The view from the photo moto: Casey Gibson shares his thoughts on caravan safety

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American photographer Casey B. Gibson has been photographing cycling in the United States and internationally since 1991, shooting at the Tour de France, several Olympic Games, countless world and national championships, and every major stage race in the U.S.

Regardless of whether it was a photo bike, TV bike, official’s bike, or a service bike, the tragedy in Belgium was everyone’s worst nightmare.

As someone who has been in and around cyclists in the peloton and caravan for many years, hitting a cyclist would be the worst thing that could possibly happen. As I tell every moto driver I ride with, we have three objectives. First is to be safe and not hurt anyone, including ourselves. Second is to not interfere with the race or influence the result. Third is take good photos. Sometimes taking good photos is way down the list, as I have been on with a few moto drivers over the years where I am just hoping to get to the finish in one piece.

I read Neal’s commentary piece, following the tragic death of Antoine Demoitié. One of the suggestions in that article called for a reduction in photo motorbikes; another called for more stringent caravan licensing system. I’ve known Neal for 15 years and we’ve covered countless races together. We’ve both been in the caravan and seen more than our share of close calls. It is a miracle that more accidents don’t happen, but I think it is a testament to the quality of drivers in general. I would much rather be in the caravan between two cars, several motorcycles and dozens of bikes, than riding down the freeway on the back of a bike. The great majority of drivers in the caravan are former pros or experienced drivers, and are constantly looking out for each other. Accidents still happen. I remember a column years ago from Lennard Zinn about riding in a Mavic car at Paris-Roubaix and almost running over a cyclist who had fallen. They just missed, and that happens more often than anyone would like.

I don’t know how many photo bikes they had at Gent-Wevelgem, but I am guessing 10-12 [De Gentenaar/Het Nieuwsblad confirmed that there were 12 photo bikes. —Ed]. In Europe, with narrow roads and big pelotons, the dangers are greater, but at least the drivers are very experienced. In spite of video that shows a dozen moto bikes clustered together, that is a rare occasion and visually made worse by the foreshortening of a telephoto lens. It is rare that more than two or three photo bikes are in the same place at the same time, except when they are trying to get to the finish. With all of the accidents that have happened in the past couple of years, I don’t believe any of them have been caused by a photo moto, but I may be wrong. It’s true that sometimes there are photo bikes where they shouldn’t be, but it is rare.

We have very specific rules about passing or being in the peloton, and the commissaires in the caravan control our movements. There are always some photographers that push the limits, and end up being in the wrong place, or slowing a rider. But I can’t remember an instance of a photo moto causing an accident. I think the constant internet coverage and video of bike races also shows many more accidents than they used to, and more people see them. That is not to say it is okay, but it is certainly more visible than in the past. To be honest, I have seen many more crashes caused by fans than any kind of moto or car in the caravan.

So how do we make the races safer? One suggestion is to have the same drivers doing all the races each week or weekend. That would be great, but it’s not very realistic. Most of the TV bikes and photo bikes in Europe use the same drivers week after week, if it is in the same country, or close by. There are enough races during the season and year round to make it feasible to make a living driving a TV or photo bike. But here in the U.S., that is not possible. How many races do we have that actually pay the drivers? Three or four? Almost all races in the United States use volunteers, and they may only do one or two races a season.

At smaller stage races, I have had a different volunteer every day, and for some, it is their first time at a race. We just don’t have enough races in the U.S. to have a professional group of drivers at all the races. The season lasts for five and a half months at best, and some months there are only 10 days of racing. And who is going to pay these guys to drive all over the country and do this? Race organizers are always trying to cut costs, and paying moto drivers isn’t going to happen, except at the largest races like the Amgen Tour of California, and the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah. [Race organizer] Medalist Sports is really the only group that has consistently paid moto drivers.

It would be great if there were more experienced drivers, and they had to go through a certification process. But again the question is time and money. Here in the U.S., the pool of experienced moto drivers, whether it be for photo motos, marshals, or service bikes, is shrinking all the time. Many of the drivers that have been around for years are retiring, and it’s difficult to get new drivers the experience they need while the U.S. racing schedule shrinks.

Most of the drivers we have now all have good jobs outside of cycling, and are using their vacation time to drive at the big races. How can we get experienced moto drivers, or former cyclists, involved? The work is so sporadic that it’s difficult to get anyone to be at more than three or four races a year. In addition, volunteer drivers who are trying to help the local organizer put on a race may be driven away by licensing or liability requirements.

The one thing that can be done right away is further training of the moto drivers we do have, and to make it mandatory. There was once a driving course at the Tour DuPont for motos before the race, but I don’t think anyone in the U.S. does that now. The UCI and USA Cycling should, at the minimum, have a driving course for all categories of drivers in the caravan. But it has to be much more than just buying a license. Some level of expertise or experience should be required.

Instituting a mandatory speed limit for passing the peloton is also a must, as most accidents I have seen are when a moto or car is speeding to get past the peloton. Whether it is a photo moto, TV bike, team car, or service car, passing the peloton at anything more than 10-15 mph faster than the peloton is a recipe for disaster. Communicating with the riders by honking a horn and anticipating their movements is required. A minimum distance from motos to riders sounds good, but I think it’s almost impossible to maintain or enforce.

I have been on a moto passing the peloton on the far side of a wide road, five meters from the riders. All of a sudden the peloton swings over and pins us against the curb, and we are suddenly in the peloton, with riders inside our handlebar. It is no place I want to be, but sometimes it happens. Should we accelerate and try to get ahead before they come over? Then we have the speed problem. It’s almost a no-win situation. The peloton, and the whole race caravan, is a dynamic, fluid form that is almost impossible to predict. We do the best we can, and we try to stay out of trouble and to not interfere with the riders. In my opinion, it always comes down to the experience and judgment of the drivers. I’m not sure that can be controlled by rules or regulations.

In the past, some of the bigger races in the U.S. had eight to 10 photo bikes. Considering the pool of experienced drivers in the U.S., I always felt that was too many. But organizers wanted as much coverage as possible, and frankly were unwilling to say no to some photographers or organizations that should not have been out there. Pairing a local photographer with no race experience with a volunteer moto driver with no race experience is asking for trouble. I hope they’ll take into consideration the safety of the riders, photographers, and moto drivers more in the future. None of us want to be in an accident, much less to cause one. It takes a village — from officials to drivers to photographers to organizers — to be concerned about safety and not just media coverage.

This terrible accident has put caravan safety into the spotlight, for the moment. I hope it lasts. It’s a complex issue, and everyone needs to bring ideas to the table. We all want to make cycling as safe as possible for the riders and fans, and for those of us who do our jobs in and around the races.

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