Big Bang The­ory

Cyclist - - Contents - Words RICHARD MOORE Il­lus­tra­tion GARRY WAL­TON

It feels as if a grow­ing num­ber of pro races are be­ing in­flu­enced by crashes at the sharp end – but is that im­pres­sion backed by hard facts?

It hap­pened to Al­berto Con­ta­dor at the 2014 Tour de France, at the 2015 Giro d’italia and then again, twice, at the 2016 Tour. It also hap­pened to Bradley Wig­gins at the 2013 Giro, to Chris Froome at the 2014 Tour and to Richie Porte and Ale­jan­dro Valverde at last year’s Tour. Also to Geraint Thomas in last year’s Tour, last year’s Giro, and, un­for­tu­nately for the Welsh­man, in many other races too over re­cent years.

What all have in com­mon is that they have suf­fered se­ri­ous crashes in a Grand Tour. Worse, they were crashes that in all but one case – Con­ta­dor at the 2015 Giro – led to the rider pulling out. And be­cause most of the rid­ers in ques­tion were ex­pected to have a big im­pact on the races in ques­tion, their crashes helped to shape the fi­nal re­sult and in­flu­ence who was on the fi­nal podium. For ex­am­ple the 2014 Tour may well have been a com­pletely dif­fer­ent race had the two over­whelm­ing favourites, Froome and Con­ta­dor, not both re­tired early.

Such crashes are ac­cepted as in­evitable in pro cy­cling, but they seem, to some if not all, to have in­creased in fre­quency and sever­ity. Speak to for­mer rid­ers or cur­rent sports di­rec­tors and many share the view that there have been more se­ri­ous in­ci­dents over the last decade or so than in years pre­vi­ous. There isn’t any read­ily avail­able data to back up this im­pres­sion, al­though a scan through the records sug­gests that through­out the 1970s and 80s there were only six oc­ca­sions on which a fancied rider was elim­i­nated by a crash in the early stages of one of the three Grand Tours.

The trend was re­marked upon re­cently in a con­ver­sa­tion be­tween re­tired rid­ers Al­lan Peiper and Philippa York (for­merly Robert Mil­lar). While York was un­sure, Peiper, who’s now in charge of the BMC team, said he did be­lieve there were more crashes and bro­ken bones these days and won­dered whether it was be­cause the rac­ing was so in­tense, or whether hel­mets were a fac­tor, since with a hel­met on ‘you feel safe… it’s like a cloak of in­vin­ci­bil­ity’ (see box­out on p102).

Even more spec­u­la­tively, Peiper won­dered whether the in­crease in frac­tures could owe some­thing to to­day’s rid­ers be­ing thin­ner, with more brit­tle bones – some­thing he put down to them rid­ing their bikes year-round rather than run­ning in the win­ter, as rid­ers of his era used to do on the ba­sis that run­ning can in­crease bone den­sity.

Crashes in the pro pelo­ton are more com­mon than ever and are hav­ing a ma­jor ef­fect on the out­come of races. At least, that’s the the­ory. Cy­clist goes in search of hard facts

‘I mag­ine if we all rode on old-school 32-spoke wheels, like some guys still do in train­ing. I think that would cut down on crashes’

If there are more crashes, there are more the­o­ries than hard facts as to why. Po­ten­tial rea­sons in­clude faster races, the pos­si­bil­ity that rid­ers are dis­tracted by the in­for­ma­tion com­ing to them through their com­put­ers or radios, car­bon wheels, road fur­ni­ture and even in some in­stances, as one doc­tor sug­gests, the use of painkillers.

Hard knock life

The open­ing stages of Grand Tours have al­ways been dan­ger­ous. Take the 2017 Tour, where Valverde and Gorka Iza­guirre crashed out on day one. Twenty-four hours later, Froome, Ro­main Bardet and Porte were all in­volved in a mass, al­beit non-se­ri­ous, pileup. Then Thomas crashed with a kilo­me­tre to go on day three, be­fore Mark Cavendish col­lided with Pe­ter Sa­gan to fall more se­ri­ously in the fi­nal me­tres of the stage, and ul­ti­mately had to pull out the race with a bro­ken shoul­der.

Then came a day of car­nage on Stage 9, when Porte (bro­ken pelvis) and Thomas (bro­ken col­lar­bone) went out in sep­a­rate crashes, while an­other in­ci­dent forced Robert Gesink (frac­tured ver­te­brae) and Manuele Mori (bro­ken shoul­der and col­lapsed lung) out of the race. No­body could re­call a day like it.

The trend was bucked at this year’s Giro d’italia, which was light on crashes. It was the first Grand Tour since team sizes were cut from nine rid­ers to eight. Safety was one rea­son given for the change in team sizes, yet many are scep­ti­cal about cred­it­ing the change for the re­duc­tion in crashes.

Ed­u­ca­tion First-dra­pac’s Joe Dom­browski, who was com­pet­ing in his sec­ond Giro, sug­gested it was be­cause the race started in Is­rael. ‘There’s this ner­vous ten­sion in the bunch in the first few days of a Grand Tour, when it’s al­most rid­den as a Clas­sic. No one wants to touch the brakes in the first four or five days.

‘But at the start of the Giro we were on these huge high­ways in Is­rael rather than on lit­tle Ital­ian roads, rac­ing through small vil­lages with a ton of road fur­ni­ture. That al­lowed peo­ple to ease into the race a bit more be­fore we got to Italy.

‘The other thing is that there were fewer top-class sprint­ers,’ Dom­browski adds. ‘The dan­ger comes when you’ve got sprint­ers and their teams and GC rid­ers and their teams fight­ing for the same space. That’s not to put the blame on the sprint­ers, but the GC guys want to be up there at the end to not risk a time gap, and it’s not a good mix. A tall skinny guy built like me isn’t meant to be fight­ing for po­si­tion with a sprinter. We’re not good at it. We don’t have the skills. If some­one leans on me, I don’t push back in the same way that sprint­ers do. That cre­ates dan­ger.

‘From a safety per­spec­tive, I think some­times it’s on us,’ he ad­mits. ‘How many risks are we pre­pared to take? I also have a the­ory about mod­ern bikes and in par­tic­u­lar mod­ern race wheels – how fast they are, how flick­able and twitchy they are, and the fact we ac­cel­er­ate so fast – that I think makes the bunch col­lec­tively more twitchy. Imag­ine if we all rode on old-school 32-spoke wheels, like some guys still do in train­ing. I think that would cut down on crashes.’

The speed has cer­tainly gone up too. The equip­ment is faster, and the ma­te­ri­als are

dif­fer­ent from the ones used even a decade or two ago. For­mer rider Marco Pinotti, who is now a coach with BMC, be­lieves car­bon wheels are a fac­tor in some crashes.

‘It needs to be prop­erly in­ves­ti­gated rather than just spec­u­lated about,’ he cau­tions. ‘But my feel­ing is that car­bon wheels make rac­ing more dan­ger­ous. It’s true that the num­ber of crashes at the Giro was down on other re­cent Grand Tours, but at the other races this year, and the Clas­sics, there seemed to be no dif­fer­ence – there were still a lot of crashes. So I don’t think we can say there were fewer crashes be­cause of the smaller teams. We will have to sit down at the end of the sea­son and look at it.

‘Per­son­ally, I think there are mul­ti­ple rea­sons why there are maybe more crashes,’ Pinotti adds. ‘One is the in­crease in road fur­ni­ture. In the en­vi­ron­ment we race in, ev­ery­thing is de­signed to slow ve­hi­cles down, to bring the speed of ve­hi­cles down, but the speed of the bike race is the same as ever, or even higher.

‘And when it’s faster that’s an­other rea­son why there are more crashes. Now, all the rid­ers come to races phys­i­cally well pre­pared. There are fewer guys who are tired, who are not rac­ing. The group of fast guys is big­ger and more com­pet­i­tive. There are more peo­ple fight­ing for the same space.’

Mis­ery loves com­pany

An­other the­ory for the in­crease in crashes is that, since the in­tro­duc­tion of radios that link rid­ers with their sports di­rec­tors in cars, more teams are rid­ing to­gether, with the do­mes­tiques sur­round­ing their leader or sprinter. This means teams are mov­ing around the pelo­ton as seven or eight-man groups, which in­evitably cre­ates more dan­ger – woe be­tide the lowly do­mes­tique who loses the wheel of his team­mate be­cause he de­cides not to try to go through a gap that is barely there.

For the teams them­selves, there’s also an in­her­ent dan­ger in rid­ing as a group. In a big crash they might lose an en­tire squad rather than just one rider. It hap­pened to the Garmin-sharp team at the 2012 Tour on Stage 6 to Metz.

‘Oh yes, the mas­sacre of Metz,’ re­calls the team’s then doc­tor, Pren­tice St­ef­fen. They had been mov­ing up the pelo­ton en masse, shep­herd­ing Ry­der Hes­jedal, when there was a touch of wheels up ahead. David Mil­lar, rid­ing for Garmin, said af­ter­wards they’d been go­ing at 78kmh when it hap­pened: ‘The scari­est crash I’ve ever been in… a sea of bikes and peo­ple.’ Five Garmin rid­ers went down and at the fin­ish their then di­rec­tor, Peiper, could only hold his head in his hands. ‘We’ve lost most of our chances for ev­ery­thing in this Tour de France,’ he said at the time.

St­ef­fen, who has worked as a doc­tor in cy­cling teams since 1992, has an­other, more sin­is­ter the­ory for at least some crashes. ‘Three or four years ago the use of Tra­madol came up in a doc­tors’ group meet­ing of the MPCC [the Move­ment for Cred­i­ble Cy­cling], and it raised lots of in­ter­est­ing ques­tions,’ he says.

Tra­madol is an opi­oid pain med­i­ca­tion used for se­vere pain, with pos­si­ble side ef­fects in­clud­ing dizzi­ness and loss of con­cen­tra­tion. Un­til last month it was not on the World Anti-dop­ing Agency banned list and, al­though MPCC teams pro­hib­ited

‘T he group of fast guys is big­ger and more com­pet­i­tive. There are more peo­ple fight­ing for the same space’

‘O ne thing about radios is that the rid­ers are told if there’s a cross­wind com­ing up – and ev­ery team is told to be on the front’

its use, it has been re­ported as hav­ing been abused by sev­eral teams and rid­ers.

For Pren­tice, the use of Tra­madol might ex­plain some of the re­cent crashes, and he is mys­ti­fied as to why it took so long for WADA to ban it, ‘when it’s so clearly a prob­lem’, he says. ‘My con­cern ini­tially was less to do with the crashes and more the per­for­mance en­hance­ment, the dop­ing as­pect.

‘I freely ad­mit I passed it out, at the re­quest of rid­ers, but I was un­com­fort­able with it. I brought it up in the MPCC doc­tors’ group and ar­gued that not only is it eth­i­cally in­cor­rect, it might also be dan­ger­ous. We made it part of the MPCC code, but this is like a gen­tle­men’s agree­ment.

‘I’m not sure if it’s true that there are more se­ri­ous crashes oc­cur­ring,’ Pren­tice adds. ‘I haven’t seen any­thing sci­en­tific to sup­port it, but it’s my gen­eral im­pres­sion that more crashes are hap­pen­ing. One of the ar­gu­ments against mak­ing hel­mets manda­tory was that peo­ple would feel safer and take more risks, whereas be­fore you were more care­ful. Al­though I think that might be a straw­man ar­gu­ment…’

Chris Board­man, who re­tired as a pro­fes­sional in 2000 and who is now, among other things, a cy­cle safety cam­paigner, isn’t com­fort­able with the ‘mas­sive amount of sup­po­si­tion’ be­hind the the­ory, or the im­pres­sion, that there are more crashes.

‘There were quite a few crashes when I was around,’ he points out. And it’s true that he suf­fered a few nasty ones him­self, crash­ing out of the pro­logue in the 1995 Tour and tum­bling out of the race while in the yel­low jer­sey in 1998.

Ra­dio ga-ga

If there are more crashes, says Board­man, then the un­in­tended con­se­quences of some re­cent in­no­va­tions could be an­other fac­tor. Take race radios, for ex­am­ple. On the one hand they al­low a sports di­rec­tor to com­mu­ni­cate up­com­ing dan­ger to a rider – such as what’s around a blind bend. ‘The po­ten­tial prob­lem there is that it could en­cour­age a rider to go faster than he would have,’ Board­man says. ‘You’re not go­ing to go tank­ing round a cor­ner if you don’t know what’s around it, are you?

‘The other thing about radios is that the rid­ers are told if, say, there’s a cross­wind com­ing up in a kilo­me­tre – and ev­ery team is told to be on the front.’ And as one or two oth­ers have noted, there isn’t space for every­one.

As Board­man is quick to point out, there is an ab­sence of data to back up the sense that many have that crashes have be­come more com­mon and more se­ri­ous. There’s no deny­ing, how­ever, that they have elim­i­nated an un­usu­ally large num­ber of favourites from a lot of re­cent Grand Tours.

Per­haps they have also hinted at an­other change. It used to be said that the safest place in the pelo­ton was the front, but per­haps, with en­tire teams all com­pet­ing to be close to the front to pro­tect their leader or their sprinter, this can no longer be said with the same cer­tainty.

What is cer­tainly true is that in the never-end­ing quest for gains, mar­ginal or oth­er­wise, avoid­ing crash­ing should be front and cen­tre for the sharpest minds in the sport. Richard Moore is a cy­cling jour­nal­ist and au­thor, for­mer racer, and co-founder of The Cy­cling Pod­cast

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