Cro Race safety chaos leaves bitter taste in mouths of the peloton

A bollard around (nearly) every corner in Zagreb.

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“Come to Croatia they said,” tweeted Geraint Thomas, “it’ll be fun they said.” The Welshman then attached a screenshot of the weather forecast in the Balkan Peninsula with rain expected every day.

The first day at the Cro Race did look utterly miserable, even for a late September race where inclement weather isn’t unexpected, coming just as the peloton and cycling fans ready themselves for their winter hibernation.

What wasn’t expected, however, was the number of headlines generated by a 2.1 race. This was mostly due to Tour de France winner Jonas Vingegaard’s return to racing for the first time since taking the yellow jersey to Paris in July. The Dane didn’t waste much time to show what a month off followed by a long training camp has done for his form as he builds towards Il Lombardia, winning stages three and five.

While DSM’s British youngster Oscar Onley also announced himself to the cycling world as he pushed Vingegaard to the line on both of those days, the race was won by Bahrain-Victorious’ Matej Mohorič, the Slovenian pouncing on the final stage six to scoop up bonus seconds and leapfrog Vingegaard into first place.

But that final stage into Zagreb was marred by a finishing circuit that caused viewers to hold their breath and not because of the intensity of the racing action.

Into the final 5 km, as Ineos Grenadiers controlled the bunch to set things up for the eventual stage winner Elia Viviani, the images being broadcast became increasingly concerning.

Sweeping around corners with unprotected traffic bollards on the left-hand side, the peloton’s racing line took them right, whizzing past pedestrians on the route who were walking against the race direction. Around the next corner, a lamppost was waiting for the man on the front, Ineos’ Kim Heiduk, before even more street furniture plonked right in the middle of the exit of the bend. On the TV broadcast, the anxious groans of the commentators reflected the emotions of their viewers watching at home.

As the course then kicked up, the distinction between pavement and road became non-existent, except for some domed ankle-height bollards lining the gutter, inviting riders to fight for position by weaving in and out of them. In another spectacular twist, it was garbage collection day and bins lined the street as the professional athletes zoomed by, while a family who had been standing on the kerb also jumping back into the doorway and narrowly avoiding a collision. The tram lines across some streets tied a neat little bow over a terrifying run-in to the finish line.

After a few more twists and turns the speed ramping up, parked cars now lined either side of the street and the front group had thinned considerably. Presumably, many members of the bunch didn’t fancy risking it all this close to the off-season and when the stakes weren’t as high as in WorldTour races with much more competitive sprint fields.

On a more open stretch of road the nervousness finally took its toll as a number of riders came skidding out, someone from B&B Hotels jumping to his feet, hopping out of harm’s way and trying to shake the pain out of his hands after hitting the deck.

Sporadic barriers eventually appeared as under 20 riders went under the flamme rouge. The finishing straight was just over 250 metres in length, with the road widening just before the finish line. The fast men approached their limit as they fought for victory, as did the UCI regulations.

“The finishing straight should be as long as possible, at least 200 m. It should also be sufficiently wide, at least 6 m, and ideally 8-10 m. The road width must be consistent and must not narrow at all. The road surface must be in excellent condition,” reads the guidelines from cycling’s governing body.

Soon after the finish came the reaction from the peloton.

“Once again the UCI is being the UCI,” said Jumbo-Visma’s Jos van Emden. “Not only today but 3 out of 6 stages were way over the limit. David Lappartient how do you think it’s going?” The Dutch rider then posted screenshots of fans on the course and ill-placed bollards, asking the UCI President again if that looked good to him. He later told VeloNews that this would be his first and last Cro Race and that he didn’t expect his Jumbo-Visma team to return either.

“Who has the responsibility for our safety in a UCI race?” Quick-Step AlphaVinyl’s Michael Mørkøv added. “UCI please help us.”

The truth of the matter is that safety isn’t a new issue at Croatia’s premier stage race.

“I will say, I watched last night and was pretty shocked to see that not only nothing had changed since I retired two years ago, but in fact it go worse. How was this ever ok?” the Australian former pro Rory Sutherland said. “At what point do, and should, the riders just not start the race? It’s easy to say, I know, but nothing will change if you just keep on racing.”

Alongside trepidatious finales, sizeable transfers made for an arduous week. A total of 753 km needed to be covered by the teams to get to the next day’s start line across the six stages. Ineos’ Jonathan Castroviejo’ solution was to bring his gaming console on the bus, pulling some remarkable faces as he vanquished his virtual foes in transit. “I think Jonathan Castroviejo needs to ride on the front more,” Geraint Thomas said. “[He has] too much energy.”

“Cro Race is not actually about cyclists battling against one another,” tweeted journalist Kate Wagner. “It’s about them battling against the beautiful chaos of Croatian urban planning.”

UCI President David Lappartient said earlier this year that safety was the UCI’s number one priority. Cases like the Cro Race reinforce the desperate need for action, not just words, especially seeing as it is currently set to receive an upgrade to 2.Pro status for 2023.