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Just how risky is professional road cycling

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Before and during the 2023 Tour de France there were questions asked about the dangers of professional road racing. So, Lochie Poore asked, is road racing becoming an increasingly dangerous sport?

Is professional cycling becoming too dangerous? Professional cycling, an exhilarating sport that is adored by millions across the planet, is now faced with more safety concerns than ever. 


The sad death of Gino Mäder during the Tour de Suisse has solidified this concern. Other recent incidents have highlighted the inherent risks of the sport. During the 2023 Tour de France (TdF) there were incidents of spectators impeding and in some cases causing the fall of riders. Crashes seem to be far more frequent in the midst of the peloton and this year on stage 14 the race was halted for some time to address some serious injuries to riders. 


It appears, from the outside at least, that there is a growing need to reevaluate the safety measures and make some critical improvements to protect the athletes who are racing at the highest level.


One of the key factors contributing to the increased dangers is the ever-increasing speeds racers can achieve. Advances in training techniques, cutting-edge technologically advanced equipment, particularly in terms of braking ability, and strategic racing tactics have pushed racers to new limits. While this has advanced the riders abilities, the increased speed achieved makes the consequences of accidents or crashes, far more severe. It’s worth noting the comparison made by Jonathan Vaughters in the Netflix documentary on the TdF to someone like Tom Pidcock descending a mountain road at speeds around 100kmh to driving a motorbike at 60mph in your underwear. 


Another safety concern in the professional world of cycling is the exclusive use of public roads, these can have huge impacts on the rider's wellbeing. Generally, roads are plagued with potholes, uneven surfaces, debris and inadequately maintained stretches. The peloton must traverse these with almost no warning from those in front, the increasing nature to win has riders jostling for position increasing the likelihood of crashes. 


Aggressive racing tactics further contribute to the perilous environment. Intense competition drives riders to take risks in their pursuit of victory, often resulting in sudden changes in speed, daring overtaking manoeuvres, and pushing the limits during descents. While these strategies can provide thrilling spectacles for fans, they also increase the chances of accidents, further highlighting the need for comprehensive safety measures. 


Furthermore, cyclists must share the road with motor vehicles, posing additional risks. Although race organisers and support teams implement measures to manage traffic during races, the interaction between cyclists and vehicles remains a potential source of danger. Again, on stage 14 of the TdF we saw riders attacking only to be impeded by media motorbikes. 


Strict adherence to traffic regulations and enhanced coordination and collaboration between race officials, local authorities, and drivers can help reduce this risk.


But just how dangerous is it. Really. Is there a gap between what is percei9ved by those not riding and the reality for the riders themselves? After all, riders are not averse to protesting about issues they feel as threatening to their lives and livelihood. The Tour in particular has a history of go slows, or the riders organising to shift a scenario in their favour. 


While crashes are common, serious incidents are relatively rare in professional cycling. Nonetheless, a single fatality reminds us of the possibly fatal risks involved. However, the previous death before Mader was Wouter Weylants, who died in the 2011 Giro. The stats do not indicate an increased level of danger - even allowing for some alarming injuries from time to time. Indeed, some data argues against a rise in danger. Speeds are not as fast, aside from descending.


And what do we actually want the UCI to do? Better tarmac, yes, fair enough, that’s good. Better traffic control, yes, another good one. It is more about the roads and route selected, crowd and media management and education of everyone involved in the pro cycling business. And that’s about it.


But a lot of this is outside of the actual race environment itself. And, whilst the riders are willing to take risks to help their teammates, to ride for glory and endure, the debate about the dangers of road racing will continue. And that’s fine. Because it is just racing. And it is at the end of the stage, just about riding a bike - albeit very very fast for a long time on occasionally unfeasibly steep gradients.

Contact Andrew Brown on 07795 547069


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