Phil Gaimon: Rider safety, the bigger picture

Phillip Gaimon (Cannondale)

Phillip Gaimon (Cannondale) (Image credit: Bettini Photo)

I’d helped Andrew Talanksy and Dan Martin stay fresh for a mountaintop finish at the 2014 Tour of Catalunya, so my job was done with 10k to go. I squinted through the snow, unable to see how they were doing up the switchback. Before he passed to get to the front group with the team car, director Johnny Weltz handed me a thick Castelli Gabba jacket and gloves that I never thought I’d wear unless I signed up for the Iditarod. Well within the time cut, my groupetto stopped to put on shoe covers and leg warmers, but we were already soaked and frozen underneath, so there wasn’t much point.

I laughed and got Weltz good with a snowball in his chest after the finish, and I thought the whole thing was fun at the time. Despite the weather, crowds came out to watch, and when I looked up at a castle in the hill, I saw a ledge where knights in the middle ages would pour boiling oil on invaders. We don’t have it so bad, I thought.

But as I lived the life of a working pro cyclist that year, I gained some perspective. I’ve seen people get needlessly hurt. You feel bad for them, and it gives you goosebumps, because it could have been anyone. So I was glad to see the CPA and the ANARPC working to improve rider safety. I was at some of their first meetings, which took place soon after Taylor Phinney was taken out by a motorcycle that had stopped on a descent, so I don’t know why we didn’t bring up the vehicles in the races. Weather protocol was obvious and seemed doable, and it’s hard to judge what the biggest dangers are until something happens.

At the Tour of California last year, the time trial was cancelled due to snow and moved to a safer location, rather than racing on icy roads, or making us put snow chains on the team cars and stand around for a last-minute cancellation. This year, snow led to cancelled stages in both Tirreno and Paris-Nice, but riders clashed over the definition of “unsafe conditions.” [Vincenzo] Nibali expressed frustration that a stage was cancelled, where he thought he could have won. Riders responded with vitriol towards Nibali, whose comments were seen as short-sighted and selfish at a time when we’d finally made some headway towards rider safety.

I remember when radios were outlawed, because they wanted the races to be more interesting. Think about that: removing a safety measure to make the race interesting. During Criterium International last weekend, Bingen Fernandez, Cannondale’s director, was following Moreno Moser in the breakaway.

“Boys, there is some sand on this descent,” Bingen warned, to those of us in the pack behind. “Be careful in the turns.”

We didn’t blast to the front and make it unsafe like race radio critics said we would. We absorbed the information, and we tapped the brakes a little harder than we would have otherwise.

As a pro, when you fly down a mountain, you probably haven’t been there before, but you go full-speed, you trust the guy in front of you, you trust your equipment, and you trust the race organization that there won’t be a patch of ice, sand, or a car coming up behind you. We know there are risks, we know there have to be some cars, and it won’t always be sunny and warm out, but we can expect the risks to be minimized.

I’m already seeing photographers insist that it’s not their fault, probably because cutting the number of motorcycles will result in fewer photographers getting hired. I don’t think a blame game is productive, or even trying to isolate the problem for this specific crash.

We had three deaths in bike racing last weekend (a third was in a collegiate race in Oregon if you missed that). Lets look at the big picture of rider safety, and trying to grow a sport that looks downright silly to the mainstream when they read about it. If it means sharing photos among different news sources from one motorbike, or that vehicles have to wait a little longer to get where they want to go, or Nibali gets one less race win, lets all work together, and not forget how we feel right now, when it’s fresh and scary.

Riders will crash, and there will be more incidents. If they’re not caused by weather or motos, it’ll be something else. There will be broken bones and concussions. But let’s try to make sure there are no more deaths.

RIP Antoine, Daan, and Randall.

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