RIP Wouter
July 6, 2011 9:04 AM   Subscribe

It looked like the early stages of the 2011 Tour de France would not be marked by the carnage of last year. However, after multiple crashes on a windy 5th stage, perhaps it is time to ask: Has pro cycling become too dangerous?

2011 looked like an exciting year for cycling, with one of the most difficult editions of the Giro d'Italia, and the highest ever mountain finish in the Tour de France. Now, following the tragic death of Wouter Weylandt, and the terrible injuries to Juan Mauricio Soler in the Tour de Suisse, some are reflecting on the nature of the sport. While the threat of rider protests led to the removal of the controversial Crostis descent from the Giro, Michael Barry asks what else can be done to improve rider safety while maintaining a level of excitement.
posted by TheWhiteSkull (46 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Maybe if let them do some blood doping to raise their red blood cell counts and get quicker response time, they wouldn't all be crashing so much . . .
posted by Curious Artificer at 9:14 AM on July 6, 2011

Sounds as though pro cycling needs a Jackie Stewart.
posted by philip-random at 9:22 AM on July 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

I wonder how the fatalities/km compares between competitive cycling and recreational/commute cycling.
posted by Bovine Love at 9:24 AM on July 6, 2011

Come on, guys, if you want to win, you need to stay upright at least long enough to make it to the courtroom.
posted by Wolfdog at 9:27 AM on July 6, 2011

Are cyclists & race organizers attributing accidents to different terrain/routes or faster speeds (if they are faster than they used to be) or is it coincidence? I don't know much about competitive cycling so I hope this isn't a stupid question
posted by pointystick at 9:29 AM on July 6, 2011

The VeloNews article seems pretty spot on really.

Say what you will about everything you do every day courting death, but if the big money and the management don't care about the riders, injury rates are going to go up. Cutting some of the money and international pressure out of the sport would help a hell of a lot, but when are the owners/managers going to push for that?

The fans aren't able to fairly assess the risks. Calling for an independent safety assessment is one thing, but unless it's government mandated, I don't see where the pressure would come from. Perhaps it's time for a professional cyclist's union.
posted by Stagger Lee at 9:37 AM on July 6, 2011

What is meant by this?

"few of the dangerous elements on the course are signaled"

Do they really not have signs or anything warning about upcoming hazards? That's insane. In terms of the equipment, however, couldn't the race's or sport's governing body simply mandate that certain types of bikes are not acceptable for racing? Maybe consider the carbon bicycle frame like an aluminum or corked bat in baseball.
posted by Hoopo at 9:38 AM on July 6, 2011

@pointystick The article pretty much covers that. They mostly seem to attribute it to fragile but lightweight equipment (carbon fiber frames), and course design that's aimed at wowing the crowd, without taking into account the safety of cyclists.
posted by Stagger Lee at 9:39 AM on July 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

You know, this seriously isn't a topic to make jokes about, especially w/r/t the tragic death of Wouter Weylandt as well as the thread title, which I didn't see before I made my first comment. Apologies.
posted by Curious Artificer at 9:42 AM on July 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

Does anybody know if this is a problem that could be solved by more or better safety gear? Better helmets in particular, since that seems to be the cause of several of the recent tragedies, and at 60mph I wouldn't think that a bicycle helmet offers great protection relative to even a 3/4 motorcycle helmet.

Motorcycle road racing has a similar history of terribly dangerous tracks, horrific numbers of rider injuries and deaths, followed by safety improvements pushed on to track management by the riders and technical improvements in personal protective equipment. Unfortunately there's still a lot of injuries and the occasional fatality, but nothing like 30 years ago. I hope that bicycling sees similar improvements.
posted by hackwolf at 9:44 AM on July 6, 2011

And Carly Hibberd, reported about an hour ago.
posted by The Michael The at 9:52 AM on July 6, 2011

and course design that's aimed at wowing the crowd, without taking into account the safety of cyclists.

Further to my Jackie Stewart comment, the problem here seems to be that cyclists are going very fast on courses that have blunt objects (curbs, fences, road signs, trees) at their edges. So it isn't speed per say that's causing the deaths and injuries, but the collisions with those blunt objects.

Motor racing had a similar problem (with the addition of the cars' tendency to explode into flame) until an unending series of of horrible incidents through the 1960s, early 1970s finally led to a massive re-thinking of how the sport would approach the challenge of driver (and course worker, and spectator) safety. And, for the most part, motor racing (certainly the higher levels) did make the required changes, many of them fundamental (the retirement of certain much loved but deadly circuits, the mandating of vehicle crash-test standards, etc). Yes, motorsport is still very dangerous (sometimes deadly) but far, far less so than it was.

Pro cycling needs to make equivalent changes. Immediately. Anything else is criminal.
posted by philip-random at 9:58 AM on July 6, 2011 [2 favorites]

When I was a kid, I always dreamed of being a bicycle racer. That was back in the 70s, so my heroes were guys like Eddie Mercyx. I always dreamed of riding the Tour de France but I wasn't cut out for being a pro bike racer. It was only a few years ago I finally saw the Tour de France on TV. The video was from a camera on a pole, on a motorcycle behind the peleton. They were climbing to one of the highest, narrowest mountain passes, and I couldn't believe what I saw. These guys were racing at their top speed around narrow roads with no side-rails, one slip on the steep curves and you're falling over a 1000 foot cliff. The lane the riders took was within inches of the edge. And they did that over and over, on a crazy switchback. I saw that and thought, oh holy shit I would never have been able to do that, these guys are crazy. Sure there are big crashes, those are mostly minor scuffles. But it only takes a moment of inattention and you're over the edge of a cliff and no helmet or safety gear is going to save you. And these guys are deliberately pushing right at that edge.
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:03 AM on July 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

Personal safety equipment efficacy in bike racing isn't well-understood; what we know works is having riders not hit things. Unsurprisingly, this is the same thing that helped most in auto and motorcycle racing. Run-out in corners, eliminating signposts and trees, moving spectators back from the course, etc. are all well-proven in smaller events and non-road events. These solutions are, however, expensive in road racing and don't sit well with sensation-seeking sponsors.
posted by introp at 10:03 AM on July 6, 2011

It's hard to fully armor a racing cyclist, because they need to be able to move their legs (quite a bit) and arms (a fair bit) to ride. So, the motorcycle solutions -- put them in a padded suit with a hard outside and let them slide off the velocity -- just doesn't work.

One thing they need to do is stop some of the dumb. Too many spectator crashes, and today, we had someone nailed by a chase motorcycle. There are too many bikes in the peloton. The lightweight bikes do seriously increase speed, so going back to a heavier bike would both increase the already good reliability and reduce the speed.

What kill or seriously hurts is rider-into-thing at speed. A drop on a flat road hurts, but other than collarbones, rarely breaks anything unless someone runs you over. Hitting another rider results in a snarl, but rarely any real harm. Where you lose badly is when you hit something that simply won't move -- cars, poles, walls, or worst of all, empty air, when you washout on an outside bend and find the ground moving away from you almost as fast as you are moving towards it, gaining speed all the while.

Of course, that category includes "thing-at-speed into rider", but that's what kills most non-racing cyclists. Usually, the motors are kept away (though, again, today, somehow, a biker managed to nail one of the riders.)
posted by eriko at 10:07 AM on July 6, 2011

Wait, I forgot a huge factor.

Tires. Tires are vastly better now than they were 20 years ago. This is good, in that you get traction where you would have fallen before, but bad, in that you *know* you have traction, so you go that much faster. Add in the lower rolling resistance and lighter weight, and there's that much more speed to deal with.

But I'd be loathe to make the tires worse to try to decrease speeds. I want them having grip.
posted by eriko at 10:11 AM on July 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

It's too late to save mathowie. Save yourselves.
posted by auto-correct at 10:11 AM on July 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

There's something slightly disingenuous about connecting the Michael Barry piece to the multiple crashes from today's stage. Barry talks about traffic furniture, corners, and cobbles - many of the crashes on today's stage took place on open road.

Crashing is something that happens. There are some things the organizers can do to try to reduce the risk, and there's some stuff that's out of their hands. Meanwhile, there's some stuff that riders can do - decide to neutralize a section (as per Stage 2 last year, on the pave), decide to protest or strike.

But really - is there a cluster of injuries, and, with the availability of twitter and other direct-to-power ways of speaking - are we HEARING more displeasure, or is there actually a higher rate of injury?

By the by, the moto driver that dragged Sorensen was fired a few kilometers later - over the race radio.
posted by entropone at 10:34 AM on July 6, 2011

The lightweight bikes do seriously increase speed.

That's incorrect. An analysis shows that really, the most major speed increases came from "lightweight" bikes that were developed in the 1950s. From 1999-2009, lots of things in bicycles evolved - from index shifting, to rear cassettes, increased gearing, aerodynamic wheels and ceramic bearings. Sure, the speeds of the Tour de France saw an almost linear increase as well. But what the authors found was that the long term trend of running speeds tracked this increase in cycling speeds very closely indicating that almost all these improvements can be tracked to physiological factors common to both running and cycling.

Bike manufacturers talk about how much "faster" their bikes are, but you're talking about savings on the order of 30 seconds in an hour-long solo effort where everything is as aerodynamic as possible (accumulation of marginal gains).
posted by entropone at 10:37 AM on July 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

That Crostis Descent video.. that was terrifying. I noticed one particularly hairy corner where the safety nets weren't up yet, they were lying on the side of the road. And he gets some oscillations during some high speed coasting, it looks like he's going to lose control at any moment.

I wondered what the ascent was like, I couldn't find any video, but I think I recall seeing the map showing the last of the ascent was like a 17% uphill grade.
posted by charlie don't surf at 10:54 AM on July 6, 2011

That descent video is just gorgeous...
But I wouldn't necessarily want to race a pack of riders and support vehicles down it, no.
posted by Stagger Lee at 11:31 AM on July 6, 2011

This is a rather American take on the problem, but I would solve the issue by pressuring the organizers of the event to pay for insurance for the riders. I'm not sure whether the courses have become more dangerous, but the organizers are responsible for choosing them. This would give them an incentive to balance rider safety with exciting course conditions.
posted by dgran at 12:26 PM on July 6, 2011

Also related: Pro rider Michael Barry recently wrote up his thoughts on how dangerous races are getting for the riders.
posted by mathowie at 12:36 PM on July 6, 2011

Barry's article is very interesting, but I think bringing Weylandt's tragic death and the Crostis debacle into it is misguided. Street furniture and higher speeds in the peleton, and bigger peletons all seem like huge problematic issues that need to be addressed. Nothing could have been done for Weylandt though. Barry says the descent he died on was technical, I don't recall one way or the other, but where and how Weylandt crashed had nothing to do with how technical the descent was. It was a completely freak accident.

Also, comparing the danger of Pro Cycling to Formula 1 of the 60s is just outrageous. There must surely be far more rider-hours in major cycling competitions than all of motor racing worldwide, yet a rider dieing during competition is quite rare.
posted by Chuckles at 1:21 PM on July 6, 2011

Speeds in the Tour have been roughly constant since 1990.

Riding in the peloton is an an extremely intense exercise. It's a body that you expect to have some inertia because of its size, but it really doesn't. It speeds up and slows down almost instantly. Riders point out obstacles to those behind them, but they come so fast that it's very difficult to react. Descending in a large group takes away all of your latitude to change lines or slow down quickly, and you reach speeds that exceed the limits of traction and braking very easily.

It has always been so. It will always be so.

The routes used in the grand tours are used over and over again. There are additions and deletions, but there is only one Alpe d'Huez, and it will always be used in the Tour. The addition of Crostis was unusual and stupid -- a stunt by the race organizers -- but most of the roads are well known. It may be that the size of the peloton has increased, but I don't believe that cycling is statistically more dangerous now that it has been in the past. At least the riders don't stop to steal booze anymore.

Also, carbon bikes do not randomly "snap." Any more than steel or aluminum bikes do.
posted by klanawa at 1:32 PM on July 6, 2011 [1 favorite]

[...]he gets some oscillations during some high speed coasting[...]

I'm not sure he's coasting all that much - the camera looks like it's mounted on his stem, and he's just putting his arms into it as well, giving that sinusoidal motion. Doesn't change that that trail would have been utterly irresponsible to take a peleton down, though.

Today's accidents though (aside from the motobike hit), were all pretty much par for the course. Wheels touch, bikes go down. The TdF organizing committee has done a surprisingly good job of keeping the final few kilometers free of stupid technicals this year compared to years past. Once they get to the mountains and the real time gaps start to open up it doesn't matter so much, but during that first week when everything is up in the air, people push too hard.

If they went to the mountains any sooner though, it would decimate the first week of racing between sprinters, and it seems like they're already marginalized enough.

Frankly they should just hold all that racing here in the US where we don't cotton to no road furniture. *coff*

But I'd be loathe to make the tires worse to try to decrease speeds. I want them having grip.

Yeah, I hope that accidents like Beloki's are less likely these days. I don't know - are they still using tubular tires, or have kevlar-beaded clinchers reached the point where they are accepted by the pros?
posted by Kyol at 4:54 PM on July 6, 2011

Got a chance to view the crostice descent video this evening. I used to race road bikes in the amateur leagues and that is terrifying, but if you thought that was bad enough already, consider: The riders filming this were on mountain bikes. They were slower than road bikes. That road isn't really suitable for road bike racing.
posted by dgran at 5:55 PM on July 6, 2011

another video gives an idea just how pitted and rough the road (if you can call it that) surface is on Monte Crostis.
posted by dgran at 6:01 PM on July 6, 2011

I agree with klanawa that equipment is a red herring. I stick to triathlons and mountain bike racing now, but spent a couple of years racing at an entry level in the USCF (category IV). And got to participate in a number of crashes. The physics are the same for amateur races as they are for the Tour de France: at 30 mph, if you are drafting closely behind someone, you are only working maybe at 80% of the effort of the guy in front. When the pace picks up, you *really* want to be right on the wheel of the guy in front of you. The peloton isn't going all out all of the time, but there are fairly predictable instances where they are: chasing down a threatening break-away, setting up for a sprint bonus, setting up for the final sprint. So at those times, the pace picks up to 30+ mph, but because of the drafting effect people are riding with their front wheel maybe a foot off of the rear wheel of the rider in front of them. At 30mph, the peloton is traveling at 44 feet per second, so even the guys at the front don't have a lot of time to react to something unexpected (a spectator wandering not getting off the road quick enough) and the guys behind them are just reacting to what the leaders are doing. If someone's rear wheel touches your front wheel, that is pretty much an automatic crash. Also, you are doing this while tired and your heart is beating at 180 beats-per-minute or whatever your redline is; you and everyone else in the peloton might as well be riding while slightly drunk. So when a crash does occur, it often involves dozens of people. For the guys racing at the bottom of the USCF, all it takes is a dropped water bottle at the wrong time to cause a 20 person pile-up. Professional racers are of course much better/more experienced bike handlers, but the point here is that it doesn't take much for a wreck to happen. Adding something like Monte Cristis to the route doesn't help matters but even something as subtle as adding one more sprint bonus per stage could up the number of wrecks in a long event like the Tour de France. I'd really be curious to see how the number of bonus sprints/climbs has changed over the years for the Tour.
posted by kovacs at 6:25 PM on July 6, 2011

you are only working maybe at 80% of the effort of the guy in front.

More like 60%, actually.
posted by Chuckles at 8:09 PM on July 6, 2011

I've avoided this thread all day until after my wife and I watched today's stage. It was pretty brutal, but none of these crashes were cause by equipment failures.

Holy shit I was afraid Boonen wasn't going to make the cutoff. Glad to see him stay in the race. Good to see the other sprinters fucking up Cavendish's leadout train. I love to watch Cav do his thing, but I also love to see the other teams adapting their strategy to shake up HTC Highroad, and going for the sprint earlier than usual seems to do the trick. Still, even with no train, Cav can pull off a win.

I'm also happy to see Thor, one of my favorite riders, wear the yellow jersey for so long. I don't know how many more days he'll have it. I really want Andy Schleck to win this year, and so far he hasn't blown it yet. Evans is hanging in for now, but I think he's barely keeping the pin in his grenade.

Chris Horner is strong as always, and it'll be interesting to watch Radio Shack these next few days, with so many riders to pick to ride for. Leipheimer? Horner? They would have also had Brajkovic had he not crashed out today. That guy looked to be in bad shape.

Today was a shitty day. Tomorrow will be tough on the guys that went down hard.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 9:42 PM on July 6, 2011

Yeah, I'll be surprised if Boonen can pull it out, it really looked like he was favoring his shoulder after the crash. But who knows, maybe he'll pull a Hincapie. But yeah, Brajkovic looked like he got his bell rung.
posted by Kyol at 11:05 PM on July 6, 2011

...and Boonen's out :(
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 5:23 PM on July 8, 2011

...and Horner's out :(

And right before the mountains, too. That dude is 39 years old and in his prime, which is kinda rare for that age.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 6:33 AM on July 9, 2011

I'm the farthest thing from "safety, safety, safety", but the Boonen and Horner things are really scary shit. Both riders have fairly serious head injuries, both riders were allowed to continue riding while disoriented. That should not be allowed to happen.
posted by Chuckles at 3:44 PM on July 9, 2011

Holy fuck! A TV car just took out Johnny Hoogerland and Juan Antonio Flecha.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 8:10 AM on July 10, 2011

That's two vehicle vs bike incidents so far this year. I can't remember that happening before ever! Have helmet standards changed this year? People have fallen on their heads before, but we're up to a half dozen+ concussion retirements so far, and that's not right.
posted by Kyol at 9:24 AM on July 10, 2011

And yeah, I worry that it'll take someone keeling over from their concussion before the doctors start adopting a zero tolerance policy towards potential concussions.
posted by Kyol at 9:26 AM on July 10, 2011

I watch the tour on Versus network, and they cut away to Indy racing before Hoogerland was awarded the most aggressive rider award. I really want to see that and I hope the press follows up with Contador about him hitting the deck from Karpets. It looks to me that Karpets intentionally took him out, but it's really hard to tell from this angle. I'd like to hear their respective sides of the story.

Hopefully they have that in the prime time coverage tonight.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 9:35 AM on July 10, 2011

Yeah, that was suspicious looking, but Karpets could have just had his eye distracted by something on the side of the road, then had to swerve to avoid a wheel in front of him leading to him shunting Contador. Even though I'm cheering for a rather generic not-Contador, I want him to lose fairly. Preferably when Andy Schleck sprints away from him on some mountain pass or other. :)
posted by Kyol at 10:07 AM on July 10, 2011

Looks like the Karpets/Contador thing isn't a big deal. But where the hell was Saxo Bank? They should have been around Contador.
posted by spikeleemajortomdickandharryconnickjrmints at 10:27 AM on July 10, 2011

This year hasn't been the best year for team support, aside from some rather desultory sprint leadouts. Even teams (well, DS's) that have usually been highly regimented seem like they're playing an open field this year.
posted by Kyol at 10:38 AM on July 10, 2011

Totally insane photo of Hoogerland. I can't remember a Tour like this, as far as crashes are concerned.
posted by chinston at 12:53 PM on July 10, 2011

Also I cannot understand why evidently no Saxo Bank riders moved back to help Contador back into the group. Just don't get it.
posted by chinston at 12:54 PM on July 10, 2011

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