It’s been a torrid season so far for our sport, and there’s no sign of it letting up.

‘Crashes are part of the sport’ – a line that’s been parroted on various social media sources – and while it’s true, it doesn’t make it any easier to bear the relentless imagery of riders coming down in high-speed crashes, the barrage of team updates listing rider injuries, and the constant sense of gnawing tension in the belly as watching our beloved racing becomes a matter of wondering when, not if, the next spills will mar the day, and just how bad they might be. It's not easy to be a cycling fan, in 2024.

Where do we draw the line? If there is a line to be drawn at all? If measures must be taken, we as fans cannot influence them, even the more knowledgeable among us, so we have no choice but to wait, and hope in vain for the best. There has been some reaction to certain events – the CPA working with the UCI and race organisers to include netting on dangerous descents in the wake of Gino Mäder’s tragic passing last year, being a prime example. The UCI issue sporadic rule updates regarding riders’ position on the bike, helmet shape or style, and most recently of course, we've seen the change to the entrance into the infamous Trouée d’Arenberg sector ahead of this weekend’s Paris-Roubaix, spearheaded by the CPA. A widely publicised change that was met with a broad range of reactions both from the riders themselves, and fans of the sport.

The argument about the chicane raged on social media – even when the union or governing body does take steps to try and protect the riders, they come under attack. The purists don't want to know. Don’t get me started on the ‘snowflake’ or ‘back in my day’ arguments for just turning the riders out to face the dangers that could in certain cases be mitigated for. The equipment being used today is worlds apart, the technology coming on leaps and bounds, and in turn races are getting faster and faster. But the human body has not yet evolved to resist the impact. So mitigate, we must, even if the results may be imperfect.

While some riders were outspoken about the changes to the Roubaix parcours (Matteo Jorgenson FOR, Mathieu van der Poel AGAINST), the response from riders following yesterday’s horror crash at Itzulia Basque Country was understandably muted, with those that chose to speak mostly just expressing their best wishes for the affected riders. A few were more vocal however – Rudy Molard, who suffered his own rough crash at the Tour Down Under, and is still out with the resulting concussion, said this:

Lilian Calmejane had some practical suggestions, and these were followed by some further thoughts from Romain Bardet and Valentin Madouas in L’Equipe – summarised below.

Perhaps a more pertinent question than 'will anything be done?' is CAN anything be done? As a fan, with zero experience of race organisation, logistics, kit design, technique, or equipment, I have to hold my hands up and say – I really don’t know. I am simply hoping that those people who can make changes are doing so, maintaining the faith that those who are able to, are making race routes safer, endowing unions with more power, and protecting riders via whichever adjustments can be made. This remains to be seen and according to David Lappartient, the SafeR project which aims to address these very issues should bear fruit before the end of the year.

Shifting Gears

Beyond technical and logistical factors, a relative shift in mentality and its subsequent impact on racing style may warrant exploration. It’s no secret that since the return of racing following the covid-19 break in 2020, the sport has seen a noticeable shift in terms of racing style, with attacks coming earlier and earlier, and speeds pushing higher and higher; course records are falling, as races are completed in record time not just once or twice, but consistently. There's not just a desire but seemingly a desperation to win, at every point in the race: to be first to that narrow turn, first onto the cobbled sector, first up a significant climb. These pinch points that were always dangerous seem somehow worse than before, less controlled, with greater risks being taken, and less care for the potential outcomes.

Has there been a shift in mentality that is driving riders to make more reckless decisions, to push themselves beyond the limits of what is safe? Professional cycling, like many sports, has always been a game of brinkmanship, of testing the limits, whether of endurance, will, the machine, or the body itself, but all too often of late it seems to go beyond and place the human body in harm’s way. Perhaps it is borne out of the best of this generation, ridiculously talented, driving each other to new and greater highs, while the rest scramble desperately to cling on as races that in the past would likely have been within their reach, now seem like impossible dreams, even as they ride them.

And though recency bias may suggest that it’s all the sport's main characters being affected, there is perhaps some meaning to the fact that team leaders and GC favourites are the ones coming down. In races over the past few years these big names are front and centre, attacking one another, not being hidden from view, shielded by the additional armour of their teammates until the last moment, as they once were. The phrase 'protected rider' no longer means what it once meant. It now stands for the aggressor, the primacy of the alpha. Riders like Tadej Pogačar and Mathieu van der Poel have been animating races with their fearless riding style and it’s drawing the big names out earlier and earlier, as the business end of the racing slips backwards to become the business middle; the aggressive, all-action, high-octane approach undoubtedly bringing with it a greater level of risk. Though we are indeed entertained, it’s a fine line between pushing just enough, and pushing beyond the limit.

The Human Cost

So I return to the central question of this piece: as we can all accept, it’s not up to us as fans to dictate how riders race, and we do not have the requisite knowledge or experience to advise on cutting edge technology and equipment or road furniture logistics, therefore we must decide where we personally draw the line, in terms of what we can handle when it comes to this sport we love. Emotionally, psychologically, the impact of the past couple of weeks has been a burden that we have borne collectively. Painful memories of last June surfaced all too easily following yesterday’s crash in the Basque Country: hanging onto my phone, waiting for news, unable to tear my eyes away from social media, unable to rest until all the afflicted had been accounted for. The injury list was extensive, and made for grim reading: a broken collarbone and scapula for Remco Evenepoel. A broken collarbone, ribs, punctured lung and pneumothorax for Jonas Vingegaard. Two perforated lungs, two broken ribs, and damaged vertebrae for Stef Cras. Damaged cervical and lumbar vertebrae for Jay Vine. A concussion and sternum fracture for Sean Quinn. Contusions and abrasions for Natnael Tesfatsion. Abrasions for Primoz Roglič and Quinten Hermans.

It followed a day after Lennard Kämna’s training accident in Tenerife, and Roglič and Ayuso crashed in Itzulia. Two days after several riders crashed out of both men’s and women’s Scheldeprijs. Three days after David Gaudu departed Itzulia, needing ten stitches in his hand, in the same incident that brought down Tao Geoghegan Hart. Four days after Lizzie Deignan broke her arm and Marlen Reusser suffered facial injuries in the Tour of Flanders. Eight days after Wout van Aert fractured his collarbone, several ribs and his sternum at Dwars Door Vlaanderen. Such devastation wrought in such a short timespan. Even as I write this article, Mikel Landa abandoned Itzulia following a crash and was taken to hospital - he too broke two ribs.

While I appreciate that cycling is a sport with a larger than average percentage of fans who are able to watch and enjoy the spectacle from a distance, with an objective eye, I know I speak for a great many of us when I say that we watch cycling with partisan interest; with our own personal favourites, cheering someone on and becoming invested in their race, their season, their career. It goes without saying that central to this desire to see our favourite riders succeed is to see them to stay safe. When a rider that you particularly enjoy watching or have supported for a long time, goes down, you are deeply affected; as though it’s happening to someone that you know, because you do know them, in a way, whether it be through social media or through interviews, they have found a place in your heart, won your loyalties, and in a sport such as cycling where fans are offered a comparatively intimate insight into the lives of their heroes, it hits hard. Yesterday we were united in shock, regardless of whether we had a particular rider for whom we were worrying, or whether as a more objective observer, we were simply concerned for the safety of them all.

Yesterday for me, the emotional weight centred around Jay Vine, one of the riders caught up in the crash, and one of the worst affected, at first glance. Jay was a rider I took to my heart following his victory on the Zwift Academy show, and I followed his career with interest after that, 'adopting' him as my 'rider without a pro win' in a friendly season-long contest my friends and I took part in, back in 2022. The year he very much took the cycling world by storm, winning stages at La Vuelta and backing up his promise with results.

He spoke candidly with me about his plans for the future in a recent interview, and his lovely wife Bre, currently expecting their first child, helped facilitate my follow-up chat with Jay, incredibly helpful and nothing too much trouble. After I published the piece they both shared it with their family and friends in Australia. It was a small connection, but a connection nonetheless. The sense of relief I felt when I heard he was conscious following the crash was the same as that I would have felt finding out a friend was safe. The extent of his injuries will be a huge hurdle for him to overcome, of course. But for those closest to the injured riders, to any injured riders, whether it be team staff, family, or friends, I can't imagine the weight they must bear, and my heart goes out to them.

Onward, with hope

Even for those fans who are able to watch objectively, who don’t have particular favourite riders or teams, there’s a sense of loss; the human impact is not lost on anyone – many fans have family who race or have raced, or one raced themselves, and can identify and empathise with what the riders are going through. And of course, there’s the inevitable disappointment of the realising our hopes for a memorable season have been dented.

And so once again, we reshape our expectations for the future. The anticipation of the biggest races of the year is inextricably intertwined with the riders who will be in attendance, and just as our hopes of seeing Wout van Aert take on Mathieu van der Poel, Mads Pedersen and the rest at the cobbled Monuments were dealt a fatal blow as Van Aert crashed out in Dwars Door Vlaanderen, our hopes of an amazing Tour de France with arguably the four top GC riders of the era have also been irrevocably impacted. And what of the riders and their hopes and dreams? Van Aert, who craves the addition of De Ronde or Paris-Roubaix on his palmares? Vingegaard, going for his third consecutive Tour de France. Many, many more individual plans, schedules, goals and dreams disrupted.

As always, I try to look for the positives. It’s the only way I can move forward. But it’s becoming increasingly difficult. Of course, with the main protagonists side-lined, other riders may have their chance to shine – but there’s no way they would wish these circumstances on any of their colleagues, so such chances come with a caveat.

How many blows can we collectively take from this sport before we as individuals may choose to step away and just take a breather? There were some who couldn't turn on the TV and watch today's stage of Itzulia, and I don't blame them at all. Knowing that Paris-Roubaix – a race so unforgiving it’s nicknamed ‘the Hell of the North’ – is coming, hot on the heels of this unbearable week, will really challenge fans who must decide if they can stomach yet more misery. It will be hard to watch, but with hope in my heart, I will watch. There are men and women out there about to give their all, and I will lend them my support once again. I've come this far with this crazy sport. I can only hope that it gives back some of what it has taken so far this season, in terms of its emotional impact, and that we will all have something good to celebrate in the coming days, weeks and months.

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