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.