What are we going to do about rider safety in pro cycling?


Earlier this week Jim Ochowicz, my old team director from 7-Eleven, upset some cycling fans by suggesting that the Tour de France should reduce the number of teams in future races in order to reduce the number of crashes. And while other people have made that suggestion in the past, Jim further ruffled feathers by suggesting that the number of wildcard teams (non-UCI Pro Tour teams) should be reduced because they have neither the team infrastructure nor riders experienced enough to compete safely at the Tour de France.

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When 7-Eleven was granted entry into the 1986 Tour de France we were definitely rookies and there were people then who said we didn’t have the experience, skill, or speed to compete. History shows we proved those critics wrong, but not completely. Alex Stieda took the yellow jersey on the morning of Day 1, but we lost it that afternoon because our inexperience showed in a disastrous team time trial. Nevertheless, as riders we had the skill, experience, and speed to contribute to the race and not be a risk to the peloton’s safety; and I think that’s generally true of the wildcard teams in the Tour to this day.

If wildcard teams aren’t increasing the danger to the peloton, then what is?

The overall fitness level of the peloton is higher than ever before

With the widespread acceptance and use of power meters, structured year-round training, team physiologists, and year-round nutrition programs even the ninth man on a Tour de France squad is superbly powerful. There used to be a more significant difference between a team’s star and the domestiques, but now everyone on the team is a powerhouse.

Riders have also become more specialized in their training and their roles on the team. Some of the guys train all winter and spring to not only be at peak condition for the Tour de France, but be at peak condition for the specific job of sitting on the front of the peloton setting pace on flat stages. Or be the guy for the high-speed chase in the final 30km. Or be the leadout team.

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All of this means there’s a lot of horsepower available to keep the speeds high all day long, and over the past few years we’ve heard riders lamenting how hard the racing is from kilometer zero. Back in the 1980s, the racing was hard but there were periods where the speeds were lower. And not every rider had the strength to go to the front when the going got hard.

When there’s a greater strength gradient across the peloton there’s more of a hierarchy; the riders know who is stronger and sort themselves out accordingly. When there’s less of a strength gradient across the peloton no one wants to give an inch. It used to be that when you saw the peloton stretched all the way across the road the pace was relatively slow. Now the peloton is shoulder to shoulder across the whole road and still hauling at speeds that used to result in a long line.

There’s more stuff in the road

No one debates the fact there are more obstacles in the roadway these days. Traffic-calming infrastructure is great at slowing down cars, but it wreaks havoc for a bike race. There are more roundabouts, traffic islands, pylons, and narrowed lanes than there used to be, and riders are hitting them. But the question is whether reducing the size of the peloton would alleviate that problem.

Whether the peloton is 160 riders or 200 riders, the road is only wide enough for 5-10 of them at any one time. Strong riders will still want to be up front and that means you’ll still have high-speed shoulder-to-shoulder racing on narrow roads filled with obstacles. Riders are still going to fight for space, they’re still going to cross wheels, and they’ll still hit traffic furniture.

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The average speed is still rising

With stronger riders and more advanced equipment, average speeds continue to rise. Just as when driving a car, the faster you go the more risk you’re taking. Stopping distance increases but reaction time doesn’t get faster. Riding so close together reduces forward visibility, which becomes even more important when there are traffic islands and pylons in the road.

Team strategies put riders in dangerous situations

Ostensibly, teams ride at the front to keep their star riders out of danger. But with 5 teams of yellow jersey contenders and another 5 sprinter teams all trying to occupy the front of the race, you end up with a curb-to-curb drag race. However, no one wants to be the team that chooses to ride further back in the peloton and gets caught up in a huge crash. So everyone has the same directive: be up front.

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What’s the solution?

Before contemplating the solution we have to first ask if there’s a problem to be solved. Are there actually more crashes or do we just see more of them because of wall-to-wall television coverage utilizing an increased number of cameras? And with instant replay, on-demand video clips, and social media we can all watch every crash – from the little bobble to the mass pileup – over and over again. Perhaps someone has compiled data to show there are truly more crashes than there used to be, but if it exists I haven’t seen it.

Data is really the missing link in the discussion about rider safety. When Dale Earnhart died in a crash at Daytona, NASCAR commissioned experts to investigate the crash and NASCAR’s safety procedures and safety equipment. They came back with recommendations and NASCAR implemented a lot of changes, including mandating the use of the HANS device to limit head mobility during a crash. Racing is still exciting and dangerous, but they enhanced driver safety. If we’re serious about the safety of professional cyclists, and we most definitely should be, then it’s time to put real research behind the questions of whether there are more crashes, what the top 5 causes of crashes are in pro cycling, and how we can reduce the number of crashes and/or mitigate the riders’ risk of injury.

Have a Great Weekend!
Chris Carmichael
CEO/Head Coach of CTS

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Comments 16

  1. On possible change to the composition of the peloton I’ve not read is changing the size of teams, such as 5 riders each team. This would make it more difficult for teams to ride at the front for long times and would reduce the lead out trains. I think it would also make racing more interesting as breakaways would be more likely to succeed.

  2. AS far as I know, there has been no research on the effect of carbon fiber rims and crashes. However, it’s been my observation that crash frequency increased drastically the first year the majority of riders were using carbon fiber rims. My experience is many of these rims have sketchy braking; either no immediate braking (like wet metal rims) or grabby or locked up braking.

  3. IMHO, It’s the coaches fault :). Start teaching your riders how to spin again. They are all pushing way too big of gears. Good smooth high cadence equals a quiet and relaxed upper which equals less liklehood of wobbling side to side and causing crashes. I bet there is a Correlation, through the decades, of average peloton cadence to crashes.

  4. i was crushed to see Cancellara taken out due to the crash this year.. as a spectator cyclist enthusiast, crashes suck especially when one has a connection to the rider. I really hope that he can come back one more year to make it all right while at the same time i hope he doesn’t for his own safety and future long term health.

    For the general spectator, however unfortunately i think crashes are seen as added entertainment value as in any sport. The broadcast companies reward the editors when they splice crash drama into the highlight reel into a opening sequence. For the TDF, maybe this has been accentuated more since NBC took over the broadcast rights. I noticed the change in editing sensationalism during the 2011 TDF, the year Versus handed it over to NBC. The heavily repeated use of the two riders getting slammed by the media car was hard for me to see during the daily recaps.. This harkens back to the ABC “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” clip in the 70’s WW Sports opening. I couldn’t help to think that somewhere within the corporate structure of NBC the bean counters got off knowing that the American public has a thirst for that sort of thing. The riders, coaches dedicated fans, family and friends of the riders want less crashes,, however the media profit wolves want more crashes. The riders/teams have to figure it out and strike if needed to get a safer playing field. They shouldn’t be treated with disregard like a circus act at the expense of entertainment.

    Maybe pro road cyclist should have a off road / MNT bike requirement aspect of their career to increase bike handling skills. Look how incredible Peter Sagan can handle the machine,, i remember that stage a few years back where Armstrong simply and naturally avoided a crash buy cutting through bypassing the hairpin, off road style.

    Maybe there should be a standardized tire / tread style requirement, one that has better traction on wet roads. Take the extreme slick race tire off the table and bring everyone down to a safer standard, one that provides better traction for when conditions change to the worse. In cycling the saying “when rubber hits the road” has big direct meaning. I fractured some ribs a while back because i was playing hot shot on wet roads. With S Works race tires loaded on my wheels i suddenly found myself face down on a busy road. I hit a section of lane paint. Luckily there was no traffic around me. Now i am riding Armadillos. A micron makes a big difference. Having a standardized tread design that sheds as much water as possible away from the contact surface while still offering decent performance on dry roads should be a priority with new replacement tires every day. Put the doggiest safest tires on every wheel. Make it law. NASCAR does it.

  5. Great questions & comments Chris.
    A couple observations: Several pros have their helmet straps so loose, I’m surprised they don’t just come off as soon as they hit the pavement, (Nibali, for example, who has already gone down). True, we here little of head injuries, but they do happen.

    Also, (I’m sure lots of people will consider this bunk), but with all the electro “noise” being transmitted with race radios, now transponders, choppers transmitting tv signals etc., does this have an effect on the riders? Many teams ground their riders after each stage, (at they sleep grounded), so there may be some unmeasurable effect happening.

    Happy cycling,

  6. I believe the riders in today’s peletons are more physically fit and more skilled than ever before. With more of them capable of being in the hunt for GC leadership the crashes are bigger and more damaging than ever before. With the exception of broken bones (Which will heal) the vast majority of injuries are road rash. These crashes are part & parcel of Elite Road Racing. Just as the crashes in NASCAR are part and parcel of racing.
    To win today, they have to push the limits every day for 3 weeks. There will be crashes and there will be collateral damage.

  7. You can design a simple, lightweight device for the front wheel to prevent someone who accidentally touches a rear wheel from going down. That would solve a few of the crashes.

  8. Some protective clothing might not go amiss, perhaps to be worn more on days expected to be dangerous. For example, would some gel padding on shoulders reduce the likelihood of a collarbone fracture resulting from a fall?

  9. Interesting point of view Chris and I agree… there’s and old adage that you can’t improve something you don’t measure. Every rider seriously trying to improve their fitness knows that. And data is needed for long term improvement in rider safety as well. However watching the high speed 30 rider pile up and then Tony Martin’s crash, they both seemed to be caused simply by inattentive riders crossing wheels with someone in front. What are you going to do? Mandate sleep hours so riders can be more attentive throughout a grueling 5 hour race? Really? When riders died due to head injuries during crashes years ago helmets were mandated. I saw at least two riders slam their heads into the ground in the 30 rider pile up. Without helmets imagine the cracked skulls that would have resulted in addition to the broken collarbones. I agree with you and doubt significant reductions in serious injuries could be made with similar reductions in riders. But in lieu of data and a longer term study perhaps other improvements to kits could further minimize injuries. Aside from helmets they’re basically wearing what amounts to little more than sponsored lingerie. Maybe some research needs to be put into fabrics that are both breathable and yet can withstand skidding across the pavement. At least you could avoid some amount of road rash in addition to head injuries while waiting for further data.

    1. Eddie B recommended always wearing an undershirt so that the jersey would have something to slide against to reduce your skin taking it.

  10. Great article. Your commentary is appreciated as I watch the tour each morning (and have for the past few years).
    Could this year’s concern about the crashed be heightened due to the fact that two of the tour’s leaders have had to withdraw the day after gaining the yellow jersey? I am sure there is data (video evidence) from the past decade in terms of where, when, who, how crashes happen. With that said, maybe crashes should be accepted as the riders get stronger and equipment allows for faster average speeds.

  11. Data will be useful, but most veteran riders and fans will tell you that the sport has changed for all the reasons that you mention. However, while the riders have changed, the courses and road infrastructure have not. It is up to race officials to route stages away from hazards that 90% of the peloton will not have the opportunity to react to. This means routing around choke points and hazards, and potentially reducing the number of picturesque little hamlets that the race passes through. The other answer is to introduce more variability into finishing times before the mountains – with tough individual and team time trials (completely missing this year).

  12. Awesome article Chris. Agreed, the only way things can change is with data supporting those claims.
    This year alone we’ve seen several yellow jersey changes, two of which were the result of crashes and we haven’t made it to the mountains yet!

  13. Well written Chris. Data is needed to go forward, as you say.
    Now add hot disc brakes to those crashes and the injuries increase!

    1. untrue, I raced professional motocross for many years, when disc brakes were introduced there no more injuries than before and we had major pile ups in the first turns, should not be an issue in cycling.

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