Did a disc rotor slice Owain Doull’s shoe at Abu Dhabi Tour? It’s hard to say

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Less than a year after Fran Ventoso’s injury at last year’s Paris-Roubaix, which he blamed on a disc-brake rotor, another incident is reported to have occurred at the Abu Dhabi Tour, this time involving Team Sky rider Owain Doull and QuickStep Floors sprinter Marcel Kittel.

Doull and Kittel tangled in the closing kilometer of Stage 1, and the Sky rider later claimed that deep gashes in his shoe — pictured on his Twitter account — were caused by the German rider’s Shimano disc-brake rotor. Several outlets have reported that Kittel was the only rider in the peloton using disc brakes on the stage.

“My shoe’s cut to pieces; that’s definitely brakes that did that,” the Sky rider said to journalist Gregor Brown, who uploaded video of the conversation to the “Cycling Journos on the Road” YouTube account. “It’s gone straight through my shoe into my foot. I’m lucky it is not my leg. It’s like a knife, you know. Just cut straight through that.”

But is that what really happened? Detailed analysis of video footage is inconclusive, raising more questions than answers.

Doull and Kittel entered a left-hand bend directly next to each other. Doull appears to have been pinched between two riders near the left-side barriers and crossed wheels with a rider in front of him, falling hard to his left, into the metal barricades, knocking them out of place. Almost immediately afterward, Kittel is caught up in the ensuing mayhem, flipping over the bars and landing chest-first on the asphalt, his bike flying through the air.

Upon first glance, it seems unlikely that Kittel’s rotor cut Doull’s shoe open. The Sky rider fell away from Kittel, and yet it was Doull’s left shoe that was cut open, not his right one — rotors are positioned on the left side of the bike.

In addition, Doull’s shoe was cut extremely cleanly — almost as if by a razor — and the latest UCI regulations require teams to use rotors with blunted edges that are duller than a butter knife.

Brown scuff marks also suggest that Doull’s shoe was instead cut during his impact with the barrier. As spotted by Cycling Weekly journalist Nigel Wynn, at least one of the barriers were rusted and may have had sharp edges that could have sliced through the thin synthetic leather. It wouldn’t have been the barrier shown in the photo, however, as it was ahead of where Doull landed, but it is possible other barriers were similarly rusted or sharp.

Nevertheless, it’s also impossible to completely discount Doull’s claim. Doull may have fallen away from the Kittel, but he also spun around during the crash, placing his left leg near Kittel’s path of travel.

Kittel’s crash is also quite unusual in that there is nothing obviously in his way when he flipped over the bars. It’s possible, perhaps, that Kittel wasn’t fully accustomed to the increased stopping power of disc brakes and grabbed the lever with too much force as he tried to avoid the crash, but that seems unlikely as well. Kittel is an experienced sprinter, after all, and even with a recent switch to disc brakes, the idea that he could have made such a novice mistake simply doesn’t make sense.

Watching the overhead footage, it’s not conclusive that Doull made contact with Kittel’s bike at all. In the chaos of a high-speed crash, particularly when a barrier is involved, it’s very difficult for riders or spectators to ascertain exactly what caused what damage. CyclingTips is not alone in suggesting that it might not have been Kittel’s bike that sliced Doull’s shoe; posts from Road.cc and VeloNews suggest the same.

Either way, the UCI has announced that it is investigating further into the incident, refraining from any further action until more information is available — a major improvement over the knee-jerk response the governing body put forth after Ventoso’s incident, which a forensic study (albeit commissioned by the World Federation of the Sporting Goods Industry) later concluded had been caused by a chainring.

Nevertheless, the fact that disc-brake safety is still in question is a problem that the UCI has essentially created for itself.

The Cyclistes Professionnels Associés, or CPA — a group representing the collective views of professional road racers — has called for three requirements before it can openly endorse the use of disc brakes in the pro peloton: rounded edges to lessen the chance of cuts, a complete conversion to the technology for all riders in a given event so that there aren’t vast disparities in braking capabilities among different riders, and disc-brake covers to prevent contact burns.

Of those, the UCI has only required the blunted edges.

If discs are to be successfully implemented, it’s incumbent on the UCI to ensure the technology is safe for everyone involved, or to at least prove without a doubt to the naysayers that the risks aren’t as severe as some believe. That hasn’t happened yet.

At this point, in some ways it doesn’t matter whether Doull’s shoe was actually sliced by Kittel’s rotor or by something else. Until the UCI deals with the issues at hand, expect more of these sorts of stories as the renewed disc-brake trial gets further underway.

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