The Unspoken Dark Side of Bike Racing

Nope, I am not talking about doping. I am talking about crashing. If you don’t want to read the rest of this, I will summarize for you: Tradition, romanticism, and epic images are great, but you know what is even better? Not putting riders in an ambulance.

Almost every serious bike racer I know doesn’t want to talk about it. We skip over those gory videos on the Internet, we avoid hospitals like the plague, and generally try to avoid anything that would make us think about it. Why? Because if you think about crashing you hit your brakes, and if you hit your brakes you lose.

I think not talking about it is one of the most under-represented problems in the sport. Take a look at other sports such as Formula One or Moto GP, and the evolution of driver safety equipment and regulations are very clear to see. Cycling is still in the stone ages by comparison. We still careen down mountains at 50 mph in equipment that is pretty much the same as it was 50 years ago, and it wasn’t even until 2003 (after the death of Andrei Kivilev) that helmets were made mandatory in professional races! (The riders still complained and it took even longer to get them to keep their helmets on during mountain top finishes.) If we want our sport to ‘grow-up’ and demonstrate it is a stable venue for sponsor investment we need to improve here. Improvement starts with giving it proper attention, and proper attention will eventually lead to a budget. To start, here are three areas where I think we can immediately do better:

  1. Mandatory Health Insurance: This should be a no brainer. As of right now, all UCI registered teams must show proof of health insurance for their riders, but there is no such requirement for amateurs. I feel that USA Cycling should require every one of their members show evidence of coverage before issuing a racing license to them – regardless of category.
  2. Advances in Safety Equipment: There should be more emphasis on researching the cutting edge of safety equipment and mandating items which are proven to reduce severe injury. MIPS comes to mind, and I am sure there are other technologies out there that I am not aware of. I also really like the Koroyd technology found in the Smith Overtake helmets.
  3. Course Safety: This goes beyond just sweeping sand off corners and keeping cars off the course (although some events should still start there). We need to clearly define when “epic” is just too dangerous and enforce the rules accordingly – both for course design and weather conditions. There have been several recent instances of this even at the World Tour level, and no rider should have to worry about a career ending injury because of compromised course design or unsafe weather.

This is just a start; and isn’t meant to be a comprehensive solution, but hopefully the start of a conversation.  I would love to see others (riders, directors, officials, promoters, etc.) speak up on this topic.

I am going to leave you with a picture I felt compelled to take after the massive crash in Stage 1 of the 2014 Tour of the Gila. Five of our 8 riders went down and I put two of them in the ambulance. Our experience was not unique that day, and I don’t want anyone to have to experience that again.

Gila14 cropped

This is what the road looks like after you peel 60+ riders off the pavement.

 

 

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17 Comments

  1. I believe apparel companies should start addressing clothing too. They’ve already made it light enough. Why not make it more durable? I’m sure the material tech is available somewhere. If you can prevent major road rash on the hips and thighs and back why wouldn’t you?

    • If someone made cordura elastic, I know many folks that would gladly purchase kits.

    • Hi Gabby, our fat tire enduro friends are way ahead in this area! I have seen companies come out with thicker pads for hips, etc. targeted towards track racers and roadies in the past. The key is to make it light and comfortable enough that riders will actually be willing to use it in competition.

    • After my first encounter with road rash, I took to wearing baseball sliding pants under my shorts. Racers probably won’t like them because they are too hot, but they sure work. Also, consider elbow sleeves when descending.

  2. +1 on cleaning up racing conditions.

    Yeah, racing in the pouring rain is “epic” but when your tires don’t grip and your brakes don’t work, it makes racing more or less insane.

    Race promoters number one concern should be racer safety, but I think that often gets lost in the shuffle when you’re trying to break even promoting a race.

    In addition to mandatory health insurance, USAC should look at providing mandatory event insurance, so promoters have no incentive *not* to cancel if running a race is unsafe.

    • Colby, interesting thought on event cancelation insurance. I hadn’t considered that before. I do feel that the key for weather conditions is to have well defined criteria for what is okay and what isn’t. Racing in the rain itself isn’t so bad, but racing in the rain when it is 35 degrees or with risk of lightening would be examples that are NOT okay. I do believe the UCI is trying to work on that one in pro races anyway – like you said, there is resistance from promoters.

      • At the Maverick Classic in Grand Junction the Chief Judge and Referee shortened the RR. It was cold and raining with a touch of snow at the highest point. Riders were coming in so cold that they couldn’t help themselves to their cars and get out of their gear.

        Mandatory Health Insurance is a joke. That doesn’t prevent an incident and an ER is not turning you away when you need treatment. That is totally after the fact and you can get any “level” of insurance.

  3. “racing is inherently dangerous.” You can’t fix or legislate against stupid. Worried about getting hurt? I suggest racing bicycles is not for you.

    • You can absolutely legislate against ‘stupid’. That is why things like helmets are mandatory. A good portion of my job as a coach or director is protecting athletes from themselves!

  4. realistically nothing we can do, helmets help a little bit on some occasions. Your 3 suggestions are great but… health ins. is expensive and only covers part of it. safety equipment? we’re basically naked, there is nothing save about it. Course safety yes, but it’s a road… you can’t control the rain, cars, and most importantly riders running in to each other. I wish it wasn’t the nature of our sport but it really is.

  5. one thing i’ve thought about recently is how there really are NO standards for safety when it comes to road racing.

    i think everyone’s goal is to be safe, but it is rare for a volunteer corner marshal to receive any training (not their fault). also, there’s no standard for things like where and when cones are used.

    i was recently caught in a crash on a course where cones were placed in a not-so-great spot (especially considering the direction of the wind and where racers would naturally try to ride). the first few riders saw the cones; the other 75 not so much.

    anyway, it occurred to me that even if someone knowledgeable placed those cones, local LE could come along and decide to move them (or tell someone to move them).

    made me wonder if there could be some group of people (crowd-source?) that define safety guidelines, that could then be offered freely to all RDs. might help those with good intentions to at least think about some issues they might otherwise miss.

    same kind of thing with volunteers in neutral feeds–they are awesome to donate their time but many times don’t know how to hold a bottle or increase the odds of a successful hand-up. lots of dropped bottles increases danger for riders.

    interesting topic.

    • Good point Eric. I’ve actually moved cones (or convinced the promoter to move cones) on several courses that were laid out by people that didn’t really understand bike racing. I believe this is technically the job of the chief referee, but not practical in many cases given course length and schedule.

  6. How’s about racers use sensible equipment? Or check the weather beforehand? Or get some self awareness? I was in a rainy hilly race last year where riders refused to give up their $2k Enves and openly admitted in blogs how they caused crashes because they couldn’t brake. Basic clinchers were unaffected – didn’t have the bling factor though – can’t have that.

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