Death in the Afternoon

On Saturday night boxer Nick Blackwell lost his British title after a long, punishing fight with rising star Chris Eubank Jr.  Immediately afterwards Blackwell collapsed, his brain bleeding.  He was rushed to hospital, where he remains, in an induced coma.  

Boxing is unique among sports, in that the aim of the participant is to incapacitate his opponent.  But this does not make it uniquely dangerous.  Rugby, motorsports, skiing, horse riding, scuba diving, base jumping and many others cause serious injuries and deaths all too often.

Road cycling is dangerous too.  Terrain & weather conditions are unpredictable. Aerodynamics dictate that riders stick close together, wheel to wheel, even when pushing themselves to the limits of human effort.  And racing of any kind requires risk-taking.  For these and other reasons, crashes, and injuries, will always happen.  

Danger is a part of all of these sports.  But Nick Blackwell only needed to dodge Eubank’s fists: he didn’t have a clumsy TV cameraman in the ring, sticking a lens in his face.  Rugby players are not forced to negotiate crowds of motorised media, medical staff, photographers and VIPs actually on the pitch.  National hunt jockeys don’t have officials barging into them, or attempting silly overtaking manoeuvres on Hondas mid-race.  

Of course, cycling is different to other sports.   Races do not take place in controlled environments, as most sports do: rather, they cover vast distances over territory not specifically designed for the purpose.  So Dan Martin is undoubtedly right in this tweet from this morning:

No can deny that some vehicles are needed for security purposes.  And of course, professional road racing is a sport that exists for the media – it was created to sell newspapers, and its continued existence today relies entirely on media exposure, without which there would be no sponsorship, and so no professional cycling.  And no other sport so obviously lends itself to such exposure, since no other sport is as telegenic or photogenic.   

But it is screamingly obvious, and has been for some time, that the motorised presence, and particularly the media presence, in and around bicycle races, is grotesquely and dangerously inflated.  Perhaps the most shocking thing about the terrible, tragic death of Antoine Demoitié following an accident during yesterday’s edition of Gent-Wevelgem is that it was not remotely surprising.  Neal Rogers of counts eight separate “vehicle-on-rider” incidents in the last twelve months.  And it isn’t as if no one noticed these incidents: every single one has been extensively covered in the media, and it seems like every commentator, columnist & podcaster has discussed this topic, often on multiple occasions, over the last year or so.  

Unsurprisingly, this morning the internet is full of I-told-you-so articles repeating the many suggestions made in the past about improving rider safety.  There are lots of good points, and good ideas, in these articles.  But too often attention is focused excessively on driver or pilot error.  Of course it is beyond question that more detailed training & more stringent tests are required.  But it is important to understand that the problem is not just one of individual road users and their failings.  Here are some reasons why.

1. The fact that recent incidents have mostly involved motorcycles has perhaps obscured the fact that there are also far, far too many cars on the road during bicycle races.  Even when they are not involved directly in incidents, they are often a contributory factor, simply by taking up road space and representing a distraction to both motorcycle pilots and the cyclists.  For one thing, it is absurd to have a car on the road for each team.  Everything they do could be rationalised or done away with altogether.  Food, drinks & technical support could all be provided by a smaller number of neutral service cars (and at roadside).  Strategy could be figured out by the riders on the road, or communicated by the team using radios from static bases, with rider positioning and progress tracked using GPS and other technology.  So team cars could be abolished altogether, and it is hard to see who would miss them. (This would have the additional benefit of putting an end to arguments about tows and sticky bottles.)  What's more, there are cars that just don’t have any obvious function, which could also immediately be done away with.  Are all those police cars really necessary?  Why is there a VIP car?  

2. There are too many photographers on motorcycles.  Of course we all love cycling photography, and no one more than Conquista.  But it is worth asking why so many photographers are allowed on motos alongside the riders.  They are not there to capture the action: this can be, and usually is, done perfectly adequately by the TV cameras (about which, see below).  They are not capturing the spectacular scenery or the colour around the race if it is rushing past at 50km/h.  And with the greatest of respect to cycling photographers everywhere, we already have a lot of photos of skinny men on bikes looking tired.  We just don’t need that many more.  This is already acknowledged in the existing rules, which limit the number of photographers on the road in the closing stages of a race, and allow for pooling of the images they deliver.  So if we must have motorised photographers, let’s have a similar rule that applies throughout the race, and limit their numbers - leaving all the other photographers to find more original ways to capture this uniquely picturesque sport of ours.

3. As we understand it, pilots are hired and paid by photographers directly.  If so, then they surely ride as they are told to ride.  For all we know, any given accident might be as much the fault of a photographer trying to get a particular shot as it is of the man at the controls (which is not to suggest that this is what happened yesterday).  While it would certainly be a good idea to train and accredit all road users in professional races, it would also be much better if the pilots were hired and paid by the organisers, and then allocated randomly to individual photographers (who could pay fees to cover the costs).  Pilots and drivers would surely be less likely to take unnecessary risks if their employment prospects & livelihood did not depend so heavily on pleasing their passengers.

4. It is no longer necessary, and after Demoitié’s death it is arguably no longer justifiable, to film bicycle races using TV cameras on motorcycles.  If drones can be used to film skiing and horse racing, and they can, they can be used to film bicycle races.  Drones are a far superior way of transporting cameras, for a number of reasons.  Firstly, and most importantly, they are much less dangerous than motorbikes.  They would still need to be piloted expertly, but would fly above, not in the midst of, the action, significantly reducing the risk.  Even if there were an accident, the low weight of a drone (compared with a fully laden motorcycle plus pilot, passenger & equipment) means it is unlikely to do such serious damage.  Secondly, unlike motorcycles, they would never be a factor in the race.  Even when they are not causing accidents, how many times have we seen motorcycles either impede a rider – or assist one through drafting, inadvertently or otherwise?  And thirdly, drones can do things, and go places, bikes cannot.  Look at the footage of the Mongolian Naadam Festival below, and try to imagine capturing it on a motorcycle.  Then, try to imagine what a drone could do to capture the peloton crossing the Alps. 


Filming bicycle races is so obvious an application of drones, and drones are so manifestly superior to the present arrangement, that it beggars belief that they are not already used. 

Conquista has complained before about the antiquated way in which cycling is covered, even while the coverage of other sports has been transformed by technology. In cycling it always seems that everyone is happy to do things the way they have always been done, without thinking about how cycling’s “product” could be improved. This is a source of intense frustration for those of us who want the sport to present its best side, and so to flourish. 

But matters are much more serious when people start getting hurt, or even dying, not simply - like the unfortunate Nick Blackwell - because of the risks inherent in the sport, but rather due to what looks like official ineffectiveness.  And this is what an English court once found had happened in the case of boxing.  In view of (inter alia) the issues raised above about the number of vehicles permitted, the inappropriate incentive structure for pilots, the availability of alternative & less dangerous technologies, and the fact that these events were not just predictable but widely predicted, it is respectfully suggested that cycling’s authorities should study this decision very carefully.  

In September 1991 Michael Watson collapsed after his fight with Chris Eubank Sr. (father of Blackwell’s opponent last Saturday).  There was no ambulance or paramedic at the event, and no oxygen was available.  As a result, Watson spent a year in intensive care, during most of which he could neither speak nor hear, and six more years in a wheelchair.  Watson later sued the British Boxing Board of Control for negligence.  He won, and was awarded significant compensation.  The BBBoC, thinking it did not bear responsibility for fighter safety, was uninsured.  It had to sell its London headquarters to meet its costs, and very nearly disappeared altogether. 

Boxing is not cycling.  And this case was of course decided under English law, which is not immediately relevant to events in Belgium (where the race started and finished) and France (where the fatal accident seems to have happened).  But it would be interesting to understand the legal implications of the tragic events during yesterday’s race.  The UCI seems to think it can absolve itself of all responsibility, declaring race organisers wholly responsible for safety.  Doubtless they have taken legal advice on the matter.  But in the light of Watson v BBBoC  it is not obvious that any sport's governing body can be so confident.  Certainly, it would be very interesting to hear the views of a court.  

In their articles and podcasts on this subject before yesterday, commentators invariably (and rhetorically) asked “does someone have to die for change to come?”  It would be appalling if Antoine Demoitié’s tragic death did not result in extensive changes to cycling’s governance, organisation and coverage.  It is equally appalling to think that it might take the intervention of the law to overcome cycling’s traditional resistance to such changes.  The time for the UCI and organisers to act is now.  It is fervently to be hoped that they do so.  

[powr-photo-gallery id=AntoineRIP]

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