A black and gold jersey spattered in blood is nothing new in sport. In Boston, that’s called hockey.
How long before that’s called cycling?
Spectators of the world’s greatest bike races are seeing more and more high-definition trauma, the spindly kings of the road frequently seen painfully pedaling along with Oakleys askew, yellow jersey in tatters as if they tried to elbow a hungry black bear for a choice dumpster. It’s a long way from a NASCAR track’s crash-lust, but this year’s European stage races showed a new, bloodier side of the sport.
Tragedy is unfortunately nothing new in cycling, particularly in the Tour de France, but it is supposed to be a rarity. A horror. This year’s route took the racers past the mountain road in the Pyrenees where Motorola rider Fabio Casartelli crashed in 1995 and died soon after from his injuries. A newspaper’s image of the father and Olympian curled in agony on a crimson-streaked stretch of the Col de Portet d’Aspet will haunt me forever. The profound pain of his death, which I understood at a superficial level at the time because of my age, becomes clearer with each year as I see how much life he missed out on with his family, friends and the peloton. Nobody died during 2014 edition of the Tour, but there were too many close calls.
The first signs that this year would require a playoff-hockey mentality for the podium pretenders came at the Criterium du Dauphine in June. Team Sky’s Chris Froome crash while descending on stage 6 left him with a tattered jersey that revealed the very blood so prized after by the UCI “vampires.” He got up and kept riding while blood wept from his wounds for the world to see, proving the revelation is indeed human. The crash foretold a very difficult July and made it possible for an upset American victory by Garmin-Sharp’s Andrew Talansky at the Dauphine.
It took too many falls and broken bones for Froome to give up a month later on the crash-marred rain-slick roads of Northern France. Not bone. Bones. Tinkoff-Saxo’s Alberto Contador’s demise came on a descent with a crash the world missed on TV but we saw the aftermath. The fall left him with a broken leg that, even with what must be one of the highest pain thresholds of any athlete in the world, he could not race through. Through repeated crashes, Talansky soldiered on, a phrase that America understands differently than it did 13 years ago. He could not escape the toll of his injuries, however, and abandoned after proving to himself, and us, that he cared enough for the race to painfully ride the loneliest kilometers of his career.
We already know cyclists are tough. Bruins tough. But do we need such an emphatic crimson underline to our love for the sport?
Cycling is not tennis. It is closer to hockey than most people realize, yet it is more like Olympic hockey than NHL hockey. Cycling must avoid turning into a rolling carnival of carnage in a cynical bid to ensure the sport’s commercial future. Speed, skill and bodily risk in cycling are interwoven, the more tightly so the closer you get to the pro level. There, death is part of the peloton. It wears no jersey but it trades elbows in a fight for room approaching Belgian roundabouts and offers a gentle push during alpine breakaway descents at ticketable speeds.
Pro cycling can easily be made safer, but how?
To start, the body that athletes dedicate a lifetime to adapting to a Dickensian hunch and a castaway’s physique can be better protected. Crashes will end careers. That cannot be changed. But it need not end so many.
Better protected from the road with woven Kevlar or other aramid fibers into jerseys and shorts that are currently little better than billboard body stockings. Mountain bikers figured out how to do it and new helmets show how progress can be made.
Better protected from the team managers and owners who prize victory over all. Pro racing is far from a healthy sport, but the risks should be on the road and not involve needles and pills.
Better protected from a machine that is the frontline in the war between innovators and luddites. Wheels and frames are on par with Formula 1’s best engineering but pro bike brakes are little improved from those that slowed a Borain miner as he pulled up to the gates of his subterranean misery almost a hundred years ago.
Thankfully, none of these changes will make the sport any easier. It will remain a brutal battle of wills and endurance, but this year’s Tour made it clear cycling should not devolve into a mortal contest. The riders have known this and now we do too. It is the fans that have the power to do something about it.