The Tour of Flanders is one of the toughest races in cycling, but that paled into insignificance when compared to what the Wanty-Groupe Gobert team endured on Monday.
Attending a team-mate’s funeral was a brutal moment. It was a week after Antoine Demoitié was struck by a motorbike and killed in Gent-Wevelgem. Laying him to rest really brought home his loss.
Team press officer José Been described it as ‘the saddest morning’ and the riders and team management will have felt exactly the same way.
The 25 year old is gone, but questions remain. How did it happen? Could it have been avoided? And, equally importantly, can this kind of tragedy be prevented in the future?
Answers to those will be discussed at an emergency meeting of the UCI Road Commission, as confirmed by Brian Cookson to CyclingTips.
“The commission will be meeting in the next week, maybe ten days. They are setting it up now,” he explained at the start of the Ronde Van Vlaanderen/Tour of Flanders on Sunday.
“We have been looking at all these issues as a matter of continuous improvement. It is fair to say that the sad tragedy from last weekend has accelerated that process. I think it is important that we learn lessons, but also that we make the right decisions.”
In the days after the accident Cookson released an open letter speaking about the crash. He revisited those sentiments again. “It was not a case of an inexperienced motorcyclist,” he stated, referring to a moto pilot who has over 30 years experience. “It was not the case of a camera bike, television or still, being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was not a case of overtaking too quickly in the wrong place.”
“But let’s have look at exactly what did happen. We have to wait for the police enquiry. Meanwhile everyone has the responsibility to act safely.”
The UCI president has been contacted by one of the most experienced photographers in the peloton, who has urged a rethink of the types of motorbikes used at races.
John Pierce of Photosport International has covered almost 50 Tours de France, and has seen many changes over the years. He highlights something which he believes is a contributory factor to the accidents in the peloton.
“I think in the last 15 years or so the bikes have got a lot bigger,” he told CyclingTips at the Tour of Flanders. “Some of those motorbikes are just not practical to ride in a bike race as they can’t corner very fast. Sometimes they scrape the ground too when cornering.”
According to Pierce, American laws stating that motorcyclists must behave as other vehicles in lanes of traffic and cannot drive between two lines of cars mean that manufacturers have moved away from any notion of keeping them narrow.
“They make them wider and bigger so they are more stable to ride in a straight line. However that means they are not agile,” he states.
“I have had problems before when working on a motorcycle where the panniers are too wide. Even with the gendarmerie [the police force -ed.] , their panniers are too wide because the bikes are built that way.
He argues that the sheer bulk of the bikes isn’t the only problem.
“The bikes have to have a decent engine size, say 1000 cc. But if it is 1100 to 1300, then there is too much kinetic energy. It is very difficult to get the bike to stop. You also can’t weave the bike, it is not manoeuvrable.
“You need agility in a bike race. There is no question about that.”
In recent days Pierce conveyed these thoughts and others to Cookson. He said he hadn’t heard back as yet, but his point about motorbike size is relevant and should be discussed at the road commission meeting.
Series of minor mistakes creating tragedy
Cookson says that the UCI is likely going to have to look at reducing the number of vehicles on races. Putting cars and motorbikes on the same road as riders carries risks, and limiting their overlap is one possible solution.
However he insists that there is no easy solution. The reason for that? The unpredictability of the situation.
“We have to try and find ways of reducing the potential for human error to cause tragic consequences,” he said. “That is not easy. If you look at any of the big disasters in any field when there has been a loss of life, you see a series of minor mistakes, minor elements of chance coming together to create some form of tragedy.
“At the end of the day there will always be the capacity for human error. We have to try to reduce that as much as we can. We also have to make sure that we make the right decisions, and as quickly as possible.”
In the meantime, others will do what they can. Given the enormity of what happened plus the shock of losing a rider, it wasn’t surprising to learn that Gent-Wevelgem and Tour of Flanders organiser Flanders Classics had implemented changes for last Sunday’s race.
Race organiser Wim Van Herreweghe spoke to CyclingTips on Saturday and said that Flanders Classics was committed to making changes.
“We are always working on safety. We have been working on this for a lot of years,” he said. “After every accident you have to do a reflection. Everything is an evolution. Security is the first thing: security for the people, security for the riders. Security for everyone. That is the most important thing, otherwise there is no festivity.”
He said that restrictions on motorbikes passing the peloton was something that was being looked at.
In an earlier interview, respected race photographer Kristof Ramon gave suggestions about what could be changed. He told CyclingTips that in the Netherlands motorbike race marshals cannot pass the bunch. Instead, they go off course once they have safeguarded a junction or traffic obstacle, benefiting from police escorts to get ahead of the bunch again via alternative routes.
Ramon spoke to CyclingTips on Sunday morning and said that this was becoming more likely for the future of Belgium races too. Once such a system was in place, he said it was conceivable that moto photographers would also use the deviations to leapfrog the bunch rather than having to drive through it.
Ramon also revealed that changes were implemented at short notice for Sunday’s Classic. These changes were almost certainly a direct consequence of Demoitié’s tragic death.
“Yesterday [Saturday] at the moto meeting with the organisers, the UCI, the photographers and the media moto drivers, they then told us that instead of the 12 motos who work behind the peloton for the beginning of the race, only three can work there now.”
He said that the remaining motorbikes had to start the race in front of the riders and even if they dropped back, could not remain there to take photos.
“It means that behind the peloton you are cutting somewhere between five and ten motorbikes, roughly. So that is a huge change.
“I have to be honest. It limits the kind of pictures I can take. But, safety-wise, I guess it is a good thing. Especially on these roads where it is very narrow. And especially in the finale, which is crazy.”
Do riders also have a part to play?
Cookson underlines the need for all involved with races to play their part. “I think everyone has the responsibility to act safely. The riders, yes, and also of course all of the accompanying vehicles.”
Pierce emphasises that two-way cooperation is needed in order to improve safety.
“Let’s not simply have a go at the motorcyclists. The rules for bike racing says the riders have to share the road. I have seen so many Youtube clips which highlight an issue. For example, there is one showing [Nicki] Terpstra in the middle of the road. He wouldn’t let the motorcycle by.
“Well, that is causing a problem because other guys are behind him. All he needs to do is move a little bit to one side and the bike goes through. The bike is there for his benefit, and so they have share the road.
“I am not saying he was in the wrong, but he didn’t share the road. He took all the road. I mean, a pro peloton can put a motorcycle in a ditch. Easy. So they have to share the road, they can’t just say, ‘ah, we want this, we want that.’
“The other thing I will say is that pelotons have got bigger than they were 15 or 20 years ago. Back then everything was working fine, but now the pelotons are larger. That complicates things.”
Pierce praises many motorbike pilots. While there have been inexperienced drivers in the bunch, he says that many of them are highly skilled and gives an example.
“The TV guys are just incredible. They go down mountains with a cameraman standing on the back. [Hennie] Kuiper broke his collarbone descending in the 1978 Tour de France when he was second in GC because his shoulder hit the side of the mountain.
“But if you think about the TV guy, he is standing up on the back of the motorcycle and the bike is leaning on the corners trying keep up with the riders. How dangerous is that? You have to give these guys some medals, they are doing an incredible job. And without them we would have no races.”
Pierce is of course not happy that a rider lost his life and others have been injured. He wants to see measures being taken to improve safety. However he also underlines that there is some degree of unavoidable risk, and that those on motorbikes are themselves affected.
“I think it is inherently dangerous for the passenger and a driver on a motorcycle to do this job. It is very specialised and it is not everybody who can do it. Something has to be done; it was a very serious accident we had, but motorcyclists also get killed. Two motorcyclists went off the side of the mountain in the Tour de France and nobody said a word.
“Cars hit motorcycles, photographers go down, the cameras get smashed. It is a dangerous job, you know?”
According to Cookson, the Road Commission will do what it can to reduce the risk for all. Progress needs to be made, but hurtling along public roads at high speeds means making things 100 percent safe for everyone in the peloton will be challenging to achieve.
That said, Demoitié’s passing means that every effort should be made to try. Otherwise, this kind of tragedy could just be repeated again down the line.