It has taken me some time to sort through what happened at Ironman Hamburg on Sunday, June 4th, when an accident on the bike course lead to one dead person and two more getting injured (but not in critical condition). First of all, I am offering my deep condolences to the family and friends of the moto driver who lost his life in the collision, and I send my best wishes for a speedy and full recovery to the two others who were injured. I tried to keep this post short and to the point, but as you can imagine there are a lot of thoughts swirling around in my head.
The first part of this post looks at how I was following the race and how the accident occurred from my perspective. (You can find some more perspectives in a Triathlete Magazine post written by Tim Heming: What Happened in The Fatal Crash At Ironman Hamburg.) These first two sections are as factual as possible for me this shortly after the accident, mainly to report the accident and its circumstances for those who have followed the race through the Ironman live stream which almost completely ignored the accident. (This post won’t discuss the train wreck of deleting comments inquiring about what had happened and eventually even completely shutting down comments, and my horror about continuing as if nothing has happened – this has already been covered by others.)
Then I give you my opinion on whether the race should have been stopped, and I finally look at some of the issues to consider to increase the safety and fairness of future races for all participants. My main goal behind the last section is to do my little part to start a discussion that is obviously needed to move our sport forward.
How I Followed the Race
I was working for German television who were showing the race via a live stream on their main sports website and also providing updates and summaries for linear television (such as news and their regular sports program “Sportschau”). My role is called “Commentary Assistant” which means that I was giving data updates to the commentary team and helping the producers with information about race development. It means that I have a similar view to the producers with screens for all cameras and recordings (which may include replays of race scenes to preview before deciding if they go on air). Here’s a view of this “control room” the day before the race:
During the race, I was seeing the accident through screens which was bad enough. It must have been way harder for those who were there on-site, and my thoughts are with them as well.
How the Accident Occurred
The bike course at Ironman Hamburg is a two-loop course with a shorter section through downtown and then a long out-and-back along the river Elbe. The major part of the out-and-back goes southeast for about 25k (so about 50k of the 90k loop) on the road next to the dike, mostly in a rural area. The road is two tight lanes with very few side roads. Once the lead athletes have turned around at the far end (roughly 55k into the loop), there are athletes going in both directions. The course map below shows the rough location of the accident, with the Pros going already North (blue arrow) towards transition and agegroupers still going south:
At the time of the accident there were 6 to 9 athletes in the lead group, accompanied by maybe 10 to 12 motos. Here is a screenshot from the live stream shortly before the accident, showing the direction of the Pros (blue arrow) on one side and the age groupers (red arrow) on the other side of the road:
The accident occurred when a moto was trying to overtake the line of motos who were already riding in the middle of the road. In order to do that, he had to move into the other lane, and he collided head-on with an oncoming agegrouper. Whether that was a human error or caused by a medical issue remains under investigation. The agegrouper and his bike were thrown past the other moto and into the lane the Pros were just riding in, and the accident could easily have been even worse if he had hit a motorcycle or one of the Pros.
Emergency personnel were quickly on-site and tried to revive the motorcycle driver, but eventually he had to be pronounced dead. The agegrouper and the photographer on the back of the moto were brought to nearby hospitals and as far as I know have not sustained life-threatening injuries.
Reports from people who were just behind the big group of motos indicate that the emergency response was quick, professional and focused on the injured. Some of them stopped and helped to slow down the strings of athletes going in both directions who had to pass with meters of medicals trying to save lives. When a medical helicopter landed, the road was closed completely. From then on, in order to pass the accident site, athletes were forced to dismount their bikes and walk them up the embankment.
Apparently a plan to shorten the bike course was also discussed, requiring a new turnaround before the accident site but not implemented. (I have no information if this plan was rejected or if its implementation wasn’t possible.)
Should the Race have been Stopped?
Even before the accident, I had serious doubts that the Pro race was fair. The number of motos with the lead group and the draft they created for the athletes must have made it significantly easier for them to ride fast than for others who had to ride alone, creating an unfair advantage for them. (At 55k, the gap of the first group had grown to more than four minutes.) Also, it made it harder (or even impossible) to ride away from the front group, creating a severe disadvantage for the stronger riders in that group. In an interview after the race, Frodo called it a “farce”.
The accident itself also had different implications for the Pros: The lead group heard the accident happen, most had to swerve around the agegrouper and his bike who ended up in their lane. Athletes further behind had to either slow down to pass the accident site on the road or push their bikes past the accident site on the embankment.
In the second bike loop, the leaders of the Pro race also had to walk their bikes in order to pass the accident. To me, that was “one thing too much” to still care about the outcome of the race, and I believe that the Pro race for a European title, Nizza slots and prize money should have been stopped, e.g. when athletes got back into T2.
I appreciate that the situation might be different for age groupers focused on finishing, maybe letting them continue without officially timing them. The way the race was continued on Sunday, athletes were forced to ride towards a closed road and then had to walk their bikes within meters of an active accident site with ongoing first aid measures. I find it hard to believe that Ironman either thought this was acceptable or that they were not able to implement a better plan.
Increasing the Safety and Fairness of Future Races
In recent years there were a lot of other races (Frankfurt 2021 is just one example of many) which were heavily criticized for the number of motos with the lead group. This has a huge impact on how the race develops: Riding with the motos makes it easier to ride fast, makes it harder to make up time to the leaders if you have to close a gap after the swim and makes it harder (or even impossible) for strong bike riders to ride away from others in that front group.
But Hamburg 2023 was much worse: The situation had moved from “unfair” to “plainly dangerous”. Even before the accident, there were several tight squeezes where motos were way too close to athletes.
I compare this to a Jenga tower: For some time, you can remove blocks and the tower remains standing. But at some point, remove one additional block and the tower collapses. For a long time, “blocks have been removed”, making the race more and more risky:
- more athletes, sometimes making it impossible not to draft (i.e. at least 10 meters apart),
- more motos on the course,
- multiple loop courses (meaning that Pros in their second loop have to overtake agegroupers in their first loop),
- courses with out-and-backs (i.e. traffic going in both directions),
- courses with smaller roads
- closer races with tighter and bigger groups
- (I’m sure there are a lot of other factors that could be added.)
In Hamburg, so many blocks had been removed from the Jenga Safety tower that one extra error created the accident.
Probably athletes complaining about an unfair or unsafe race is a good “early warning indicator” that something is off. We should encourage athletes (esp. Pro athletes) to speak up when they feel things are dangerous or unfair, instead of painting them as “sore losers”. Tim Heming’s article mentioned above has statements from Renee Kiley who raced as a female Pro in Hamburg 2022, and other athletes I have spoken with voiced similar concerns. This year’s men’s race only escalated these problems: While all the Pro women were on their own coming out of T1 in 2022, there were 9 men within 18 seconds at 55k in 2023. (The top 9 women in 2022 were 21 MINUTES apart at that point.)
As a sport, we have to do much better than in Hamburg 2023. Change is sorely needed, now more than ever. If the tragic accident in Hamburg isn’t enough to kick everyone into action, I don’t know what is. Some races have already considered or even announced changes earlier in the year, e.g. Challenge Roth severely reducing the number of motos on their course for this year’s race on June 25th. Some athletes such as Patrick Lange have started to share their ideas on what could be done. I hope that Ironman can take a few first steps for Ironman Frankfurt on July 2nd. I’ll keep an eye on changes in these and other races. But most measures are likely taking some more time to be developed and then implemented. A lot of open discussion of ideas is needed to make progress, and I hope that Ironman is willing to bring their experience in running big events to the discussion. For my part, I’m ready to help where I can and where my input is welcome. I sincerely hope that all involved parties will come together to work towards increased safety and fairness at future races.