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Tour de France: Faster, more dangerous

June 28, 2024

While crashes have always been part and parcel of cycling, fatalities are becoming a more frequent occurence. Now, artificial intelligence is being used to try to help halt, or even reverse, this trend.

Tom Pidcock leaning into a curve on a descent on his racing bike
Professional cyclists can reach speeds of up to 130 kilometers per hour on descents – quite a risky business Image: David Pintens/Belga/IMAGO

An inconspicuous mountain road in the north of Spain. The ribbon of asphalt winds its way from the Alto de Olaeta down into the valley. The road descends at a gradient of up to 14% — steep, but nothing out of the ordinary for professional cyclists. And yet the small mountain road in the Basque Country could be a deciding factor in this year's Tour de France. Not because a mountain stage ends there, but because it was the scene of a distressing incident during one of the preparatory races.

In April, three of the four favorites for the Tour de France raced down the Alto de Olaeta during the Tour of the Basque Country and were involved in serious crashes. Primoz Roglic (Slovenia), Remco Evenepoel (Belgium) and Tour winner Jonas Vingegaard (Denmark) fell from their bikes, partially hit a concrete drain and suffered numerous broken bones. The cause: uneven road surfaces and excessive speed. The only favorite not to have crashed is Tadej Pogacar (Slovenia), who dominated the Giro d'Italia and is now aiming for the Giro-Tour double.

Are the riders to blame for the crashes?

Crashes have always been a part of cycling, but why do they seem to be becoming more frequent?

One reason is the pressure to perform, says Adam Hansen, president of the CPA riders' association and a former professional cyclist.

"Risk is part of the job. If you show weakness or don't take the necessary risk, there are 20 other riders behind you who would," the Australian told DW.  "And the sporting directors remember that. If you're not prepared to take risks, then you'll lose your place in the team."

Cyclists fall off to the wayside in a mass sprint
To compete at the highest level, cyclists have to be all in – at the risk of crashes and serious injuriesImage: Roth/dpa/picture alliance

In other words, at least part of what is making things more dangerous is the human factor.

"Based on the UCI (cycling's world governing body) database that we work with, half of the crashes in professional cycling are caused by the riders," Hansen said.

He also believes that the pros themselves have a responsibility to avoid fatal crashes and to ride more risk-consciously. This is why he is pushing for the introduction of disciplinary measures in the form of yellow and red cards.

"That will bring a big improvement, because so far no one has been held accountable for misconduct," Hansen said. However, the new system won't go into testing until August – after the Tour.

A measure that has already been decided is the extension of the three-kilometer rule. In stages with flat finishes, all riders who crashed or broke down in the last three kilometers were previously counted with the same time as the group they belonged to at the time of the crash. This will now be extended to five kilometers before the finish.

"That was something the riders had been calling for," Hansen said.

Many classification riders were afraid of losing time in the finale. The resulting rivalry between sprint teams and teams focused on overall classification can lead to a lot of heated battles in the final push for the finish line.

Enter artifical intelligence

However, the data shows that the riskiest part of races starts earlier.

"The majority of crashes happen within the last 20 to 30 kilometers," Steven Verstockt, computer scientist and data analyst from the University of Ghent in Belgium said. In his Course project, he has recorded and scientifically analyzed more than 1,000 crashes in professional cycling – with the aid of artificial intelligence. The UCI is already using Verstockt's data, but the researcher is also calling for more openness to technology from organizers of races like the Tour de France.

"My suggestion would be for every rider to gets a sensor that records their data. This would help us to better understand the race and also to punish incorrect behavior," he said.

An injured David De La Cruz on the ground beside his bike
Crashes like the one suffered by David De La Cruz in 2023 are a fact of life for professional cyclistsImage: Thomas Samson/AFP

One aim of the project is to provide associations and event organizers with data-based answers as to which sections of the route are particularly dangerous. Among other things, onboard cameras and GPS data from the riders are analyzed. According to the AI-based analysis, the most common causes of crashes include fast and narrow descents as well as changing or poor road surfaces.

However, it is precisely these sections of the route that fascinate fans: high mountain stages with steep climbs and fast descents as well as cobbled sections are crowd pullers. However, the spectacular passages can have fatal consequences in the worst case. Time and again, athletes have crashed so badly at high speed that they did not survive the accident. Wouter Weylandt in 2011, Chad Young in 2017, Bjorg Lambrecht in 2019 and Gino Mäder in 2023 - tragic racing accidents that reignited the debate about rider safety. The Tour responds with additional safety measures: dangerous bends are secured with padded barriers, and acoustic signals warn riders of dicey sections of the route. But is there such a thing as safe cycling?

Ever faster due to new technology

In view of speeds of up to 130 kilometers per hour (81 miles per hour) on mountain descents, ridden on 25- to 32-millimeter-wide tires, making things completely safe is an illusion.

"The willingness of each individual rider to take risks is even higher in the Tour than in other races, because there is a lot at stake for every team and every rider," German sprinter Phil Bauhaus told DW.

That's why every detail counts, the bike, the clothing, the helmets and even socks that have been aerodynamically optimized in the wind tunnel have long been standard in the peloton. Added to this are ever-flatter seating positions on the bike, tires with reduced roll resistance and optimized nutrition and recovery for the riders. Every team is looking for the "marginal gains" once introduced by the successful Sky team, the small gains that make the difference – and in turn make the race faster and faster.

The Tour set a record in 2022 with an average speed of 42.1 km/h, and this year, fabulous values were achieved in the classics Milan – San Remo (46.1 km/h) and Paris – Roubaix (47.8 km/h). What does this mean for the races? 

"The reaction time is shorter and the braking distance is longer, which makes it more difficult to avoid a fall," said Bauhaus, who made his debut at the Tour last year. He's calling for adjustments to the routes, more wide main roads. That would mean less danger for riders. Because there is no way back: "The bike manufacturers and clothing manufacturers naturally want to present and sell the best material. We professionals are the people who promote it. I don't believe that the sponsors want to give us worse material so that we ride slower. I don't see how you could slow the sport down again."

This article was originally published in German.