The Secret Pro: Processing death, race motos, terrorism, extreme weather, and more

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What a week for pro cycling. It’s with a heavy heart that I weigh in on so many recent tragic events.

I actually had an entire column written for the boys at CyclingTips before the events of the past week changed everything, and put this all into perspective.

Of course I’m referring to the deaths of Antoine Demoitié, killed by race moto at Gent-Wevelgem, and Daan Myngheer, who died after a heart attack at Criterium International. And that’s following the terrorist attacks in Brussels, just one day before Dwars door Vlaanderen. It’s a lot to absorb.

Where to start? Let’s begin with the most pressing issue of the day, race motorbikes, and work back from there.

I have been in the peloton for a long time now, and never have I seen so many incidents regarding race motos colliding with cyclists as I have in the last two or three seasons.

I have a few explanations for it, and I’ll give my point of view.

When crashes happen in our sport because we are descending to catch the group in front, or battling for position in the final kilometres of a bunch sprint, then that is the cyclist’s fault; that’s something that comes with the risk and reward we accept as professional bike racers.

However, let’s remember, the road is where we are racing. It’s our “playing field.” We have enough problems dodging 179 other riders out there as well as traffic islands and roundabouts. The last thing we need to be worrying about is motorcycles, medical cars, VIP cars, and the like driving into us from behind.

Can you imagine a basketball game or a football match with the occasional moto screaming down the left side of the pitch? Okay, it’s a bit of a stretch, but it feels this way sometimes. You can’t hear them for the sounds of the road and bikes and wind. The next moment, you are on the deck, wondering what hit you.

I can count numerous times that I’ve been clipped but with no major stress. I probably screamed a little “THANK YOU.”

But take for example Stig Broeckx, who was hit by a medical motorbike at Kuurne-Brussel-Kuurne. That medical moto was doing over twice his speed, and it ended in a broken collarbone for poor Stig. We all saw the same images, and can draw our own conclusions. It could have been a hell of a lot worse. And then it happens.

With its windy route out to the coast, cobbled climbs and narrow roads, Gent-Wevelgem is a stressful fight for position at the best of times. Now we find ourselves fighting for position with motorbikes also. It’s just not on — it’s not cool.

I believe what happened with Antoine was an accident. I also believe we have nearly as many motorbikes on the circuit as we do cyclists, therefore making it an accident that could have been avoided.

Enough is enough. So what can we do?

This is where a governing body and the CPA must pull some weight. Limit the number of motorbikes — photographers, police, and television. Teach them the ins and outs of how a peloton rolls through the countryside, when they will swing left and right during a race.

I’m not saying all moto riders are the same, but let’s have some kind of certification test.

Let’s set a limit to the speed at which they can pass us. If we are doing 45kph and they are screaming past us at 100kph because they know that up ahead is a section of cobbles for a great photo, that is a huge impact that we are not going to win. Remember, it’s our “playing field.”

I also believe we can show some respect back to the motos. Often when there is no stress during a certain point of the race I have yelled to my mates, “Left!” or “Moto!” so that they’ll move over. Why not make it easy for them at certain points?

On that topic, when there is a massive rush for a turn because a crosswind section or narrow mountain entry is coming, the motos should not dare try to pass us. This is definitely not the moment to do this. We can’t give an inch and are probably on our limits, physically and mentally.

We can learn and change from this. It has to happen. I’m not going list all the recent incidents, because they all pale in comparison to what happened to poor Antoine. It’s an “accident” that should never have happened. And if we don’t have some change and mutual respect, it’ll happen again.

That’s what I have to say on the topic, other than rest in peace, Antoine, and rest in peace, Daan. You’re gone far too soon, and you will both be missed.

Stage 3 of the 2016 Paris - Nice
The peloton on Mont Brouilly during stage 3 of the 2016 Paris-Nice, which was ultimately cancelled. Photo: Cor Vos.

Extreme weather, and controversy at a monument

After Down Under, the first race back for me was Omloop Het Niuewsblad. I personally love this race, and this year was no exception. In my opinion, the good weather made the race a little easier than past editions, but having said that, the strongest still launched with 45-50km to go and couldn’t be caught again.  It’s amazing; you know it’s gonna go down up the Taiienberg, but there is just nothing you can do when they are riding away from you and you’re already doing 700 watts.

It was a very popular win obviously for Belgium and Greg Van Avermaet is a clever as well as strong rider.

Peter Sagan was incredible as usual. Three weeks up at altitude, comes down the day before, and makes the final selection. No worries.

The next day we rode Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne. After speaking to a few of the boys, it seemed Kuurne was harder than Omloop this year – just a combination of extra wind and tired legs from the day before.

Again we saw an incredible ride from a young man, this time Jasper Stuyven, who is only 23. Riding that far solo — I can tell you it was super hard into the headwind as we were trying to haul him back to make a bunch kick.

From there it is either Paris-Nice or Tirreno-Adriatico in prep for Milan-San Remo. I chose Paris-Nice this year — “the race to the sun.” It didn’t disappoint. It was freezing cold the first few days, and we saw the UCI’s Extreme Weather Protocol put to use. I was moaning a bit as to why they even started the stage that was ultimately canceled. We all knew it was snowing hard where we were headed. However, it was eventually stopped and there were a lot of smiles in the team cars after that.

The bunch sprints were not what I expected. I really wanted to see Marcel Kittel go head to head with Andre Greipel, but the first couple of days were so hard that neither made it. I think Greipel ran third one day, but again Kittel was absent and Greipel was without his usual duo of Marcel Sieberg and Greg Henderson.

However, the sprints were not without drama, with Nacer Bouhanni trying to throw the yellow jersey over the barriers in one final. He got his revenge the next day with a comfortable victory.

Michael Mathews is another one of those freaks of nature. First race of the season….victory. He held that yellow jersey for a while, but the GreenEdge boys were saying that he thought he could win Paris-Nice. Pretty bold statement, when you have Sky and Tinkoff ready to launch. But, hats off to him – a couple of wins and the green jersey for his first race of the season. I certainly am not doing that sort of behavior.

How exciting was the final Nice-Nice stage? I actually watched it when I got home, because I managed to finish Paris-Nice, which is no mean feat in itself.

You knew Contador was going to attack, and keep attacking he did. And on the Col d’Eze, when Geraint Thomas cracked, I thought that was it. But Thomas has a massive ability to suffer and he got together with Tony Gallopin and Sergio Henao, and they descended very quickly. They both know the descent like the backs of their hands, so they knew how fast to take every corner. You could see their entry and exit speed into the corners; that’s where they were taking back time.

All in all, it was a great race. There were a few complaints about the gravel on the first stage, but at the end of the day, it was talked up way worse than it actually was.

I didn’t see much of Tirreno, to be honest, and when you’re tired from your day you pretty much check Twitter to see who won and that’s it. Well, I do anyways.

Clicking through the news, you hear the Extreme Weather Protocol is going be implemented at Tirreno. Great. The night before, also. This is put in place not only to keep us, the riders, safe, but to bond us together. It lets the riders, as a group, have a voice and stand together.

And then the former Tour de France champion decides “You know what, I’m better than this Extreme Weather Protocol, and we should be racing. I don’t care what the CPA has decided. Why should these rules apply to me?”

It’s apparent in the peloton Nibali rides around thinking everyone should bow down to him. And his demonstration of cheating at the Vuelta shows us he thinks the rules don’t apply to him. That’s my opinion, and I’m not the only one who sees it this way.

On the subject of controversy, congratulations Ben Swift on being the rightful winner of Milan-San Remo.

Arnaud Démare, I’m sorry to say it, but you cheated in plain sight of many of your fellow competitors. Hanging on, up arguably the hardest of the climbs in the race, to make it back to the front, and then contesting the sprint is wrong — let alone then winning the sprint. This was not at a small 2.1 or 2.HC stage race, like Bouhanni did earlier in the season. This was a Monument. A life-changer in the world of cycling.

We have people witnessing him hanging on. We have Strava data that shows him freewheeling at 50kph or thereabouts. In my view, you took the risk of cheating and got caught.

The reason it irritates me so much is that Mathews got caught in the same crash and did an incredible job to just rejoin the rear of the peloton — which is where he stayed.

There’s no question Démare would have made it over the Cipressa, if he hadn’t been caught up in the crash. But that’s cycling. Crashes happen.

Jens Debusschere (Lotto Soudal) wins the 2016 Dwars door Vlaanderen, one day after terrorist attacks on Brussels. Photo: Kristof Ramon.
Jens Debusschere (Lotto Soudal) wins the 2016 Dwars door Vlaanderen, one day after terrorist attacks on Brussels. Photo: Kristof Ramon.

Belgium, terrorism, and the classics

There was a lot of talk about if Dwars door Vlaanderen should go ahead or not after the tragic events in Brussels. Originally, I couldn’t give cycling much thought. But upon reflection, what Jens Debusschere did at Dwars was true Belgian spirit — he won in the face of adversity. Cycling is loved by the Belgians, and for a Belgian to win, in Belgium, it was a small gift to the people.

The following day there was another Belgian victory, at Volta a Catalunya. The queen stage, no less, by Thomas De Gent. Belgies are awesome and tough people.

Here’s the thing with dealing with terrorism as a professional cyclist — everyone deals with it differently. Some bike riders are bloody selfish. I’ve read numerous tweets about riders upset that their travel plans have taken so long. In reality, lives were lost. Families were destroyed. Police are still identifying bodies. Nobody gives a shit if you were delayed for your bike race or if you missed it altogether. Have some perspective. It’s not about you.

People ask me what it’s like to race on open roads, after incidents like this, or what happened at the Boston Marathon. And it’s not easy. It’s not like I line up at the start of the race thinking “What if?” There is just this cloud in your brain, asking why. Why, in this day and age, does religion mean you would want to kill innocent people?

I think if I were running the 100m final at an Olympic Games, and this had just happened, then yes, 100,000 people in an Olympic stadium, it’s the perfect target. But a bunch of guys wearing spandex, bouncing over cobbles on push bikes… probably not an obvious target.

Then you think about it again, and celebrating sport and trying to carry on like nothing has happened, that’s not correct either.

It’s a hard situation. It’s a scary situation.

E3 Harelbeke and Gent-Wevelgem showed us a few things heading into De Ronde and Paris-Roubaix. The in-house fighting at Team Sky over who will be leader at Roubaix should be over by now. Stannard is better at these races than Rowe, and there’s no doubt the whole team should support Stannard.

Etixx-QuickStep is, by far, the strongest in numbers, but this doesn’t always convert to results for them.

I’m still waiting for Alexander Kristoff to fire a shot. To me it looks like his peak might be a little later this year, but you never know with him. I guess he was sick at Harelbeke, and he skipped Gent-Wevelgem altogether. But you should never underestimate Viking strength. We’ll see what he can do at De Panne.

Peter Sagan is an animal, but one thing that I’ve noticed racing against him — when he has had a long escape, his final power is nothing like what he demonstrates in a full-on bunch kick. Part of the difference between his win at Gent-Wevelgem and his second place at Harelbeke was the size of the move; he was trading pulls with Kwiatkowski at Harelbeke, but had Cancellara, Vanmarcke, and the Katusha rider [Vyacheslav Kuznetsov] taking turns at Gent-Wevelgem. At the end of the race, that can make all the difference.

Cancellara was impressive at Harelbeke, riding back through the peloton, using his teammates to help him regain contact with the front group. I’m sure I have witnessed him do the same thing to us a few years ago, but that time he did it all alone, then continued to ride off solo for the victory. Maybe his engine isn’t quite as big these days?

De Ronde van Vlaanderen and Roubaix are next. Bring on the classics, I say. Of the 10 million people in Belgium, it seems like half of them will line the roads of De Ronde , to show support to their sporting heroes and to show again that sport can do a small part in joining together a nation in times of need.

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