Tour needs to recalibrate
After watching Canadian cycling champion Ryder Hesjedal exit the Tour de France on Friday — lucky that all he suffered in the horrific mass crash of racers was deep bruising to his left hip, plus the loss of skin — one can’t help but wonder that if the athletes were riding horses and not bicycles, the tour might have been cancelled decades ago.
The reactions of riders, managers and tour organizers to the carnage on the most crash-filled tour in decades seems to indicate that while it is trying to clean up its image after years of doping scandals, the sport still doesn’t understand itself.
When the list grew too long of hockey players with careers cut short (or never started) and lives ruined by injuries, caretaker organizations at all levels decided to make changes. They recognized — a bit later than fans and the general public — that hockey had become too brutal to survive in its current state.
This week, we are watching the Calgary Stampede. Concerns about the safety of both human and animal participants are not new to rodeo, but they do seem to grow each year.
The irony of concern from celebrity commentators like Bob Barker, who want rodeo banned, period, is not lost in the lack of concern expressed by organizers of the world’s third largest sporting event (after Summer Olympics and the World Cup of soccer) for the safety of their cyclist athletes.
These huge events are not just celebrations of excellence in human achievement, they are highly lucrative family compacts. They are above government, above humanity — even above memory, apparently.
“We have no memory,” said Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme, after being asked if seeing 10 per cent of the event’s participants exit due to injury in the first week of this year’s tour was the worst he’s seen. “Every year, people say this.”
Indeed. You can read this reaction in a variety of ways.
Either the millions of fans of the Tour de France don’t understand the sport enough to rationalize its risks, or the sport doesn’t understand itself.
Either the critics of rodeo do not understand the efforts of rodeo personnel to care for their stock, or rodeo does not understand itself.
Either the governors of hockey do not understand the risks they ask players to take in order to participate at the highest level, or the fans just don’t know hockey.
Auto racing is either patently unsafe, or there is too much money to be made selling tickets to fans who just want to witness a crash.
Just under 200 cyclists started the tour riding cheek-by-jowl in a pack that travels 70 km/h at times. Some riders claim risks are heightened by coaches yelling at them over radio earphones to get out front, when there’s no room out front for everyone. Other riders insist that the world’s premier cycling event has too many untrained riders in it, which seems hard to believe. Others say the rush for money in advertising and sponsorships has pressured the event to accept more teams than it can safely manage.
Christian Prudhomme simply claims amnesia.
Professional cycling did not taking doping seriously until athletes started dying on their beds. Perhaps it will take the safety of the race itself seriously when too many cyclists, like Oscar Freire, are taken to hospital with punctured lungs.
Nobody wants to witness those cycling crashes and we know they are not perfectly preventable. Last year, a media car clipped rider Juan Antonio Flecha, who bumped Dutchman Johnny Hoogerland, who flew headlong into a barbed wire fence. That prompted a rule change.
But professional cycling risks losing public support if the pursuit of money and glory puts the cream of its sport at too great a risk.
Greg Neiman is an Advocate editor.