Open letter: Marcel Kittel calls for increased safety in professional cycling

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In the wake of the tragic death of Belgian rider Antoine Demoitié, one of the sport’s biggest names has weighed in on the issue of rider safety. Marcel Kittel (Etixx-QuickStep) has penned an open letter on his Facebook page, outlining the dangers faced by professional riders and calling for improvements to racing conditions. An edited version of Kittel’s open letter appears in full below.

With the death of Antoine Demoitié we reached a new and very sad low point in the history of cycling and safety. Many people say it’s part of our job to take risks and that crashes are part of this sport. And I agree. But not completely.

Every rider that gets injured, because of a crash he is not responsible for, is one too many. There is a difference between riders crashing in the last hectic kilometres of a race, fighting for the right wheel before the sprint, and riders crashing because of unsafe road furniture, reckless driving of motorbikes or cars, extreme weather conditions and unsafe race routes.

When the peloton goes into a final or passes a crucial, decisive point of a race, then every rider knows it is potentially dangerous. We brake late before the last important corner, we fight for wheels, don’t hesitate to go into a gap that might be too small, we even push each other away to hold or get a better position in the bunch – all that at high speed and not only our own physical and mental limit, but also at the limit of our tyres and brakes.

That risk is calculated and, I don’t want to lie here, also one of the reasons why I love cycling. There is this action going on and it’s a real fight for the win! It makes you proud when you win a race, come back to the bus and you talk with your teammates about how well it worked, how well you defended or conquered the position in the final that brought you the win in the end.

And you start to talk about those dangerous moments where you almost crashed but somehow you avoided the pile-up in front of you or you got you bike straight again after you almost lost it in a corner. The moments of adrenaline, the rush of speed and the victory as reward afterwards are one of the components that make our sport so interesting.

But in recent years it has become more and more obvious that cycling has an increasing problem with safety. Here’s a little reminder from the last two seasons: Greg van Avermaet (San Sebastian), Peter Sagan (Vuelta a España), Taylor Phinney (US Road Nationals), Stig Broeckx (Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne), Jesse Sergent (Tour of Flanders) and Jakob Fuglsang (Tour de France) have been all involved in a crash with a motorbike or neutral car. Peter Stetina (Vuelta al Pais Vasco), Tom Boonen (Abu Dhabi Tour) and Matt Brammeier (Tour of Utah) crashed because of an unsafe race route.

Many of them ended up in hospital with heavy, career-influencing injuries and had a long, painful rehabilitation ahead of them. But the crashes also influenced the outcome of the race – something that is not in the interest of anyone. Not the teams, race organiser, sponsors, media or the cycling fans at home.

And think about it: there are no winners in those situations. The rider is hurt. The car driver or motorbike rider has this lifelong burden of having injured a rider or worse. The races don’t get a result that comes purely down to physical and tactical strength. Cycling as a sport, but also as means of transportation for everyone, will be associated with such tragic events.

It’s clear: cycling’s biggest problem was doping and this still has to be fought. But the safety issues that are obvious should get the same attention and priority as the fight for clean sport. Not only because lives can be lost but also because there wasn’t much done until now.

The last major change was the Extreme Weather Protocol that was introduced this year. And before that, and only after the death of Andrei Kivilev, the UCI made helmets compulsory in 2003. But from that year until now, cycling has gone through a tremendous change. The globalisation of cycling has created many new races in countries around the world and the fight against doping shifted the focus of improvement more to a focus on training, equipment and nutrition.

Riders train harder, are more efficient and look for every improvement that is possible. We get the best support from our teams to be better and faster, our bike sponsors are striving for faster and lighter bikes, we are doing aerodynamic tests to be 0.5 seconds quicker over 10 kilometres, electronic shifting helps us to shift faster and since 2016, we are allowed to ride on disc brakes so we can brake later. That all leads to a situation where the peloton rides faster and takes more risks. Pressure is on everyone to perform and be in front.

It’s part of this evolution process in modern cycling to improve not only the rider and bike but also the race course the peloton is racing on. It’s necessary to set higher and better standards for professional bike races and that’s not up to the riders but to the organisers and the UCI.

It’s easy to say that the riders are doing the race and therefore have responsibility for it. But it’s simply not true. There are so many things in a race that are beyond the control of a rider: dangerous finishes, all the other vehicles that follow the race, spectators and the weather, for example. The riders are busy enough with concentrating on the race and need to trust organisers and the rules that they will be guided safely by experienced people on carefully chosen roads.

We need to work together to keep this sport safe and give sense to the tragic death of Antoine Demoitie. It would be great if we can see some major changes and development out of a discussion over safety. We need to start talking openly about it now. That’s what I expect from my governing body and rider association.

For starters it would be good to see more experienced, well-trained drivers in cars and on motorbikes, a yearly statistic that keeps track of crashes in races in order to see a positive or negative development, and more signs/flashing lights that indicate sharp corners or dangerous points.

Tomorrow at the start of the 3 Days of De Panne we will mourn the loss of Antoine and pay respect to him, his family and team after this horrible accident. We owe it to Antoine to do everything to never let that happen again.

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