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.[blog_promo promo_categories=”coaching” ids=”” /]
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.[blog_promo promo_categories=”camp” ids=”” /]
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.[blog_promo promo_categories=”bucket list” ids=”” /]
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!
CEO/Head Coach of CTS
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