ROAD magazine - August 2014
Zach Bell 2014-06-05 02:29:46
This is a dangerous sport. Events over the past few years, in both the pro peloton and in the public at large, have been harsh reminders of just how dangerous cycling can be. However, over the past few weeks I’ve seen things that make me think we are not doing ourselves any favors. I am writing this because I was recently involved in a series of crashes in which I broke some bones. I am not claiming that any of my thoughts are unbiased or the only way of thinking. These articles off er a pro’s perspective on the culture of the sport and this piece is a statement on safety. I agree with anyone who says crashing is a hazard of the profession. However, the incidents I have seen and been involved in have pushed me to question whether our workplace culture is askew. Workplace safety is a big deal in every other profession. Special training is given to people in all sorts of disciplines to ensure they remain healthy, productive members of their team. Cycling leaves it to the athlete to learn and adopt safe practices through osmoses. Maybe I’m just getting older (and more fragile), but it seems that many riders are not soaking up the unspoken rules of safety. This seems particularly problematic in North America. Over the past few weeks of racing, I have been involved in three Crashes, and I have seen another three or four at least. These are real crashes involving a multitude of riders and injuries—not just a washout on a hairpin turn because of conditions. Eighty percent of those crashes were completely unnecessary. These were not incidents that resulted from tight quarters and intense racing. These were large wrecks that occurred on safe, open roads as a result of someone doing something or reacting to something inappropriatly. Someone who didn’t even have a chance at the podium caused the one that broke my collarbone.I don’t say that in a disrespectful way either. Four riders (myself included) had lapped the field and there was only a lap and a half to go. Someone, who for reasons of both respect and good sense had no business even being near the front of the race, took me down. I lost my shot at the race and much of my season because someone had it in their head they were a sprinter and needed to fight for minor places. Fighting in North America seems to mean taking increasingly stupid risks. This brings me back to the culture of the sport. It seems that in North American racing, cojones are replacing the heart, lungs and legs of the sport. A willingness to roll the dice in some big fashion is what will win you the race.That seems to be the message that so many young riders are taking home. It is not a sport for the faint of heart, but like everything else bravery can only give you marginal gains.It is the subtle spice to add to your overall ability as a bike rider and should be used sparingly. You can’t make a turkey dinner with a stale piece of bread and a kilo (sorry, pound) of salt. All you will really do is leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. In cycling, you won’t just make people sick—too much spice can end seasons, careers, even lives in some cases, which is why I feel it is important to respect the spice and not toss it around so liberally. Crashes at Gila, Athens Twilight and others in recent months have left many great athletes couch bound or worse. Many athletes in North America get a late start to the sport, and often don’t have the same skill set as other international riders by the time they are in their 20s. That is not a secret and part of the reason that there are so many uncalculated risks in our racing scene. The question then becomes how do we more efficiently communicate these skills to new athletes Of any age? I think the solution to the whole problem lies in the culture. Articles about the death of the group ride hint to me that maybe something is amiss. The focus on power meters and Strava could be culprits in the extinction of good sense and skills. These are great tools, but are they detracting from other parts of the sport? Should clubs have “no data” group rides were everyone leaves the numbers at home? These steps would enrich the sport and start providing much needed skill and respect for fellow riders. Perhaps the mercenary system of “coaching” in this sport needs to be better regulated as well. Perhaps coaches need to have some training not only in the biometrics of the sport but also in the sociology of it. This is already part of the reform conversation when it comes to the anti-doping movement.Maybe giving coaches the tools they need to instruct their athletes on how to identify smart risks from just plain old risks for risk sake should be just as important as creating an anti-doping ethic. After all, crashing people can be just as damaging to careers. This sport is dangerous enough with changing road conditions, stray animals and see through lycra for protection. We don’t need our friends putting us on the deck for a Strava record. In many ways, I see what is happening with safety in our sport not a whole lot different from Cross Fit. We have had an explosion of athletes seeking advice, and in many cases they are not able to find it or are not able to get it from qualified or experienced people. To be a cycling coach in North America, you basically just have to volunteer to give people advice. There are accreditations out there, but they are more optional than anything. I know a lot of good, qualified coaches and advisors out there in the sport who don’t have or need a piece of paper to legitimize their practices. However, I see (and feel) first hand the disconnect between the beautiful, subtly spiced sport that cycling is, and the glorified roller derby it often becomes, even at the pro level in North America. Pushing and tight racing even happen at the highest level. The difference is at that level, it never feels out of control. You know when Other racers will take risks and you know they will likely draw the line before it becomes unsafe. The key to a successful anti-doping program is a universal respect for your competitors. I don’t think it is different when it comes to safety. If you are a bike racer, you are going to crash, and it is just a matter of when. It would just be better for everyone if it happened because of slick spot on the road or rodent fell from the sky instead of someone taking risks because “that’s what bike racers do.” I know when I was a young pro, if a group like Gord Fraser, Eric Wholberg, and Chris Wherry had lapped the field together and I was in the field, I would have had the sense to stay out of their way and let them go for the win in the last couple laps. I wouldn’t need to be taught that. But maybe the whole sport is entering a new era where respect needs to be emphasized a bit more. Respect yourself, your competitors and your skill set. It seems like those three things would make the whole sport a lot better.
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