For the second time in little more than two years, Britain has lost one of its most talented cyclists, killed in a collision while out riding. Jason MacIntyre, at 34 a multiple champion, national record-holder and former Commonwealth Games representative for Scotland who was being considered for selection for the Beijing Olympics, died after being reportedly hit by a van on Tuesday, not far from his home in Fort William. He leaves a wife, Caroline, and twin daughters aged eight. In October 2005, Zak Carr, another top time triallist and tandem specialist who had hoped to ride as partner to an unsighted athlete in the 2008 Paralympics, was run down by a driver in Norfolk, who was later given a five-year prison sentence for causing death by dangerous driving.
Both MacIntyre and Carr were elite competitors in time trials (solo racing against the clock). Recent years have seen much handwringing in the sport over the safety of running events on traditional "fast" courses, which have tended to be flat A roads, often dual carriageways. It has been reluctantly accepted that rising levels of traffic and average speeds have rendered some courses unsafe. Time-trialling has, to some extent, shifted on to easier-to-manage circuits and more "sporting" courses (hillier routes on quieter roads).
By the nature of the discipline, though, time triallists have to spend a certain amount of time training on fast, flattish roads where they can hone their ability to ride at average speeds in excess of 30mph on low-profile, aerodynamic machines. Which is not to say that this had any bearing on the circumstances of MacIntyre's appalling death (and in Carr's case, he was simply riding to work), but it does mean that these athletes are obliged to share the road with high volumes of traffic travelling at high speed.
This is not an issue only for time trials. In recent years, it has become impossible not to notice that mass-start road races run on once remote rural roads are competing with growing numbers of vehicles. Even with good marshalling, accidents do happen (marshals have no statutory power to stop vehicles). Commissaires will issue warnings before races alluding, say, to last year's event where several riders crashed head-on into a van that had ignored marshals' warnings. Thus far, the racing community has generally been lucky that such occurrences have ended in only the occasional broken leg or collar-bone. But in the past season or two, my own perception of the "near-miss" risk has given me a growing sense of foreboding that, sooner or later, a tragedy is inevitable.
And it's not just a problem for amateurs. Witness the difficulty such a large and well-resourced race as the Tour of Britain has in organising a rolling roadblock for the peloton. As we gear up for the Beijing Olympics, and 2012 beyond, there needs to be a public debate about how cycle sport can be staged safely on public roads. Otherwise, we are sliding towards a tacit acceptance that competition is no longer viable on the public highway. If we don't tackle the issue, sooner or later insurers will force it on us by refusing cover.
In Europe, there is much more public consensus about road closures and it is routine for the police to supply motorbike outriders. As Britain pioneers a national women's road-racing squad, as a prequel to a professional GB men's team, the time must be right to demand roads safe to train and race on. It's surely right to invest lottery money in winning medals, but are they worth paying for in lives?