Ultra-endurance race deaths

by Craig Fry

August 1, 2017

Photography by Transcontinental Race


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The fifth edition of the Transcontinental ultra-endurance bike race across Europe was rocked over the weekend by the tragic death of Dutch rider Frank Simons. Simons’ death is the third such incident in an ultra-endurance race in 2017, following the passing of Mike Hall in the Indian Pacific Wheel Race in March, and Eric Fishbein at the Trans Am in June.

In the following commentary piece, Craig Fry — a long-distance rider in his own right — considers the issue of safety in events like the Transcontinental Race and considers whether it’s time for change.

Yet another rider fatality in an ultra-endurance cycling race. Enough is enough, surely?

When we’re at a loss to explain something or comprehend a tragedy, it is human nature to want to avoid it, to just make it go away. Stop the races. Stop riding. It’s less risky that way. We’ll be safer.

You can see this sentiment gathering momentum in some of the online reactions to the recent tragic death of Frank Simons in the Transcontinental Race. It has been bubbling up since Eric Fishbein died in June, and Mike Hall died in March.

Among the messages of sadness and grief are increasing calls for more safety measures in ultra-endurance cycling events. Some are even arguing for this type of cycle racing to stop altogether. Others want such events to continue out of respect for the fallen riders and their families; or as a show of strength and, dare we say it, a vehicle for change.

The question of what to do about ultra-endurance cycling is not easily answered. But after the annus horribilis 2017 has been so far for cycling, the time seems right to have that discussion.

On the one hand, like many others, I wonder why organisers of self-supported ultra-endurance cycling races don’t introduce more safety measures on the open roads (e.g. mandated minimum sleep times, ride-time windows to avoid ‘death zone’ hours, allowing support vehicles to follow riders, and so on).

I can’t help wondering what the reaction would be if a rider died in each of the next three UCI WorldTour races, or in any cycling event for that matter. My first hunch is it would bring the racing calendar to a standstill, or at a minimum there’d be a review of safety regulations and something would have to change.

I understand we’re talking about different types of cycling conditions. The point about risk and safety remains though.

On the other hand, I’m mindful of other examples of endurance challenges where participants die (or come very close to it) in pursuit of personal goals – like climbing Everest, in masters age triathlons, or in gran fondo style cycling events to name just three.

We don’t typically see a loud voice of opposition to those sorts of events, or calls for them to be stopped. On the contrary, people still flock to these types of challenges.

So, what’s so special about self-supported ultra-endurance cycling events? Why should we see these races as any different?

I’d argue that ultra-endurance cycling isn’t that different at all. It’s part of a wider ‘personal challenge and adventure’ movement which has been growing in the ranks of amateur cycling for some time now. So much so that ‘raising the bar’ and the pursuit of hardship and suffering is part of the cycling zeitgeist now (for a certain segment anyway).

If you doubt this, reflect on the following examples: Strava cups and challenges; the Sufferfest training app and similar; Hells 500 rides; Everesting; the Melbourne Dirty Dozen rides; Race to the Rock; the resurgence of interest in one-hour, 12-hour, 24-hour cycling records; the growth of granfondo-style cycling events with longer, harder ride options, and now even gravel courses; and perhaps also the growing popularity of bike-packing and bike-touring.

So, there can be little doubt about the appeal these days of adventure and personal challenge on two-wheels. It sells too – a host of cycling product brands (the luxury cycling brands are leading the way, ironically) are not far behind, seeking to promote and assist with more events, and profit too, one would assume. The ‘glory through suffering’ idea has been well and truly commercialised.

This is the space that self-supported ultra-endurance cycling exists in. And it’s what this type of riding represents that helps to explain the growing appeal – its all about unregulated adventure, testing yourself, personal discovery, breaking free and escaping from the daily drudgery of work-eat-sleep-repeat.

What’s not to love about those ideas, right?

But again, in the days following the death of Frank Simons, some observers are now finally questioning the wisdom of unregulated riding and racing on the open roads over extreme distances, with cumulative cognitive and physical fatigue from sleep debt.

So, how far should the spirit of cycling adventure take us? How free can we really be to push our physical and mental limits on the open highways and roads of today? What are the acceptable costs and risks of adventure?

Ultimately, it’s up to the individual to decide how to answer such questions, presumably after discussion with family and friends to hear and weigh their perspectives. We all have to find answers to the above questions, and hopefully not get maimed or die in the process.

For some observers, the cancellation of ultra-endurance cycling events like the Trans Am, Transcontinental, and Indian Pacific Wheel Race following those three rider fatalities would be the best outcome. For others, that would be an illogical thing to do in a world where risk, human frailty, and mortality are certainties.

It is a sensitive and difficult issue. At the heart of it all there’s a clash of competing ideas around what cycling is and should be, and whether we really can be free to take risks on the busy open roads of today.

A simple solution here is unlikely. But one concrete thing that seems very possible is for the organisers of ultra-endurance cycling races to undertake an honest review of event regulations, and give due consideration to additional safety measures which would reduce the likelihood of vehicles striking riders from behind.

Another thing we can all do is ask ourselves where, for better or worse, the continued romanticisation of the ‘glory through suffering’ ideal that has permeated amateur cycling is taking us.

Something has to give.

About the author

Craig Fry is a freelance cycling writer based in Melbourne. He was a member of Team Pane e Acqua who won the 2014 Audax ‘Oppy’ National Shield by riding 730km in 24-hours on open roads. His 2016 book on cycling and grief, Ride: A Memoir to My Father (Hampress), is available at Amazon.


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