Mountaineers know there are two types of risk: objective and subjective. Objective risks you can do nothing about, like an avalanche. If it’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen.
Subjective risks you can act on. Do you have the skills to avoid avalanche terrain? No? Well, it’s just dumped a load of snow so today’s probably not the day to go up the mountain, fellas. Stay at home and put a brew on.
Deciding what to do is always an assessment of these risks. The best mountaineers are often the best at risk assessments. Well, the eldest mountaineers certainly are.
How do you apply this to something as complex as bike racing?
Is a traffic island with 5km to go on a sprint stage objective or subjective? It’s going to hurt if you hit it at 60kph, which we know for certain the riders will be doing. Objective. You would hope the racers of the Giro know how to avoid it. Subjective. We can stick a marshal with a flag on it. Subjective. We know that bike racers have the bone density of old grandmothers and a hit will probably break something. Objective. Ish.
Racing is an extremely tricky and costly thing to manage. Hence there are still crashes, like the one that took out Mikel Landa and Joe Dombrowski on stage five of this year’s Giro when they hit said traffic island.
Landa was out of the race; Dombrowski concussed and out of the running. Some risks make life exciting; this one had no rewards at all.
An outside observer might make the point that the peloton could act to reduce the risk. It could just ride more slowly. More time to spot obstacles, more time to react, less risk of crashing, less risk of injury. Individual riders could also act and not do stupid things, like move up on the outside of the bunch when the road is just about to narrow (the same theory applies to technical, wet descents as it does to traffic islands).
However, a peloton moving at speed approaching a sprint finish is essentially an unpredictable flying object. No individual rider has control, no supreme being can orchestrate it from the outside. The chains linking cause and effect are long and complicated. It’s fluid motion - chaos theory - driven by a juicy carrot dangling right in front of 200 rampant mules. Telling them to slow down won’t work.
So how do we stop this sort of thing from happening?
Take a look at boxing. We know two fighters will be trying to punch the living daylights out of each other. But they wear gloves. The sport’s code acts to reduce harm while preserving competition and entertainment.
In cycling, we know that the riders will be driven to do unspeakably risky things. It’s part of what makes it so captivating. But does a sprint finish need to dodge, duck, dip, dive and dodge through some intricately sculpted finale to still be a good sprint finish? That’s a question we seem to be asking of the Giro d’Italia every year.
There could always be the odd punch that will kill a boxer. There could always be the freak storm that no weather forecasters could predict. There will always be some unlucky rider that hits a loose bidon and breaks his collarbone. That’s life.
But after another crash has left another rider’s hopes and health in tatters, you have to wonder whether the sport’s organisers are making the right calls.