Marcel Kittel says rider safety is as important as fighting for a drug-free sport and is calling on the UCI and race organisers to act after the tragic events at Ghent-Wevelgem.
On Sunday, Wanty-Groupe Gobert rider Antoine Demoitié died after being struck by a motorbike along the route of Ghent-Wevelgem – the latest in a string of similar incidents, but the only one so far in which the rider has paid the ultimate price.
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Etixx-Quick Step’s Kittel wrote a long, thoughtful message on Facebook on Monday evening laying out the riders’ point of view and urging those in charge to change things so that such an incident can never happen again.
“It’s clear: Cycling’s biggest problem was doping and still has to be fought,” he wrote. “But the safety issues that are obvious should get the same attention and priority as the fight for clean sport.
“Not only because lives can be lost but also because there wasn’t done much until now. Last major change was the Extreme Weather Protocol that was introduced this year. And before that, and only after the death of Andrei Kivilev, the UCI made helmets compulsory in 2003.”
Some spectators, journalists and cyclists were asking ‘will it take someone to die before things change?’ after a spate of motorbike-related accidents. Now the unthinkable has happened, Kittel insists that something needs to change if cycling is to continue to be enjoyed by millions of people around the world.
But the German also says the risks that come with being a professional bike rider are what attracts so many people to take up racing, and the excitement associated with such risks are what makes such great drama for the spectators.
“There is a difference between riders crashing in the last hectic kilometres of a race, fighting for the right wheel before the sprint and riders crashing because of unsafe road furniture, reckless driving of motorbikes or cars, extreme weather conditions and unsafe race routes,” he wrote.
“We brake late before the last important corner, we fight for wheels, don’t hesitate to go into a gap that might be too small, we even push each other away to hold or get a better position in the bunch – all that at high speed and not only our own physical and mental limit, but also at the limit of our tyres and brakes.
“That risk is calculated and, I don’t want to lie here, also one of the reasons why I love cycling. There is this action going on and it’s a real fight for the win!”
Kittel dismissed the notion that riders should take responsibility for their own safety on the race route, saying that they are concentrating enough on the actual race not to be burdened with guiding themselves safely through a course they didn’t design themselves.
He instead called on organisers to ensure dangerous corners and obstacles are properly signposted so that riders can feel confident negotiating past them without crashing.
He added: “We need to work together to keep this sport safe and give sense to the tragic accident of Antoine Demoitié. It would be great if we can see some major changes and development out of a discussion over safety.
“We need to start talking openly about it now. That’s what I expect from my governing body and rider association. For starters it would be good to see more experienced, well trained drivers in cars and on motorbikes, a yearly statistic that keeps track of crashes in races in order to see a positive or negative development and more signs/flashing lights that indicate sharp corners or dangerous points.”
He finished: “We owe it to Antoine that we do everything to let that never happen again.