Roundtable: Should races enforce safety equipment that are additional to the country’s legal requirements?
5 August, 2021
Welcome to the DotWatcher Roundtable, a new feature where we invite prominent guests from our racing community to discuss a hot topic in unsupported racing. To kick things off, we’re posing some questions about rider safety in events.
There is seemingly endless debate on a variety of topics within safety, from helmet use to sleep schedules, so we brought in the experts: Sofiane Sehili, a leading racer who needs no introduction; Nelson Trees, director of the Silk Road and Atlas Mountain Races and TCR veteran; Pawel Pulawski, fast racer and Race Through Poland director; and Simon De Schutter, Race Around Rwanda director and racer.
As expected, they agreed strongly on some issues, but differed in their opinions on others.
In countries where helmets are not required by law, should/can race directors enforce the use of helmets at all times in the race?
Nelson Trees: Following the rules of the country in which an event takes place is the minimum requirement for any event. Regardless of what a race director thinks, they should always require riders to follow local laws. Beyond that, it's a question of the Race Director's assessment and opinion of what should be required for a race to take place as safely as possible. Personally, I require helmets at both races that I organise, despite there not being laws requiring it. At registration, we check that riders have their helmet, lights and a number of other personal safety items and equipment that we feel are the minimum required to compete safely. The Silk Road Mountain Race takes place in a pretty serious environment and having the right gear is essential.
Pawel Pulawski: In my opinion: yes. All race organisers should enforce the use of helmets. In Poland for exmaple, it is not obligatory to use helmets, and not all races are enforcing that. But this is changing, and more and more race directors are making riders ride in helmets. It is safer, and it also makes a race itself look safer. There is a huge difference between recreational riding or commuting and racing. While racing, you give 100% of yourself, often taking risks, doing fast descents, riding through the night, etc. The crash may happen at any time and the helmet may save you. All professional cycling requires helmets, and we should do it also.
Simon De Schutter: Bike racing means helmets. This is very well established globally by now, and it was never even a consideration not to enforce their use for Race Around Rwanda.
Sofiane Sehili: Given the number of participants and the overall number of kilometers ridden, it makes sense to make helmets mandatory. It's a simple and easy way to lessen the risk of serious injury to the riders. As to enforce such rule, it is obviously not possible. An organizer can't make sure every racer is wearing their helmet at all times. However I don't think this issue is particularly pressing. On races where helmets are not mandatory, less than 1% or racers elect to ride without a helmet.
Sleep-deprivation has been a question of safety - do you agree with race directors imposing rest times in their races (à la TransAtlantic Way)?
Nelson: It's not for nothing that the races that I organise take place off-road as much as possible. Fundamentally, I don't think that there are the same risks with sleep deprivation in off-road races as there are on road. When you're off-road you need to have a much higher concentration level to be able to ride. You can't push yourself to the point where you're falling asleep on the bike. On the road, you can easily switch off, and when you're sharing the road with vehicles, this can very quickly have devastating consequences. The stakes are just much higher. A fall due to sleep deprivation off-road is likely to be no worse than losing control because you misjudged the terrain or hit an unexpected bump. You can of course hurt yourself, as is always possible on a mountain bike, but it's not likely to be far worse because of sleep deprivation.
I have raced on the road in ultras before myself, often with very little sleep, but I know my limits and have never taken, what I consider, to be inconsiderate risks. When you're organising an event, you can't make the assumption that others will do the same. The risks I am comfortable with for myself and the decisions I make about my personal safety are very different from what I am willing to consider when I'm the one organising.
When it comes to imposing rest times, for me personally, I feel that this goes against why I fell in love with this kind of racing in the first place: the freedom to ride your bike from point A, to point B as fast as you can with very little rules or limitations. In one of my races, you have a great distance ahead of you, an enormous challenge that will take several days at least, and no limits on how you do it, how hard you push yourself or what you learn along the way. Even though I don’t particularly enjoy it, I think that sleep deprivation is still a part of that. However, I completely understand the thinking behind these rules, and maybe my opinion would be different if I organised a road race.
Pawel: This one is a hard question. Because I'm not really opposing any of the options. Both are fine for me.
I like the idea of TAW, so we have to stop for 3 hrs every day. It is good for all sides of the circle, for riders, dot watchers, and a race director and adds an element of strategy making and planning. I also think that this option stops riders from using Caffeine tablets too much, which is a serious issue recently, in my opinion. Obviously, the rule won't work for sprint rides, but I think it could be ok for any race with a winner longer than 3-4 days.
There is also another view on that. Enforcing a 3 hr stop every night may force the rider to stop in a place that he/she would never choose to stop. A rider may have to stop in a dangerous place. And I see why some race directors decided to give it all to the riders.
I think that each race director should think carefully about what is important for them and choose the right option for themself.
Simon: I agree with race directors making decisions based on the nature of the event, of the traffic and other circumstances. In some races this could mean imposing rest times. In others you can leave the responsibility with the racers. I don’t think one is better or worse than the other, and I am happy that not all events look exactly the same.
Sofiane: I do not agree with imposed rest times. Sleep deprivation is a part of our sport and some competitors (including myself) rely on their ability to go without sleep to do well in races. It is a real ability that you develop through hard work. Imposed rest times favor riders that are fast to the detriment of riders that don't stop.
And is it really a safety issue? I don't think sleep deprivation has ever caused serious accidents in ultra races.
How much responsibility is on fellow competitors to report on each other, or remind each other, on safe riding?
Nelson: I think that, as with the rest of the rules that we impose on riders taking part in our races, there is a responsibility for riders to look out for each other's safety. In my races, it happens pretty naturally. The mountain environment is such that you're automatically looking out for someone when they look like they're in trouble. That may be letting a rider know that they don't realise the condition they're in, possibly taking a safety decision for them. In the application process I ask exactly this question, hypothermia can have an impact on the ability to think clearly and it's important that riders are aware that they can step in for someone’s safety. It could also mean reporting on a rider for not wearing a helmet when it's required. Race directors put a huge amount of effort into organising events and take on a lot of responsibility, the least you can do is follow the rules. If you don't want to, then don't sign up, nobody is obligated to race. If we want these races to continue as they are, in the spirit of self-reliance and freedom that we currently enjoy, there can't be accidents due to irresponsible behaviour. This behaviour will likely still happen, so we need to try and police it as much as we can.
Pawel: In Poland, I think it is not enough. We should learn to work as a team. It would definitely be easier for race directors to control the race safety if riders would report the safety issues. I believe it is important to remind riders in the race manual that it is good to report any safety issues. We can't do it obligatory, but we could make rides to be more aware of that.
Simon: All riders are adults and responsible for their own riding.
Sofiane: None. Snitching is wrong. Race your own race. If someone's tail light is out, you can tell them. But that's pretty much it. The safety of other racers is not your responsibility.
What is the biggest risk to safety in these races? (on- or off-road)
Nelson: Even in my races, it's vehicles. Riders will rarely cross their path, but the consequences of a collision are immediate, and serious, and there's not a whole lot a rider can do to mitigate a driver who’s not paying attention. You're lucky to get off lightly, a helmet may help but it's no guarantee. We've so far avoided any major incidents that resulted in injury, but as long as there are even short stretches where cyclists need to share the road, it's possible. If you look at Tour Divide, there have been deaths from collisions with vehicles, but as far as I know, nobody has died from exposure, a fall or a grizzly bear attack! The risks that people immediately think of in Kyrgyzstan: extreme weather, high altitude, exposure, etc. can all be controlled by a well equipped, experienced rider who doesn't take inordinate risks. The very best of us can do nothing against an idiot in a pick-up truck scrolling on Instagram.
Pawel: As we can see from the experience, the biggest issue is road traffic. All or nearly all the fatalities come from other road users. There is not much we can do, other than fighting and promoting cycling and responsible driving, caring about each other etc. For example, When I was organising Race Through Poland we sent messages about the race to the truck driver's community to spread the news about the race, so drivers would be aware of possible riders during the night. It is a small thing but could make a difference.
The important thing here is that race organisers know the route, and know where they are sending riders too. I have seen races that haven't been ridden before by anyone. This is really sad.
Off road - it is probably the terrain and possibility of a crash in a place where there is limited access to the civilisation.
Simon: Cars. Often enhanced by bad cycling infrastructure and bad driving behaviour. Most important thing riders can do is to make sure to be seen with lights and reflective elements. Even though RaR and many other races try to avoid taking very busy roads, through fixed courses or strategically placed checkpoints, except for some 100% offroad races, it is impossible to avoid sharing the road with cars. This will always be the biggest risk for a cyclist. We have no control over the cars and their behaviour, so all we can do (apart from trying to avoid the most dangerous roads), is to guarantee ourselves that at least the car drivers will see us on the road.
Especially in our case in Rwanda, the use of bike lights is not mandatory by law, and many cyclists are not using them after dark. There are no bike lanes (or only useless ones) and cars can drive recklessly. I see the obligation of lights as a much more important measure (at least for fully or semi on-road races) than helmets.
Sofiane: Well it depends on the race. On some off road races that reach high altitudes, hypothermia can be a pretty big deal. I know first hand you should never underestimate the dangers of mother nature.
But let's be honest, 100% of the fatalities in ultracycling are due to cars. Cars are the problem. They can kill you day or night. If you're rested or exhausted. Helmet or no helmet. Hi-vis or full black kit. In a curve or on a straight road. Cars are the big danger.
What more could the sport do to be safer?
Nelson: There will always be a certain degree of risk in our sport, as there is when you do anything in life. The big question is whether it is higher in what we do, and whether that risk is acceptable or not. I remember hearing that Mike Hall analysed the number, and severity of incidents in the TCR in relation to the miles travelled by all participants, and compared these figures with road accident statistics in the UK. As far as I know, the TCR isn't more dangerous than just riding your bike on the road in any context. People always talk about sleep deprivation or rider behaviour and try to point towards that as being the biggest risk factor. It's not: it's drivers, as it is when anyone takes their bike for a ride on a road, anywhere. I feel that this is just a continuation of the victim blame culture we have where cyclists are blamed for their own deaths. As long as a race director takes all the sensible precautions they can and does what is reasonably possible to mitigate the risks involved, the only way to make cyclists truly safer and by consequence our sport as well, would be to improve road safety overall. In my races, there's always a compromise between keeping the riders as safe as possible, giving them the freedom to have the adventure that they come out for, and keeping the race financially accessible to as many people as possible. All I can do is be as transparent as I can about the risks, do what I can to mitigate them and ask riders to be responsible for themselves. I have a 40 page Race Manual making it quite clear that taking part in my races is not risk-free. At the end of the day, these are solo, unsupported, bikepacking races that are largely self-policed and require a high degree of personal awareness and responsibility. If that is not what you are here for, then there are plenty of highly structured stage races you can race which have the infrastructure and means to remove almost all risk, and by consequence the adventure that I personally could not live without.
Pawel: I believe that riders are really responsible people. The best we could do is to inform them about all that is necessary. At the end of a day, each race is a personal ride, and everybody has to be responsible for themself. More knowledge riders will have about safety, the safer they will be. For example, when I organise the race, I always try to recall the route, explaining and reminding about all the dangerous places, downhills, etc. I'm saying where the traffic is bigger, or where there is no signal etc. Trying to explain why we take the exact route, and what they can expect.
We always provide the bike check (not all races have that) and we always require a high visibility clothing, and checking the lights. Sometimes we overdo it, and some riders are not happy about it, but it creates the atmosphere of seriousness about the whole safety issue.
Simon: Course design is important. Even in ‘free route’ races, organizers can assist riders about which roads are to be avoided (even if allowed by law).
Sofiane: Better courses. Routes solely made of roads that are known to have very few cars. I think we should stop with the free route between checkpoints format. Off-road ultras are definitely much safer since they don't involve as many cars. But roads ultras can be safe. If you stick to small roads with little to no traffic, you considerably reduce the chance of having a racer hit by a vehicle.
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