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Crashes are accepted as an unavoidable hazard of bike racing, and Geraint Thomas is the sport’s latest victim, withdrawing from the Giro d’Italia after a violent crash during stage 3 that left him with a fractured pelvis and shattered dreams after entering as a pre-race favorite.
Unlike many crashes in bike racing, however, this one was wholly preventable. All Thomas needed was a little help from the UCI.
Thomas’ crash was perhaps as violent as it was because it happened so quickly and was so unanticipated. It occurred during the neutral zone, of all places, as the peloton was ceremoniously passing through the town of Enna, when nothing of consequence should have been happening. However, the intersection just before where Thomas crashed was unevenly surfaced with large stone pavers instead of asphalt, and the bumpiness sent a number of water bottles flying out of cages and into the road. One of those careened into the path of Thomas’ front wheel, and that was that.
Video of Geraint Thomas's crash earlier today, several bidons on the road and Thomas crashes https://t.co/zaraHekaf9
— the Inner Ring (@inrng) October 5, 2020
If such an incident sounds silly, and if your first thought is that such a mundane item shouldn’t have taken out one of the world’s top road racers, then you’ve clearly never ran over a water bottle at speed.
Such a rogue water bottle took out Fabian Cancellara at the 2012 Tour of Flanders, and the Swiss rider was so taken aback by the ridiculousness of the incident that he pushed for some sort of equipment or rule change. Cancellara was ultimately unsuccessful, but the issue obviously still exists.
The UCI has all sorts of equipment rules, the vast majority of them intended to keep the playing field level so that no rider or team has an unreasonable technical advantage, or to maintain the philosophical status quo that riders are still on recognizable and traditional-looking bicycles rather than the futuristic Tron-like bike you can earn in Zwift.
There aren’t many technical rules specifically pertaining to safety, though, and the ones that do exist aren’t exactly rigorous.
Back in 2009, the UCI introduced a new rule regarding wheel safety, where the main criterion for whether a wheel passed or failed was how it failed during a particularly brutal impact test. Among the requirements for wheels that “passed” were that they shed any bits into the road and wouldn’t produce any sharp edges. Keeping in mind that this period coincided with the more widespread use of carbon fiber rims, it’s worth noting that the criteria essentially stated that all wheels should fail like traditional steel-spoked wheels with aluminum rims (and, tellingly, the UCI didn’t even require “traditional” wheels to be tested at all).
That test was widely lambasted in the industry for not only being unreasonably vague and inconsistent, but also wholly unrealistic (it was eventually revised in 2016). The impact forces applied to the wheel were far greater than what would normally cause a fork to fail, for example, and at least one industry engineer who was intimately involved in the process at the time attested, the findings were so unpredictably subjective that even the UCI couldn’t reliably reproduce its conclusions as to what wheels were safe. Not to pick on Mavic here, but I should perhaps mention that the company’s ill-fated R-Sys design was one that did get the UCI stamp of approval.
And, of course, there’s the minimum weight rule, which was introduced in 2000. This is often viewed as a means to prevent riders from gaining an unfair edge, but back then, the argument was that it was a safety precaution back in the weight-weenie arms race of the era. According to the UCI’s determination, 6.8 kg was the lightest a bicycle could be without sacrificing a rider’s safety.
While the intent of the rule was perhaps sound, the execution was lacking, to say the least. That 6.8 kg figure was arbitrarily determined, and there wasn’t any actual safety testing required to go with it. The assumption was simply that if a bike weighed 6.8 kg, then it was safe to use, never mind how well any of the bits were engineered or made, or where that weight was distributed.
Even today, that rule continued to be enforced under the same false pretenses, with no actual safety testing required for a bike to be deemed legal. Consider the fact that many modern bikes easily fall well under that threshold, and it’s commonplace for teams to strap additional weights to rider’s bikes just to make weight. Think about it: according to the UCI rules, you could legally ride a bike that weighs 5 kg in competition as long as you 1.8 kg of lead shot stuffed into the seat tube.
Makes perfect sense, eh?
Ok, back to that bottle.
Back in 2012, Cancellara’s primary complaint was that modern screw-top bottles don’t pop open when you run them over, so instead of just squashing flat, they remain semi-rigid obstacles that are almost perfectly shaped to take a rider out. However, his issue shouldn’t have been that the bottles don’t pop open; what he should have been upset about was that they were in the roadway at all.
After all, Cancellara’s 2012 crash was notable but hardly unique. Remember, too, that Jakob Fuglsang crashed hard in the 2014 Tour de France after hitting a bottle that Jurgen Van Den Broeck later said, “fell out of the bidon cage. Apologies for crash and injuries … I feel really sorry for it … I really could not do anything about it.”
Who knows how many other crashes have been caused by bottles?
Van Den Broeck may not have felt he had any control over that situation, but the UCI does.
Riders and teams already commonly switch to extra-secure setups during the cobbled classics to keep their bottles from ejecting. This isn’t something that’s regulated; it’s mostly just a way for riders to ensure they’ve got fluids on hand when needed. Bumpy sections of road aren’t only limited to Belgium and northern France, though, and there’s clearly a big safety aspect, as Cancellara, Van Den Broeck, and Thomas could all surely attest. Why shouldn’t those bottles not stay in place during every other bike race?
It’d be easy (at least in concept) to implement some sort of retention requirement for bottle cages with a handful of common bottles and a common drop test setup with standardized protocols (drop height, bottle cage position, bottle shape(s) and fill volume, etc.) that are easily repeatable such that bottle cage brands (or media titles, as the case may be) would be able to easily reproduce the test requirements themselves.
Granted, such a thing would add yet another layer of regulation to a sport (and industry) that is arguably too heavily influenced by the UCI to begin with. However, as much as I find things like the sock height rule to be ridiculous in its frivolity, there are good reasons for a governing body to exist, and if rider safety isn’t at the top of the list, what’s the point? Remember, too, that this test would only apply to cages used in UCI-governed events, not everyday casual use (although one could easily argue that poor-performing cages shouldn’t exist anywhere, period). And besides, shouldn’t bottle cages all satisfy their primary requirement for existing, anyway?
I don’t think it’s asking too much that everything used in competition — bottle cages included — be subjected to some sort of minimum safety requirement, and not via some arbitrary, roundabout way like the 6.8 kg rule.
I dare say Thomas, Fuglsang, Van Den Broeck, and countless unnamed others — amateurs and pros alike — wouldn’t object too much.