(CNN) — The Tour de France is a race that grips the cycling world every year, but preparations for the 2023 competition, which begins this Saturday, have been overshadowed by safety concerns that have raised existential questions for the sport.
In June, Swiss cyclist Gino Mäder died at the age of 26 after a fall during the fifth stage of the Tour de Suisse.
Nearly 200 kilometers after the start of the race, Mäder collided at high speed with American cyclist Magnus Sheffield, race organizers said after the incident. They descended via the Albula pass towards La Punt, where the stage ended.
Mäder fell into a ravine and was found motionless in the water before being resuscitated and taken to Chur city hospital by air ambulance.
His death prompted emotional tributes but also raised concerns about safety measures surrounding elite cycling.
With improved technology and changing peloton dynamics, cycling is changing and some are calling for it to change, and fast, to provide greater safety for riders.
Adam Hansen, a former cyclist who has taken part in the Tour de France eight times, is the newly elected president of Cyclistes Professionnels Associés (CPA), the organization responsible for looking after the interests of professional cyclists.
Hansen told CNN Sport that as bikes have gotten faster, professional cycling has become a “very dangerous sport.”
But it’s not just the speed that’s the problem. In any bike race, a lot of the racing is about what’s going on in the peloton, the main body of riders, and how riders and teams compete for position.
“You’ve probably heard that term in cycling, ‘there’s no respect in the peloton anymore.’ And what I think that really means is that riders become more dangerous in the peloton,” Hansen explained.
“In the first 150 kilometers of a 200 kilometer race, the runners respect each other, they don’t cut each other, they don’t fight for a place more than 100 kilometers from the finish, they are more relaxed. And now , people fight for every spot and rub shoulders with other riders and become more dangerous in that sense.”
Hansen says riders won’t have motivational issues in this year’s Tour, but Mäder’s death will likely be on some competitors’ minds at times.
“I know that when there are fast, high-speed descents, there will definitely be riders with, say, this thought behind their heads, and they will be a little more nervous and a little more cautious and maybe take less risk.
Tom Pidcock, who rides for Team Ineos, said Mäder’s death could lead to more cautious offspring of riders.
“I especially think of all those who were in the race [el Tour de Suisse]it was quite difficult,” the British cyclist told reporters on Wednesday. “I don’t think I saw a single rider take any risks in the last two stages after this incident.
“Personally, one of the things that struck me was that it happened downhill, which I love. He showed me what the consequences can be when it goes wrong. I don’t take no unnecessary risks, but things can happen when you go down at 100 km/h in lycra”.
How to improve the safety of the Tour?
Hansen said in his role as ACP president, he worked with cyclists to see how cycling could potentially be made safer.
From unified signage between races to help riders and safety nets on descents to details of the distance between a marshal and a parked car, nothing is off the table for Hansen before he delivers his recommendations to the Union Cycliste Internationale (UCI), the world governing body for cycling.
There is a growing tide of proponents of adding safety nets to high-speed corners in an effort to catch cyclists falling off a cliff.
“In the rare situation where someone crosses the line, having a small amount of network can save lives,” Jonathan Vaughters, EF Education Easy Post team lead, told The Guardian. “Safety is a very difficult issue in cycling. I’ve seen a lot of suggestions from people about limiting speed on downhills and it would be safer.
Hansen adds that educating a younger and younger field is an important factor in making the sport safer.
“Cyclists should be aware that cycling is a dangerous sport. And I think sometimes they forget that and they have to be well educated on that,” he explained. if we look at the average age of the Tour de France… [era] quite old, but today we have 20 year olds on it.
“So what I feel is that you make these great young guys do big races like the Dauphine in Switzerland and the Giro [‘d’Italia]round [de Francia].
“Like this year at the Giro, I think a 19-year-old has done it twice already. And normally you’d be 24 and have done five years of professional racing before doing a grand tour. So that’s maybe inexperience.
“These are things that we need to look into and definitely educate cyclists about the dangers and the huge risks that are not worth taking.”
CNN has contacted Tour de France race organizers to inquire about additional safety measures being implemented, but has not received a response as of press time.
The structure of the Tour de France
The Tour de France 2023 will see the famous race celebrate its 120th anniversary.
The first stage, called the Grand Départ, is 182 kilometers long and begins in Bilbao, Spain, the host country of the first three stages before the Tour moves to France. Since the 1950s, the Tour has often started in a different country in order to allow fans from other nations to experience the race.
In total, there will be 21 stages, including eight flat stages, eight mountain stages, four hilly stages, an individual time trial and two rest days. The race will end in Paris on the Champs-Élysées on Sunday July 23.
The famous yellow jersey will be awarded to the winner of the individual general classification, and the green jersey to the winner of the points classification.
The polka dot jersey is awarded to the best climber and the white jersey to the best youngster.
an epic duel
Jonas Vingaard is the defending Tour champion this year. The Danish rider had come close in the years leading up to the 2022 race, but eventually won yellow in spectacular fashion last year and continued to look strong this season, winning the Criterium du Dauphiné in June.
Vingaard, who rides for the Jumbo-Visma team, will have to take on the challenge of two-time Tour de France winner Tadej Pogacar if he is to win a second title.
Pogacar had had a brilliant start to the season but broke his wrist two months ago and only returned to competition earlier this month.
If the Slovenian looks close to his prime, it could be a fascinating battle between Pogacar and Vingaard. Last year the two clashed with Vingaard and eventually beat the UAE star and it’s likely the pair will meet once more this year.
Elsewhere, 2019 Tour de France champion Egan Bernal is taking part in his first Grand Tour event since suffering serious injuries in a crash last year.
The Colombian crashed into the back of a bus and injured his back, legs, knees and chest but is now part of an Ineos team hoping to rise to the top of men’s cycling.