Does pro cycling have a safety problem? A rider’s perspective
Joe Laverick is a young British rider who spent 2020 riding on AG2R’s feeder team in France and has just signed a deal with the esteemed Hagens Berman Axeon squad for 2021. He’s living the life of an aspiring pro, trying to make it into the WorldTour, and has a solid insight into the risks of the sport. He penned this piece addressing the question of cycling’s safety record and whether more could be done to make it less risky for riders.
You can’t consider the worst if you want to race.
You naively tell yourself that it would never be you. You laugh in the face of danger when you luck out of a crash by the skin of your teeth. If you think about the ‘what ifs’, it’s time to hang your cleats up.
Safety is paramount in elite sport, and the ‘what ifs’ should all be covered ahead of time. But surely it shouldn’t be the athletes that have to campaign for it?
Sport sometimes transcends its individual fan-base in moments that make the whole world pause, take a breath and reflect. Neither nationality or usual team alliances matter. Diego Maradona’s death is one recent example; Romain Grosjean’s horror F1 crash is another.
Grosjean crashed at 220 kph (137 mph) into a steel barrier and his car erupted into a fireball. 28 seconds later, like a phoenix from the flames, the Frenchman arose from almost certain death. He emerged with minor burns to his hands, no broken bones and not even a concussion. Which begs the question: Is F1 safer than bike racing?
Many news sites hailed Grosjean’s survival as a miracle. I respectfully disagree. Grosjean’s survival is down to the governing body putting safety first. Engineering and respect for its athletes saved Grosjean’s life.
There have been countless deaths in F1 over the years, and each time, the FIA (the international governing body) has learned and then implemented regulations to make its sport safer. This is arguably the starkest contrast between the two sports of F1 and cycling; the FIA learns from crashes, the UCI doesn’t. Which makes us as riders question – just what will it take for the UCI to take the measures to protect riders?
There are numerous differences between F1 and cycling which make the former easier to predict and control. The longest lap on the 2020 F1 calendar is 7 km. Comparing this to the 298km route of Milan-San Remo, and you don’t need to be a genius to figure out which is easier to control. F1 tracks are closed circuits, and one can often predict where the crashes will be – the safety car even follows for the ever-dangerous opening lap. There’s no ‘street furniture’ either, nor the risk of stray public cars coming onto the circuit (as Max Schachmann found out about at Il Lombardia this year).
But despite the differences, the basic premise of the sports remain the same – the first person to cross the line wins. Both sports accept that crashing is part of the deal. When competitive sportspeople are racing, there will be accidents. The difference is, one sport has regulations in place for protecting their own when a crash occurs, while the other often just points fingers. That might work in politics, but it doesn’t work when my friend’s lives are potentially at risk.
After Chris Froome’s 2018 horror crash, Sir Dave Brailsford asked if it was time for an F1 style safety probe. “It is an opportunity really to reflect and just think about it, Brailsford mused. “Formula One has moved forward in the last 10 or 15 years – why shouldn’t cycling?”
The role of technology
While cycling is taking strides into the modern era, its safety regulations are practically stone-age in comparison to F1.
Let’s start with helmets. The UCI regulations state: “the composition of the helmet material and its surface condition are not subject to any regulations”. While it must meet “an official security standard”, there isn’t a requirement to have a safety system such as MIPS (Multi-directional Impact Protection System), which constitutes an inbuilt brain protection system. On the other hand, F1 helmets are bulletproof. I was once told that bones can heal, but your brain can’t.
On to clothing. Cycling is always going to have the risk of road rash, and broken bones. We’re realists – we wouldn’t want to race in 35°c heat with a full body protection suit. Some things are unavoidable. Direct comparisons here with F1 are, by necessity, limited, as the more sophisticated F1 suits are packed with technology to withstand the possible aftermaths of a crash, as well as being fireproof.
But unsurprisingly, there are no minimum regulations from the UCI about clothing. Why not mandate that all pieces of kit have to include Dyneema, a material that Craft claims is 15 times stronger than steel? Team Sunweb already uses the material in its kit, and it lessens the odds of kit ripping at speeds up to 60 kph, thereby limiting abrasions.
Bikes themselves are relatively robust machines, but there are necessary limitations to their form. It’s impossible for us to introduce a safety feature such as the ‘halo’, a titanium bar around the cockpit in F1 cars, which effectively saved Grosjean’s life.
Somewhat ironically, the UCI does have a weight limit for bikes in order to maintain their safety. Introduced in 2000 (yup, 20 years ago), this was implemented to ensure manufacturers don’t push structural integrity. While at the time it may have been necessary, modern carbon lay-ups mean manufacturers can safely go below 6.8 kilograms.
Who should lead the fight?
In F1, it is often the drivers that are the critics of new safety restrictions. Niki Lauda – who survived a horror crash himself – famously described the aforementioned halo as distorting the “essence of race cars”. Lewis Hamilton, the most successful F1 driver of all time, criticised the new race suits as their increased safety made them heavier. One hopes that all these safety measures will never need to be called on, but the FIA’s safety foresight saves lives. Just ask Romain Grosjean.
In cycling, however, pushes for new safety restrictions often seem rider-led. After the horror Tour of Poland crash, many called for a new design of safety barrier, or at least a minimum requirement for every race.
The Tour of Poland crash was almost identical to Mark Cavendish’s 2017 Tour de France crash. Take a look at what happens when barriers do their job: (Note, this tweet shows disturbing footage of both crashes)
This best illustrates the difference between the barriers @Tour_de_Pologne and @LeTour
The amount og G fabio pulled when going from 80kph to zero in less then a second is mind boggling pic.twitter.com/cHFIJTTnml
— Alex Rasmussen (@alexfalkeman) August 5, 2020
Lewis Hamilton, a previous critic of F1’s pursuit of safety, came out after Grosjean’s crash and admitted his failings. “The FIA have done an amazing job, but we can’t stop where we are, we’ve got to keep on trying to improve,” Hamilton said. “That’s what also makes this sport great. We are constantly evolving.” Cycling, meanwhile, rarely seems to learn from its mistakes.
Cycling is a dangerous sport. I’m a bike racer and I accept that. I’m not asking that we take away daring descents, or cobbles. Bike handling is as important a skill as climbing, or sprinting. I don’t want every race to be on a perfectly tarmacked, straight road. We have the Saudi Tour for that, and it’s hardly the most exciting race.
What I am asking is that we have provisions in place to reduce the impact of any potential errors. A dangerous corner? Put padding out. Roads like an ice-rink, as on stage 1 at this year’s Tour de France? The commissaires should take the responsibility to neutralise the race, not the riders.
There are so many differences between the two sports, it’s admittedly impossible to compare them directly. When an F1 driver crashes, his race is over; this can’t be said in cycling. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t have similar protocols in place, and that cycling can’t learn from the lessons learnt elsewhere.
Concussion, for example, is a silent killer – often there are no clear signs. Romain Bardet’s Tour de France crash proves the difficulties of diagnosis in the heat of the moment. Bardet immediately collapsed when first trying to get up, but the race doctor insisted that he “spoke clearly and asked for painkillers and gave their names correctly. These are reassuring elements in a neurological examination.” It was only hours later in a hospital that a small haemorrhage was confirmed.
— Eurosport UK (@Eurosport_UK) September 11, 2020
In 2015, former Cervelo-Bigla rider Doris Schweizer says she was pressured to ride with concussion during the 2015 Giro Rosa. I’ve had a similar situation to this myself – my word meant nothing until the doctor had signed a piece of paper
And for goodness sake, don’t replay a crash until we know the person is safe. The world held its breath when Grosjean’s car erupted in flames. If you watched it live, there were around five minutes where you feared the worst, as it didn’t look survivable. The FIA confirmed after that “No footage is shown until there is confirmation that the driver is OK.”
Why, oh why, can’t we have the same rule in cycling. To quote Aussie F1 driver Daniel Ricciardo on showing replays, “Our families have to watch that. You’re fucking with everyone’s emotions.”
I’ve never thought about safety like this. I’m writing this in December, with my journalist cap on. When the season returns in March, I’ll be wearing my bike racing cap. When you put the bike racing cap on, you don’t care for fear and danger – it comes with the job. It’s only when you sit back that you ask, what will it truly take for change to take place? In all honesty, I think it will take the worst imaginable before true change happens.
Do I like it? No. Will I still race care-free? Yes.
This included a new concussion protocol specifically designed for sports-related incidents in a fast-moving environment, as well as creating the position of ‘Safety Manager’ within the UCI, the “enhancement of obstacle protection” and “improved security in delicate areas” which notably includes a “set of standards for barriers in the final of events,” although it pushed much of the blame back onto race organisers. It’s a start, and time will tell the impact. One hopes it’s not just a box ticking exercise and that there will be notable improvements.
Big thanks to @AndyTurner132 of ATP Performance for the closer insight into F1. I’m a casual fan myself, but his deeper knowledge shaped the article.