Stig Broeckx’s collision with a motorbike during the Tour of Belgium last month has brought up once again a conversation cycling really needs to be having. The Belgian cyclist is in a coma in a German hospital following the crash, which involved two race motorbikes and 19 riders, 12 of which were deemed sufficiently injured to be taken to hospital. The race was abandoned, too, after it was initially thought it could continue before the extent of Broeckx’s injury became clear.
Watch any major cycling even today and the shots of the riders will be close, personal, almost intimate. Individual riders are followed by individual cameras, which get so close to the action that one could spot the exact moment a rider breaks a sweat, or see the visible irritation of being surrounded by their mechanical entourage when competing in fluid competition. Hundreds of vehicles are involved in the sport today - cars, buses, motorbikes, vans, caravans - but the focus will always be on the riders. With only a helmet for protection, modern cyclists navigate the fleet of vehicles in a way that more closely resembles rush hour than professional competition.
The result of which, predictably, is accidents. Cycling’s list of injuries and even deaths is long, and is a point of sensitivity in a sport in which even amateurs are all too aware of the dangers. In March this year, Antoine Demoitié was killed during the World Tour, having been hit by a commissaire’s motorbike after crashing. The 2011 Tour de France was marred somewhat by a collision with a TV car that saw Johnny Hoogerland flung into a barbed wire fence and Juan-Antonio Flecha thrown to the ground. The driver responsible for the crash - it happened as he swerved to avoid a tree stump - was back at the Tour de France the following year. In April 2015, Jesse Sergent broke his collarbone after being clipped by a car and Peter Sagan, the current world champion, was forced to retire from the Vuelta a España after being hit by a motorbike. The list goes on, and cycling clearly has a problem, about which more and more cyclists are speaking out.
The problem is that, currently, the number of vehicles on the road is necessary. TV coverage is a huge part of the sport, with Tour de France organizer Christian Prudhomme describing his event a ‘massive televisual spectacle’. Indeed, on top of having as many as 12 million people spectating roadside, the Tour de France is the third largest TV sporting event in the world, with astronomical - almost unbelievable - viewing figures quoted. As a result, sponsorship deals are huge, and are made possible by the intensive camera coverage, and the Wall Street Journal estimates that the average sponsor spends as much as $20 million to sponsor a team. This ever-increasing demand for coverage, from both sponsors and fans, is in no small part the reason for the congestion on the roads, and its because of this that British Cycling’s decision to ban head-mounted cameras seems odd.
UK cycling’s governing body permits the use of wearable cameras only in practice sessions, much to the disdain of riders. According to Wideopen Magazine, the decision stems from British Cycling’s anxiety about the use of wearable camera footage in legal cases following accidents, with riders allegedly using their footage as evidence in court cases against the body. One could help alleviate the other, though. Footage taken from the point of view of the rider has proved immensely popular online, giving a unique perspective once the reserve of those in the thick of the action. Cycling has increased in popularity dramatically in the past decade, and in countries where there is little opportunity to see professional events first-hand - the need for coverage has never been greater.
If more screen-time was given to footage from mounted cameras, the sport would have both the most intimate of perspectives - much like professional rugby’s referee cam - and a less congested road. TV cars nearly killed Johnny Hoogerland, for which he waited three years for compensation. Broeckx’s life-threatening collision could have been avoided on a road with fewer vehicles and, frankly, the spectacle would be a more authentic without the petrol-pumping entourages following each rider. Mounted cameras - on either the helmet of the handlebars - will never negate the need for TV cars, but could reduce their numbers.
Formula 1 is a good example of mounted cameras used properly. Watch any major race and a significant chunk of the coverage is from the perspective of the driver, which actually makes the sport a great deal more watchable. Cycling is less easy given the relative instability of a camera attached to a helmet or a bike, but it’s certainly a perspective that should be considered. Fans and riders alike would respond well to British Cycling (and other bodies) relaxing its laws regarding wearables not deemed ‘essential for racing purposes’. For better coverage, slightly less congested race routes and legal ammunition for riders injured unjustly, cycling should embrace the immense growth of wearables among amateurs and professionals alike.