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The Tragic 2023 Tour de Suisse

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

The 22-year-old Trek Segafredo rider Mattias Skjelmose was the surprise winner of the Tour de Suisse, a race traumatised by the death of the popular Swiss cyclist Gino Mäder. The Dane beat out 20-year-old Juan Ayuso (UAE Team Emirates) by a scant 9 seconds, with reigning world champion Remco Evenepoel (Soudal–Quick-Step) finishing third, 45 seconds adrift.

Skjelmose won his first ever World Tour stage when he came in first after the hard climb to the finish on the summit at Villars-sur-Ollon (10.7 km at 7.8%) in stage 3, and celebrated his first World Tour GC victory. But his post-race declarations were tempered by Mäder’s death. “I thought it was possible [to win],” Skjelmose told journalists. “I proved that my shape is good and that I’m ready for the Tour. I always believed in this. It’s a lot of big emotions. It’s a combination of a lot of sacrifice for me and, of course, Gino is dead, and I think everything combined just made me very emotional. It just needed to come out after the finish line. For me, the most important thing was that Gino’s parents and family wanted the race to go on and for us to race as normal. That put my mind at rest.”

Skjelmose cemented his GC victory with a strong third-place finish in the final-stage ITT, only 9 seconds behind Ayuso and just one second behind Evenepoel. In addition to the ITT, Ayuso also won the race’s queen stage, stage 5, after a powerful 17-km solo ride up and down the Albula Pass (17.4 km at 6.8%), the scene of the accident that cost Mäder his life. The young Spaniard said he had mixed feelings despite his impressive performance.

“The primary goal was to win the GC, and I came second, so it’s a bit of a pity, but Mattias was super strong, and we have to just congratulate him,” he said. “Of course, I wanted to get the GC for Gino, but also [with] the stage [win], he [would] be happy for me. Of course, this [stage win] goes for him. Racing is a bit more on the side. You don’t feel like celebrating.”

Mattias Skjelmose
Skjelmose of Trek-Segafredo on his way to win the 86th Tour de Suisse. © Profimedia

The race was something of a disappointment for Evenepoel who also lost the stage 1 ITT, finishing 6 seconds behind Stefan Küng (Groupama-FDJ), and could not stay with the best climbers on the mountains. Perhaps he was still feeling the lingering effects of the Covid infection that forced him to leave the Giro d’Italia. In any case, unlike many other riders, he was not using the Tour de Suisse as a preparation for the Tour de France, which kicks off on July 1. Instead, he was looking ahead to the Glasgow UCI World Championships, which begin on August 3.

But the racing results of the Tour de Suisse have taken a backseat to discussions of cycling safety as a result of Mäder’s death. He died after he and the American Ineos Grenadiers rider Magnus Sheffield both fell into a ravine on the descent from the Albula Pass where the speeds of the riders approached 100 kph. Sheffield suffered a concussion and other, less serious injuries, but Mäder had to undergo CPR at the site and succumbed to his injuries in the hospital the following day. He was 26 years old. The two stages following his death were largely neutralized in his honour. In addition, 37 riders abandoned the race before the start of stage 7, including all of the remaining riders of Mäder’s Bahrain Victorious team.

The American former road racer and current manager of EF Education–EasyPost Jonathan Vaughters has suggested the use of Alpine ski-race-style netting on corners with extreme drop-offs. “While this wouldn’t prevent most crashes, it might prevent the most severe kind,” he said.

There have also been discussions on whether steep downhill finishes such as in stage 5 of the Tour de Suisse should continue to be used in road racing. According to a rough count, which includes fatalities due to illness, such as a heart attack, 24 road racers have died while racing or training from 2011 to the present, Mäder included. There were 19 fatalities recorded in the 40 years between 1960 and 2000, so the number of cycling deaths has certainly risen in recent years. It seems clear to me that this is not due to the courses but partly because technology and improved training methods have increased both the speed of the bikes and the fitness of the riders, so that races are ridden faster than ever before.

And the racing itself has changed. Even flat stages are today raced hard from start to finish, whereas these courses used to be run almost casually until the final 10 km or so. As a result, the riders become more fatigued racing, and fatigue can lead to carelessness. The speed and new tactics have certainly added drama to road racing and have probably helped spread the sport’s popularity. But they have also drastically increased the risk of accidents.

The death of the Kazakh rider Andrey Kivilev following a crash in the 2003 Paris-Nice led to the wearing of helmets becoming compulsory in all official UCI races. Should there be another high-profile racing fatality, there will be more pressure put on the UCI to react. It’s just not clear what can be done short of imposing speed limits on the riders.