What Happened in The Fatal Crash At Ironman Hamburg: A Firsthand Account, Context, and Expert Insight

We spoke to a pro triathlete who was feet away from the tragic accident at the 2023 Ironman Hamburg, look at the race response that followed, and try to measure how it could have happened.

Photo: Alexander Koerner/Getty Images for Ironman

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Following Sunday’s tragic events at Ironman Hamburg, where a motorcycle driver carrying an official race photographer was killed and a participant has been hospitalized, Triathlete has spoken to individuals who were on site and familiar with the race, as well as an expert in motorbike logistics for mass sporting events to help provide insight.

Occurring at roughly mile 22 on the bike course, a section where participants are cycling in both directions, the 70-year-old motorcycle driver carrying a cameraman, collided with a 26-year-old racer, according to an AP news report.

“The race participant and the photographer received onsite care, before being transported to a nearby hospital where they continue to receive treatment,” said a statement from Ironman. The driver died on the scene.

German broadcaster ARD ended its live broadcast of the event upon learning of the fatality, and racers were rerouted around the accident site while racing continued.

A firsthand account

We spoke to pro triathlete Kristian Hogenhaug, who was within meters of the crash, Australian pro Renee Kiley, who raced on the same course last year, triathlon statistician and Triathlete contributor Thorsten Radde, who was on-site working for German television, and veteran cameraman/motorcycle driver Paul Phillips, who ran Ironman’s motorbike driving operations in North America up until last month.

Emotions are still raw for Denmark’s Hogenhaug, who was directly across the highway when the accident happened, with part of the debris punching a hole in his disc wheel. “I heard a huge crash and everything was in slow motion,” he explained. “I thought maybe a motorbike had punctured and then half-a-second later a tri bike flew in the air and landed almost in front of me, but I didn’t see the persons involved.”

The Team BMC rider was approaching the end of the out-and-back section on the first of two laps on the 112-mile bike route, when a motorbike collided head-on with an age-group cyclist heading in the opposite direction.

“I looked back to see if any of the other guys were affected,” Hogenhaug added. “After that I felt emotional for a time questioning, ‘What the hell happened?!’ We were going around 30mph, and if the person was going in the opposite direction it must have been a high speed collision.

“As an athlete, I got back into the racing mindset and told myself that it probably wasn’t that bad, but I also didn’t want to know the outcome. There was an ambulance at the accident within a couple of minutes and as athletes we do what we do. It would have been a different scenario on a training ride.”

By the time the leading male pros headed out at the start of the second lap a number of emergency vehicles had arrived and the crash site was closed off, with the route diverted so triathletes had to dismount and wheel their bikes up and onto a grass bank before continuing. Hogenhaug added: “I registered that there were a lot of ambulances and a huge rescue helicopter, but I [deliberately] didn’t look.”

The Dane put in one of his career-best performances to finish in third place behind France’s Denis Chevrot and Belgium’s Pieter Heemeryck in the race. Having recovered from a case of post-race nausea after crossing the line, he was informed that the moto driver had passed away, seconds before a post-race interview.

“It really hit me hard and I started crying a bit,” said the 31-year-old. “I was so worn down [after the race], and it was the first time I thoroughly processed what had really happened, and had stepped out of the arena of being an athlete in a race situation.

“I’m very sad about what happened. I’m trying to keep the result and the accident as two different things. It’s ok to be proud of what I achieved but still really sad about what happened. I had one of my best performances in a few years, yet [had] the experience of an accident literally [a few feet] away from me. There’s a hole in my disc wheel [from the debris] the size of a thumbnail.”

Asked whether he thought the number of motorbikes on the course was excessive, Hogenhaug replied: “It was crazy, I’ve never seen this many motos in a race before. The dynamic in our group made it impossible to get away because as soon as you did – with all the traffic coming the other way – the motorbikes would slide into the gap. At turnarounds, I nearly crashed into motorbikes, it definitely didn’t feel safe.

“I really hope this can kickstart something regarding motorbikes on the racecourse. I’ve always thought about it as something that can influence the race dynamics, but it’s clear that more important are the safety concerns.”

Historical context

Australian pro athlete Renee Kiley, who has twice raced at Ironman Hamburg—including in last year’s women-only pro race— said 2023 wasn’t the first time there has been safety concerns, due to her own experience in 2022.

The 40-year-old recalled being told in the pre-race briefing that there would only be two media motos and no roving mechanical support because of safety issues on the course. Ironically, Kiley picked up a puncture around 100 miles into the bike leg and couldn’t finish.

“I remember it so vividly,” she said. “I remember discussing that for a championship race it was unacceptable that they had no roving mechanical support, but from what they said it was clearly because of a lack of space on the course. If that was the real reason last year, then knowingly going into this race ignoring all of that is so upsetting.

“The bike course is terrifying just with cyclists. It’s technical through the city for maybe 10 miles, and the rest of the course is on a kind of village [service] road, smaller than a regular two-lane highway. Racing as a pro last year I was constantly screaming to age-groupers to move to the side on the second loop. They only [live] streamed the first lap of the bike and then the media motos came in [because it was too congested with age-groupers on the course]. I can’t fathom how they could approve it.”

According to Ironman’s results page, the field sizes between the two years were similar. There were 2,041 finishers yesterday and 2,009 finishers in 2022.

What followed

Thorsten Radde was in a broadcast booth working as commentary assistant for German broadcasters ARD, providing insights and updates to the rest of the commentary team, when the collision happened.

“I was in front of a ton of screens and a laptop to see everything that was going on,” he said. While the severity of the crash was clear from the outset, its significance wasn’t fully understood until news started filtering through of a fatality.

“We were trying to figure out what happened and what was appropriate to show again on TV. When there’s a crash with that impact and that debris it’s clear there’s been a [serious] accident, but I don’t think any one of them [the athletes] knew how serious it was.”

The emergency services were quickly on site tending to the casualties, and around 30 minutes later ARD were informed the moto driver had died. That was the cue for the German broadcasters to end the race stream [Ironman continued with its live stream], with their own camera team moving to the accident site to continue reporting as a breaking news story.

Radde added: “To me [the way we handled it] was respectful of the events that occurred. People were angry. Sebi [Kienle, who was working as a commentator] was emotional and said a couple of things that were not quotable. The team had to shift back into work mode to provide pictures and commentary as it became a big news story. I was extremely impressed in how compassionately yet professionally they dealt with the situation. It did not feel appropriate for Ironman to continue as if nothing had happened. It didn’t make sense at all.”

Ironman read out two statements on the live broadcast. One at around 11am local time to say a collision had taken place on the course and more news would be released as it as confirmed, and one following the broadcast at 2pm which announced the passing of the motorcycle operator.

“The decision to continue the event was made in joint consultation with local authorities and race officials, as it was determined that proceeding with the race was the safest and most respectful way forward for athletes on course,” a spokesperson told Triathlete. ”Every athlete on the course was completing a personal journey that may have started many months ago and when factored with the incident taking place at a location on the course where stopping the race could have created further safety risks and challenges, it was fully agreed that allowing athletes to continue to progress through the course was the best course of action in this scenario.”

Course safety

Radde also added that he felt there appeared to be safety issues prior to the crash. “There were already incidents where the motos got extremely close to the athletes. [Jan Frodeno] was shouting at moto drivers to stay away as were others in the lead group. Our commentary people even highlighted how close it was [on the live broadcast] and that hopefully things were safe. There were signs that there wasn’t enough space for the moto drivers and athletes.”

Radde estimates there were 12-15 motos with the lead group, but this hasn’t been confirmed by Ironman as of this writing. Motorbikes can be on the triathlon course for a variety of reasons, including transporting videographers and camera personnel, technical officials, and making sure the front of the race is clear ahead of the lead athlete for safety reasons.

As Hogenhaug cited, it’s long been a hotly debated topic over how the amount of motorbikes and their proximity to the athletes can affect the race, often in terms of providing a draft advantage over competitors placed further back in the field.

Challenge Roth even made a controversial decision to ban still photographers on motos to cut down the amount of traffic on-course at this year’s race at the end of June, and Radde recalls a discussion over the number of motos that took place at Ironman Germany in Frankfurt last year. He said: “At least in Frankfurt the road was wide enough and didn’t have an out-and-back section that was dangerous. Here it definitely crossed into dangerous territory.”

There were a lot of eyes on the live broadcast. Compared to other nations, Germany has one of the biggest triathlon fanbases, with spectators at the main races reaching six figures and events being broadcast live on terrestrial TV stations. Radde explained: “I would say Ironman Hamburg is now one of the four big German triathlon events that are live on TV or at a minimum streamed. The others are Ironman Frankfurt, Hamburg World Series, and Challenge Roth.”

Radde was unsure how the incident will affect the event’s future, or what it means for the brand as a whole. “It was a short night before the race and an exhausting day, and I was happy to go out for myself for an hour last night and not think about triathlon.

“But so many things should happen and need to happen. We have a situation that is not tenable, but I think we need to get the facts out there and this incident has to be enough to get the discussion started.”

Motorbikes in tri

One man who understands the demands placed on race organizers, camera crew, and motorbike drivers in triathlon perhaps better than anyone is Paul Phillips.

The veteran cameraman spent the past two years, up until May, recruiting and managing moto drivers for TV for Ironman in North America. Phillips has also shot over 200 events from the back of a bike and was in the Isle of Man covering one of the world’s most dangerous motorcycle races when he heard the news. Even at 74, he continues to shoot sports imagery and make a regular pilgrimage to the TT races on the island to capture the action.

“It’s one of my nightmare situations,” he explained on hearing the death of the moto driver. “It’s difficult to convey, but I feel a personal responsibility from the time these guys [the moto drivers] leave the house until they get home because things can happen.”

Phillips says he couldn’t speak about specific details in Hamburg because he wasn’t on site, but that safety should be paramount at all times. “I’ve used drivers from the BMW GS Trophy team—some of the top guys in the U.S.—but with no previous triathlon experience. I would tell them all: ‘The photographers can ask for the shot they want, but if you don’t feel it’s safe, do not do it. You’re the captain of the ship.’

“Before every race we have Zoom meetings to go through details of the bike course and run course. For Kona, for example, our team had weekly Zoom meetings for about eight weeks before the race, including the videographers.

“But while we can talk about it, until we see it we can’t anticipate what might happen, so all the guys pre-ride the course the day before. I had about 30 drivers around the country – an outstanding group of guys. The videographers go for a practice ride and we all have comms units [to make sure they can hear one another].

Phillips stresses that while the skillset among the drivers is extremely high, there will always be challenges depending on the course and conditions.

“It’s a 6-700 pound motorcycle with 120 horsepower and two guys on it weighing 200 pounds each. So it’s not something that cannot stop on a dime. Having a media person as a passenger is also different to going down the road with a person on the back who is not moving around at all. I’ve always told my drivers we are just taking photos. If we miss a shot, we can go take another one. If we have to wait. we’ll wait. Don’t push it. Everybody has got to get home at the end of the race safely.”

He added that there are times when a moto just shouldn’t be present. “If you have a narrow out-and-back that’s a ‘no fly zone’,” he added. “Just stop and wait for them to come back. The coverage can switch to a different camera. Or there might be places where it’s only the live broadcast moto but nobody else, as it’s recognized as too much. There’s no reason to ever have a gaggle [of motos] around one or two athletes. Even in Kona, we have a method where the course controller lets you up [to the front] so there aren’t too many motos on course.”

Its latest public statement, released yesterday, Ironman said: “We are devastated by this tragic accident. On a day meant to be a celebration of the human spirit, we instead mourn the loss of a member of our triathlon community. Our sympathies are with all those affected. Our priority always is ensuring the safety of our participants and those involved in the event. A police investigation is ongoing, and we are cooperating with local authorities to understand the events that lead to the accident.”

Story updated 5:30EST with a comment from Ironman on the decision to continue the race.

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