Nearly everyone watching the first few stages of the Tour de France has grown sick at the constant sight of riders crashing, heroes of the sport being carted away in ambulances. The trauma isn't limited to the roads of France and the affected riders, the repeated mental anguish has its effect on everyone involved in the sport.
The Stage 3 finale into Pontivy saw the route wind through narrow, twisting roads on the descent into town, with the course tilting downwards until the final two kilometres of the race. That's the point when everyone is fighting to be at the front of the race, sprinters and their leadout trains as well as general classification contenders trying to avoid time loss.
Some teams asked the race organisers and the UCI, the sports governing body, for the general classification time to be taken at eight kilometres to go, knowing the dangers that awaited if everyone was fighting to be at the front of the race. That fell on deaf ears and we lost Jack Haig from the race as a result.
SBS Cycling Central commentator Robbie McEwen, no stranger to the rough and tumble of sprint finishes put it succinctly in his post-stage wrap.
“The stage finale that for mine shouldn’t have been. In the early part of the Tour, you just shouldn’t be sending a raging peloton down narrow, winding roads like that.”
Marc Madiot, manager of Groupama-FDJ, spoke for the feelings many within the sport as he protested the dangerous conditions.
“It’s irresponsible for the organisation to have a finish like that, "said Madiot. "I am not looking forward to calling the rider's families. We can't continue like this.
"I am the father of a family and I don't want to see my kid being a professional cyclist after what we've seen. It's no longer cycling. We have to change, it's not going anymore. If we don't, we're going to have deaths. It's not worthy of our sport."
UCI President David Lappartient brushed off Madiot's comments and put the onus of responsibility back on the riders.
“He gets carried away all the time. Cycling is cycling, although I suffer when I see the riders fall. If he still wants races to reach city centres, it has to be accepted that it is a little more technical,” Lappartient told Ouest France.
"The majority of crashes are due to a lack of attention but I can understand them [the riders], they are so stressed out during the entire day. And inevitably it’s edgy [in the peloton], everybody wants to be up there [at the front], and there’s not enough space for everybody. But I don’t think one should blame that on the route.”
The key there, apart from the flippant attitude to rider safety, was the talk of city centres. The economics of cycling is largely driven through sponsorship and tourism dollars, and for the Tour de France, a lot of revenue is gained by towns and regions for the race to start or finish in their area. That decision is made by race organisers with race characteristics, logistical considerations and location the main factors.
What isn't in that matrix is safety, or at least not high enough for my liking. What would change that is a landmark civil case brought to hold race organisers and the UCI to higher standards.
Take two sports which have much more violent pasts than cycling, the NFL (American football) and rugby league. A billion-dollar settlement as the result of a class action brought by ex-players with repeated concussions has seen a raft of changes to the rules. No longer will you see players flying in, head-first to hit someone else in the head, a rule that sounds like it should have always been in there. Is the spectacle diminished? Not really, the sport is going from strength to strength in terms of viewer numbers and is significantly safer.
It has also led to concussion protocols being instituted across many other sports with cycling a recent and comparatively late adopter of its own protocols, ones that are questionable in their effectiveness in keeping concussed riders out of races after they fall.
Rugby league used to be similar to NFL in danger levels, dumping players on their head in spear tackles, a move where a player is picked up, turned over so they're upside down and 'speared' into the ground. Combine that with high tackles being legal, and it's a wonder that the players had heads at all at the end of a game.
A landmark case in that regard was that of Jarrod McCracken, who suffered spinal damage in a spear tackle and put both players and the sport on notice that dangerous tackles would no longer be tolerated and they were open to potentially massive financial repercussions.
Now these days everything that hits a players head is a penalty, concussion protocols are dealt with seriously and it's a penalty to even put a player in a dangerous position that looks like it might be a spear tackle. Again, rugby league is more popular than in the bad old days.
In cycling, there will always be nasty crashes until they invent some form of future-age technology personal airbag. What there doesn't need to be is anything to make cycling more dangerous still. Here's some examples from the past year.
We shouldn't see winding and twisting descents on narrow roads in the final kilometres of bunch sprint finishes (Tour de France). We shouldn't see unmarked road furniture take down riders (Tirreno-Adriatico). We shouldn't see bunch sprints on downhill finishes ala (2020 Tour of Poland).
While it would be nice if the riders had a strong union that could help with representation in this regard, it's becoming increasingly clear that this won't happen any time soon. What will change race organiser behaviour and UCI regualtion is the risk of big financial repercussions. Of course, there are many good race organisers out there that do take these things into account, but it's the average ones that still aren't avoiding obvious dangerous routes.
I don't want it to happen. I don't want the incident that will trigger it to occur and I don't want to make it harder for race organisers to hold events, but there clearly needs to be a reprioritisation of the safety of riders.