Was the death of cyclist Bjorg Lambrecht, last week after a crash during the Tour of Poland, a stupid accident? Should the course have been made safer? Or is there something structurally wrong with the safety of the cyclists? Riders throw themselves off the mountain tops at dizzying speeds. Pushing their shoulders forward, they pound through narrow roads in mass sprints at a speed of 70km/h. While covered in wafer-thin lycra suits that offer as much protection as a piece of wet cardboard.
A helmet has only been mandatory for professional pelotons since May 2003. The Kazakh rider Andrej Kivilev had died two months earlier in the Paris-Nice race. He had a serious fall during the second stage. A skull fracture. Just before the crash he had taken off his helmet, he found it too hot in the French sun.
The UCI wanted to force riders to wear a helmet as early as 1991, but initially this didn’t work out. Riders thought the headgear was too heavy and too warm. You don’t see the riders hurtling down a mountain in a motorcycle suit for that same reason. “This, of course, would offer more safety, because the material stays intact at speeds above 100 kilometers per hour. However, it doesn’t contribute to overall performance for a bicycle,” says Tom Stamsnijder, a former pro rider who now works at DSM on sports innovations, which includes an undershirt that has been reinforced with dyneema. This sweatshirt is designed to provide Team Sunweb riders with better protection against grazes in the event of a crash, without compromising their sporting performance.
Fifteen times stronger than steel
With twelve years of experience as a professional, Stamsnijder knows better than anyone what the unpleasant consequences of a fall entail. “Your whole body is covered in burns and when you’re in bed, the blankets stick to your wounds. Recovering from these also requires a considerable amount of extra energy and you can’t afford to do without that energy, especially in a long race,” he explains.
The undershirt made with dyneema is supposed to reduce these awful consequences. Dyneema is a synthetic fiber that is fifteen times stronger than steel and is used for bulletproof vests, among other things. In a sport such as short-track skating, dyneema is used in clothing to protect athletes from being cut by skates. Riders from Team Sunweb wore the shirt in the Tour de France for the first time this summer.
The use of dyneema in cycling apparel is not new, since Stamsnijder himself has already cycled with pants in which the fiber was used. The development came from DSM and Craft. “These pants ensure that you will have fewer grazes or deep wounds in the event of a fall.” Stamsnijder saw for himself the difference that this kind of fabric is able to make, when he saw two riders slam into barbed wire. One of the two riders was not wearing protective pants. “He received a lot of stitches and has been left with scars from this. The other rider (with dyneema pants) was better off. No stitches and he didn’t have to recover for as long,” he reflects.
Yet riders will often injure or graze more than just their thighs during a crash, so a protective underlay is no superfluous luxury. “We are constantly developing new products and listening to what riders need,” says Stamsnijder. ” When a crash occurs, the lower back and torso also have a hard time coping with it, that’s what we’re trying to solve.”
Cyclists do not want heavy and warm protective suits, it all has to be as light as possible. Stamsnijder: ” If at all possible, a summer shirt that is also comfortable when itdegrees Celsius. The dyneema fiber is interwoven in such a way that the shirt breathes. It offers protection to the shoulders, side and back. The direction of travel has been taken into account so that sweat is disposed of effectively. And dyneema is super light, it weighs next to nothing.”
Stamsnijder considers cycling an odd sport, as riders are willing to take such great risks for granted. “You know: if you fall and you break something, it’s over and out. But if you are able to get up and cycle, then you are still in the race. Riders can go quite far in this respect. Riders prefer to compromise on comfort as little as possible, because that affects their performance. How much more protection riders want, depends on how much comfort they want to sacrifice, because this shouldn’t be at the expense of performance. We’ve got to find the right balance here.”
The team has tested out the new shirt on dummies. Stamsnijder: “We dropped the dummy out of a car that was driving at 50 kilometers per hour. The top layer of the fabric disappeared, but the tough fabric underneath remained intact.”
Worse things than grazes
Bobbie Traksel, the chairperson of the Dutch Union of Professional Cyclists (VVBW), does not really have any faith in this innovation. Traksel doesn’t think that a protective base layer will solve so many problems. “I like everything that offers extra protection to riders, but when I think back to my cycling career, grazes really aren’t the worst thing that can happen to you. You flip head over heels once and your shoulder is torn open; I didn’t cycle any less because of that the next day. Besides, I don’t think you will find any riders who’ll put on a base layer when it’s forty degrees.”
According to Traksel, it would only be a real breakthrough if something was invented that could prevent broken legs or collarbones. “Or broken vertebrae; riders all wear a communication box at the back of their jersey. If they fall on their backs, things go wrong. It hasn’t been proven that it’s necessarily due to these boxes, but they should think up something for that.”
Greater safety won’t be found in the material, the chairman believes: “Most of the danger comes from obstacles on the road. Road fences, traffic lights, poles, you name it. 364 days a year they are sorely needed in traffic, but just on that one day, these obstacles make life miserable for cyclists.” Together with the British National Cyclist’s Union, Traksel submitted a protocol that allows race directors to check if their race route is safe. “Sometimes you will see a right-angled bend just 150 meters before the finish line, why? That’s asking for problems. That document clearly states what a final should look like. Things that can be checked, such as no right-angled turns within 200 meters of the finish line.” The public also needs some training, Traksel is still seeing things go wrong far too often: children who suddenly get in the way, people who step backtoo late or stray dogs. “If there is a course in Belgium, the VRT provides tips from the police to train the public a bit.”