Europe

Paris-Roubaix crossing: How do cycling near-misses happen?

The pack is stopped at a level crossing during the 113th edition of the Paris-Roubaix one-day classic cycling race in Wallers on 12 April 2015. Image copyright AFP

Cyclists in France's Paris-Roubaix spring classic shocked onlookers by crossing tracks with a safety barrier down, seconds before a high-speed train passed. The BBC's Alex Murray looks at why cyclists ignore warning lights, and where the responsibility lies.

While the footage is dramatic, Sunday's is far from an isolated incident in the sport.

The Cycling Weekly website has posted footage of a similar incident where a British rider was among several to ignore the closed barriers at the U23 equivalent of the Tour of Flanders in Belgium at the weekend.

The impact of rail crossings in the outcome of a race can be found in cycling literature almost as far back as cycling races and trains have existed.

In his book on Jose Beyaert, the 1948 Olympic road race gold medallist, Matt Rendell mentions an incident at the 1950 Tour of Italy in which a chasing group was saved by a level crossing.

And even the sport's biggest race, the Tour de France, cannot escape the imposition of French train operator SNCF timetables. Stage 16 of the 2013 edition saw Chris Froome briefly interrupted in his quest for victory by a passing locomotive.

Former professional cyclist and now team manager Roger Hammond experienced such incidents several times in his career and agrees that they are not uncommon.

A specialist in the tough one-day races of northern Europe who finished third at Paris-Roubaix in 2004, Hammond says he "didn't feel outrageously hard done by" at the retrospective disqualification of two team mates in the 2006 edition for crossing a closed barrier - a move that cost both results and prize money.

He also remembers racing the Het Volk competition in Belgium when he was held up by a crossing in 2008. No riders crossed the barrier, perhaps mindful of the 2006 incident.

Image copyright FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images
Image caption Belgians Peter Van Petegem (pictured) and Leif Hoste were both disqualified after going through a crossing in the 2006 Paris-Roubaix race

He believes such decisions should not be left to riders "who can't make a rational decision in race mode" and who have a huge incentive to take a risk under rules which are unevenly enforced.

Race organisers try to liaise with train companies to avoid cyclists and trains reaching crossings at the same time, but it does not always work.

Italy's Manuel Quinziato was one of the riders to pass through the crossing.

"I think the red signal light went on when we were about 10m away. It was impossible to stop without causing a crash, most likely on the railway track," he told the BBC.

The leading pack were simply following the motorbikes at the front and if they had signalled to stop, he continued, then the riders would also have stopped.

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Image caption With its brutal cobble stones, the Paris-Roubaix race is also known as The Hell of the North

"The only solution would be avoiding the railways or making an agreement with the railway companies to delay trains passing to avoid crossing the race. I think that for such important races and for our safety it could be possible," Quinziato adds.

Hammond agrees there is too much at stake, but says that race referees should adopt a tougher stance.

"There needs to be no ambiguity: as soon as the lights come on, you stop," he argues, "race referees should disqualify anyone who doesn't, even retrospectively. An absolute crackdown would put an end to it."

"It shouldn't even have been a discussion. It's a matter of fact: it was outrageously dangerous. In any other walk of life it would be very difficult to justify."

The SNCF has since filed a complaint demanding police action against the Paris-Roubaix riders who failed to stop. However, race organisers have defended their action, saying it was impossible for them to stop "sufficiently safely".

A statement from the governing International Cycling Union says that it will investigate the incident. "It is everyone's duty to make sure that our beautiful sport of cycling is not tarnished by incidents that appear to have been avoidable," it adds.

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