Jacob Tipper and five other cyclists are keeping rider journals for The British Continental this season. The 28-year-old Ribble Weldtite Pro Cycling rider is a three-time UCI road race winner. This is Jacob’s fifth journal entry…
Why do riders who aren’t inherently bad people seem so happy to make these unnecessarily dangerous moves?
Stage 1 of the Tour of Poland featured one of the most horrific finishes I’ve ever seen. Rightly or wrongly, footage of Fabio Jakobsen’s crash has been shown from all different angles, in high speed and in slow motion (considering his condition, there is a fair argument that these images should not be being reproduced all over the media).
The sprint was already expected to be quick. With riders recording 84 kph on this downhill finish last year, it’s statistically the fastest finish on the World Tour calendar. Then, just as the finish line approached, with Jakobsen coming around Dylan Groenewegen, we saw Groenewegen ‘close the door’ on Jakobsen, forcing him into some poorly constructed finish barriers and taking out a finish-line photographer.
As with all things, this instantly bubbles over to Twitter, with Patrick Lefevere instantly calling for courtroom hearings for Groenewegen, others aiming personal attacks at Groenewegen on his on own social media channels. Others still focused on the governance of the sport. Would the crash have been so bad if proper barriers were in place? Why are sprinters still allowed to close the door on each other? Why are punishments for the crime only dished out when riders get hurt, as when Sagan took out Cav in the Tour de France? Sagan did something every sprinter does every week but because Cav got hurt he was punished, while 99% of the same actions go without.
I’ll try my best to give my thoughts and go on my own experiences of this.
The Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI) is the governing body of the sport but it behaves more like an old political boys’ club: self-serving and unwilling to embrace change. The top of its agenda should be rider safety and rider equality (they clearly still don’t respect women’s cycling) but they seem more preoccupied with sock length, Dan Bigham’s latest inventions and track trade teams (not that I’m bitter at all).
In my opinion, they are accountable for three issues that occurred yesterday.
1. Course safety. Time after time, we still see inner-city race finishes across tram tracks, over footpaths, dodging bollards and sometimes with obscenely tight corners metres from the finish line. Cycling is a dangerous sport. We all knowingly accept this and don’t expect dual carriageway finishes on straight roads. The characteristics of run-ins can help define sprints and animate the race. This has to come with a balance, however, and an element of safety. We don’t just want the most reckless rider to win. Many people have criticised the use of Poland’s finishing circuit and downhill run-in for increasing the risk of an accident.
2. Barriers. There is a good reason why safety barriers have been introduced to the world of cycling. Alex Rasmussen (former Danish professional) demonstrates this well on his Twitter account, comparing the Jakobsen crash with the Sagan-Cavendish crash. In the latter incident, Cav hits the barrier but goes down ‘relatively’ safely, only taking one rider down with him. As opposed to Jakobsen’s crash where the barriers gave way, rebounding back into the course, causing several riders to go down. The UCI should be responsible for making sure World Tour events adhere to proficient safety standards, including proper barrier set-up.
3. Sprinting. Whilst I’ll touch on the philosophical elements of Groenewegen’s moves later, in isolation, you can see why he does it. ‘Closing the door’ is a well-established technique but it’s only when someone gets hurt that the UCI does anything about it. If Jakobsen was a touch further back and had managed to brake and avoid the crash, he would still have been unfairly impeded, Lefevere would have complained, but nothing would have been done about it. Again, look back at the Sagan vs Cav crash. It all stemmed from Kristoff opening up in the centre of the road and then drifting across. This is common practice; although the rules state you must not deviate off your line, they’re just simply not enforced. Track sprinting has tight rules on this, and it doesn’t seem to reduce any of the excitement of the sprint; if anything the sprints are even more exciting.
As I have touched on above, Groenewegen hasn’t really acted any differently to numerous sprinters, on numerous occasions. If Jakobson had somehow stayed upright, no-one would have complained. If the appropriate barriers were in place, the crash wouldn’t have been half as bad, and again, there would be fewer people asking for Groenewegen’s head. The argument that Groenewegen should face criminal charges seems somewhat unfair when you consider he has simply done the exact same move as lots of other riders.
You could compare this to some actions in other sports. Rugby had various dangerous moves that were at one point ‘part of the sport’: collapsing the scrum, dump tackles, high tackles. None of which were at 80 kph but could still result in life-changing injuries. Since then, the sport has become extremely tight on these, with rules and punishments brought in to protect players.
What’s important is that a sport’s governing body needs to be tight on upholding the rules to start with. You can’t just wait for someone to get hurt then blame the rider or player even if, in the heat of battle, sportspeople must still be aware that their actions have consequences. My personal view when sprinting (although I like to think I normally sprint straight) was that if you did drift, it was to make someone ‘think twice’. It wasn’t to punt someone into the barriers at full speed.
To me it does look like a fairly deliberate act, involving a lack of respect for a fellow competitor
Regardless of barrier safety, to me it does look like a fairly deliberate act, involving a lack of respect for a fellow competitor. No-one is suggesting Groenewegen would have wanted the results to be as bad as they were, but I still can’t comprehend how at that point, even in full flight and with split-seconds to make decisions, that he didn’t believe he was about to seriously chop a rider into a barrier, and thus cause a serious crash.
I’ve thankfully avoided any big crashes myself in bunch sprints, but I have seen them happen, some caused by accident, some more deliberate. I’ve also seen the outcome from them, including broken bones, head injuries, and even a rider dying (the latter not in a bunch sprint but through deliberately aggressive riding). Yet I would say there is only one rider I’ve raced against where I have genuinely thought ‘you are just a horrible ****, and you clearly couldn’t give a damn about hospitalising people’.
These moves are still considered ‘part of the game’, so riders making them seemingly go unpunished by the UCI
So why do riders who aren’t inherently bad people seem so happy to make these unnecessarily dangerous moves? I believe the UCI needs to step up with its governance of sprint finishes. Hopefully, this will bring riders’ actions into line. Right now, these moves are still considered ‘part of the game’, so riders making them seemingly go unpunished by the UCI and without stigma from other riders for making them.
Obviously we all wish Jakobson the very best with his recovery. The same goes to all the others involved. I do believe Groenewegen deserves some form of punishment, but the UCI needs to tighten up its rules (and the enforcement of them) first before riders receive harsher punishments for doing something they believed to be a part of the sport. The hope is that lessons are learned about how to improve the sport going forwards. Although considering we have had unsafe finishes in one way or another for well over 50 years in the sport, I think it may be unlikely.
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