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Race commissaire: judgement day

Trevor Ward
10 May 2016

When cyclists get together to race, someone has to ensure fair play.

My British Cycling Commissaire-branded jacket and walkie-talkie clearly identify me as a figure of authority. The clipboard in my hands reinforces the impression. So it’s an anti-climax when the first dilemma I’m asked to handle in my new role as a race referee is the late running of the number 17 bus.

This is quickly followed by an irate farmer’s wife who wants to know who to complain to about having to walk half a mile carrying supplies for her husband, whose barn burned down during the night. Smoke from the embers is still drifting across the road in the sleepy Perthshire village of Forteviot. I manage to appease her just before my radio crackles into life with the news that stage three of the Scottish Power Youth Tour of Scotland is finally underway.

Which is a relief. All I have to do now is concentrate on the racing. I’ve been assigned to the post of Finish Judge, which makes me responsible for deciding not just the final placings (despite a tent full of hi-tech telemetry behind me, old-fashioned eyesight, pen and clipboard are still valued), but also the results of the two intermediate sprints, as well as ensuring there is no untoward use of elbows or other body parts in the final 100 metres of this closed-road event. As far as I’m concerned, all the sprints are contested fairly as the race progresses, though at the end of the nine-lap, 60km boys’ race one rider politely informs me that he was dragged back by a rival. Unfortunately for him, the alleged misdemeanour took place out of my view. Unless I receive any other reports, there’s nothing I can do (though I don’t tell him this as I don’t want to encourage
a flood of possibly false complaints).

The only other incident during the race is when a rider hobbles back to the finish line with a snapped chain. It takes nearly half an hour for his team manager to find him a spare bike, by which time he’s nearly three laps down. Under normal circuit race rules, he wouldn’t be allowed to rejoin, but this is a stage race. I call the ‘Chief Comm’ over the radio. 

He’s in the race convoy, monitoring the main bunch and confirming time gaps with ‘Comm Two’ who is behind the breakaway. He tells me to permit the rider to rejoin the main bunch and that his time will be adjusted so that he can start the next day’s final stage. 

And then, just when I think I can take a breather, another voice comes over the radio: ‘Marshal One to control, I have the number 17 bus here. Please advise…’

Carry on Commissaire

If I think I’m having a torrid time in what’s only my second outing as a road commissaire, it’s nothing compared to what’s been happening south of the border in the first event of the new British Cycling Elite Road series. The senior official at the Tour Of The Reservoir in County Durham was Kevan Sturgeon, who was my tutor at my one-day commissaires’ course at the Glasgow Velodrome a couple of months earlier. The newest of only three UCI Elite National commissaires in the UK, Sturgeon had required every ounce of his 15 years’ experience as a road race official to deal with the events that unfolded.

‘It was a savage course and the race was blown apart on stage one,’ he told me. ‘There was a gap of 15 minutes between the leaders and last group, and this stretched the police who were operating a rolling road closure. They decided to shorten the race bubble and left the last group on their own. The problem was, no one told me. We had 40 riders returning to race HQ without completing the course. 

‘So what are you going to do? It was a stage race – you can’t exclude them all. It took us until 9.30 that night to reach a decision. We reinstated them all and made sure they were two or three minutes behind the last rider to complete the full distance. None of the riders were in contention, but some of them could have been fresher than others and that could have helped their team leaders to gain an unfair advantage in the next stage.’ 

It can be a complex and thankless task, so why would anyone want to be a commissaire? Officials in any sport are often regarded as villains. I once interviewed footballer Robbie Fowler about referees and he told me, ‘I feel sorry for them. I’m only playing against one team, but they’re playing against two.’ I recall his words as I count the 20 teams on the start list for the Youth Tour of Scotland.

French rider Henri Pelissier, who won the Tour in 1923, famously quit the race the following year after a commissaire checked to see if he was wearing the same number of jerseys at the end of a stage as he had been at the start many hours earlier in the chill of pre-dawn. The story entered cycling folklore when it was published under the headline ‘Prisoners of the Road’. 

Does Sturgeon ever suffer sleepless nights over decisions he’s made?

‘Never. I once gave a rider a 20-second time penalty for pacing [behind a vehicle] in a stage race. His team came to see me and we had a major confrontation, but the decision was eventually accepted. After the final stage, that rider would have won by 15 seconds had he not been given the penalty. Effectively, my decision had cost him the race. I had no problem with that at all. He had cheated and got an advantage.’ 

As for what made Sturgeon switch from competing (he once clocked 208 miles in a 12-hour time-trial to help his club, Elgin CC, become Scottish champions) to officiating, he says, ‘I realised very quickly it’s the best seat in the house.’

This thought is echoed around the table on the day of my commissaires’ course. Everyone is looking forward to being in the heat of the action without the effort of having to actually pedal a bike at high speed – an acknowledgement that most of us are no longer as young/fast/light as we once were. One candidate with ambitions to complete the five-year ‘pathway’ to UCI Elite international status sums it up thus: ‘I want to
cross the finish line of the Tour de France ahead of the main bunch.’

Measuring up…

Thanks to the exploits of Wiggins, Froome, Trott et al, road racing is experiencing a boom in the UK. British Cycling reported a 66% increase in the number of circuit road races held between 2012 and 2013, and 7,000 more riders now own race licences compared with 2011. As a result, more officials are needed, and earlier this year an SOS was sent to cycling clubs across the UK. And that’s how I found myself in a conference room of the Glasgow Velodrome feeling very self-conscious about the length of my tape measure.

A measuring device, you see, is a vital part of a commissaire’s armoury, together with stopwatch, clipboard, stick-on rear view mirror (to prevent a stiff neck when monitoring the action from the race convoy) and talcum powder to mark out finish lines in the wet. But as Sturgeon explained the permitted gear ratios for youth and junior category riders, it became clear that my two-metre retractable tape measure wouldn’t be up to the job. To mark out the range of maximum distances a youth or junior’s bike should travel in one full revolution of the cranks – ranging from 5.10 metres for under-8s to 7.93 for under-18s – I was going to need something bigger.

I get the chance to use my new, extra-long tape measure when I make my debut as an assistant commissaire at the Crit on the Campus event at Stirling University on a freezing Sunday in March. I’m responsible for re-checking the gears of the top three riders in each of the youth races, plus two randoms. My instructions are clear: ‘Don’t let their parents or anyone else touch their bikes until you’ve checked them.’ So as soon as I’ve noted the numbers of the first three in each race, I set off in hot pursuit, levering myself in between parental embraces to insist the riders return with me to the gear checking area. All bikes pass the inspection and no sanctions are required. 

I also have the power to warn – verbally or in writing – fine, relegate, disqualify or ban any rider deemed to be in breach of a host of regulations ranging from ‘untidy dress’ to ‘dangerous riding’.

Fortunately for me, everyone at Stirling University is well behaved and I am not required to exercise my formidable new powers. The closest I come to having to discipline someone is at the start of the 4th category race when a rider at the back shouts to a rider ahead of him that his number isn’t pinned on properly. This blatant attempt at gamesmanship fails to rattle the burly number four, but I decide I should check it anyway (Technical Regulation 8.5.2 states that numbers should be ‘securely attached and not be folded, obscured or mutilated in any way’). His number is flapping in the wind but I let it go, breathing a sigh of relief every time he passes the start/finish line with his dossard still intact.

Next is the women’s race, and there’s a commotion even before it’s been announced that the air horn has run out of air and a whistle will be used to signal the prime lap instead. It involves Team GB’s newest pursuit World Champion, Katie Archibald, one of two elite riders in the race. The riders have just been reminded of the rule that states riders will be pulled from the race – a 40-minute criterium – if they are lapped twice. As these are mostly lower category club riders, they know they’re likely to be lapped several times by Archibald and fellow elite racer Kayleigh Brogan. ‘It’s not fair,’ pipes up a voice. ‘Can’t we carry on as if it’s a training ride?’ Murmurs of agreement ripple through the pack.

Chief Commissaire John Green confers with his assistants. I nod and, in a bid to look authoritative, jot down a reminder to buy cat food on my clipboard. ‘OK,’ he announces. ‘We will let you continue racing, but only on condition you keep to one side of the road and don’t interfere with the riders lapping you.’

It seems a diplomatic compromise. Archibald and Brogan duly cross the finish line in first and second place, several laps ahead of the field.

Curse of the jobsworths

To complete the next step to ‘Regional Commissaire’ I have to officiate at a minimum of four more events and have a range of ‘skill areas’ – including ‘administration’ and ‘radio procedure’ – assessed. 

Not every Chief Commissaire I work under will be as flexible as Green. I am resigned to encountering the occasional jobsworth. One ex-commissaire I spoke to said he gave up because he ‘couldn’t stand seeing people so obsessed with petty rules that had no bearing on the outcome of races’. And he’s a policeman. 

There’s a fine distinction between the spirit and letter of the law. Sometimes an official’s best intentions can be hopelessly misconstrued by a competitor, as I discover during the boys’ individual TT at the Youth Tour of Scotland. 

During the team managers’ briefing the night before, one manager asked whether riders would be able to wear aero helmets. The Chief Comm said no. The next day, I hear over the radio that a rider is wearing an aero helmet. I duly note the number. Shortly afterwards, I see another rider approaching the start ramp with an aero helmet. I decide a quiet word in his team manager’s ear should do the trick: ‘One of the other officials is likely to make an observation about riders wearing aero helmets. It might be in your interests for your rider to use a different one.’

They nod, thank me and ignore me. Afterwards, predictably, both riders and team managers are called to Race HQ and penalised 10 seconds.

Sturgeon, who will officiate at the Tour of Britain and Commonwealth Games, would approve: ‘Rules are rules,’ he says. ‘You have to be fair to other riders and teams. What happens if they see a rider getting away with something and not being punished? You have to set an example.’

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