• Had there been a paramedic on a motorbike to assist, Toms Skujins would not have been allowed back on his bike. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
Given recent history, it may seem counter-intuitive to put another motorbike in the peloton. But according to Anthony Tan, in order to improve riders' safety, that's exactly what professional cycling needs.
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Cycling Central
22 May 2017 - 5:09 PM  UPDATED 22 May 2017 - 11:33 PM

Sunday in Sydney, a number of roads around the CBD were closed for the Sydney Morning Herald Half Marathon and if you were in the vicinity, those on four wheels bore the brunt of it. "Key roads will be closed in the Sydney CBD, The Rocks, The Domain, Pyrmont and Ultimo between 4am and 11:30am," forewarned the event organisers. "Major road closures include sections of the Cahill Expressway and the Western Distributor."

I wasn't competing, in part because my 44-year-old knees don't particularly care for pounding the pavement at such lengths, but nevertheless spent much of the day in and around the area where the race was taking place, and got around with little ado.

Yes, I was on two wheels, but as opposed to the human-powered variety, this time I was on my motorbike. My club had organised a special skills day to better equip ourselves for the exactly the type of scenarios we faced yesterday. And it made me realise that, rather perversely, a motorbike was exactly what Cannondale-Drapac rider Toms Skujins required on the second stage of last week's Tour of California, when he crashed on a high-speed descent.

Skujins stunned after ATOC crash
Cannondale-Drapac's Toms Skujins crashed towards the finish of the Amgen Tour of California. He staggered back onto the bike but was later forced to abandon under the direction of his team.

That only the SRAM neutral support motorbike and a TV moto were able, or allowed to, follow the breakaway containing Latvian rider Skujins is indicative of how unwieldy - and dangerous - a car is, and how manoeuvrable a motorcyclist can be (provided they or their driver have the requisite skills and mentality), in a professional cycling race. If you saw the Spring Classics or the past fortnight at the Giro d'Italia, too many motos is clearly not a good thing, because not only can they obstruct, they can influence the outcome, as I wrote earlier this year (read Tan Lines: Did a moto decide Strade Bianche?). In fact, I believe most of us would opt for fewer camera angles or fewer stills of riders with mouths wide open in favour of a bike race that is completely (or at least mostly) unimpeded by the beneficial effects of drafting, or conversely, the deleterious outcomes when cyclist and motorbike collide.

Whenever there is a major road accident and traffic is blocked, invariably, 'first response' paramedics arrive by the only means possible: on a motorbike.

At least one or two less TV and photographer motorbikes would be a good thing. Five TV motos and up to nine photographer motos, as is the case at races like the Giro and Tour de France, is simply too many. What I am advocating - and what Simon van Rysewyk, communications manager at Brain Injury Australia, suggested below Neal Rogers' article on CyclingTips (read: 'California concussion incident raises questions, but what could have been done differently?') - is for a paramedic to be on a motorbike in all UCI races, in addition the race doctor in the car that follows the peloton.

As the PR manager at SRAM, Michael Zellmann, emphasised in Rogers' story, the job of neutral spares "is to protect the rider from other riders and race traffic, and to get him back on a safe machine. He is not there to make medical assessments of the rider... (The mechanic) was focused on the bike, and did not have the chance to pay great attention to the rider's reaction. He was concerned with other riders, other cars, race traffic, the wheels in his hand, the rider's bicycle, and making a number of quick decisions. When a rider demands to get back on his bike, which (Skujins) did multiple times, the mechanic's job is to make sure the machine is safe and to help the rider back to his bike."

In the heat of the moment, it is simply too much to demand the neutral spares mechanic also act in a medical supervisory fashion, even if they had basic medical training. "Neutral support always wants to get you back on the bike, and if he hadn't, I would have probably gotten pissed off and angry," Skujins told CyclingTips. Jean-Michele Monin, the Tour of California race director, afterwards said that only a doctor, referee, or team official could have ordered Skujins to stop, not the neutral service providers, and even if the latter were medically trained, it's doubtful riders would listen to the bloke whose role it is to fix flats. "You're not going to ask a SRAM mechanic to be trained medically because maybe they will then not be focused on the mechanical side," he added.

At the time and location of the crash in question, Cannondale-Drapac sport director Tom Southam was stuck behind riders on the descent of Quimby Road, as was a second race doctor. The team's medical staff was at the finish in San Jose. There was no in-car TV images. There was no phone reception.

Phinney on concussion: 'it’s a very fragile state'
Taylor Phinney has addressed the importance of concussion policies in the wake of teammate Toms Skujins’s sickening smash at the Tour of California.

The role of a race doctor, as you will no doubt have seen during your years watching the Tour de France, is multifaceted, highly specialised, and highly trained. A moto paramedic, or paramedic as a pillion passenger, would not need to ride nearly as close to the breakaway or peloton as a TV or neutral spares motorbike, and is therefore less likely to impede the natural flow of a bike race, or present a safety hazard. And in the case of Skujins and many other riders who have suffered concussions or injuries that require immediate diagnosis and an educated decision (not best guess) whether it is safe to continue, the salient point is that a trained professional could have been there. Ask a hundred pro cyclists whether they would stop if a paramedic told them to, and I bet you almost all would say yes, they would. There are few, if any, other professions that command that instant, unquestionable respect as in medicine - particularly in time of crisis, which is how I would describe a concussion-related injury.

Whenever there is a major road accident and traffic is blocked, invariably, 'first response' paramedics arrive by the only means possible: on a motorbike. That the UCI has not universally adopted what has worked effectively in real life for decades, preventing countless lives lost - and despite multiple incidents, simultaneously done nothing to reduce the number of TV and press motorbikes, or improve protocols as to where in-race vehicles can stop on the roadside - think the ninth stage of the Giro, where a poorly parked police motorbike took out Wilco Kelderman, Geraint Thomas, Mikel Landa and Adam Yates - I find astounding, to say the least. Above all else, riders' safety should come first.

When the UCI tightened their safety procedures in February this year, there was no mention of a reduction in the number of in-race vehicles, or places where such vehicles should not stop; it all related to movement of vehicles within the peloton.

As far as I'm concerned the Skujins incident could easily have been another fatality. What if one of those riders who flew past at 70km/h instead collided with him as he, dazed and confused, went to pick up sunglasses and get back on his bike? Do we have to wait for it to actually happen before the UCI accepts that by putting a paramedic on a motorbike, it could have been entirely preventible?