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Michael Barry: Health

The global reach of professional cycling extends further with each passing season. The World Tour peloton begins the racing season in Australia in January and finishes in China in late October. In between, they are not only racing in central Europe and North America, but in the Middle East and northern Africa. The internationalization has livened the sport by reaching new markets, providing an influx of sponsorship, public interest, money, and competition. But the rapid expansion into parts of the world that were previously unknown to cycling may also be coming at some expense to the riders’ health.

Bike racing is a tough and dangerous sport. Cyclists accept the risks and are aware of the demands, but it may be time for limits. In sport, athletes shouldn’t be asked to risk their lives for our entertainment.

There is a need for greater precaution, before the peloton flies around the world, to ensure that the right controls are in place to protect the riders’ health. Three years ago, I raced in the Tour of Beijing. The air quality was bad. Twenty minutes into the race, after having made a few hard efforts, my lungs hurt and I was hacking like a smoker. After the race, and into the night, I heard my teammates coughing. A week after the race had ended, my roommate and I were still coughing. There should be air quality controls in place. When air pollution reaches unhealthy levels, races should be cancelled. Yes, riders can say they won’t race. But if they do, there is a chance they won’t find a team the following year. Team management rarely objects to conditions, as they fear it will affect their standing with the governing bodies and organizers and their selection for other races.

It’s not just the air, however. Recently, two riders tested positive for clenbuterol, a substance banned by the UCI and WADA, but which is still given to cattle in Mexico and China. WADA has issued statements suggesting athletes not consume meat in those countries. Athletes need to take responsibility for everything they ingest. But it’s easy for an athlete to naively assume that the meat is uncontaminated in a quality hotel’s buffet that’s been arranged by the race organizer to feed the entire peloton. If there’s no guarantee that it’s safe, there should at least be some sort of warning in the race manual, in the UCI communiqué, or on the buffet. These are not things that riders should need to be concerned with when racing.

The problems extend to traditional race sites as well. Crashes are increasingly frequent, as the level of competition increases and the road infrastructure of most cities becomes more complex due to congestion. The accepted risks are now greater than they were in the ’90s. Few question them, as they’re considered to be just part of the job. More thought should be put into to designing safer courses and making changes to the structure of the peloton.

The number of serious injuries sustained in the first week of the Tour de France shouldn’t be tolerated. However, it’s because the riders and teams are too scared to do anything about it, and the UCI and organizers are too scared to make significant changes, for fear that the product will be damaged and revenue will drop.

At the Tour of California last year, the peloton raced in extreme heat. Riders were sent to hospital with dehydration. During Milan-San Remo, the race continued in a blizzard, and the race was eventually stopped and then restarted. Bike races are already tough. Part of the sport that makes it both challenging and alluring is dealing with climatic extremes. Yet a limit needs to be established. A cyclist shouldn’t be asked to risk his or her health to get to the finish. Racing in extremes that put riders in the hospital is ludicrous. We wouldn’t want our children to participate in such extremes, so why do we accept it as part of the sport?

Concrete parameters can easily be implemented to make the racing environment safer on many levels. And as the peloton travels to new markets to race, it’s increasingly important to have them in place and enforced.