Over the last few days, we seem to have seen more than our fair share of broken bikes, shredded lycra, and anguished gentlemen hopping around in a variety of agonies. Fortunately and happily, there have been relatively few withdrawals, and only one broken collar bone. However, given the amount of body / bike / road combinations, you have to feel we are lucky. Given the carnage, I have been surprised at the relative lack of concern around the PdC, and so felt moved to stick a few thoughts together in a fanpost (my first, so be kind).
So, what are the reasons advanced by those who think shows like Sunday are acceptable? One argument that is advanced is that the riders themselves are to blame. It is pointed out (fairly) that things are often like this at the beginning of GTs, that the riders have not been concentrating, even that there are some guys that don't know what they are doing out there. To which I respond that, if it is always like this, perhaps it is always wrong. Riders are not actively trying to throw their bicycles to the ground and swallow-dive into the scenery, so if it consistently happens, perhaps we should try to minimise the risks rather than accepting them. The attitude somewhat reminds me of that of Formula 1 prior to the crash of Ayrton Senna - "that's motor racing".
There is a school of thought which says that challenging courses are part of bike racing - this is the view that "it happens in the classics". To an extent, I agree with this, but I do think the challenge has to be fair. Given that most people riding in the bunch can't see anythign but other cyclists, and they probably have limited idea of where they actually are at any one time, I would say that random road narrowings, sharp narrow turns and other street furniture can be unfair to the guys at the back. It's difficult to see the traffic island in front of you when your view is dominated by Bert Grabsch's butt cheeks. Further, there is not even a fairness about who gets hurt and who doesn't. How many times have we seen one guy go down and take out ten or twenty others? Even accepting that the one guy made and mistake and it is his "fault", it seems tough that the crash test dummies behind get to literally take the fall for it.
There is another attitude, which is that part of the talent of winning a grand tour should be the ability to ride at the front and avoid the crashes. Which seems to me to be tantamount to saying that we don't care if someone gets hurt, as long as it is not a name rider. From a racing perspective, that may be ok - I would argue that from a human perspective it most certainly is not. The implication is that we accept someone is going to get badly hurt - we only care if it ruins our watching experience. I think we should value the welfare of each rider the same.
Finally, there is the argument that bike racing happens on open roads, and what can you do? There is some force in this. I'm not arguing for putting the TDF on as a 800 lap velodrome race, and I too also enjoy the sights and sounds of the peloton showing its amazing bike handling skills. Nor am I making a criticism of the roads themselves. This is road racing, and negotiating the roads will be part of the challenge.
What I am suggesting is a balance of risk. Yes, put them on roads. Yes, the conditions are part of the challenge. But be aware of the difficulties and dangers the rider faces. If there is a dangerous corner, MARK IT. A big sign with a warning may do wonders for pack safety. And at the extreme, avoid specific hazards. I believe that on Sunday the race organisers were failing in their duty of care - not by running a race through Holland, but by being blase and irresponsible about moderating the risks that doing this entails. While the crashes may or may not have been caused by specific hazards and some were clearly "racing incidents" that could have happened in a desert, there were plenty of occassions where a mass pile up nearly happened.
One of the delights of the podium is the obsessive interest in all riders, name or not. I would have thought here if anywhere we would take the issue of rider safety seriously. I'm not saying change the races - I am saying that the organisers should find a balance and be more proactive about moderating danger - and we should be more sympathetic to the challenges these guys face - before we have our own Senna moment.