The Elephant Not in the Room

The Elephant Not in the Room

The cycling world is reeling from the news of Antoine Demoitié’s death at Ghent-Wevelghem. Demoitié, of the Belgian Pro Continental team Wanty-Gobert, was involved in a crash with three other riders and after hitting the ground was struck by a photographer’s motorcycle. People have been quick to caution that the moto driver has 20 years of experience and shouldn’t be blamed for the “accident.” 

I struggle to follow the logic here. A particular individual made a particular decision and while attempting to pass those riders he struck one and killed him. While I don’t think criminal charges are necessarily the way to go, I think a thorough examination of the race conditions at the time and the driver’s thinking—what was he attempting to do at the time he sruck Demoitié?—should be part of the official inquiry into this awful tragedy. 

But I’m not writing because we need to see the driver punished.

Neal Rogers wrote an excellent commentary about the conditions that gave rise to Demoitié’s death for CyclingTips. In it he revealed that he’s been working on a piece about the safety of the riders and he was upset with himself for not finishing it. While I understand his anguish over not having spoken sooner about the issue of rider safety within the caravan, one of the reasons his piece isn’t finished is that the Union Cycliste Internationale, in general, and Brian Cookson, specifically, hadn’t responded to his questions. I find the UCI’s lack of attention to this appalling. Rogers isn’t some two-bit blogger for a local cycling club. He’s an accomplished and professional journalist in one of the largest cycling markets in the world. Cookson ran for UCI President on a platform of change and transparency. Transparency usually includes communicating to the press, though. Honestly, why does the UCI employ Louis Chenaille as spokesman if he won’t respond to press inquiries?

But that’s not why I’m writing either.

When I first began following bike racing in the 1980s, incidents in which racers were injured by a driver in the race caravan were rare as snow days in Florida. Yet in the last 12 months, nine riders have been injured to one degree or another by drivers. And those are just the accounts we heard about. One need search no further than their own memory of Johnny Hoogerland being launched toward a barb-wire fence to be reminded of the horror of seeing a rider struck by a vehicle in the race caravan.

Suggestions so far are numerous. A speed limit for vehicles when passing riders. Duh. I’ve honestly been alarmed by the speed and proximity with which some motos have overtaken riders. I mean California drivers often show me more regard. To be passed by a motorcycle doing 50 mph when I’m doing 28 and be given barely more room than the spread of the mirrors would break my attention.

You can see a great example of a moto taking out a rider in a piece that my buddy Byron of Bike Hugger posted.

Certification for drivers has been recommended. That seems a good idea in general, but obviously two decades of experience weren’t enough to prevent Demoitié’s death. So that points to what is a change in the overall behavior of vehicles in the caravan. Not only do they move faster between groups, but there are many more motos and vehicles. One account of Ghent-Wevelghem said that there were 15 motos tending to the lead group of five. There were another 20 motos tending to the first chase group. I’ve seen so many motos ahead of a group that they had to be providing a draft. True, the riders were sucking exhaust, but if if commissaires don’t keep the press behind the breakaway (something you can’t do if the gap is below a minute), with that many photographers, the riders get unwarranted assistance, and that also can affect the outcome of a race.

There’s not another sport on the planet that tolerates the injury (let alone death) of its participants by the event organizer and attending press. It’s unthinkable. Which brings me to an underlying problem no one is talking about.

It’s high time all the riders band together and form a professional rider’s union that actually has some power. If the riders truly unified behind a single body that spoke with one voice, they could force reforms. What’s remarkable is that unlike what we might otherwise expect a rider’s union to take a stance on—say the frequency and timing of doping tests—reforming driver behavior within the peloton is something on which both riders and fans completely agree.

When the media take interest in a case being heard in a small courtroom, the court officers don’t shoehorn in every last photographer and videographer. They pool coverage, which is to say they let a few people in and then afterward media outlets agree to share the photos and video. It preserves the serenity of the court without forcing a media blackout or giving just a few media outlets an advantage. It’s time that begins happening in the caravan.

That’s a suggestion that won’t be popular among many of my colleagues in the media. And it doesn’t take into account that a photo James Startt would shoot is very different than a photo that Jered Gruber would shoot. However, many of the roads used in bike racing aren’t built like your typical American thoroughfare and three dozen motorcycles interspersed among 200 riders can and will affect the racing. And we can’t ensure the integrity of the racing if the safety of the riders doesn’t come first.

To prioritize anything ahead of rider safety is to suggest that we are willing to tolerate injuries and death in racing, and that is simply unacceptable.

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  1. Jim

    Boycotting the entirety of Driedaagse de Panne might have been a good start to getting the proper attention on this issue.

    1. Dan

      This was poorly worded. From the reports I have seen the moto was close behind the riders that crashed and struck them without any conscience decision to “pass” or time to avoid the collision. There wasn’t a decision to pass a rider who had crashed and then the incident happened. Maybe “a particular decision was made to pass the peloton and while doing so a crash occurred where a rider was struck.”

    2. Author

      Everything I’ve read said the group crashed, then Demoitié was struck. My copy doesn’t suggest the moto was passing Demoitié or the group, or that the moto driver caused the crash.

    3. Moneyfire

      I would also add that trying to figure out whether he was passing Demoite or simply struck him after crashing elides that in any event the moto he was following too close. Thinking back to basic driver’s ed, it is always the responsibility of the following party to maintain a distance that allows them to avoid any sudden (and often times unforeseen) event. Crashes happen in races, riders peel off the peloton, roads narrow, traffic furniture is often unannounced; trying to couch these routine and foreseeable events as mitigating factors elides the primary duty of the caravan to not hit the cyclists.

  2. Randall

    There’s no way this rider could have waived liability for this type of demonstrable negligence right? Explainer? I agree with Jim, but hitting the UCI pocketbook might be the only way to be heard…

    1. mike

      The UCI pocketbook? You do understand the UCI is not the organizer? They do not hire the drivers, they do not marshal the course nor do they accredit 40 motors to ride with he race. The UCI does not organize the race. My point is they are only responsible for the rules that may permit all these vehicles and to an extent, demand some of those vehicles. Ultimately this is an organizer’s responsibility to ensure the course is safe and that includes the movement of the cars and the quality of the drivers.
      Last year in the Tour of Alberta, all drivers were required to take a short course on vehicle movement and driving.
      We need more of these courses for drivers.

  3. Shawn

    Isn’t advocacy for these kinds of protections what we should expect our USAC, UCI, (insert governing body here) dues to be used for? They hold a monopoly on racing, so you’d think they’d be making sure promoters play fair with us, the captive audience. What exactly do they do that brings value to Joe Racer, anyway?

  4. Tom in Albany

    I don’t know what a root cause analysis might reveal but a simple analysis might be the 5 whys.

    A rider was on the ground from a crash and he was struck and killed by a moto?
    Why 1: The moto attempted to go around him while he was on the ground and hit him
    Why 2: The moto didn’t have time to adjust course.
    Why 3: The moto was following too closely or going too fast
    Why 4: The driver was instructed to pass or given clearance to pass or was pressured to pass so passed despite the risk someone could fall
    Why 5: The driver didn’t feel like he could say no to the instruction or the driver made a judgement error

    This is a very poor example because I don’t have all of the facts. But something has changed to cause so many interactions. But, there are a lot of press motos, photographer motos, the organizer motos, etc. Without truely understanding what happened and why and being completely honest in the assessment, then this will continue. If I’m the family of the rider, I’m suing the race organizer for a massive fortune in order to cause changes to be made if the organizer and the UCI doesn’t do an honest, open and fair analysis.

  5. K.C.

    When it comes to a culture of aggressive driving someone (read: Some driver) needs to be made an example of. A case study could be in Law Enforcement. For example, it used to be completely normal for cops to get in daring car chases over a measly traffic stop for blowing a stop sign which turned into a chase when the car doesn’t stop. It took a lot of civil litigation for Law enforcement agencies to have a major policy change in what justifies risky driving practices.
    Anyone who watches any kind of bike race can tell you that the Moto drivers and team car drivers drive like a$$holes and take chances at the great peril of the guys in Lycra. Why? So they can save a few seconds if someone punctures? Is it worth it? Until someone starts holding the offending drivers accountable in the civil AND criminal courts this will continue to be something we occasionally discuss online. So I will go ahead and say that the Moto driver should be banned for life and sued, and held criminally accountable. Harsh? What would you (anyone reading this) expect to happen to yourself if you ran someone over and killed them? You have the responsibility to control your vehicle. This wasn’t a squirrel that ran out in front of him, he was following (safe assumption I hope).

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  7. Mike C

    When you spoke of the 15 motos tending to the lead group of five and the twenty attending to the chase group, I agree it’s too many

    When Kuznetsov was out alone in front of the Peloton, there must have been 15-20 around him. I couldn’t understand the need for so many on the road. They are whipping in and out of traffic and cutting through where they do not belong.
    They drive like teenage boys.
    Go back ten years ago and it looks like a bicycle race.
    Now it looks like a car and motorcycle race with some cyclists thrown into the mix. Very scary.

  8. Touriste-Routier

    This is a complete tragedy.

    But unless you know and understand how a race caravan operates, it is easy to pass uniformed judgement. Before anyone assumes I am a total idiot: I work on staff at a number of UCI races and have a license to drive in UCI caravans. I can tell you first hand driving in a caravan is a nerve racking experience, particularly on a hard and technical course

    While it appears that 15 motos at the front of a race are too many, do you know what function they will be doing in the future or what they were doing previously?

    Yes, big races may have 4 – 6 TV motos, and other media motos, but the vast majority of motos are used by officials, police and course marshals, who control the race, provide info, provide security and perform traffic control. They fill the holes left open by lack of barricades, unmanned intersections, unmarshaled driveways, they move oncoming traffic that make it on to the course off to the side, and stop in front of road furniture and other hazards, with their flags and whistles.

    The marshals in particular ride ahead, close an intersection, wait for the race to clear, jump back in behind, leapfrog up ahead to do it again. If there are a lot of motos up front it is because they are trying (or were ordered) to get out of the way, or are anticipating needing to do something. Motos in front of the peloton are not a hazard; motos behind the caravan have limited functionality.

    All vehicles in the caravan have their movements controlled by some degree by the race officials and a moto regulator. It is an ever changing and dynamic environment. You can’t necessarily regulate speed; sometimes you need to move faster, sometimes you need to move slower, it all depends what is happening in the race itself. And the racers themselves often move in unpredictable ways. Yes it is their field of play, but they depend on the caravan, the motos in particular to clear the way. I do not mean to infer that the motos should have priority; clearly the racers do, but they do need to recognize that vehicles sometimes need to pass them, to perform a critical function or to get out of the way.

    Yes, more training and certification is warranted. But it is impossible to gain experience without doing it. There is no way to simulate a bike race without being in a bike race, whether you are a rider, a moto driver or a caravan car driver. It is advisable to start in a lesser role, and work your way up to more critical roles, but the talent pool is limited, and there are a lot of races to cover.

    Perhaps the number of media and VIP vehicles can be reduced, but if you reduce the number of marshals, the races will get more dangerous, unless courses are moved to less populated areas and the field size dramatically reduced.

    1. Tom in Albany

      So, is there an way to find an alternate route to the front of the peloton when the road narrow? I can’t imagine a safe scenario for motos passing a cyclist on some of those farm roads in Belgium and northern France, as well as the cowpaths they’re using more frequently in the grand tours. Additional drivers (a problem you cite) might be needed so that there are enough to have some dropping off the back and then going around in some situations.

    2. Touriste-Routier

      @ Tom in Albany I can’t seem to reply yo your comment.

      It all depends on the course. I’ve heard this is the protocol in the Netherlands.

      When a vehicle goes off course they have to get out through barricades, police, etc. Then they travel on open roads (parked cars, pedestrians, traffic signals, spectators driving to the next location). Then they need to break back into the course through barricades, police, volunteers etc. It isn’t impossible, but it is hardly easy. It typically takes longer than one would think.

    3. mike

      I agree. without many of these vehicles in the race we would have moe incidents with vehicles on courses. I also am a UCI licensed driver and my biggest problem is how much faster some people try to pass than the riders. Yes we need to get past quickly and safely but only fast enough to prevent a rider from jumping on like maybe 5 KPH faster. I have seen too may cars pass 20+ KPH faster as they often try to drag race the peloton. Noting that cars take a lot more space.

  9. KG

    I think technology might solve the problem in the next few years. Small drones with cameras can completely replace journalists on motorcycles. This should be the goal. The race organizers should contract to have the race filmed in this fashion from multiple angles and sell the feed to any network interested.
    It stands to make more money for the race as well as improve safety.

  10. Bruce

    I’ve been a traveling road marshal, (volunteer moving with the race) for several UCI races in the US for about the last ten years. During that time I’ve had the opportunity to observe and work with a large number of motos, often calling on them for assistance during a race. (Motos are kind of the cavalry, we’re the infantry.) Without exception I’ve found them to have safety as their primary concern. The moto that hit Antoine Demoitié was said to be carrying an official, so in all probability you have two very highly qualified individuals on that bike and the moto driver was following the instructions of the official. An eyewitness stated that the riders, “just seemed to go down”. Based on that, this was, in my opinion, a “perfect storm” situation in which every quirk of fate conspired to result in the tragic outcome. While I believe there should be a through investigation, it should not be a witch hunt. In all probability this tragic crash was unavoidable given the requirements to closely monitor the race.

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  12. Olivier

    Wow. This is the second post in which the rush to judgment has people wanting heads before they get the full story. (The first was calling for the disqualification of Demare at MSR). Part of this, I guess, lies in the hands of the press. The wording is critical and in this case our first image of the Demoitie accident was one of an impatient moto rolling over bodies in order to get up the road. The reality appears to be that the moto driver did everything they possibly could to avoid hitting anyone and in the process also crashed. This is in no way similar to the accident that took out Taylor Phinney. No charges were filed and the rider’s team issued a statement essentially absolving the driver of any guilt. The driver in the meantime is utterly devastated. I wish that the hearts would go out to all who were involved in this tragedy instead of looking for blood.

    1. Tom in Albany

      @Olivier, My point would be that if the driver had no time to respond one of two things were true:

      1. He was following too closely
      2. He was going too fast

      I haven’t seen a detailed report or video that would show that one of these two possibilities are not correct.

      He was already in the process of passing, maybe? What can be done differently?

    2. Author

      I don’t know that anyone wants blood. What we need is a clear assessment, which is something the UCI has always done a poor job of.

  13. Peter Dedes

    I advocated for an independent riders’ union more than twenty years ago. Workplace conditions, standardized employment, health and pension benefits, job security and having professional representation in collective bargaining are all part of what’s needed to modernize what is still an arcane sport.

  14. Jason Lee

    We don’t need as many motos for press. The advent of drones and on board cameras should push the viewing of the sport into safer and fresher directions than the archaic practice of using race-changing motos to shoot stills (I mean F**K, it’s 2016!)

    The real problem is the utter lack of action by Cookson and the UCI. That is something that is unforgivable.

  15. K.C.

    Excellent points made about the responsibilities of the motos in leapfrogging ahead. I also understand that officials feel like they need to be close to see the action. I can see why someone can see previous posts as being “out for blood,” I see it as the opposite. I don’t want any more blood. At some point the UCI and race organizers need to think outside the box to come up with a plan to reduce aggressive driving around the racers and spectators. Safety needs to come first. There is no excuse for risky, white knuckle driving. I’m sorry, but I don’t care if you are a 16 year old or a 20 year veteran in the caravan. If you operate the vehicle in a manner that makes you nervous, you are putting everyone in danger. It can’t be justified. Pay for more police to block off intersections, or seek out more volunteers to do same. If drivers aren’t accountable for what they hit then this will continue.

    1. Touriste-Routier

      @ K.C. While I understand what you are saying, please consider:

      One just can’t always just simply hire more police. Only so many exist and are available for special duty, particularly in small towns, and budgets only allow for certain amount of expenditure.

      When you use volunteers, you get what you pay for. Assuming you were able to recruit enough in the first place, when the weather turns bad, they often stay home, and when they are out at the races, sometimes they are paying more attention to the race than their jobs.

      The driving isn’t nerve racking because of the speed, but because it is sensory overload. You need eyes on all four sides of your head:

      You have to stay close to the vehicle in front of you, you have to know where you are on the course and anticipate turns, and hard braking, you have riders dropping back through the caravan, you have riders moving up through the caravan jumping in between vehicles (and often on the wrong side), you have team cars, neutral cars, medical cars, officials, and media, moving up and falling back as they are called into service and then returning to their designated positions, you have to look out for spectators, particularly kids coming out into the street for dropped bottles & musettes (which is why teams are not allowed to throw goodies to the crowd), you have to pay attention to the race radio, which is often yelling instructions which are not always clear, and if you happen to be driving an official, they may be yelling at you to do something that isn’t quite possible at the moment, because they don’t see all that is going on around you (since they are focused on their job), you have motos and cars driving next to you trying to talk to you through the window, because the radios aren’t working properly or the particular communication is not allowed on the radio.

      On long straight roads everything is reasonably easy to manage (it can be rather boring), but on a technical course, particularly a technical circuit race, it is exhausting. The higher the category of race, the easier it typically is, as the other drivers typically know the drill, but if you have a few newbies (say a 1.2 race with a mix of elite amateur teams, low budget continental, and pro-continental teams) not all of them know/follow the protocols due to inexperience, despite the pre-race managers and drivers meetings.

      You need to remember that vehicles have blind spots, and riders moving through the caravan are often in them; the main reason why riders make it back to the bunch after a puncture is they can draft in the caravan. If a driver forgets to do a basic thing like honk to warn the next vehicle ahead that a rider is moving up, it can set the stage for disaster, especially if the rider is moving up as the caravan is entering a turn.

      If you are driving a moto, and have a passenger on the back (be it media, an official, or a VIP), it isn’t easy to turn your head and look; they may be obstructing your view. If the passenger leans out to look at something (maybe just doing their job as the situation dictates) in the wrong direction at the wrong time, it can dramatically change the center of balance, which can affect maneuvering, or in the worst case, cause a moto to crash.

  16. Geoffrey Knobl

    UNION! It’s been said for years. The current sorry state of union power in the USA and abroad might be to blame for part of this but, yes, I agree, there should be a riders union, just like there are players unions in other sports. Even if they do some things wrong, they will get this safety thing right, I feel. But how and when will a real union happen? I don’t know. I feel this will only occur if they announce themselves with a real strike. Right now, they are kept separate from each other and looking at their own needs individually, just like us good little workers in the states. That means no rights and that sucks. Hopefully, someone with a little power will convince enough people to do this and get it done for their own safety, even if it means we don’t see cycling for a bit.

  17. Ajax

    I’m tired of reading these lengthy excuses of why we shouldn’t jump to conclusions. Nobody needs an in-depth investigation to know that at the very minimum the driver was following too close. Period.

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