At least NASCAR and American football are comparatively safe

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What do Peter Stetina, Sergio Pardilla, Nicolas Edet, Adam Yates, Pierre-He Lecuisiner, Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara, Jesse Sergent, Angel Vicioso, Joaquim Rodriguez, Giampaolo Caruso, Gert Steegmans, Matti Breschel, Edvald Boasson-Hagen, Martin Velits, Chris Froome, Alberto Contador, Marcel Kittel, and Lukasz Wisniowski have in common?

They are just a tiny handful of the world’s top riders who have broken bones or suffered injuries serious enough to take them out of major races in the last year. It doesn’t begin to include riders like Sylvain Chavanel (run over by a service vehicle) or those who “simply” crashed out of the race and lined up again the following week.

The absence of the big hitters has completely changed the outcome and dynamics of the biggest races in the season, including the Tour and the spring classics. But let’s forget the racing. The toll this takes on the actual human beings racing the bikes is enormous in financial, physical, and emotional terms.

European bike racing didn’t used to be this dangerous. What happened? How did the supposed champions that the fans supposedly love become disposable pieces of meat?

It’s pretty simple, actually.

  1. Speeds are higher.
  2. Pelotons are bigger.
  3. More riders are in contention for the win.
  4. Riders don’t wear safety equipment.
  5. There are no standards for cancelling races due to hazardous weather.
  6. The courses aren’t required to meet safety standards.
  7. Organizers are “old school” and believe that lots of crashes and injures, and maybe even a fatality or two add to the “beauty” of the sport.

Of course the fans are part of this crippled dance and many are conditioned to believe that mayhem is part of what makes cycling such an exciting sport. Why not just hang out at the ER and enjoy the “beauty” of people coming in off the meat wagon?

Those spectators are wrong. Motor sports used to think that the excitement was in danger and death until they began implementing safety standards and equipment. They learned that the danger is still there — you can’t make a car “safe” at 180 miles per hour — but by making the race as safe as possible fans still love the sport.

Normal people don’t want to see their heroes get hurt, and with regard to the sickos who do, the sport will be better off without, including the old school organizers. Bernard Hinault was one of the first superstars to openly criticize the punishment that riders were subjected to when he famously called Paris-Roubaix a shit show; Hinault suffers lifelong disability in one of his hands from the “epic” day in Liege-Bastogne-Liege when he got frostbite in his hands.

The technology exists to make safer riding equipment. Fabrics that don’t shred, reinforcements in the shoulders, back, hips, and elbows should be required. There is also no reason to run races over incredibly narrow and dangerous courses in horrible weather conditions. You think that canceling Gent-Wevelgem due to high winds makes the riders pansies? Then YOU go out and ride the wet cobbles in a packed peloton at 30 mph in a 40 mph crosswind. See you in intensive care, you tough guy, you.

As anyone who’s done a Cat 5 crit knows, the single biggest factor in falling off your bicycle is the size of the field. Ten idiots on a tight course are safer than a hundred. The pro peloton used to be 50-60 riders smaller and there was order in the court imposed by the patron. Now there may be 190 riders crammed into the same narrow roads going much, much faster, and drugs, training, equipment, and radios mean that a huge swath of that peloton has the capability of winning. More people going faster, less space, higher average speeds and faster sprints, and you’re going to have more crashes, and the ones you have will be worse.

It’s an easy fix — reduce the fields, require safety gear, impose weather and route standards, and fewer people will get hurt. But it’s a hard fix because so many in cycling think that “spectacle” means permanent injury or that the “beauty” of the sport requires extreme danger or that safety is for wimps, which is yet another set of reasons that it will never be a mainstream sport, or even a legitimate one.

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