(Some) Crashes Are A Part of Bike Racing

(this story originally appeared on Red Kite Prayer on September 27, 2011.  As RKP appears to be shutting down, I’m re-posting the article in this space.

For reasons unknown, this past Sunday, The New York Times ran a story on crashes in pro racing.  It’s something I’ve been thinking about since this year’s Tour ended. Mostly because the reasons that most proffer don’t really explain what’s going on.

The Times article is here.

The biggest problem of all is that we’re relying on anecdotal evidence, and the Times is no different. The reporter gathered his anecdotes and offered them up. Ten deaths since 1995, though few mentioned because, they apparently aren’t worth mentioning. Thankfully, he does point out that no one is investigating. Seems to me that this is a matter for the UCI and the professional rider’s union (CPA) to investigate, but he doesn’t ask Pat McQuaid, nor CPA chief Gianni Bugno what they’re doing about it.

If racing my bike was my job, I’d want them investigating. At the very least, maybe an investigation of the reported crashes at the Giro, Tour, and Vuelta. The three big stage races. Maybe looking at them can help point to things that might merit further research.

With the Tour, the biggest cycling stage in the world, every team has an incentive to ride aggressively, everyone wants an opportunity to get in front of the camera, everyone wants a dig at a stage win, just about every racer is probably thinking, no matter what their assignment is, if they just do one more thing, they might be able to score yellow, just for a day, and it won’t derail their team leader’s chances at his stated goal. Seems like a recipe for lots of crashes.

Stakes are highest for most riders and teams at the Tour, no doubt. But there are big crashes at the Vuelta and Giro as well, and they often take out a favorite, or two. And every year, there are crashes at the Tour, and crashes at every race. Every year at the Tour, and other big races, favorites are either caught up in the crashes and drop out or are caught behind them and are knocked out of contention before the critical stages or sectors begin. We’re not always paying attention in other races. But somehow, this year seemed different. There were lots of explanations; the most interesting I read was a cleaner peloton is both more evenly matched and more fatigued.

Maybe more evenly-matched causes some problems, but more fatigued I find hard to believe. It strikes me that such a comment assumes that every last cyclist was doping, because otherwise, the clean cyclists would probably have been more fatigued ten or fifteen years ago than they are now. Even if every last cyclist was doping, there is plenty of evidence that there are both high-responders and low-responders to doping products, EPO in particular, and the low-responders would presumable be at a greater disadvantage than they are today, assuming a cleaner peloton.

I think it’s safe to rule out road conditions as being a big problem, as road conditions are generally better today than they were in the past. I also think it’s safe to rule out “road furniture” on the transitions in and out of towns for most crashes. I know the road furniture theory is a popular one, and the awful Craig Lewis-Marco Pinotti crash at this year’s Giro has been attributed to road furniture, but even their crash deserves at least a little questioning. Was there any footage of it? I couldn’t find any. Maybe road furniture is responsible, but maybe it was just what they hit and the cause was something else. Maybe the crash would have been worse had it not been for the road furniture. I have no reason to doubt either person’s sincerity, but unless we have a better idea of what happened it seems premature to assign blame.

To me, another strike against the road furniture theory is that at this year’s crash-ridden Tour, it didn’t seem like any crashes were the result of road furniture; most of the heavily-reported crashes seemed to have happened on straight roads or in the mountains. There’s also evidence that the Tour and other big races work with local governments to remove some traffic circles and speed bumps where they think their removal will improve safety. I noticed what appeared to be traffic circle modifications during the World Championships as well. I think it’s safe to rule out narrow roads, as not only were wider roads once seen as a culprit, but narrow roads were once all the peloton used.

I’d like to offer up a few alternative explanations to the common cries.

It’s possible that crashes are as common as they’ve always been, but that broken bones are more common today than they used to be, making the crashes more serious and more frequently race-ending. As such, I think one potential culprit is osteopenia. If you haven’t heard of it, consider it osteoporosis lite: bone mineral density is lower than normal. I think it should be considered a factor in all crashes where bone breakage occurs, whether it is in training or racing. Anecdotally, there seem to be more and more stories about guys breaking bones in training crashes the past several years. Even “normal” cyclists can have reduced bone density as a result of all the miles they put in, so a Tour rider, particularly a climber who has meticulously starved himself down to his ideal race weight, probably has thinned his bones beyond what the average mileage-hound has done. I heard physiologist Allen Lim discussing hearing about crashes and thinking that every crash has the potential to break bones during a Grand Tour. When I put it to Dr. Michael Ross, a former team doctor, he unhesitatingly said, “yes.” It also could be a sign of cortico-steroid abuse, something Dr. Ross pointed out, as the result is same. Yes, these guys are racing hard, yes, they’re going fast, yes, they’re hitting the ground hard, but looking at how emaciated riders like Brad Wiggins and Chris Horner are at their Tour weight, I have to imagine their bodies catabolized bone matter to keep going. It strikes me as an evolutionary strategy that certainly helped early humans survive famines, but it also could be how crashes are breaking collarbones, ribs, pelvises, wrists, hips, and so on. For all the discussion about injuries resulting from race crashes, lots of guys seem to be breaking bones training; Dutch rider Robert Gesink had his season ended for him shortly before the World Championships when he fractured his leg while out training.

Some have suggested the culprit could be the machine itself. The bikes don’t seem to be the problem as catastrophic failures from normal riding have largely disappeared, and it’s hard to believe that a bike breaking after hitting the ground is injuring riders. Others point to stiffer wheels and too-light bikes, but I doubt those lines of thinking. I’ve seen little evidence that wheels are vertically stiffer than they used to be, which would be where the problem would lie in straight-line crashes. Tires are just about the same today as they were 25 years ago, and bikes still flex and tire pressure can be adjusted to account for stiffness. Steve Tilford speculated on his blog that some of the sketchy downhill riding was due to racers not training on their race wheels. He may be right. But I think the problem might extend to all racing. Not all carbon-fiber braking surfaces brake equally well. Some are grabby, some pulse, some give the unsettling feeing they’re not slowing down, even in the dry, some work fine in the dry but are questionable in the wet. Most pros can only ride the wheels they sponsors want them to ride, so they could be stuck between taking the risk of crashing or taking the risk of getting dropped more easily. I think many amateur racers would take the same risk, at least in the dry. People might suggest disc brakes, but I even with discs, tire traction, or lack thereof, will be a problem in the wet.

Another potential culprit is the training schedules of racers. At one time, pros probably raced much, much more before showing up to the Tour—the Tour came after both the Vuelta and the Giro and racers typically raced from February into June with smaller training blocs in between. Yes, they might not have been as fast as racers today, their training and nutrition wasn’t as precise, but by racing, they were training themselves to be more skilled in the peloton. And now the peloton is bigger. Riding in a pack takes skill, a skill that is honed by practice, unless there are some Wii games I don’t know about. Some weekend warriors in the US race more than Tour contenders between the start of their season and the Tour. Consider that this year, Chris Horner didn’t race at all between his victory at the Tour of California in May and the start of the Tour. Alberto Contador didn’t race at all between his Giro victory and the Spanish nationals, where he raced the time trial and road race, and then came to the Tour.

Or maybe the converse is true. Cadel Evans barely raced all spring and seemed to be able to race his few races with no crashing issues, though his preference is to race at the front. Maybe the pack as a whole are better bike handlers today and more comfortable riding closer to one another which makes it easier to crash several riders at once when one thing goes wrong.

The biggest issue is probably randomness, volume, and the nature of riding in the peloton. Just take an assembled group of cyclists, 189 riders is 21 teams worth, and have them ride an average of 100 miles a day for three weeks. Even if they were all riding solo, there would be crashes. Knowing how many riders go down in training and how frequently would be interesting to know, and something to compare to all the race crashes.

Some point to the packs being bigger as a culprit in crashes. There could be something to this, though the phenomenon of large fields began in 1986 when 210 riders started. And this time probably is when the super-large fields started occurring at the top races throughout cycling. Previous to this, it seems that races were in the range of 30-50% smaller and largely composed of teams racing in their home country—the Tour with French riders on French teams, the Vuelta with Spanish riders, the Giro with Italian and so on.

For riders, racing is their job and they owe it to themselves to demand research to determine what the real issues and culprits are. At the same time, they probably shouldn’t push for any changes until serious research is done. As a response to the extreme length of the 1987 Tour (22 teams of nine riders apiece riding 25 stages totaling 4231km), there was a movement to standardize the lengths of Grand Tours and shorten stages. This was seen as doing, among other things, reducing the incentive to dope. We know how that worked out.

Race radios are sure to come up as a safety thing. There’s no easy answer with them. Yes, directors can alert their riders to dangers up ahead, but there are downsides to trusting the voice in your ear. What if the director is wrong? What if riders interpret silence to mean everything is safe ahead? When hard helmets were first mandated by the USCF in the 1986, there was an argument that people would take more risks because they knew their head was safe. That never made sense. But I read a story about Erik Zabel’s role for the HTC-Highroad team. Supposedly he’d preview the stage finish and then relay what he saw to the team car, and Ralf Aldag or Brian Holm would then tell the riders. He apparently saw a turn that looked tricky but was convinced the leadout train could take it without braking. Hincapie lead through, didn’t touch his brakes, and Cavendish won the stage. Did this make for safer racing? The first guys made it through and probably so did the entire field. But what if he had been wrong? Is it good for the riders to trust such judgements?

It’s situations like these when I’m glad I’m not a pro bike racer. But it also makes me wonder how safe conditions are for all bike racing.

One thought on “(Some) Crashes Are A Part of Bike Racing”

  1. I raced road in the 1970’s and there were lots of crashes. It is very dangerous and takes a lot of skill to ride side by side on all sides at 30mph. Then add a downhill with lots of riders and now you are at 40 or more mph. Smaller peloton’s are generally safer to ride in but skill levels of individual bicyclists can make any peloton unsafe. I don’t miss the peloton.

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