Commentary: Gent-Wevelgem fatality a tragedy that has been a long time coming

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This never should have happened.

Antoine Demoitié, a 25-year-old Belgian racing for Wanty-Gobert, was killed Sunday after an incident with a race motorcycle at Gent-Wevelgem.

Demoitié went down in a crash with four other riders, around 150km into the 243km race, during the brief section the course crossed the border into France. As he lay on the ground, a race motorcycle struck him, causing fatal injuries.

Crashes happen. Mistakes happen. And fatalities are nothing new to pro cycling. Just a few names lost to injuries sustained from a race crash, just in the past 20 years, include Fabio Casartelli, Nicole Reinhart, Andrei Kivilev, Isaac Gálvez, and Wouter Weylandt.

But this was different. Demoitié died not because of a racing accident, but because a race vehicle was unable to avoid hitting him.

He is not the first pro rider to have been killed by a media vehicle. On June 26, 1950, Camille Danguillaume, a Liège-Bastogne-Liège winner, was killed by a press motorcycle at the French national road championships in Montlhery.

This was different because everyone saw this coming.

The list of riders hit by race vehicles just in the past 12 months is embarrassingly long.

Earlier this season, Lotto-Soudal’s Stig Broeckx was stuck by a motorcycle at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne, abandoning the race with a broken collarbone and rib. That same weekend, at La Drôme Classic, a race moto interfered at the front of the bunch, sending BMC’s Danilo Wyss off his bike while he was contesting for victory.


Sporza/YouTube

In 2015, the list of riders injured by race motos included Tinkoff riders Peter Sagan and Sergio Paulinho, both at the Vuelta a España; Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing) at Clásica San Sebastián; and Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) at the Tour de France. At the 2015 Ronde van Vlaanderen, Shimano neutral service cars took out both Jesse Sergent (Trek) and Sébastien Chavanel (FDJ).

The women’s peloton is not immune. Marianne Vos, the most decorated woman to ever pin on a race number, suffered a broken collarbone during the 2012 Valkenburg Hills Classic, after an incident with a race moto. A month earlier, Emma Pooley, an Olympic medalist and world time trial champion, was knocked off her bike by a race moto at the women’s Flèche Wallonne.

All riders were injured, to varying degrees. And each time, the UCI, the sport’s governing body, had the opportunity to take stock of the situation and enact change to ensure that riders are safe to contest their sport, on closed roads, without fear of being stuck by a motor vehicle. Instead, the UCI did nothing. (In Sagan’s case, he was actually fined for lashing at the driver who had stricken him, for “behavior that damages the image of cycling.”)

Even before Sunday’s tragedy, the increase of incidents over the past few years has been disgraceful.

In what other professional sport must athletes fear for their lives, not from other opponents, but from race officials, and TV cameras?

Instead of laying blame, it’s time for solutions

Reaction to Demoitié’s death was a mix of grief and anger — anger directed not so much at the driver of the moto but rather at the UCI and Gent-Wevelgem’s race organization, Flanders Classics, for permitting so many motorcycles on course. There is anger that a young life was lost after at least eight vehicle-on-rider incidents had occurred in the past 12 months. There is anger that so many viewed this as inevitable, and seemingly nothing had been done to prevent it.

My reaction was similar. I was overcome with sadness, but also anger — and some of that anger was directed at myself. For the past month I have been working on a story about rider safety, something I’d started after seemingly avoidable late-race crashes at Tour of Qatar and Tour de la Provence, due to poor course management, and before Broeckx and Wyss had been struck by motos.

A month ago I’d spoken with Jason Jenkins of Media Motos, a 15-year veteran race moto pilot, who told me he felt more needed to be done to license and certify anyone and everyone allowed behind the wheel at a professional bike race.

“The UCI needs to do something, and it doesn’t look like they are,” he’d told me. “It infuriates me, that you can go to a course run by UCI just before a WorldTour event, with no experience of pro cycle racing, do your daylong course, and come away with a certificate that entitles you to ride in WorldTour event. Shouldn’t it be competency led? They should require a resume, references — something more stringent than just a daylong course. There needs to be some sort of metric by the UCI to acknowledge guys who have done this, for a long time, safely.

“You see these clips on the internet, and I feel sorry for the rider, but I also feel sorry for the pilot that made him crash,” Jenkins said. “Nobody wants that. No one sets out to cause an incident. My worry is, what is it going to take to do something about it?”

Given that pro cyclists are the reason for the events themselves, I asked Jenkins — should every incident ultimately be considered the moto driver’s fault, no matter the situation?

“It’s the cyclists’ field of play, “ he said. “Every moto is a guest in their field of play.”

https://twitter.com/JasenThorpe/status/714231863242399744

A month ago I’d also spoken with Michael Carcaise, executive director of the Association of North American Professional Road Cyclists, part of the CPA, the closest thing professional cycling has to a true rider’s union. He’d said there needed to be less finger-pointing in open letters, and more constructive discussion.

“I think it’s clear [moto drivers] need more training, and more consistency,” he said. “Can we afford to have the same people at every race? Rather than a revolving door of different drivers every week, have a professional corps of drivers who travel to each race, so an understanding and a sense of predictability can develop between the peloton and drivers.”

I’d planned on using a quote from Sagan, the world champion, the winner of Gent-Wevelgem on Sunday, and one of the most popular riders in the sport.

In August, after a crash that could well have ended his chances for racing worlds — or worse, Sagan said this: “Unfortunately, it isn’t the first time such an incident happens. Even if motorbikes are forced to go through a group of riders, they should do it very carefully and not recklessly. In my opinion, motorbike drivers don’t take the safety of the riders in consideration seriously. Fortunately, my injuries aren’t very serious but can you imagine what would have happened if he had ran over me?

“If I had crashed alone or with another rider, I would have considered that to be part of the sport. However, being hit by a motorbike of the race organization shouldn’t be acceptable. The safety of the riders should be an absolute priority and all vehicle drivers involved in a race must be more attentive. I really hope this incident is the start of a series of necessary changes in the way races are organized.”

And yes, I’d reached out to UCI president Brian Cookson, as well as UCI spokesman Louis Chenaille, to find out if any of these incidents had started a “series of necessary changes.” I emailed them both, on February 26. I never heard back from either of them.

The title for the piece I’d started, but never finished: “The time for the UCI to do something meaningful about rider safety is now.”

Leading into Gent-Wevelgem, the UCI had done nothing. Neither had I.

I never finished that piece. The reasons (excuses) are many. As I began working on it, I realized that Daniel Ostanek had already written a very solid piece on the subject, titled “Mo’ Motos Mo’ Problems,” exploring the UCI’s lackadaisical attitude toward issuing licenses to drive in the race caravan.

To address the issue, I couldn’t just retread that piece. I would need to further the story, to put together something cohesive that would propose real change — an extensive undertaking. I chiseled away at it, but I also got caught up in other things. Life got in the way.

In no way am I suggesting that my writing one commentary piece might have prevented the tragedy at Gent-Wevelgem. But I do feel that everyone in the sport, myself included, should have done more to prevent it. We all saw this coming.

And now I’m suggesting that the powers that run professional cycling — the UCI, the race organizations, the TV networks — need to hear from as many people as possible, as often and loudly as possible, that this is unacceptable. Rather than laying blame, concrete suggestions must be put forth. This needs to come not just from journalists, but from fans, from riders, and from sponsors. (The UCI can be reached here and here.)

Here are a few suggestions, to get the discussion started. A more stringent caravan licensing system is needed. No one should be permitted to drive in a WorldTour race without having previously been in a vehicle during a WorldTour race. There must be a limit on the number of vehicles on course. There must be a mandated minimum amount of space between motos and riders. There should be a limit on the speed at which motorbikes can pass riders.

New technologies, such as the use of aerial drones and real-time footage from on-bike cameras, could also help cut down on the need for so many camera bikes. These should be explored immediately, and implemented once proven safe and effective.

Many caravan vehicles are necessary: police, to keep the roads clear of traffic; race officials, to referee the sport; team support, to provide assistance with food, water, and equipment; and, yes, TV motorbikes, to provide motion pictures.

But what we saw at Gent-Wevelgem, particularly with photographers, was excessive. And as unpopular as this may make me with some of my colleagues in the press room, the UCI should force race organizers to limit the number of photo motos allowed on course. How that system might be implemented, and who gets on the moto, I can’t say, but the desire for a variety of angles and apertures cannot outweigh the need for rider safety.

And this isn’t just about rider safety, this is also about the image of professional cycling. Any sport where athletes cannot be sure they won’t be hurt, or killed, by the race organization is an embarrassment.

These changes need to be implemented. The discussion needs to begin now. In actuality, it needed to happen a year ago. What happened at Gent-Wevelgem was not a one-off. Accidents happen, but when they happen with great regularity, something needs to change. This was a fatality that has been years in the making, narrowly avoided too many times to count.

Antoine Demoitié woke up Sunday morning thrilled to be pinning on a number and starting his second-ever WorldTour race — a Belgian rider on a Belgian team at one of the biggest races on the Belgian calendar, just days after the most horrific attack on Belgian soil in decades. Demoitié started a bike race, and he never came home. He leaves behind a widow and grieving parents.

I’ll finish that article. I’ll hope that, perhaps, something positive will come of it. Maybe I’ll even hear back from the UCI.

But more than anything, I’ll hope that the UCI and every race organization takes a good, hard look at what’s happened — not just Sunday, in Belgium, but increasingly over the past few years.

I’ll hope that some real, meaningful change comes from it. And I’ll hope that Antoine Demoitié won’t have died in vain.

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