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The Risks of Racing

Keir Plaice Tekst Keir Plaice Gepubliceerd 06 August 2019

As a junior, you learn to push the danger from your mind. The consequences of one mistaken movement can be so horrifically absurd that contemplating them might paralyse you. If you think about crashing, you’ll be all the more likely to crash. For a bike racer, that is a practical truth. At any given moment, a second’s hesitation could be catastrophic. 

Away from the races, thinking about the risks involved in the sport often seems futile too. Every racer has stories about ludicrously close calls—all too often caused by poor course design or race management. As soon as you start to really think about them, you realise that there’s a good chance that you’ll find yourself in a similar situation the next week or the next week too. So, bike racers resort to a sort of trench humour, shrug their shoulders and say, ‘That’s bike racing.’ If they did not accept the danger, they would have to quit.

As a result, bike racers are ill prepared to assess the risks of racing. Things continue to be done the way that they have always been done. Risks are accepted, because the sport is risky and always will be.

Is it not riskier than it has to be though?

We shouldn’t just ask ourselves that question.

Risk management strategies developed for the airline and nuclear industries, for instance, are proactive and preventative. Instead of seeking to assign blame for catastrophes and eliminate dangers post hoc, experts from those industries work to assess the risks posed by the whole host of complex and interrelated factors involved in their businesses, so they can continue to operate as safely as possible.

It might be impossible to ensure that no other rider meets the same fate as Bjorg Lambrecht. The brilliant young Belgian died doing what he loved, and racing at high speeds in a peloton down mountains and through cities will always be dangerous. Bike racing is beautiful, but it can be so, so cruel. 

That is not to say that it cannot be made less dangerous though.

In fact, there’s every chance that it can be made much less dangerous.

Race organisers, the teams, the UCI now need to think hard about the risks involved in professional cycling. Don’t just ask bike racers to do the thinking though. Making the sport safer will, to borrow a phrase, be a matter of marginal gains.

To recognise where those gains can be made and implement all of the possible improvements, the sport’s stakeholders should now bring in the experts.

Photo: Cor Vos/ Kåre Dehlie Thorstad