Lee’s Lowdown: Belgian Bereavement
It has not been a good week for Belgium; First there were terrorist bombs killing 35 people and shutting down the airport and underground train system, this caused an inconvenience to the World of cycling as riders couldn’t get to the E3 Harelbeke. Then we received the news of Daan Myngheer’s heart attack in France and the death of Antoiné Demoitié after crashing in Gent-Wevelgem. Lee takes a look at a very sad time for Belgium in today’s Lowdown.
What a tragic couple of days it has been for our beloved sport. I awoke early on Monday to read first that Antoine Demoitié was in a critical condition after being struck whilst on the ground by a motorbike at Sunday’s Gent-Wevelgem, then went to another site to read that he had in fact died from the injuries sustained in the incident. Then came the news that a 22-year old Belgian rider, Belgian Daan Myngheer of the Roubaix Lille Métropole team, had suffered a heart attack at the Critérium International.
Myngheer pulled off the back of the peloton on Saturday’s opening stage and had then had the heart attack in the back of an ambulance on the way to the hospital. Initially it was reported that he was in a stable condition but his team refuted that, saying that he was in fact in a critical condition and at risk of losing his life. Then this morning the worst possible news; he had passed away whilst in an induced coma.
Myngheer’s situation may well be the result of a genetic condition exacerbated by the demands of high-level bike racing and is tragic in itself, Demoitié’s is one that caused an upsurge of emotion in me, ranging from deep sadness to anger. Time and again over these past few years we have seen on our screens several incidents of motos clipping and smashing into riders. These are the very same motos that are either there to offer support and a measure of safety from the crowds for the riders by clearing the way through the crowds, or used to carry the cameramen whose footage serves to satisfy the demand for up-close action and to guarantee the TV revenue upon which the race organizers have come to rely on so heavily.
You have to wonder however if the sheer number of motos at these races is worth the danger that they inevitably present to the peloton. The demand for images, I feel, has driven the balance beyond one that is reasonable, and Demoitie’s death goes way too far in proving that to be true. If there is to be any sort of meaning to come from his sad and untimely death, it should be a thorough and comprehensive review of the presence of motorbikes in bicycle races. That will be scant consolation for Demoitié’s family and friends, but if it means that this will never happen again then so be it, and two fingers up to any TV executive or race organizer who complains that they can’t cover the race fully and therefore lose money.
Anyone that has raced more than a handful of bike races will know that regard for rider safety is often done away with because other considerations are deemed more important. Whether it be passing through a town with unsuitable roads for a high-speed peloton just so the organizers can pocket cash, dangerous finishes or making demands on riders in extreme weather conditions and being too inflexible to reduce the route, riders are often treated like race horses.
We all know that racing brings with it an inherent element of danger, and this is one reason so many of us love it, but I’ve seen enough in my short time of racing UCI events in Asia – one guy with a sliced off thumb after a ridiculously tight finishing straight, another on his back with his chest palpitating after 220km in 45 degree heat, and another sustain a broken hip when a Harley Davidson moto rider clipped him into a highway wall at 40km per hour – to know that riders worldwide are getting injuries that are wholly preventable.
Last year at the Vuelta a España you may remember the current World Champion Peter Sagan being fined for lashing out at a moto rider who knocked him off his bike. As I watched that incident I was surprised, not that Sagan was so angry, but that in so many similar incidents the riders amazingly simply pick themselves up and get back on their bikes. If it was me, I would have an impossible time trying to control myself. As cyclists we brave the madness of everyday traffic all the time, risking life and limb to simply ride our bikes, but in a race the last danger should be coming from some out-rider who can’t judge either the pace of the race or the size of a gap.
At the time of Sagan’s accident I asked whether all these moto and car drivers are trained and certified to ride with bike racers. I’ve personally never heard of a requirement, but there certainly should be. Are there effective fines and suspensions in place to deter reckless driving? As far as I know it was Sagan who received a 300CHF after getting clipped, but the driver of the motorbike was not, though if I remember rightly he was withdrawn from the race. Still, the fact that Sagan received a financial penalty alone reflects the double standards at play here.
Personally, I’d have flattened the motorbike rider, or tried to. The whole incident showed a lack of understanding of the kind of pressure these modern riders find themselves under from the media.
It’s difficult to explain the frenzy that is a bicycle race to anyone who hasn’t raced, but when the stakes are as high as at a race like Gent-Wevelgem, the whole thing begins to verge on utter chaos. On the one hand you have the riders who are desperate to get to certain points in the top 20 or 30 guys and so take chances that any sane person would never even contemplate, but on the other you have screaming cameramen, pushing their drivers to get further up to the action, and team car drivers that break every imaginable rule of the road.
And now, despite all the warnings, despite all the incidents and close calls, harking back to the 2011 Tour de France when Johnny Hoogerland and Juan Antonio Flecha were sent flying by a TV car and were very lucky not to be more seriously injured, a young man has been killed. A family has lost their son.
What might a solution be? Drones perhaps, flown at a safe distance from the race and not above it? Perhaps more sophisticated on-bike cameras whose live footage could be used in dangerous sections? I do not now, but something has to change.
Make no mistake however, this is not simply the fault of the motorbike rider, who I am sure is devastated at Demoitie’s passing, but also the race organizers, the media and the UCI for not bringing the situation under control earlier and for not taking the full responsibility that they bear for rider safety.
Shame on the lot of you.
Lee Rodgers is a former professional road racer on the UCI Asia Tour circuit now racing MTB professionally around the world. His day job combines freelance journalism, coaching cyclists, event organizing and consulting work. You can keep up with his daily scribblings over at www.crankpunk.com.
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