Former UCI president Brian Cookson has called on cycling’s governing body to crack down on the “crazy trend” of riding head down in time trials, after Swiss specialist Stefan Küng rode straight into the barriers in a spectacular and somewhat unnecessary crash during Wednesday’s men’s European time trial championships in Emmen.
Küng, a two-time European time trial champion, had been in contention for another medal in the discipline after passing the second intermediate time check in third place, less than a second off Wout Van Aert’s time, though almost half a minute down on the flying young British rider Josh Tarling.
However, towards the end of his ride, Küng – riding in the extreme, head-down aero position favoured by most modern time triallists – misjudged the slight change in direction on the road and failed to spot the row of encroaching barriers in front of him.
The Groupama-FDJ rider, continuing to ride in a straight line, then clipped the legs of the barriers, sending him sprawling across the road.
— O País Do Ciclismo (@opaisdociclismo) September 20, 2023
Despite being bloodied and battered in the horrific crash, and sporting a bashed-up, shattered helmet, the 29-year-old continued on to the finish, placing 11th on the day. After crossing the line, he was also seen undergoing a concussion check with members of Switzerland’s medical team.
On Thursday morning, Küng’s Groupama-FDJ team confirmed that their rider had suffered “a minor concussion”, as well as a fractured cheekbone and hand in the crash, which did not require immediate surgery.
“He remains under observation in hospital but will be able to go home today,” the team added.
“Unfortunately, his season is over. In view of the circumstances, Stefan would like to make it clear that his general condition is good.”
I’m seeing way too many people calling this brave or hardcore. I'm not blaming Kung at all for doing what he's trained for (and his head just took a hit), but there's nothing inspiring or bad ass about this photo. pic.twitter.com/t2MdNNFwOm
— Phil Gaimon (@philgaimon) September 21, 2023
Due to the shocking nature of the crash, and the severity of his injuries, many on social media have questioned why Küng was permitted to get back on his bike and ride to the finish at all.
“Stefan Küng should have been pulled from the course looking at the damage to his helmet. Concussion protocols in UCI?” asked one fan on X, formerly known as Twitter.
“He was in no state to judge [whether to carry on], he should have been stopped immediately,” wrote another viewer.
“He’s been let down by those around him. Furthermore, the broken helmet should have meant that officials should have stepped in even if his team wouldn’t. Serious dereliction of responsibility all round.”
Meanwhile, former Garmin pro Phil Gaimon also criticised the tendency within cycling circles to laud riders who get back on their bikes and carry on despite suffering injuries or potential concussion in horror crashes like Küng’s.
“I’m seeing way too many people calling this brave or hardcore,” the American said.
“I’m not blaming Küng at all for doing what he's trained for (and his head just took a hit), but there's nothing inspiring or bad ass about this.”
Küng’s bizarre spill – a time trialling version of Djamolodine Abdoujaparov’s infamous crash into the barriers on the Champs-Élysées at the 1991 Tour de France – has also prompted a debate on social media concerning the factors that led to the crash, and who was at fault for it.
“What on earth was Küng’s team car doing?! He needed to be told to have his head up,” wrote cycling journalist Tim Bonville-Ginn.
Meanwhile, Jacek Kapela, the father of Polish junior time trial champion Marek Kapela, said: “In a properly organised race, he should be getting directions from the team car behind him over the radio.
“If the team car is not allowed, there should be a marshal there with a whistle. Team car’s mistake or organiser’s mistake, not the rider’s.”
Another Twitter user added: “Why the hell is that fence on the road? Hope he’s okay. Looks like a case of poor race route management.”
— Brian Cookson OBE (@BrianCooksonOBE) September 20, 2023
However, former UCI and British Cycling president Cookson argued that the crash was a result of Küng’s head-down riding style, which he claims should be banned by the sport’s world governing body.
While the UCI changed its rules concerning time trial positions earlier this year, enabling taller riders to take advantage of greater reach and more height difference between the forearm support and the extension tips of their bars, there are currently no regulations pertaining to the angle of a rider’s head placement while riding against the clock.
“The crazy trend for head down riding in time trials strikes again. The UCI really must look at the technical rules to stop this,” Cookson said.
“Top three riders in all UK time trial championships would have to be DQ’d if they applied that rule,” replied Andy Critchlow.
Speaking of British time trialists, it was a good day for those raised on their local club 10, as Josh Tarling built upon the bronze medal he secured behind Remco Evenepoel and Filippo Ganna at the world championships in Stirling by storming to the biggest win of his fledgling career this afternoon in Emmen.
The 19-year-old Ineos Grenadiers ride – who has enjoyed a staggeringly successful debut season in the pro ranks, following up his worlds medal with a first WorldTour win in the Renewi Tour time trial last month – led at every time check, covering the 29.8km course in 31:30, beating Küng’s Swiss teammate Stefan Bissegger by 42 seconds and Wout van Aert by 43, for a convincing win that no doubt lays an ominous marker for next season’s races against the clock.
Not that the Welsh rider found the third pro win of his career easy going, however.
“It was hard,” Tarling said at the finish. “I felt weaker today than I did in the worlds. And the wind was really hard. Originally, it was a lot of over and under with the crosswind, but it changed to a more steady crosswind both ways and no headwind or tailwind. It was just about holding a high power all day.”
Tarling’s win capped a great day for for the Brits, as Anna Henderson secured a silver medal behind the rampant, redemptive Swiss Marlen Reusser in the women’s elite time trial, while Zoe Bäckstedt won gold in the U23 women’s TT, beating German Antonia Niedermaier by a whopping 58 seconds.
Ryan joined road.cc as a news writer in December 2021. He has written about cycling and some ball-centric sports for various websites, newspapers, magazines and radio. Before returning to writing about cycling full-time, he completed a PhD in History and published a book and numerous academic articles on religion and politics in Victorian Britain and Ireland (though he remained committed to boring his university colleagues and students with endless cycling trivia). He can be found riding his bike very slowly through the Dromara Hills of Co. Down.