At least NASCAR and American football are comparatively safe

What do Peter Stetina, Sergio Pardilla, Nicolas Edet, Adam Yates, Pierre-He Lecuisiner, Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara, Jesse Sergent, Angel Vicioso, Joaquim Rodriguez, Giampaolo Caruso, Gert Steegmans, Matti Breschel, Edvald Boasson-Hagen, Martin Velits, Chris Froome, Alberto Contador, Marcel Kittel, and Lukasz Wisniowski have in common?

They are just a tiny handful of the world’s top riders who have broken bones or suffered injuries serious enough to take them out of major races in the last year. It doesn’t begin to include riders like Sylvain Chavanel (run over by a service vehicle) or those who “simply” crashed out of the race and lined up again the following week.

The absence of the big hitters has completely changed the outcome and dynamics of the biggest races in the season, including the Tour and the spring classics. But let’s forget the racing. The toll this takes on the actual human beings racing the bikes is enormous in financial, physical, and emotional terms.

European bike racing didn’t used to be this dangerous. What happened? How did the supposed champions that the fans supposedly love become disposable pieces of meat?

It’s pretty simple, actually.

  1. Speeds are higher.
  2. Pelotons are bigger.
  3. More riders are in contention for the win.
  4. Riders don’t wear safety equipment.
  5. There are no standards for cancelling races due to hazardous weather.
  6. The courses aren’t required to meet safety standards.
  7. Organizers are “old school” and believe that lots of crashes and injures, and maybe even a fatality or two add to the “beauty” of the sport.

Of course the fans are part of this crippled dance and many are conditioned to believe that mayhem is part of what makes cycling such an exciting sport. Why not just hang out at the ER and enjoy the “beauty” of people coming in off the meat wagon?

Those spectators are wrong. Motor sports used to think that the excitement was in danger and death until they began implementing safety standards and equipment. They learned that the danger is still there — you can’t make a car “safe” at 180 miles per hour — but by making the race as safe as possible fans still love the sport.

Normal people don’t want to see their heroes get hurt, and with regard to the sickos who do, the sport will be better off without, including the old school organizers. Bernard Hinault was one of the first superstars to openly criticize the punishment that riders were subjected to when he famously called Paris-Roubaix a shit show; Hinault suffers lifelong disability in one of his hands from the “epic” day in Liege-Bastogne-Liege when he got frostbite in his hands.

The technology exists to make safer riding equipment. Fabrics that don’t shred, reinforcements in the shoulders, back, hips, and elbows should be required. There is also no reason to run races over incredibly narrow and dangerous courses in horrible weather conditions. You think that canceling Gent-Wevelgem due to high winds makes the riders pansies? Then YOU go out and ride the wet cobbles in a packed peloton at 30 mph in a 40 mph crosswind. See you in intensive care, you tough guy, you.

As anyone who’s done a Cat 5 crit knows, the single biggest factor in falling off your bicycle is the size of the field. Ten idiots on a tight course are safer than a hundred. The pro peloton used to be 50-60 riders smaller and there was order in the court imposed by the patron. Now there may be 190 riders crammed into the same narrow roads going much, much faster, and drugs, training, equipment, and radios mean that a huge swath of that peloton has the capability of winning. More people going faster, less space, higher average speeds and faster sprints, and you’re going to have more crashes, and the ones you have will be worse.

It’s an easy fix — reduce the fields, require safety gear, impose weather and route standards, and fewer people will get hurt. But it’s a hard fix because so many in cycling think that “spectacle” means permanent injury or that the “beauty” of the sport requires extreme danger or that safety is for wimps, which is yet another set of reasons that it will never be a mainstream sport, or even a legitimate one.



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44 thoughts on “At least NASCAR and American football are comparatively safe”

  1. The bikes and fully carbon wheels are faster, but don’t brake well.
    The dope in the body slows reaction times.
    And the radios in the ears are distracting the riders.

    James Bond style airbags for the bike, that’s the ticket.


    1. The “braking well” is a misnomer. On the track riders are limited to back-pedaling and there are fewer accidents.

      Assuming discs are approved for the world tour, there will be more and worse crashes because of the new ability to stop really, really fast. Practically speaking modern caliper designs are good enough. The carbon braking surface is terrible.

      1. I’m sorry I have to comment, having 3000+ miles on discs since December, there are not that much more powerful than traditional rim brakes to be a hazardous. What they are is far more consistent and controllable in all conditions and as such much safer.

        1. The factor is the size of the field. For the average schmo, which is all of us, we should have real safety equipment.

      2. I don’t think I’ve gotten into any jams yet with my new 100% carbon wheels, which are full carbon. Problems multiply with the number of riders, though.

  2. Typically these kinds of changes only really happen if the riders themselves demand it, and you know how stupid bike racers can be.

    1. They’ve been begging for weather rules but organizers refuse. When they protest dangerous finishes they are told to shut up and ride.

  3. Smaller pelotons = smaller teams = less riders. As it is, riders find themselves doping to procure one of the few precious available spots. Reduce the spots = increased pressure to dope. More doping = faster speeds, more chances taken and slower reaction times. And then there’s the rider’s union, which will never vote themselves out of jobs….

    1. Smaller teams in races and therefore smaller pelotons is where things are headed with the current UCI rules changes already in motion. You have to dig for them, but the UCI has actually published all of the changes.

      For me, the outer limit should be a maximum of 6 riders per team. I’d like to see that drop to 5 or even 4, but they’d need to add more teams and the way the UCI is setting things up (like F1) there will always be an open world tour team slot or three.

      Expect fewer world tour riders and lower pay for 98% of the riders. The UCI’s revenues are increasing though!

      1. Sure. Just ask Ryder Hedjsal.

        Good thing he stopped doping after stomping everyone on a mountain bike….

  4. I love the finishing straight at Tour of the Basque. Yeah, footlong metal poles sticking out of ground with little orange cones stuck on them. Why did they abandon the idea to install running wood chippers down the straight?

  5. David Huntsman

    Yet, the mayhem and carnage has increased in SoCal office park crits in the last 29 years, where no greater percentage of riders are in contention for the win, fields are not bigger, speeds are not faster, and courses are safer.

    1. No doubt!

      How many of those riders that come and go from the sport are taught bike handling and peloton etiquette? It’s “trial by fire” in weekday competitive rides and it shows on the weekends.

      I also happen to think teaching skills might encourage a few more to stick around the sport, but that’s my crazy opinion.

      Wanky, you should have mentioned Taylor “mini” Phinney.

    2. Speeds are faster and the fields are deeper. Masters races are typically faster but the fields are smaller. Of course USAC doesn’t keep crash stats because that might scare people away.

  6. A bigger peloton is great for inclusiveness, but not for avoiding crashes.
    Eliminate the lowest 10% and the potential placers will still be at the top, and maybe even make it more often as they are not crashed out.
    The modern bike, forget the material it is made of, is more demanding to ride by its geometry. Reasonable geometry is beginning to be rediscovered, cloaked as a gravel grinder.

  7. In motorsport, it didn’t get safer until hero’s died and drivers refused to participate (except Jackie Ickx who thought everyone was just pussys). Pro drivers formed a union and demanded safer conditions in the cockpit and on track. These advancements in safety have trickled down to the average shmuck weekend hack driver wearing a HANS device to the moto rider wearing an airbag leather suit. The key point is this stuff all started at the pro level. Pro Cycling needs to get serious about safety. Untill it does, amature riders will continue to get ripped up and broken. Does Alpinestars or Dainese need to get into the lycra business? Can Stage1 or Castelli combine fashion and impact protection? I really don’t see why not. The technology exists. We just need Pros to demand it.

    1. The athletes are actually the weakest party in cycling.

      It’s a tough problem though because as you solve one issue, another pops up that the new solution creates. They may as well just use an automobile racing track.

      I absolutely agree the athlete’s safety is important though. It’s a difficult problem to address to everyone’s satisfaction.

  8. Although there are “patrons” like Hinault, Armstrong and Cancellara etc who sometimes negotiate with the commissaire, it seems there is really no organisation for the riders to use to ensure safety is a priority? Or did I miss something? Whatever the case, this is one area where more advocacy by the riders & their agents would seem to be needed.

    Couple of other points, while I’m on the soapbox: some of the worst accidents have been caused by service vehicles & team cars. This is an area which needs tightening up & regulation. Ie: want to drive a car inside a sanctioned race (any level) ? Get a license.

    Re Hinaults frostbite: that was his choice. Many other riders abandoned the race but he is such a stubborn bastard that he didn’t. Ok, its questionable whether the race should be on at all (like MSR when segments were cancelled a couple of years ago) but he still persisted beyond logic. Still, there are other examples of questionable rider judgement when safety was a factor but the sniff of victory was in the air. Quintana descending in the snow at the Giro for instance.

    To me the bottom line is that the whole racing scene is dominated by machismo and that takes some serious changing. Whether its using womens underwear to promote a race, refusing to cancel/postpone due to weather or allowing an old boys network of drivers into the peloton….inability to show womens racing even when its on the same course on the same day…..all problems caused by macho fools. Which is funny for sport dominated by stick figures – but its true. Its hard to change but its the single biggest handbrake on cycling: ego.

        1. Well, the point isn’t to make it safe. It’s to remove the absurd dangers that don’t add to the competition and that ruin people’s lives/careers.

          BWR is a very safe event. Tiny groups after the first 30 minutes, lightly traveled roads, and pretty ordinary off-road riding.

          There’s nothing wrong with taking risks, but there’s something profoundly wrong with being forced to take them simply for the sake of the risk. The best example is motor sports. Drivers and riders didn’t stage five-minute protests, they refused to race.

          Change came.

  9. This makes me think of Hoogerland getting waxed by a support car. What came of that, aside from a catchphrase he didn’t need/want and some street credibility. What did the riders do? That was 2011. What did the fans do? From my perspective, I noticed a lot of praise directed at Hoogerland for being tough (deservedly so) and that’s it. Tour of Flanders, 4 years later, and we have neutral support cars taking riders out mid-race. Would that be like the water boys running out onto the field and chop-blocking a player? Are there credentials or requirements for deciding on who drives cars in and around the peloton? NASCAR doesn’t let random people jump in the pace car during a race.

    More things for the pile of nonsense.

  10. I have to agree with the guy who said ego is a big problem. The tough guy crowd who cheers on the crashes at NASCAR races or fights at NHL games.
    Take the danger and carnage away and let the beauty of the sport emerge. that is why the NFL is king of pro sports. They make it safe, they do not allow fighting, and most important…they take care of their stars knowing that people want to see Tom Brady at the Super Bowl, not some no name 4th string QB.

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