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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Jeremy Whittle

Fear casts a shadow over peloton for Tour de France after Mäder’s death

When the Tour de France starts in Bilbao on Saturday, the peloton will try to push fear to the back of their minds, while knowing that danger and risk are constant presences in elite racing.

In the aftermath of the death of Gino Mäder, who crashed while descending at high speed in the Tour de Suisse on 16 June, those fears have become heightened. The riders remain on edge, a milieu in shock, with fear now shadowing every race.

Mäder’s death, violent, sudden and totally unexpected, has left a deep collective wound, especially for those who were racing alongside him that day. “We are all Gino,” the French professional Romain Bardet said on Instagram. “We always go faster and faster and push the limit. We flirt bend after bend with our limits. The day, however, is pitch black when fate decides to take one of us with it, a fellow human being, an acrobat in a Lycra suit.”

Adam Hansen, a former professional rider and the newly elected president of the rider’s union, the CPA, believes that professional racing has become “significantly more dangerous” in recent years. “The bikes have become much faster, and the overall competition level has reached new heights,” he says. “When all these factors combine, it creates a significantly higher level of danger.”

Hansen also believes that excessive speed was a factor in Mäder’s death. “It [the descent] was not technical, but the speed was dangerous,” he adds. “Maybe we need better education for the riders, or to somehow create a situation where they are unable to reach such high speeds. The riders need to be aware that cycling is a dangerous sport, and they must be well-informed about the risks.”

One of those who says that he is already very well aware of the dangers is the French climber Thibaut Pinot, a Tour stage winner in both the Alps and the Pyrenees. “It’s often said that you have to switch your brain off on the bike,” Pinot says. “I struggle with that idea. We’re doing a dangerous sport. I’m a rider who takes fewer risks than the others because I’m really aware of the danger.”

The debate over race safety has now become a constant, across both the men’s and women’s scene. Earlier in June, the prestigious women’s race the Tour Féminin des Pyrénées, ended in acrimony after both riders and organisers blamed each other for the safety issues that crippled the race.

After the chaotic first stage was blighted by moving cars, buses and even shoppers crossing the path of the peloton, further safety lapses led to a rider protest during stage two. The race was eventually abandoned, with several leading teams withdrawing from the event.

The UCI, cycling’s governing body, said: “To maintain the safety of the riders, the UCI has taken the decision to stop the Tour des Pyrenees.” The race co-director, Pascal Baudron, responded: “I don’t think it’s worth organising a race to see all those months of effort ruined for the whims of spoilt children.”

The harsh reality is that there are near-misses in many races, because of poor traffic controls, inadequate policing or the pressure and intensity of racing. Of course, crashes, extreme conditions and risk are integral to racing at elite level, particularly at the Tour de France, which attracts huge crowds to the roadside. In an un-ticketed open-access sport, there is also always the risk of spectators influencing the race.

Fabio Jakobsen and Dylan Groenewegen crash during the opening stage of the 2020 Tour of Poland
Fabio Jakobsen had to be put in an induced coma after this crash involving Dylan Groenewegen at the 2020 Tour of Poland. Photograph: Arkadiusz Lawryniec/Reporter/Shutterstock

The 2021 Tour was characterised by a mass pile-up on the opening stage when an over-excited spectator held a placard in the path of the riders, but it’s not always spectators that are at fault. At the 2020 Tour of Poland, the sprinters Fabio Jakobsen and Dylan Groenewegen clashed, leaving Jakobsen severely injured and in an induced coma. Groenewegen was deemed responsible and suspended for nine months, although the race organisation was also heavily criticised for poor course design.

In the aftermath of Mäder’s death, the challenge now is to ensure the thrill and integrity of racing while integrating greater safety measures for the riders. At the heart of the matter is budget: for crowd control, policing, safety precautions, marshalling and in-race security measures, such as roadside netting on the most dangerous descents, which might have prevented Mäder from plummeting into the void.

Safety nets, used in downhill skiing, may soon be deployed on the most hazardous descents. Hansen describes them as “a great idea,” particularly when long, fast straights are followed by tight turns.

Discussions for radically enhanced safety measures have been ongoing for some time, but proposals are now expected to be unveiled before the Tour starts on Saturday. “There is a special meeting scheduled for next Wednesday with [the Tour organisers] ASO, the teams, the UCI, and myself, to discuss what we can do with certain downhill finishes in the Tour,” Hansen says.

Hansen adds that the Tour’s promoters are “very open to doing their best to ensure the race is as safe as possible. There are many aspects we can improve for rider safety, but when it comes to Gino Mäder’s situation, it is a really tough challenge. Our goal should be to minimise danger as much as possible.”

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