A phone call from Rouleur is a wonderful thing. Though it can also lead to abject terror.
“Paul, it’s Ian. Do you like driving?”
I grasped for something witty to respond with. Failed.
“I suppose so, why?”
“The UCI are running a course on how to drive safely in the convoy of a WorldTour race. It’s in France, at the Dauphiné. I thought it might be interesting for you to go on it. Particularly in light of the incidents at Flanders this year.”
“What, when experienced race drivers knocked riders off their bikes?”
“Quite. After the course you could drive in the convoy on the first stage.”
When I took this call I was packing up my battered and dusty Peugeot for a family weekend away. As we trundled round the M25 with the refrain of “Are we nearly there yet?” puncturing my eardrum every three minutes, I began imagining myself swooping through Alpine hairpins in the midst of team cars, camera motos, commissaires and riders. How amazing.
“What if you knock Chris Froome off his bike four weeks before the Tour de France?” my wife pointed out. Hmm.
I said yes to Rouleur. Of course I did. And over the next few weeks, anxiety alternated with excitement. Everyone I spoke to agreed with my wife. A careless piece of driving could end a rider’s career. Anxiety became fear. No, I told myself, you’re a good driver. You passed your test first time. You can reverse around a corner. It will be fine. Hmm.
To an outsider, the UCI seems like a pretty formidable organisation. The branding is polished, the press releases are lofty, and its headquarters are in a pristine metal and glass confection in the town of Aigle, Switzerland. I’ve never been there, but I like to imagine it as a James Bond villain’s lair, with guards in rather camp rainbow-banded outfits. There’s an underground velodrome – this is still in my head – filled with vicious Belgian soigneurs circling on brown track bikes from the Seventies. Try to push at the conventions of the sport and a sinister Technical Delegate will lead you to a massage table where you’ll be pummelled into submission by a chap from Antwerp called Kenny. By the end of your ‘massage’ you’ll have denounced carbon fibre and power meters as the work of Satan, and be calling for the return of downtube gear levers and Benzedrine.
There’s a sense of authority associated with Switzerland. Not moral authority, but the authority of money. And there’s the reputation for efficiency and neutrality – all good for a sport’s governing body. So as my driving course approached, I began to feel both intimidated and heartened.
The UCI were taking this seriously. It would be both rigorous and educational, and by the end I would have a whole set of new skills. I envisaged a practical course lasting for several hours, based at a motor racing circuit or somewhere similar. After the introductions there might be a brief presentation before we got out on the road, probably in red Skodas. Each journalist or photographer would get a car to drive and, under the watchful eye of a team of UCI commissaires, we’d drive around a circuit, playing out various race scenarios. Actors playing professional riders would veer courageously through the convoy. A Johnny Hoogerland lookalike would throw himself at our bumpers. If we failed to knock him off his bike, we passed the course. Afterwards, we would feel exhausted, but content in our newfound knowledge.
Three days before I travelled to France an email came through from the UCI. The course would be two hours long and take place in the Ecole de Danse, Albertville. It sounded like a lovely venue but surely a dance school wouldn’t have a motor racing circuit on campus?
Albertville sits in the Arly valley, in the Haute-Savoie, and sprawls across a couple of motorway junctions. It has the impression of a place living off past glories. The 1992 Winter Olympics made it famous and left a legacy of disproportionately large sporting arenas. Now the good denizens of Albertville are promoting the town as a centre for summer as well as winter sports. Certainly it’s well situated for superb road riding, mountain biking, hiking and general Alpine adventuring. Into this sleepy town I rolled in my shiny hired Peugeot, Europop pumping, jaw set determinedly, headlights on full beam because I couldn’t work out how to switch them off. Earlier, at Geneva airport, I’d made contact with Marshall Kappel, my photographer colleague, and we’d driven in convoy down the autoroute. Now we were ready to be put through our paces by the UCI.
The Ecole de Danse is a modern, light building only fifty metres from where the construction teams were building the finish gantry for stage one. We arrived ten minutes early. The place was deserted. Gradually other journalists and photographers began to arrive, at a saunter rather than a clip, and we headed into a room laid out in theatre-style. So much for any practical interaction.
There were perhaps a hundred men in the room, chatting volubly amongst themselves like friends, peers, colleagues. No women, which I found odd. Faces were tanned, confident. Most looked like they could drive round France whilst simultaneously eating a plate of cassoulet and writing an editorial, steering with their knees. And had been doing just that since Bernard Hinault was in the white jersey.
Our tutor, a Belgian UCI Commissaire, arrived on the dot of one o’clock, shook a few hands and exchanged jokes whilst setting up his laptop. The hubbub descended to a respectful silence as he began to talk.
“We were all shocked by the incident of Johnny Hoogerland in the Tour de France,” he began by saying. Agreed, but wasn’t that four years ago?
“More recently we had the incidents with the Shimano neutral service cars at the Tour of Flanders, with Jesse Sergent and Sébastien Chavanel.”
As he talked, the Commissaire flicked through Powerpoint slides. I won’t bore you with the whole thing – and it was boring – but suffice to say that a long succession of bullet points does not make for an inspiring presentation. Twenty minutes in and my mind began to wander. Specifically I was wondering whether UCI officials derived most of their power from their immaculate shirts. Ironed so crisply, with perfect creases on the sleeves, a rainbow insignia on their breast, and made from blue cotton as pale as a Swiss sunrise, the shirt of a UCI official is a wonderful thing to see up close. Such a level of ironing isn’t easy, particularly in hotel bedrooms in rural France. The UCI presumably runs ironing courses for its chaps back in Aigle.
Okay, back in the room. Even with my patchy French, I could understand the overall message being delivered – if you’re going to drive a vehicle in the race, make sure it’s safe and has all the right documentation, and above all, stay away from the race. If you do have to go near the riders, make sure you do it when there’s nothing interesting happening. Listen to Radio Tour and always obey the Commissaires. Ideally press vehicles should go from stage start to stage finish well ahead of the race convoy.
The respectful hush was beginning to break up. The Commissaire was losing his audience. First there were whispers, then suppressed laughter, then outright challenges. What about all the other drivers on the race – were they being asked to go on a course like this? How can we get near the race to take photos, see the action? Maintaining his authority, but only just, the Commissaire brought our training course to an end forty minutes early, with the classic line: “We now have forty minutes to sign the register to say that you have attended this course.”
If I was a cynical man – and I am – I might speculate that the UCI are trying to get their insurance premium down.
After the ceremonial signing of the register, Marshall and I, rather dispirited by the experience, retired to a café to discuss tactics. If we drove in the convoy on the following day’s race – and behaved as the Powerpoint presentation dictated – it would be a pretty dull day. Kept far from the action, it would essentially mean driving one hundred and eighty kilometres through the waiting crowds. We’d feel pretty cool for half an hour, then bored for another four. And Marshall wouldn’t get his lens anywhere near the peloton. Our place in the hierarchy was very clear; and quite right too. Journalists and photographers should cede to the race security vehicles and team cars. The safety of the riders has to come first.
Since that inadequate training course in Albertville, what I’ve been struggling to work out is why things have taken such a downward plunge. And why now? Is it the vagaries of luck, deserting the professional peloton? Or some kind of bad karma? This year’s incidents have all been errors of judgment on the driver’s part – going for gaps that are too tight (the Shimano car that knocked Jesse Sergent off his bike in the Tour of Flanders and the motorbike that put Peter Sagan on the ground in the Vuelta), braking too late (the Shimano car that played dodgems with Sébastien Chavanel’s team car in the same race), not checking for riders coming across the road (the motorbike that took out Jakob Fuglsang in the Tour de France), getting too close behind a rider (the motorbike that clipped Greg Van Avermaet at San Sebastián) and a motorbike being on the exit line of a corner (the motorbike upon which Sergio Paulinho sliced open his leg in the Vuelta).
All the drivers involved were part of the official convoy, and had a right to be there. After the Tour of Flanders, Shimano released a statement saying, “The driver has an exemplary 14 years of neutral support experience at World Championships, Olympics and Belgian Classics to his name and had recently renewed his licence with his country’s cycling federation. He retrieved Jesse’s bike from the on-coming flow of traffic and attempted to aid the rider before contacting police and ambulance services. We are assured that, aside from a split-second error of judgment, all protocols were followed, both to mitigate the chance of an accident and how to respond after an accident.”
None of which sounds unreasonable. Haven’t we all had split-second errors of judgment at the wheel of a car?
Readers of a certain age may remember the infamous incident on the Koppenberg involving Jesper Skibby in the 1987 Tour of Flanders. Alone in the lead at the foot of the climb, Skibby began a valiant struggle to maintain momentum on the dreaded cobbles, only for an official car to come flying up to his back wheel, knock him over, knock a policeman into the hedge and then crush Skibby’s bike. Breakaway terminated, legend created.
Since then incidents involving race convoy vehicles have been rare. Until now. So what’s going on? It’s not easy to pin down. A major bike race is like a huge, complex organism crawling across the landscape. Its objective is to make progress with all its parts safe. Security has always been an issue, with the focus shifting between various problems. For a time it was cars creeping onto the course. Then it was street furniture. Then it was over-zealous fans, loose dogs, unfettered children. Setting poor Johnny Hoogerland aside for a moment, the problem with race convoy vehicles has only arisen this year.
Like any complex organism, a bike race depends on balance. All its constituent parts have to work together harmoniously. Coexistence depends on mutual respect and an awareness of the bigger picture. In other words, the safety of the riders has to come first not only for its own sake, but because it damages cycling for television viewers to see motorbikes careering through the peloton, clipping riders.
Talking to riders and their managers a picture begins to emerge of this coexistence becoming less than harmonious. The organism is stressed. Kjell Carlström, directeur sportif of IAM Cycling told me, “Partly because there’s more attention now, partly because there’s more people new to cycling, there’s more stress. Everyone wants to be first to the scoop. Everyone feels their job is more important than the others so there’s less respect between groups. Riders should come first. The directeur sportif’s car and the security motos should come first in the convoy. The security motos need to move fast to close the parcours. There’s more road furniture now, and more vehicles on the road in general. Small roads create high stress, motorbikes have to get past. Perhaps we have to look at using wider roads.”
Mutual respect is one of the cornerstones of professional cycling. Within a team, within a peloton, within the convoy. If that respect starts to diminish, people will push the boundaries of what is safe. They go for that tiny gap, drive just a little too fast, lose focus.
There may be practical steps that can help: minimum road widths, restriction on field sizes, restriction on the number of vehicles. But these will compromise the spectacle of bike racing. What would the Tour of Flanders be without the sight of two hundred riders fighting for position on narrow muddy roads, surrounded by buzzing motorbikes and rattling team cars?
Inside the convoy there are periods of stress, periods of calm, periods of boredom. Like any job. What seems to have changed is that the periods of stress are being magnified by competition between the different factions within the convoy. Everyone wants to be first to the action, and will take risks to get there.
The UCI’s response to date has been to focus on reminding specific groups of their responsibilities. Well-intentioned but misguided. All that happens is that each group says, well what about the others, as I witnessed in Albertville. It exacerbates the problem rather than solving it. When I asked the UCI Press Office for a comment they sent me this message: “The safety of riders and all involved in UCI events is the top priority of the Union Cycliste Internationale. The UCI Road Commission met recently and discussed in depth the security issues that have been raised during the 2015 season. One of the main topics of discussion related to the circulation of vehicles within the race. A full review of the current regulations will be made before the start of the 2016 season, including those governing the conduct of drivers in races and the licensing requirements for the drivers.”
Being a governing body for a sport like cycling, with all its factions, can’t be easy. It must be tempting to hide behind a rulebook. And it’s unfair of me to caricature the UCI. But in this area rules aren’t going to help. Someone prepared to risk safety will also be prepared to break rules. It’s the breakdown in respect that needs addressing, and the best way to do this is dialogue. The UCI’s responsibility is to get all the groups talking to each other, to share their concerns, to air their differences. Its approach needs to be conciliatory rather than dictatorial. The window of opportunity is short – by February we’ll once more be careering into a road season, and we cannot let a rider’s death be the catalyst for real change. Real change must happen now, but it’s not about rulebooks and Powerpoint presentations.
A few weeks after my trip to Albertville I received through the post a stiff-backed envelope with a Swiss postmark. Inside was my certificate to show I had attended the UCI course for “members of the press who are holders of a licence for a vehicle driver in a road event”. It is a beautiful thing. Thick, premium-quality paper, a subtle blue header, an official stamp, and signed in blue pen by the UCI’s Professional Cycling Manager. The design department clearly put a great deal of time and effort into it. And to what end? Surely they could have just sent me an email confirming that I was on a database of journalists who had attended the course. I wondered what to do with the certificate. Frame it? No, too ostentatious. File it? Such a shame to hide it away. Caught by indecision, it remained on my desk for some time. Then one day I found one of my children attacking it with crayons. I let him carry on, and walked away feeling strangely satisfied.
From issue 59 of Rouleur magazine. Paul Maunder is a novelist and freelance cycling writer. Marshall Kappel: instagram.com/marshallkappel