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Cycling and Spectators: Something Must Change

Is this just another worthless rant, or can the sport prevent accidents like those we've just seen?

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At the conclusion of today's sixth stage of the Giro d'Italia, the teams lined up for a relatively orderly sprint to the line in Castiglione della Pescaia. Daniele Colli of the Nippo Vini Fantini squad tried his best to navigate the usual argy-bargy of the front end of a grand tour sprint by sneaking up the barriers on the left side of the road. There was clear sailing ahead of him and enough room for his bike and body... until this happened: [Warning, if you know what happened, and you watch this closely, it's a bit gruesome. If that sounds bad enough, don't click on the image.]

Colli's arm is struck by the ginormous cameral lens of a spectator, who was hanging well over the barriers, and the impact resembles something from a car accident. Colli was seen moments later on the ground with his forearm pointed in the wrong direction, then a few moments after that having a physio perform an act of triage straight from a war zone. The outcome is to be determined. Also hitting the deck were several other riders, including race leader and favorite Alberto Contador, who was said to be struggling afterward. The long-term implications of this crash are as yet unknown.

On Sunday, while winding up for the opening sprint of the Giro, the peloton was half wiped out by another careless spectator, who decided to hop on to the race course on his bike as the peloton was coming by. It's not terribly apparent what happened but this video shows the outcome:

That's two unthinkable acts of stupidity and selfishness in five days. We've all seen countless examples of foolish fan behavior coming to a bad end. There was Loren Rowney's crash in Drenthe, where a spectator's arm brought her down, either out of more unthinkable stupidity or, as he claims, because he was momentarily distracted by his kid. There are dogs let loose at the wrong moment. There are always plenty of people, increasingly in bizarre costumes, jogging alongside riders as they climb alpine roads. There, the injury can be more to competition (thanks to the slow speeds) than to the rider's health, but it's no less of a bummer.

What can be done to slow the rate of these incidents? One thing we can rule out is vast infrastructural changes, unless you want sprints to be held in stadiums and velodromes rather than on the streets. The cost of building kilometers of fencing is high enough and race organizers probably won't be amenable to doubling it in the name of preventing freak incidents. The onus is on everyone else.

Cycling fans need to better understand their responsibilities when approaching a race on open roads. Can this be done with information distributed near the end of the race, outside where the barriers are? Can there be signs along the barriers explaining how UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES SHOULD YOU LEAN OVER? Yup.

But people want images, or they want to be in them. It seems like it may be hard to stem the tide of vanity around these events. Lawsuits would help -- yes, that sounds very American, but if the guy on the fixie who rode onto the course could be hauled into a courtroom and hit with everyone's medical bills, you can bet that would send a message.

The question is, to whom? You can reach the people who were there and knew of the incident. You can reach people like us who pay attention regardless of where the race is. But how do you reach the next person? I liken this to my days of playing soccer on the national mall in Washington, DC (or planting a pea patch garden nearby). Tourists constantly strolled through our playing area (or ate my tomatoes), and you could grab that person and explain to them how stupid they are. With luck, they'll never commit that offense again. But behind them was an endless stream of new tourists who would repeat the harm, over and over. It was futile.

Cycling's situation is not quite so bad. While there are uninformed people showing up at every race, there are informed people as well, and if there is a way to pass around the message to avoid any behavior that could affect the race, it's not impossible for this to occur. I don't have any ideas right now, but it's not about the bloggers. It's about people who run the sport, race organizers and their friends who are engineers or public planners or information specialists to brainstorm about what can be done to stop this madness. Cycling will never leave the open road, and morons will never cease to exist. But surely we are not out of options here.