The Aftermath of Michele Scarponi’s Death

Just a bit off-topic first: I have been called a virute signaller for doing articles which involve looking back on those in our sport who have passed tragically, but that is not the kind of person I am. Of course, everyone after a sportsperson dies – especially in the sport one follows passionately – feels immense sadness, but I don’t mean to elevate my own social standing and morality by being a ‘warrior for those lost’. I don’t even consider myself a ‘warrior for those lost’, I take the facts and analyse them.

Sadly, this week saw another tragic death to one of the world’s most loved cyclists, Michele Scarponi. This death hit the entire cycling community hard – 5 days after winning a stage at the Tour of the Alps he was killed on a training ride around his local area. Tributes flooded in all over on Twitter (I counted over 300 from professional cyclists alone, and more from individual teams, cycling personalities and others).

Are cyclists in more danger than ever on the road?

He passed to the fears every cyclist, no matter pro or casual, has. Getting struck by a car is one of the inherent dangers of being a cyclist. We share the road with 1.5 tonne metal cages while we sit on our sub-10kg carbon fibre bikes and the only thing that protects us is our helmet and the thin lycra we wear. If we are training, or as footage from yesterday’s Ton Dolmans Trofee shows while we are racing, cyclists are faced with the danger of colliding with a car through a motorists negligence or a cyclists own negligence. Just this week, we have had Scarponi pass away, Lucas Hamilton struck by a car forcing him to miss San Vendemiano and Yoann Offredo was assaulted by a passer-by with a knife and baseball bat. And you don’t have to look back far to see the previous death to a professional cyclist, after Mike Hall was struck by a car during the Indian Pacific Road Race at the end of March. These deaths and injuries caused to riders seem to be ever increasing, and while it is hard to tell if it was motorist or cyclist fault at times, no matter whose fault it is no cyclist should die on the roads.

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Offredo was assaulted this week, the third off road incident involving a cyclist since the death of Scarponi. Source: Facebook/Yoann Offredo.

Even with positive steps towards cyclist safety, it seems like we are becoming even more unsafe on the roads. The example most poignant to me being the WA government introducing ‘safe passing’ laws, a trial for a 1 meter passing distance between cars and cyclists for 2 years. The age of the ‘distracted driver’ on their mobile while driving (and ‘distracted cyclist’ checking KoMs on Strava while riding, and I’ll admit I am guilty of this) means that not everyone is fully aware on the roads, and can lead to accidents. For the first time, on the weekend, I was sideswiped by a car while going down a hill, and crashed (before you ask, I am okay minus some road rash, my bike is okay, and I couldn’t catch the driver). While my experience doesn’t faze me, it made me aware of how fragile us cyclists are on the road. And as Offredo’s experience shows, it’s not just motorists who have something against cyclists (and I know the vast majority of motorists are very respectful), but there is an universal hatred against cyclists by the general public.

My thoughts behind this is that cyclists can sometimes come off as quite elitist and snobby – I can understand that as some people really push the pro-bike/anti-car agenda really hard while ignoring the road rules which apply to everyone because cyclists are ‘special’. I don’t agree with any of these sentiments, and I am sure that most of the cycling community doesn’t too, but it’s this minority who make up the majority of hate against cyclists (and it’s similar with the minority of motorists, too). Everyone – cyclists, motorists, pedestrians – needs to realise that we share the roads (and bike paths!) together and we need to respect each others space. My mum always tells me to ‘give way to the bigger vehicle because you will always come off second best’, and I think this is a fair comparison to cyclists and motorists. Motorists should be required to give cyclists enough space to ride safely, and in return cyclists should respect the fact that motorists are the ‘big cat’ of the road and we can’t just claim the road for ourselves. Share the road, people.

Are pro cyclists the most death-prone athletes?

My great friend and podcast buddy (we promise there is another episode soon!) Miles were taking after the death of Scarponi, and we asked ourselves “Cycling is surely the deadliest sport, right?”. Given the current circumstances – two pro deaths in a month – you wouldn’t be wrong in thinking so. So, I’m going to break down the stats over a number of sports, including: Soccer, American Football, AFL, Cricket, Rugby, Ice Hockey, Wrestling, Boxing and MMA, and compare them to the death statistics of cycling since the turn of the century. I will only be taking into consideration professional sportspeople who died while playing or training for their respective sports.

First, cycling. There has been 22 deaths in professional races since 2000 (including 3 ultracyclists, 3 track riders, 2 mountain bikers, a cyclocross rider, a paracyclist and 12 road riders). There has also been 24 (2 ultracyclists,  3 mountain bikers, a cyclocross rider, a paracyclist, 2 triathletes and 15 road riders) out of competition deaths since 2000, making 46 deaths.

In soccer, there have been 73 deaths while playing since 2000 (most of which were heart failures, although there were some on field collisions), while 12 have died while training (most common cause? Lightning strike). In American football (both College and Pro), there has been 14 deaths to players, all of which were out of competition in training. All of these deaths also occured at the College level. In Cricket, there has been 4 deaths to players (all in competition) since 2000 (for me, Phil Hughes dying still hurts). Ice Hockey has 6 deaths (all in competition) since 2000 as well. There has been 14 deaths to Rugby players since 2000.

To the fighting specific sports, there has been an estimated 34 deaths since 2000 in boxing, 14 deaths in wrestling and 4 deaths in MMA – all in competition. There have been no deaths in AFL due to playing or training since 1971. For easy viewing, here is a chart:

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Soccer is by far the deadliest, but also the most played. Per sportsperson, cycling would be larger, but boxing would beat it per sportsperson. Still one of the deadliest nevertheless.

The one sport I didn’t consider was Motorsport. The reason why is that it is way too broad a sport to pinpoint deaths. There is NASCAR, F1, V8SC, MotoGP, Motorboating, Stunt Driving etc, and while each sport has a handful of deaths every decade, grouping them all into one category would be inappropriate. However, from a quick glance, the deaths in Motorsport are around the same than cycling (except Motorcycling, which has more). So, even on a total sportspeople dead, cycling is one of the deadliest (contemporary) sports on Earth.

If there are any inaccuracies in this, please tell me and I will rectify it. I used Wikipedia as a guideline source, before investigating other sources including news sites.

What direction do Astana take now?

I didn’t necessarily voice my opinion on this on the day of Scarponi’s death, but the second thought that popped into my head (after “Is this real?”) was “How do Astana cope with this?”. Images out of Liege-Bastogne-Liege showed a broken team losing one of their most respected members, while in Croatia there were similar scenes – with ex-team mate Vincenzo Nibali dedicating his Croatia win to Scarpa (like Valverde at LBL). However, with Romandie starting today, and the Giro starting in less than 2 weeks, the big question should be where do Astana go from here in what they race?

Aru

Aru is one of Astana’s major riders who are out with injury at the moment. Source: Eric Feferberg.

Aru is currently out with a recurring knee injury and will be unable to ride the Giro, M.A. Lopez will be back later in May after breaking his leg in the offseason, Tiralongo and Fuglsang can’t really keep up with arguably even the 2nd tier GC riders and Scarponi was Astana’s main man for the Giro. Without Scarponi, Astana are now forced to rely on a 2nd rate team while their team leaders are out with injuries. The loss of Scarponi shows how lacking in depth the team is in the climbing department, and after a weak classics season they really do need to be at full fitness for the rest of the season. They are taking Kangert to Romandie as their team leader, but considering Kangert doesn’t have the best record in these hillier 1 week races, they will probably target stages. Their provisional roster for the Giro suggests this as well, with Sanchez arguably going to ride GC with Moser to target flatter stages, Kangert the punchier ones while the old horse in Tiralongo could still bring some magic in the Italian Alps.

As for next season, there are rumours that Androni’s youngster Egan Bernal is signing with a WT team, either Movistar or Sky. Maybe Astana should lodge a bid for the 20 year old Colombian – while he has 3 years left on his Androni contract he is more than ready for the WT taking out the Youth Jersey at the Tour of the Alps, Coppi e Bartali and 2nd in the Youth Classification at Tirreno. If Astana want the services of a rider who is more punchy, Lucas Hamilton is tearing up the U23 circuit in Europe at the moment and while Orica will want to funnel him into their main squad maybe Astana could tempt him over where he can target the Ardennes classics or punchier 1 week races. 25 year old Tsgabu Grmay is just starting to find his feet in the WT and is out of contract at the end of 2017, and would bolster Astana’s chances in the 1 week races. In a similar vein, Merhawi Kudus of Dimension Data is without a contract in 2018 and is showing great form in the one week races, coming 4th in Oman and 2nd in the Youth Classification at Bartali.

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Bernal could be the rider to solve Astana’s mountain problem. Source: Marca.

Astana should be set in the sprint department with Gatto taking Minali under his wing and with Aru and M.A. Lopez to ride GTs, they just need a team to support these main riders. If Astana can have the team to support them with these climbers, they will be a stronger team, able to target podiums and wins instead of top 10’s in the biggest races of the season. However, they just need this to pass over first.

This week has truly been tragic for the whole cycling community. It shows how fragile all of us are and how we always need to be careful on the roads. We can’t always be mourning losses though, we need to look forward to the future – and that is making sure everyone on the roads is safer, and specifically for Astana, rebuilding a team which can compete on the WorldTour post-Scarpa. For now, I’m out.

~The Cycling Raven