game conference at Coventry University in 2009.  This is available from both iTunes and Coventry University’s website  and is worth listen to in its entirety. I have to admit, LeMond is a rider I didn’t warm to at first when as a young kid I first started watching cycling. Yet as the years have progressed I have found him increasingly engaging, particularly in relation to the subject of doping.  There are many interesting points in the lecture but the main points in relation to this post are these: first LeMond is adamant that riders do not trust the systems in place but that second, the riders are lab rats (27 mins in), a disposable resource to be played with, used and thrown away.  When we look at a rider like Riccardo Ricco and the reports about his early snare by the dopers it is easy to see how this can happen, especially amongst the less educated or worldly-wise group of riders, particularly those from less well-off backgrounds.  The fact that he mentions increased suicide rates is extremely disturbing, another way in which cycling mirrors life but where it need not and where the systems need to better protect them.  The fixation of some riders in their twilight years and retirement to social and non-performance enhancing drugs should not some as much surprise. Understanding the reason why they start in the first place and breaking that cycle is a fundamental element of any attempt to prevent doping.

However, there come moments when we realise that even though we might think the riders are robots, that we the viewer consume what we are given without care, something happens to break that and shake us back into reality. If the suicide of riders isn’t enough, the death of a rider in competition is a true shock.  On Monday afternoon whilst seeking some joy on my birthday I turned to the Giro d’Italia only to see the unfolding news of Wouter Weylandt’s death.  It is at times like this that we recognise we are human, we all have feelings and we ultimately exist without complete control of anyone else but ourselves.  Of all the opinions, tweets, reports and blog pieces I have seen on this news, Flammecast’s still remains the one that conveys this the most:

There’s not much can be said that hasn’t been already said about this terrible tragedy, I just want to express my condolences and extend my heartfelt sympathy to Wouter’s family, friends and colleagues. The Riders in Giro have the unnerving task of doing today, what brought Wouter’s life to a premature end yesterday. Racing their Bikes.

I know  in my mind I’m still somewhat childish and I still think that Vaughters is only a good winters training away from giving me the call to go ‘Pro’, I feel at times when I ride that I am the same as Wouter, I am breaking away from the Peloton, I am attacking into that final section of Pavé. This is sometimes forgotten, that these men and women of the pro peloton give us this beautiful feeling of freedom of release, of enjoyment, the excitement of riding our bikes. We are connected to one another by these feelings.

Yesterday that connection was filled with sorrow, and we will carry that with us as we ride.  Rest in Peace Wouter.