Amateur road racing in the UK is safe. It’s at least as safe as a rough Sunday league football match and much safer than both horse racing and cheerleading. Road racers get injuries, but they are usually relatively minor, involving road rash or the occasional broken clavicle. ‘Racing incidents’ are unavoidable – riders crash simply as a result of being in such close proximity to each other in hectic situations. Tragically however, there have been a handful of very serious incidents, some so serious that they resulted in the death of riders and volunteers.
Now, of course cyclists get killed on the roads when they are riding to work or to the supermarket. Moreover, the risks experienced by an urban commuter on a bike (left turning lorries, poor infrastructure, sheer weight of traffic) are unlikely to be experienced by a cyclist taking part in a road race. However, road racing undoubtedly presents it’s own set of unique risks and British Cycling has been working hard to mitigate them.
BC has been professionalising the organisation of amateur road racing over a number of years. In part this has been a response to a ‘political’ threat to the continuance of road racing on the public highway, with some police authorities, governmental organisations and influential stakeholder groups becoming less supportive (or even openly hostile) towards the sport. However, I’m sure it also reflects a very real desire by BC to make the sport ever safer and to minimise the risk of further deaths or serious injuries occurring.
This ongoing professionalisation is evident in a number of areas. Firstly, all road race courses need to be approved by BC before they can be used by race organisers, requiring a risk assessment to be carried out. Historically, the responsibility for undertaking risk assessments has been devolved to quite a low level, effectively to ill-equipped volunteers. As a result the quality of the assessments varied, often resulting in different approaches to risk mitigation. For a given set of circumstances you’d end up with static signs on one course versus marshals on another. Race organisers got frustrated as they struggled to assemble the equipment and marshals necessary for a given course, whilst riders and volunteers were potentially exposed to unacceptable levels of risk.
BC have now brought the Race Route Risk Assessment process firmly ‘in-house’, establishing a British Cycling Risk Assessment Team. The assessment template has been improved, for example photos and better graphics are used to illustrate risks and mitigation measures, and the approach to assessment is generally much more risk averse. This is particularly evident in the more widespread use of marshals (more on marshals and Accredited Marshals in a minute).
Rider behaviour has been a cause of stress to me and many road racers in the past. A significant minority of riders seemed to be quite willing to take ‘calculated risks’, for example, to move up the outside of the bunch or to negotiate a blind corner on the wrong side of the road, irrespective of the rules of the road (which still apply during amateur road races) or the ever present risk of oncoming traffic. I have witnessed more near misses than I care to recount. To their credit BC came up with the Racesmart initiative – an ‘awareness campaign designed to promote responsible racing on Britain’s roads’.
According to BC, Racesmart aims to:
- Emphasise the role that riders can play in protecting the future of road racing
- Build a culture of collective responsibility where riders respect each other and the racing environment
- Educate the less experienced riders by promoting good etiquette, techniques and skills and by highlighting the need to Racesmart
In my experience, racing cyclists aren’t often inclined to take advice and run (or rather pedal) with it, and some dismissed Racesmart as window dressing. However, by introducing Racesmart at a time when new riders are entering the sport in significant numbers, BC has I think got the message to take hold. The fact that Racesmart is part of a range of safety measures, and that many riders are well aware of the tragic incidents that have occurred, has added further impetus. Certainly the culture of collective responsibility is more evident in the bunch now, with riders willing to call out poor or unsafe riding. Commissaires too are much more likely to stop an unsafe race now than they would have been a few years ago.
Risk assessments and rider behaviour are important components of delivering a safe road race. However, in my view it is the progress that has been made on the quality of marshalling in recent years that has had the most immediate and obvious impact on safety. Marshalling a race used to involve members of the promoting club standing out on the race route with red flags. Their role was simply to highlight potential hazards. These ‘red flag’ marshals had no right to stop traffic, no training and at best probably did the job once or twice per year. Unsurprisingly their ability to influence the safety of a race in any meaningful way was limited.
Today, if you go to even the smallest regional road race you will see that the approach to marshalling has changed. Firstly you are likely to see 3 or 4 motorcycle escorts from the National Escort Group. The NEG riders will ride in front of the race and work with the two lead cars to warn oncoming traffic that a cycle race is approaching. They do not stop traffic but they can encourage motorists to pull over for their own safety and that of the approaching race. The NEG riders also warn riders and via radio, the race convoy, of hazards on the race route.
The NEG complement what are called Accredited Marshals, a typical road race today will deploy 8-10 AMs, possibly more depending on the risk assessment. In contrast to ‘red flag’ marshals, AMs are trained through a combination of classroom and practical exercises. Sensibly much of the focus is on how to avoid and/or manage confrontation, though as an AM myself I have managed to avoid any skirmishes so far and I hear from more experienced AMs that actually such incidents are relatively rare.
In order to receive and maintain their accreditation AMs need to log a minimum of 5 events per year. Critically, AMs are trained to stop traffic using a DfT approved ‘Stop!, Cycle Race’ sign. Effectively if a motorist ignores a request to stop they are committing the same offence as driving through a red traffic signal. Interestingly, as I found out during my training, AMs have no authority whatsoever, we simply provide the neural networks and muscle power necessary to operate the sign. The authority is invested solely in that big round lollipop sign!
All of the above has, I think, really helped to shore up the future of cycle racing on the open road. At least BC, race organisers, officials and all involved in promoting the sport can argue that our house is in order. But there are of course many individuals who through prejudice or possibly just ignorance, still think that cycle races have no place on the roads. We need to continue to work to change their minds.