July 12, 2017 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 3Comment

The Wall Street Journal’s Jason Gay describes the Tour de France as part bike race and part soap opera. The 198 riders who start the 23-day event are phenomenal athletes. Many will complete the race but not until they peddle 2,200 miles across farm land, past historic monasteries, through charming villages, and up (and down) the Pyrenees and Alps. In my cyclist-rich area of central Texas, many conversations this month are colored with comments about “The Tour.”

This year, as every year, some of the riders are involved in horrible crashes. Those who have to abandon the Tour often suffer broken collarbones or pelvises and concussions. The post-crash conversations by former cyclists and commentators often turn to safety. They ask: “Are the race organizers doing enough to protect the riders from these incidents?”

Stage #1 of this year’s Tour was a rainy day and the roadway was slick. The day’s challenge was a “time trial” which involves a staggered start with each rider cycling as fast as possible over a 9-mile course. The Spanish veteran cyclist Alejandro Valverde rounded a tight corner and his wheels slid across the pavement. Valverde crashed into the metal barriers that lined the route. Among the 37 year old’s injuries is a broken kneecap.

Paraphrasing the TV commentators:

“Guys have been skidding out all day on that turn. It’s dangerous.”

“When guys were doing their practice laps this morning they were slipping around that corner.”

And this:

“As soon as they saw riders crashing out, why didn’t the race organizers change out the metal barriers for hay bales? Bones get broken on those metal barriers.”

In other words, after the hazard caused a problem, why didn’t somebody in charge do something about it?

Former U.S. cyclist Christian Vande Velde, now a TV commentator for NBC Sports had a particularly serious tone when he said:

The Tour organizers need to be “putting the riders first and foremost. This is the pinnacle of our sport. If it’s not being done here, where is it being done? It’s not being done.

We need to look at the Tour de France for assurance that this is how it is done. This is the proper way to do everything.

Why is a lesser race (than the Tour) going to make provisions that aren’t being done at the Tour de France? They’re not.”

I also heard remarks that the organizers don’t involve riders enough in safety matters:

“Nobody wants to crash out. Riders need to be consulted about this stuff.”

This sounds familiar and much like safety conversations in a workplace setting:

“People keep getting hurt with that machine. Why don’t they fix it?”

“That equipment is dangerous. It’s a disaster waiting to happen.”

“Somebody’s going to get killed with that thing.”

“We’re left in the dark but it’s our lives on the line.”

And just like in workplaces, bike racing organizers say the safety of the cyclists is paramount importance.

I call that “safety talk” but not necessarily safety action.

3 thoughts on ““Safety talk” at the Tour de France

  1. Very interesting, thank you.

    This seems to be a subset of the type of thinking we see in almost every workplace. (Prompted by my 16yo son’s admission that he ignored the Safety portion of his Life & Career class because “it was boring”…)

    I know there are cultural & institutional barriers to thinking about safety, but it’s almost like people deny cause and effect under some circumstances. Are these concepts too abstract for some otherwise smart people, or are we asking the wrong questions? Is simple boredom with the drab nature of the problem one of the barriers?

    In the racing world, cause and effect calculations might be extra boring because of their proximity to exciting sports people! Plus a few crashes here and there probably helps sell tickets.

  2. GregH: I’ve seen some amazingly horrible workplace safety PSA’s out of Canada that are sure to catch everyone’s attention. The most striking one is set in a retail store (not most people’s idea of a dangerous workplace) where an employee is trying to hang a sign and falls from a ladder, seriously injuring herself, then stand up and lectures her coworker on how this was “not an accident”. I’m pretty sure you can find them on YouTube.

    There is also something about “mandatory training” that seems to make people turn off their brains.

  3. A race versus a workplace ought to exhibit very different tradeoffs. Certainly as far as a racer is concerned, he/she is willing to take risks in order to gain an advantage. I had been
    in a few mass mountain bike races a couple decades back.
    I still remember one puddle I was emerging from at a sfe 5mphish, and hearing from behind buzzzz-splash, as another racer carried maximum momentum from the hill into the puddle -and didn’t make it. These events are just made for the suspention of better judgment.

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