Blood Sport

Blood Sport

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.

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  1. Pat O'Brien

    My opinion is that these things will never happen unless the rider’s form a strong union. The UCI either needs to form an exclusively professional sanctioning division, as they use to have, or get out of the way. The UCI, and national cycling associations need to go after ALL who promote or facilitate doping, not just those that dope. They need to coordinate this effort with local law enforcement agencies and arrest and prosecute people who violate the law by importing and distributing prescription only medications.

    And fans need to be more open to changes in the rules and routes in pro cycling. The resistance to change in all aspects of cycling is really mind boggling to me sometimes. We need more folks like Graeme Obree to saw the noses off their saddles.

  2. jorgensen

    I did not see a reference to the size of the peloton. 40 years ago, if I recall correctly the Tour started with under 140 riders. The number is much higher now. A big peloton just is that much harder to self manage, My guess the variation between the best and the least effective is wider than ever, maybe 8 per team and fewer teams. Personally I feel the guys should be on less twitchy machines, but that is just an observation that what I enjoy on a 100 km ride would not be helping me at 180 kms. I want a bike that takes care of me at that point.

  3. MCH

    Is professional racing really more dangerous that it was in the past? Aside from hand-wringing about some of the big names to go down this season, how about some actual stats to show what really is going on. Citing Casartelli’s – pre helmet mandate crash, while terrible, is not the best example of what is happening now.

    Now, I am not trying to make a case that bike racing at any level is the safest of endeavors – it is not. In fact, I think that this year’s adoption of the word “tumble” to describe what is effectively jumping out of a car going 30 mph in your underwear is absurd. What I’m looking for is some perspective. Maybe racing is actually safer now due to mandated helmets. Maybe its not. maybe better brakes would help. Maybe not. Would protective clothing of some sort help? Help against what – road rash, separations, broken bones, hang nails? Who knows?

    Until we’ve got objective data, all we have is speculation about causes, relative impact to racers and the sport, and potential solutions. If people really think that this is a problem, start with some objective research.

  4. Larry T.

    This is an odd story to run next to one screaming about sensationalist reporting on the carbon fiber bicycle “explosion” issue. “Pro cycling can easily be made safer, but how?” seems to be making a case that’s vague at best. Kevlar shorts? That’s something I thought I’d read about in the NYT. Did I miss the spate of career-ending injuries caused when a pro racer’s backside is sheared off while sliding down the road because of his or her flimsy shorts? How “safe” is safe enough? Some guys act like they’d be happy if stationary bikes were set up on the Champs in Paris and the winner of LeTour would be the guy who cranked out the best watts vs kg ratings. A skilled, all-round bike riders wins LeTour while his competitors fall down and go boom and suddenly we need to make pro cycling safer? Really?

    1. August Cole

      The call for more data is welcome. It would be fascinating to see. I used to work as a print journalist so I don’t confuse this with reporting. It’s a personal essay as a conversation starter for the community here, and I thank you for joining in. I’m a writer, not an engineer, so I can’t tell you whether stronger fabrics will dramatically improve rider outcomes during a fall. But less road rash is a good thing, definitively. Evidence-based safety measures could be the standard (ahem, UCI? Big data?), as you see driving much of medicine like primary care. We’re not talking airbags on bikes, but we are being mindful of racer welfare. It’s fun for us, a job for them. Cycling is not tennis, as I said, nor should it ever be. Part of its appeal watching the management of risk, but the conversation to be had is about how much risk, and what kind. Contador and Froome both offer different approaches, but the same outcome. Out of the Tour.

  5. MickR

    +1 for Larry’s comments above. I don’t see a connection to hockey here at all. Hockey no doubt has moments of beauty but cycling is indeed a completely different sport. Cycling is the original and most nuanced extreme endurance sport. The challenges of weather, parcours and distance are part of the race, which is why the sport is so universal around the world as each piece of tarmac everywhere has the potential to invoke a contest of speed. I don’t hear or see a buzz about crashes; if anything cycling fans who are also riders themselves all grimace when a crash occurs, as we all know too well personally the pain of road rash or worse. We are very much in awe how Contador, Fuglsang, etc. kept going after their falls, but we never want to see a rider go down, ever.

    As far as future safety? Much had been made of the Contador and Froome crashes and it must be said again, these unfortunate accidents came down to rider error. Yes, even the best of the best crack a little under pressure and one little mistake and you go down. Or have bad luck and get caught up in a wreck. Contador has probably enjoyed an energy bar while descending thousands of times, but on this day, he fell.

    As far as looking into even better helmet technology or skid-resistant lightweight skin suits, sure, innovate away. Some kind of svelte elbow protectors could be pretty cool. But please don’t take away our hills, let us continue to race when the weather isn’t perfect, and by all means don’t touch the cobbled classics. Some pro riders will never take to the hardest contests, yes, but you can be sure the strongest champions will always look for a harder challenge to test themselves against the world’s best.

  6. Les.B.

    Just curious:
    There’s a bunch of riders in the TdF, riding a lot of miles. I wonder how their crash per mile stats compare with ordinary roadies’ cpm stats.
    At least the racers aren’t contending with a serious danger of being outed by a motor vehicle.
    We all, racers and roadies know the dangers and we ride anyway. Still, any high-tech protection for riders that won’t sanitize the sport would be appreciated by all.

  7. Peter Dedes

    Fitter riders, more riders finishing, shorter more combative stages, narrow roads with ever increasing traffic furniture. hmmmm…..

  8. Full Monte

    Just recently, while the Tour was underway, Padraig posted an article or two which, in effect, wondered why more stages couldn’t be tougher, like the rain-soaked Paris-Roubaix cobbles which saw a big, tough cyclocross champion in Lars Boom win the day, and revealed Nibali is a darn good all-rounder, and deserved of his GC win.

    In other words, less climbs, less TTs, and open the Tour up to the Hardmen.

    And we all went huzzah! Yes, let’s! Rule 5 HTFU. We want more interesting, exciting racing!

    Yet here’s an article which asks the opposite: Are we already expecting too much of our athletes? Are they not already risking life and limb riding 10/10ths on stages which are plenty difficult and dangerous enough?

    I think back to Johnny Hoogerland’s crash, and there, on an innocent-enough patch of road, saw him torn to shreds, his career derailed. Andy Schleck picked up by a gust of wind (wisp that he is) in a TT and dumped, breaking his sacrum, career basically over.

    So here we are. Crossroads.

    Maybe not a bad idea to ask questions of those who’ve seen the sport up close and personal over the last generation. Ask them if the danger is greater, risks larger, the riding faster and more difficult, and if so, what would they suggest? Riders. Managers. Team owners. Coaches and trainers.

    Because I don’t know. Yes, I’d love to see harder, more varied stages like number five from this year’s Tour. No, I don’t want to watch careers end, bones break, flesh gashed. Gonna go ride my bike now and give this a long, quiet think-through.

  9. Quentin

    kinetic energy = 1/2 * mass * velocity squared

    I don’t have any experience with aero frames and wheels, but from what I’ve read, the gains are real. An increase from 23 to 24 mph due to aero gains results in a nearly 9% increase in kinetic energy that must be dissipated by the road in the event of a crash. That is the downside of the higher speeds that can accumulate from all of those “marginal gains”.

  10. Max

    Another reason for bloodier riding: clean riders.

    As winners are no longer determined by whoever is the most drugged, riders have to gain their advantage with riskier descents and sprints. This is not a bad thing, but something that should be part of the conversation.

  11. Carlos

    Accidents happen. These athletes are amazing. I am by origin, a rugby player, whose age and number of concussions have pushed me into cycling. A cyclist girlfriend helped too. I also come from a soccer crazy country (ARG) where the minimum brush provokes anguishing “pain”. Yes, I squirm when a rider falls. I limit my descent speed to around 45 mph. I try to be careful. I am also absolutely sure that racers ARE very careful. They take chances that you and me wouldn’t. But with their experience (they are pros), they can. Sometimes they fall. It happens. Cycling reminds me of rugby, the admirable tolerance for pain and disregard for blood letting…. “Me bleeding, ref? No, impossible, it is just a scratch!”.

  12. Maremma Mark

    Larry T as usual hit the nail on the head. While reading the piece I too sort of scratched my noggin and went, whaaat?Kevlar clothing? Brakes barely improved in over a century? Are you kidding? Brakes are so improved just in the last 10 years that I routinely descend the Dolomite passes with one finger braking and I’m a big guy. Still, I get the gist of where the writer wanted to go. I think.
    We all hate seeing crashes, we all cringe. I sometimes shout at the TV when I see riders taking totally bad lines through corners while descending. It’s almost a challenge to watch certain sprint finishes, you know the kind, with four or five turns in the last 2 km and everyone hell bent for leather up front. But as more than one reader said in the comments; that’s bike racing. It took decades and a lot of crashes to create a mandatory helmet rule for the pros, definitely a good thing. Perhaps reducing the number of riders in a given race is another progression in that direction. How about road furniture? Or parked cars along the route? But despite everyone’s efforts to make racing safer (cops with flags at dangerous points on the course, race radios to inform riders of unsafe conditions etc) racing bicycles is always going to have a high percentage of risk. It’s part and parcel, tradition, the intangible magic of racing over mountains, cobbles and in all sorts of weather conditions. Take that away we can just set up the stationary bikes on the start-finish line, as Larry suggested.

  13. SusanJane

    As beautiful as a full peleton is racing pelmel on the open roads… I do agree that less is more. Not just less bodies but less cars, less conjestion, less circus. Fans on the road will not know the difference. Fans in front of their t.v. probably won’t either. But that means less teams and less jobs. If we can make the case for a smaller peleton we need to provide proof to the UCI, the ASO, and all the rest. Safety is not a super high concern. Winning is first. Money is up there, too. And, of course, doping controls. Pushing safety up is going to be a hard sell. The UCI has legal ways. Huge budget teams like Sky can have a big impact with their super high profile.

    Unfortunately there is a blood and guts part of crashes. They creep me out. I don’t watch horror movies for that reason. So many riders this year came out and said it straight up… the fans get into the crashes so we have to deal with the cameras doing close shots as we bleed all over the road. Cycling is about pain, suffering, and all the rest. But I think the UCI and ASO need to put down some rules. If you want more fans you need to be a little more careful about the gore. Is what we saw this year PG 13 or what?

  14. George Wright

    Some really informative comments here, from an article that needed to be written considering some of the crashes that have taken place in recent times. And as stated by a few people here the single biggest thing to make these incidents not as common is for a smaller peleton.

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