The 49-year old from Inverell has since gone on to work as a sports director on the UCI World Tour and is currently race director for some of the Australia’s highest profile cycling events, including the Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race. Peter Maniaty spoke at length with Scott Sunderland, currently back in Belgium for the Spring Classics.
Peter Maniaty: It’s been a difficult time in Belgium lately, sad news on so many fronts. What have you been doing over there?
Scott Sunderland: I’ve been based in Gent, going to races, meeting with the UCI, procuring teams and riders for the Cadel Evans Race in 2017. With our application for World Tour status and talk of structural changes at the top level of the sport, there’s a lot happening. The issues of safety and race security, which have obviously been in the spotlight more than ever this week, have been a big part of these discussions. They’re also part of ongoing discussions I’ve been having with Cycling Australia for some time.
Race safety is something I’ve always advocated. It’s an area where we really need to stay on the front foot, like we’ve done with anti-doping in more recent times. Take the design of race finishes. You still see races where with doglegs in the last 500m, dangerous right-hand corners, sprints on cobblestones. At the end of big races like Paris-Roubaix and Flanders you can usually handle things like this because the speeds are slower. But when you’re coming into a bunch sprint with 100-plus riders, it’s nuts. Just last week there was another crash on a tight corner inside the final 500m at De Panne.
PM: You spent many years living and racing in Belgium. You know the European cobbles, bergs and roads as well as anyone. You also suffered life-threatening injuries after being hit by a team car in the Amstel Gold race in 1998. How did you feel when you heard the tragic news about Antoine Demoitié?
SS: Emotionally it always strikes me when something like this happens. It doesn’t matter what the circumstances are, when anyone gets killed it’s always terrible. I still remember when Fabio Casartelli died at the Tour in 1995. I knew him quite well. It was terrible.
As for the young Belgian (Antoine Demoitié), the circumstances were very different to my crash. I was hit by a team car where the driver wasn’t paying attention, he was actually charged. In the case of Gent-Wevelgem, Demoitié had already crashed and was then struck by a vehicle travelling behind in the convoy. You can argue about the exact circumstances, but it does seem to be a ‘wrong place, wrong time’ type of accident. Narrow roads. Nowhere to go. The motorbike rider couldn’t go left, he couldn’t go right. Was he too close? You have to remember under normal circumstances when a motorbike goes to pass a group of riders the riders don’t fall off. It’s just one of those horrible things. It’s like going to overtake someone in your car and they suddenly decide to turn right and get t-boned by you.
“We cannot let ignorance have the loudest voice in this.”
There’s going to be a risk any time you step on a bike or get into a car. I feel things have been blown a little bit out of proportion. We cannot let ignorance have the loudest voice in this. I really don’t think it’s helpful to focus on just one incident (when deciding what changes need to be made), not least because of the family of the rider and also the motorcyclist. He’s an ex-professional who’s been riding motorbikes for many years in a marshaling role. Cycling needs motorbikes and motorbike riders. If we don’t have them, we don’t have a race.
PM: Just comparing generations for a moment, how have things changed since you were racing? Were there always lots of close calls in the convoy?
SS: I’d say it was a lot better back then, despite what happened to me. I actually think one of the reasons was you didn’t have to wear helmets when I was starting out, so you knew you were vulnerable, everyone in the convoy did. We’d be descending mountains at 110km/h with no helmets. We were all very aware that if we crashed we could die. In general there wasn’t as much pushing and shoving in sprints either. There was still risk taking of course, but nothing like today or even in my final years when everyone started wearing helmets. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be wearing helmets, but I do think there’s a mental factor that certainly has something to do with the risks today’s riders are prepared to take.
On the flip side, one thing that has really helped to improve safety today is race radios. Back when I was racing if we needed to speak with our sports director we’d have no choice but to go back through the team cars. It was a lot messier in the convoy. Nowadays there’s less stress back there because you can speak to your team and pass on messages from the bunch.
PM: That’s a good point, especially given there are some people suggesting big reductions need to be made to the number of vehicles in the race convoy. Some have even questioned the need for team cars at all, arguing neutral service can handle it all.
SS: People who say things like that simply don’t understand cycling. If you only have neutral service, where are you going to put all the water bottles? How will you get the right food to the riders at the right time, or their clothing in bad weather? How can you possibly service all those wheels? It’s ridiculous. This is a dynamic sport, that’s why people love it. However I do think there are ways of limiting the number of motorbikes. For example, we may find broadcasters are pushed to be more creative in the ways they cover races and do their filming. Social and digital media is another big factor. From experience I can tell you everyone wants to have their own photographer in there. At the bigger races AFP (Agence France-Presse) alone will have three motorbikes – one with the breakaway, one at the front of the peloton and one at the rear to cover anything that happens behind. That’s just one news agency.
PM: Ultimately who decides what – and how many – motos get into the convoy? Race Directors must come under a lot of pressure to give the big news agencies and broadcasters what they want?
SS: The final decision sits with the Race and Event Directors. The police also have a role obviously. But there are other issues at play. Sponsors may also want photographers, because that increases their reach for the event.
PM: It’s an incredible balancing act.
SS: That’s the business model. You have to put on a fantastic event that the riders love. But you also have to create great viewing for spectators, sponsors and television, plus allow media outlets to run their live feeds as well as the photographers. Most of the shots you see on social media during a race are being uploaded wirelessly direct from the motos in the convoy. Years ago it was all film, everything happened slower. Now everything has to be instant.
PM: And the only way that can happen is if everyone has their people in the thick of the action?
SS: Exactly. Take here in Belgium for example. VRT, the Flemish public broadcaster, cover most of the big races. They’ll have their TV coverage, they’ll have a live commentator on a motorbike giving updates to the main commentary people at the finish line, then you have another radio commentator on a motorbike, then you have other guys who are doing the live Twitter feeds from the back of another motorbike. Then you have your motorbike marshals and commissaires, traffic controllers, police, scouts, photographers, spares. It’s all about minimising the number of cars, but much easier said than done.
PM: How do you actually determine who’s allowed to ride a moto in the race convoy?
SS: They have to be certified. In Europe that’s often directly by the UCI, but normally each (National) Federation will certify riders as well. That involves advanced motorbike skills training. All the best guys have a lot of experience in events like bike racing, triathlons, marathons – that’s really important because they become used to the movements of riders and athletes on the road. They understand the tactics and the flow of events, so they can predict situations which is a big part of safety. ‘The wind is coming from the right so they’ll probably shift left soon, I need to be in front, I can’t be to their left.’
But again, you have to remember cyclists fall off on their own all the time. Put larger and heavier objects around them like motorbikes and there’s no way you can guarantee there will never be an incident. One of the keys is to keep the motorbikes as static and predictable as possible. Try not to move too quickly or suddenly. Same goes for cars.
PM: You touched on the actions of riders there. What role does that play in overall convoy safety?
SS: Look, sometimes the riders don’t help themselves. Just recently I was speaking with a sports director here in Belgium. He was telling me about a rider who for no apparent reason suddenly swung from the left hand gutter to the right hand gutter and straight into the path of the race doctor who was beeping his horn to pass. I think it’s a pretty big problem. Some riders have become so insular in their little race bubbles, they seem to lose awareness of what’s going on around them. They have their heads down and just don’t pay enough attention. I’ve heard countless stories of marshals being hit by the very riders they’ve been standing there trying to protect. Some of this safety discussion must come back to riders being more accountable. They’re in charge of their bikes, not us.
Twenty or thirty years ago if you did something silly and brought down other riders, you’d get a complete bollocking. Now it’s a bit different. There are a lot more races and bigger teams and as a result I think there isn’t quite the same hierarchy in the peloton. Young riders still need to learn, but I think some come out of the amateur ranks and while they still have those amateur habits, they think they know it all. But it’s difficult because they’re all doing the same training, the same race programs, they have the same equipment, technology and support. The playing field is so much more even nowadays.
PM: I guess that’s another reason why it’s a lot more cut-throat. Tiny margins can deliver great rewards?
SS: That’s right, the stakes are high and everyone is fighting with the same weapons.
PM: The UCI has been criticised in many circles for not doing enough to make race convoys safer. Given you have a very current insight into the thinking of the UCI, do you feel enough is being done?
SS: The UCI certainly hasn’t been blind to the issues. They’ve been working behind the scenes. Like everyone else they know they need to get this right, just like Cycling Australia does. I’m working with them (CA) at the moment to ensure all motorbike riders, whether they’re moto scouts or pilots for TV cameras or photographers, are suitably accredited, trained and know how to avoid dangerous situations. I did an advanced driving course when I became a sports director in Europe, privately with Peugeot Rally. The guy who trained me knew cycling, he’d been around bike races, so we set up different scenarios on a skidpan, things that might happen in a bike race, and we practised them. It gave me a lot of peace of mind knowing that if a situation ever arose, God forbid, I’d be better prepared for it. But the thing is, there will still be accidents, we just have to minimise it as much as we can. I know the UCI is working on that, but I also know we’ve come to a situation with the growth of the sport and social media that also brings a lot more scrutiny. It’s a double-edged sword.
PM: There seems to be a feeling the UCI is a bit like Nero twiddling his thumbs while Rome burns around him. What would you say to people who are frustrated at the pace of change, especially after Gent-Wevelgem?
SS: Look, it was an accident, a terrible accident. I understand emotions are high, but it shouldn’t be used for casting blame too quickly. There’s a lot happening within any bike race, and it all comes down to split seconds. People are saying ‘oh, neutral spares shouldn’t be in there, it’s too dangerous’. But when they’re not there you should hear it, the riders are absolutely screaming because they didn’t get neutral support or they didn’t get it fast enough.
Take Cancellara’s derailleur problems at E3 Harelbeke. You could have had another neutral support vehicle there for him, but it would have been risky in amongst all those other riders. The reason his team car wasn’t there was also for safety. Now Cancellara being Cancellara he was able to get back on, but for most guys that’s their race finished. It’s always been a problem in pro cycling and there’s no completely safe solution. It’s why we still see all the soigneurs and mechanics on the sides of roads holding wheels.
Imagine you’re a team and you’re investing millions of dollars in someone like Peter Sagan. He gets a flat tyre at a critical moment and loses a race because he can’t get a wheel. You’re not happy. But in another race he gets hit by a vehicle carrying the same neutral spares that could have prevented it – and you’re not happy about that either. Motorbikes are being told ‘you have to be here, you have to be there’ by the race controllers, because they know the consequences if they’re not.
PM: It’s such an arm wrestle of priorities.
SS: Sometimes I think riders and teams need to remember everyone in the race convoy is there for a reason – be they media, marshals, whatever – all with a job to do that ultimately benefits them.
PM: Much of the history and romance of the Spring Classics comes from the rustic lanes and back roads, they connect us back to the very origins of the sport. But the reality is they’re often far from ‘safe’. If you take those roads out altogether, the very fabric of the sport changes doesn’t it?
SS: Well it does, and a lot of people won’t be happy about it. But even when you run the race on wide roads, the bunches just get wider and that brings its own dangers. Look at Milano-Sanremo. Some of those roads are very wide. You drive down them and think ‘geez, this is an easy road’ but in the race everyone still wants to be at the front, always pushing and fanning out. Accidents still happen.
PM: I remember watching a stage finish at the Tour of Qatar this year, it was a multi-lane highway yet they still managed to have big problems.
SS: It’s what we were talking about earlier, riders who are only answerable to themselves. Regardless of the road you need to be extra aware of your surroundings. It’s the same in Formula 1. Sure you might have the fastest car and want to get to the front, but you can’t just do it anywhere. You need to pick your moment, use good judgment because one bump and your whole race is done. I feel riders need to be just as responsible. We can put that bubble around them, but they still need to be aware of the movement of everyone else in the race, including the race convoy.
I’m not saying nothing needs to be done by organisers. But there are so many moving parts in a bike race. It’s really important to understand them all, everyone’s role within the peloton, because I think many people underestimate what actually goes on. What do they bring to the spectators? What do they bring to the riders? And just as importantly what would happen if we took them away?
PM: It’s not like we can just call ‘time out’ and stop the sport for twelve months until we get all these things right, is it?
SS: No. It’s not as simple as a rule change either, where you just tell the players the new rules, ‘we’ve reduced the number of tackles or the amount of points for a goal’. It’s not like that in cycling, our sport involves so many riders and teams and federations and events all over the world – it takes time to implement.
PM: As part of your job as Race Director what kind of briefings and guidelines do you provide to ensure a safe race?
SS: Before the race we’ll have the team registration and a meeting between all the sport directors, team managers and commissaire drivers. We talk about potential dangers on the course, weather, pinch points that could become risky or dangerous in certain circumstances, the feed zones, the finish – anything that could be a problem gets raised and we discuss that as a group, often with video or a screen shot of the actual section of the course. They then take this information back to their riders. The same thing goes with all the convoy drivers, including the motorbike scouts and neutral spares, we run through all the same information. I then tend to take all the media through these things separately. We talk about a range of safety issues for the event, including specific distances they need to keep away from the riders. ‘Look guys, you need to keep your distance for safety, but also because even at 20 metres and 30km/h the riders behind are getting an advantage.’
PM: Keeping those safe distances is especially tricky on descents.
SS: It is, and that’s exactly the type of thing we talk about. In the Cadel Evans Race, for example, we’ll be on the radios reminding everyone to give double the distance before the downhills into Geelong and the finishing circuit, because up until then the race has been mostly flat and riders will be travelling in excess of 90km/h. Gaps can close twice as fast.
PM: So where to from here? What needs to happen to prevent more of these collisions and near misses with convoy vehicles?
SS: I think there are two main things. The first is a full review of the current structure of race convoys including all team vehicles, all motorbikes, all marshals and commissaires, all police, all media, all VIP cars – everyone. They all need to work in together, but also perform their specific jobs safely. The second thing involves the riders. I believe some formal type of review needs to happen surrounding their behaviour within the peloton to make them more aware. ‘Hey guys, swinging from the left hand side of the road to the right hand side, what are you doing that for?’ By pushing through a gap between a car and a gutter you know you’re taking a risk, that’s your responsibility. The car was already there, you know that, you can’t just jump over it. Nor can the car just move out of the way, because that could put the risk straight on to someone else on the other side of the road and they go into a ditch. It comes back to having greater awareness of all those moving parts, every action causes a reaction somewhere else.
PM: Do you think riders would be receptive to this?
SS: It’s all about how you present it. It’s clearly an issue that needs to be discussed, and I think it’s something you’d bring up (formally) with team managers and also run through Federations to be honest, so they can do similar things with smaller domestic teams as well.
PM: That’s a good point. I’ve sat in a few NRS convoys over the years and seen some pretty hairy things.
SS: I think we all have. Let’s face it, what advanced driving skills or training do most of the support people working with our domestic teams have? Probably not a lot. Just like Europe it’s always been a concern. It still is.