WORDS: IAN CLEVERLY | PHOTOS: ASO
Trashy TV blooper programmes were quite the thing in the pre-internet era – compilations of people doing silly things unintentionally providing entertainment for the masses, the kind of stuff that now fills the Twittersphere.
They would often feature a sports section, where footballers careered over advertising hoardings and landed in the crowd, divers smacked their heads on spring boards, and show jumpers clung to the necks of their horses before being dumped unceremoniously in the water feature. How we laughed.
And then the cycling snippets would appear and the laughing stopped, in this household at least. We’ve all skidded down the road with just a layer of lycra between us and the tarmac. It hurts like hell. And then the realisation hits that those footballers, swimmers and equestrians were also in considerable pain. That joke isn’t funny anymore. The television got switched off.
This week’s horrific crash on the opening stage of the Tour of Poland that sent Fabio Jakobsen flying over the barriers, sustaining life-threatening injuries, and bringing several sprinters down in a chaotic scene of fast-moving carnage, made the usually under-the-radar Polish race the unfortunate centrepiece of a media storm.
Rider safety formed one strand. Is a downhill finish, producing speeds of 80km/h, a sensible idea? Clearly not. Were the crowd barriers and advertising hoardings, which catapulted into the road causing more chaos, up to the job? Again, no.
Was the hapless Dylan Groenewegen, veering off his line and ultimately taking Jakobsen out before himself hitting the deck, the villain of the piece? Deceuninck-Quick Step boss Patrick Lefevere clearly thought so, tweeting that the Dutchman should be imprisoned for his actions, an unhelpful – though perhaps understandable in the heat of the moment – knee-jerk reaction to the awful scene we had just witnessed.
But the biggest debate in the immediate aftermath centred around social media sharing of the crash. And whether the host broadcasters were right in showing repeated gruesome slow-motion repeats of the crash when the condition of those involved in the incident was unknown.
Peta Cavendish, herself no stranger to the gut-wrenching feeling of seeing her partner sent sprawling in some far-flung corner of the world on television, issued a heartfelt tweet:
“People joke or use for clickbait. Just have a little decency. I understand the need for replays... I do. But the constant resharing is macabre.”
She is absolutely correct, of course. Some cycling twitter accounts did indeed delete their posts of the crash and apologised after being taken to task by their followers. Fair play.
But many did not. In a world of clickbait, crash porn is the biggest lure of them all, like it or not – whether in sport or in everyday life.
Rouleur does not have a holier-than-thou standpoint in this respect. Back in issue 49, we published Chute! in our A Brief History of Cycling Photography series.
Some of them were grim to say the least. Even Mark Cavendish, sat on the road in Harrogate clutching his broken collarbone, does not escape the photographer’s gaze and the writer’s scrutiny. But crashes are very much part and parcel of bike racing. They are a chapter in the storytelling process.
Our guest on this week’s Rouleur podcast is Chris Auld, a photographer whose image of Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas, Romain Bardet et al hurtling arse-first in the rain towards a kerb at the 2017 Tour de France became a worldwide sensation. He was there to record events, not produce a sanitised hands-in-the-air shot of a guy crossing the line. Anyone can do that.
Nobody was seriously injured in the shot Chris took, though, which brings us back to Peta and many other peoples’ thoughts on the subject.
Is it wrong to share footage of an incident when the outcome and wellbeing of injured parties is unknown?
Unfortunately, the genie is out of the bottle in that respect. The unstoppable force of social media renders attempts at limiting the public’s reactions and retweets a futile gesture. If social media users had no stomach for this content, there’d be no market for it.
Macabre? You’re not wrong, Peta. And you’re not the only one puzzled by human nature, but then I’ve never understood the appeal of public hangings and floggings either.
We like to think that Rouleur would not be so insensitive and crass as to join in the clickbait scrum after a dreadful crash like the one in Poland. Then again, if it did, there’s an unfollow button on twitter. Or mute. Nobody is forced to watch this stuff.
And if the slo-mo repeats on TV are also too much to bear, much like back in the day when the sports bloopers became wince-inducing, there’s an off button on the remote. Use it.
As several good people have commented over the last few days, speculation, condemnation and retribution are not useful emotions right now, when the life of an athlete hangs in the balance. Step away from the keyboard for a while and take a rest.
As for the crash footage, we all have the option not to watch it. It just takes a little self-control.