FanPost

Cycling as a Blood Sport

The truth is that professional cycling is one of the most dangerous sports in the world, and every rider knows that each time he heads to the starting line there's a risk he's going to end up wrecked on the side of the road, with hopefully nothing more than a severe case of "road rash" - Jonathan Vaughters famous quote of "Next time you're in your car going 50 mph, strip down to your underwear and jump out the window.....that's what a bike wreck feels like" comes to mind. Unfortunately, quite often the results are much worse than just sliding around on asphalt in your underwear, with severe injuries and even death occurring far more often than they should.

As the Tour de France progresses from one hideous crash filled stage to the next, coming on the heels of a Giro d'Italia which featured the terribly tragic death of Wouter Weylandt, isn't it time we started to talk about the safety of the guys out there on each stage? If MMA fights regularly featured broken femurs, competitors thrown through barbed wire fences and a fighter who was clearly badly concussed climbing out of a ditch and then finishing the fight after the doctors cleared him anyways, Skip Bayless head would have exploded by now and all we'd hear about was the raw brutality of the sport and how it was a "blood sport". Well, all of those things just happened on the last two stages of the Tour de France - let alone the plethora of other wrecks in the preceding weak leading to broken bones and other serious injuries. Cycling is in danger of becoming a "blood sport", with the TV cameras regularly and repeatedly showing violent wrecks and the bloody aftermaths.

The UCI, ASO, other cycling governing bodies and the various police forces have had no issue relentlessly hunting cyclists over the use of performance enhancing drugs, but there has been very little to no in depth talk about the safety of those riders that are put out there. Fields have swelled in size, the courses have become more and more challenging and technical and the technology has pushed the average speeds of the races higher and higher, and yet there have been no major changes to the course safety precautions since the use of helmets was made mandatory in 2003. Professional cyclists are subject to a myriad of blood, urine and other tests all through the year to keep them safe from themselves, but when they put on their jersey and ride to the start line the race organizers have no issue putting their bodies at far greater risks with far less protection. This is absurd.

The roots of the problem are myriad, with the disdain for rider safety just as much a part of the history of the sport as the use of drugs to numb the pain and increase performance. The early years of the Tour de France are filled with stages of such obscene length and difficulty it's amazing that any human being was able to finish them in time to start the next, with riders regularly heavily abusing various substances to simply survive until the end. This is a sport of suffering and pain, of pushing your body to it's absolute limits and then pushing it a little bit more, but there also has to be a point where the race organizers say that enough is enough and don't put the competitors in positions where there very lives are in danger more than they absolutely must be.

As the sport has grown in popularity, especially on TV, in the past couple of decades we've seen the sizes of the fields swell and the race organizers pushing the limits of the courses to produce more and more dramatic moments on TV. Combine this with a rise in the number of road obstacles added throughout western Europe as part of traffic control exercises and you have a dangerous mix. There's too many people on bicycles going too fast through narrow streets with roundabouts and raised medians for it to be truly safe, and with the very limited use of padding or protective barriers in high risk areas it's a miracle there aren't even more severe injuries. Combine that with the insatiable demand by TV viewers for epic climbs and hair raising descents and you have courses including mountain stages that simply are not safe - too steep, too narrow, the roads in too poor of condition.

Compounding this is the never ending push for speed, often via technological means. Modern racing bicycles have enough carbon fibre and wind tunnel time put into them to nearly qualify as jet fighters, and these advantages multiply as you get faster and faster - meaning that the most dangerous parts of cycling, sprint finishes and mountain descents, have seen the greatest speed increases. I personally have a set of Zipp carbon fiber wheels with toroidal shaped rims and "Aerodynamic Boundry Layer Control". I'm an engineer and I can't explain to you exactly what that means, but basically wheels like these work as an airfoil and dramatically decrease aerodynamic drag. You used to do 65mph downhill? Now you can do 70mph! No matter that 65mph on a glorified goat track down the ridge of one of the Alps was already ridiculously dangerous to begin with, those extra couple of seconds you gain might make the difference between winning and losing, so everybody in the peleton keeps pushing the limits. There's a point where 150 pounds of human being and carbon fiber wonder machine can't keep attached to the road on just millimeters of rubber, but nobody quite knows where that is. Nobody has bothered to really look, or to ask "is this safe"? We just keep pushing the limits and hoping for the best.

I don't know if the answer is adding far more protective barriers to courses, changing course design to avoid high risk areas even if means reducing some money making opportunities, limiting aerodynamic technology to knock the speeds down a little, cutting field sizes by a percentage or some combination of all of the above. But that's the problem, nobody knows these things because nobody has looked at them. 10 years ago NASCAR had their heads in the sand as 3 drivers died in one year, pretending that it was just part of the sport. It took a 4th driver, Dale Earnhart, dying for NASCAR to finally start taking driver safety seriously. I'd hate for that to happen in cycling, Wouter Weylandt's death and this gory Tour de France should be enough to snap everyone out of their malaise and start to address this seriously. I don't want cycling to have it's Earnhardt moment with Alberto Contador or Andy Schleck or Cadel Evans lying shattered on the side of a mountain in remote France or Spain with helicopters hovering above and everyone trying to figure out where everything went wrong.

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