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The unwritten rules of the pro peloton

Sticky bottle crop
Felix Lowe
31 Jul 2017

Pro racing has a plethora of rules that the riders either respect or ignore, but do these rules enhance the sport or restrict it?

For many years, the sport of cycling was a peculiar mixture of gentlemanly conduct and downright cheating. Riders would respect certain unwritten rules – such as ‘no attacking the yellow jersey when he takes a nature break’ – while simultaneously ignoring all the ethics of sport by pumping themselves full of performance-enhancing drugs.

These days, while it seems that doping is thankfully on the wane, the unwritten rules of the sport cling on.

Take the incident at the 2015 Tour de France: Vincenzo Nibali, the former Tour champion, was eight minutes down in the standings and looking to salvage his Tour, and seemingly used a Chris Froome mechanical as a springboard for his Stage 19 victory in La Toussuire.

Nibali’s crime? Controversially attacking on a key climb while the yellow jersey fiddled to fix a problem with his brakes at the side of the road.

‘You don’t do that to the race leader,’ Froome harrumphed of Nibali’s ‘not sportsmanlike’ behaviour, prompting more words to be written about the Italian’s supposed disdain for the unwritten rules than about Froome’s own inability to master his Pinarello.

Attacking in the feed zone

Things became even more confused later that year when Nibali found himself disqualified from the Vuelta a Espana for something that he lamented ‘happens in every race’.

The Italian took advantage of a ‘sticky bottle’ – a drag from a team car – to improve his position in the field.

The practice is generally accepted when it allows a rider to get back to the pack after they’ve dropped off the back, but Nibali used the car to drag him away from the pack he was in.

If Nibali’s transgressions underline anything it’s that cycling’s tacit moral code is greyer than a British summertime.

And while there’s clearly no official regulation stipulating when a rider may attack or answer a call of nature, former rider and directeur sportif Sean Yates believes that ‘there needs to be – as in everything – an unwritten code of conduct where people respect one another’.

For Yates, a former yellow jersey-wearer himself, there’s a pragmatic element to the rules.

‘At the end of the day it’s the riders and staff who have to live with each other on the road year in, year out, day in, day out.

'So it’s better that everyone respects each other and doesn’t attack when a person has a mechanical or crash.

'Although in the heat of the moment...’

His unfinished sentence hints at a rather large caveat to which we’ll return later. But first, let’s examine the origins of the unwritten rules – and who better to clarify them than Eurosport’s avuncular voice of cycling, Carlton Kirby?

Respect the patron

According to Kirby, gentlemanly conduct in cycling dates back to the beginning of the 20th century, when bike races started well before sunrise and the peloton would ride as one before the ‘patron’ – the father of the race – decided otherwise.

Cyclists weeing

‘Although unwritten, this rule was to the benefit of everyone in what was essentially an endurance race,’ he says.

‘It was a question of survival and if you wanted to be part of the brotherhood you respected the rules.’

Charismatic figures such as Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Lance Armstrong all took on the mythical mantle of patron, a role assumed in recent years perhaps only by Fabian Cancellara.

If this blend of hierarchy and respect ensured social cohesion within the peloton over time, there are also the issues of hygiene, safety and wellbeing to consider – as exemplified by the delicate balancing act between musettes, manhoods and the mayhem of rolling attacks.

‘Once a break has been gone for a while the yellow jersey, a GC rider or an important sprinter comes up and says “time out” and stops for a piss.

'If you attack then, that’s a shit thing. You don’t do it,’ says Israel Cycling Academy directeur sportif Kjell Carlström.

On top of honouring a rider’s basic right of taking a stress-free leak, the feed zone is also sacrosanct.

‘Attacking there shows a lack of respect not just for the yellow jersey but the whole peloton,’ says Dimension Data DS Alex Sans Vega.

‘If you have lunch in your office you stop work for half an hour – you don’t want your boss giving you stuff to do. It’s the same in cycling.’

An alternative way of looking at the rules comes from Eurosport commentator Matt Stephens, who sandwiched 13 years on the police force between careers in the pro peloton and cycling media.

Stephens compares the unwritten rules to the ‘reasonable person’ concept, which has no accepted technical definition in law but touches on our duty to act reasonably, with discretion applied according to context (for example, running a red light en route to hospital).

Team Sky were judged to have acted unreasonably when they arrived on the scene with their big budget, bigger bus and apparent aversion to the old-school ways.

Attacking at a feed one day resulted in the peloton upping the tempo when a Team Sky rider stopped for a pee.

Such revenge tactics are not uncommon – even if Yates, Team Sky’s DS at the time, doesn’t exactly agree: ‘If someone goes and shoots your grandmother, are you going to retaliate and shoot theirs? No, you’re not.

'Then it just starts this vicious circle, like gang warfare, and you end up just shooting each other.

'It’s not conducive to a good living, is it?’

Nevertheless a mob rule mentality – structured by the unwritten rules – does grip the peloton. Sean Kelly remembers his PDM team being ordered by their DS to attack in the feed zone during a blustery stage to Marseille in the 1990 Tour in a move that momentarily split the pack.

‘We got a lot of abuse from other riders and teams,’ Kelly tells Cyclist. ‘They remember those things and you’re always worried as a rider that you’re going to get paid back some time.’

When retribution comes, the rules go out the window.

‘Breaking the rules opens the situation for somebody else to break the rules another time – and not just in any place,’ Kelly says.

‘It will be when you’re race leader and you maybe have a mechanical and the pace is fast.

'They don’t feel like they’re breaking the rules because it’s just payback time.’

Yet when Nibali punctured at the foot of Alpe d’Huez a day after his victory at La Toussuire, the fact that no one waited was not so much payback as coincidental karma.

The race was on – just as it was when Kelly’s Kas team distanced Stephen Roche on the final stage of Paris-Nice in 1987 after the latter punctured on the Col de Vence 20km from the finish.

‘We upped the pace but it wasn’t an attack because we had been riding tempo all day,’ says Kelly.

‘He lost and I won so of course he wasn’t happy. But you can’t just stop the race.’

Yellow peril

Sticky bottle cycling

The point at which it is acceptable to attack the yellow jersey is the key question that drives much of the current narrative surrounding the unwritten rules.

Tradition dictates that crashes, mechanicals and punctures should all be followed by a gentlemanly act of good will – the kind that earned Jan Ullrich a ‘World Connection Award’ when he slowed for Lance Armstrong after the American fell on Luz Ardiden in 2003.

For Kirby, punctures are merely ‘part of the game’. ‘Yellow jersey has a flat? Off you go. You have good fortune and bad fortune – everyone has their own percentage and where do you draw the line?’

Sans Vega agrees: ‘When the yellow jersey crashes you must wait. But punctures are a personal thing. It can be the tyres your team are using or the pressure.

'And there are some riders who puncture more than others because they simply don’t look at the road.’

Mechanicals are a fierce debating point, too. ‘It’s time to do away with these tacit agreements and codes of etiquette whereby equipment is considered sacred ground as to whether you can attack or not,’ the journalist Daniel Friebe told the Telegraph Cycling Podcast after the Nibali incident during the Tour.

The general consensus was that Nibali had already prepared the terrain before Froome had stopped.

Throw in the context of his lowly place on the standings and Nibali arguably had no reason not to attack.

‘He had every right to do so,’ agrees Kirby. ‘To my mind a mechanical is like having a bad night’s sleep. If your kit fails – hard luck.

'If somebody drops a baton on a relay in athletics you don’t get to do it again. The teams have different levels of technical capability and it seems off that it’s the only equality that’s demanded when that’s really an odd thing to quantify.’

Kirby even feels attacking on a mechanical is a welcome ‘equaliser’ in the sport.

Indeed, in an age where so much emphasis is put on marginal gains and kit – to the extent that mechanics are poached from rival teams – the disparity between the rich and poor teams is large enough without riders being able to hide behind kit issues dressed up as fair play.

‘Froome could have a hundred mechanicals between here and Paris if he’s that desperate not to get attacked,’ Friebe mused.

Of course, there was much more at stake on the Port de Balès climb in 2010 when Alberto Contador famously rode away from Andy Schleck en route to prising the yellow jersey from his spindly shoulders in an episode that became quickly tagged ‘Chaingate’.

The Spaniard was roundly chastised for his unsporting actions, although many pointed out that he had already placed his attack before Schleck’s mechanical.

‘I would also go a little further and maybe say it was Schleck’s own fault he dropped his chain because there was no need to shift down at the time,’ says Carlström.

‘Here the rules are so ambiguous and so dependent upon a perceived context that they’re almost worthless,’ says Stephens.

Attacking on a mechanical

Like Froome, Schleck was vexed, telling reporters that night, ‘In the same situation I would not have taken advantage.’

It was perhaps a bit rich of him to take the moral high ground when, less than two weeks earlier, a Cancellara-chauffeured Schleck distanced his GC rivals on the cobbles after his own brother Frank crashed and caused a split in the peloton.

And one day earlier, Cancellara – in yellow after his victory in the prologue – had used his unwritten status as patron to enforce a go-slow in the peloton after both Schlecks hit the deck on a slippery descent to Spa.

‘It’s nonsense – tactical negotiations dressed up as doing the gentlemanly thing,’ claims Kirby.

‘Everyone pulls the gentleman’s conduct card when it suits them and even Froome’s not adverse to doing it.’

The obvious problem in playing this game is that while the authoritative Cancellara commands respect, the likes of Froome and Schleck don’t share the same clout among their peers.

This may have something to do with a general lack of respect that Carlström feels permeates both the peloton and all walks of life today – something he attributes to a lack of education.

Romance or reinvigoration

It’s this gradual cultural erosion and general absence of leadership in cycling – stemming from teams having less structure and offering more opportunities to riders beyond the designated leader – that Stephens feels has made the unwritten rules ‘increasingly diluted and less relevant. They have been eroded because of the lack of hierarchy’.

In an era where breaking an unwritten rule could be the difference between losing a race or winning and securing a contract next season, is it any surprise these traditions are slowly fading?

Give most riders a sniff of victory and the survival instinct kicks in, often giving way to a win-at-all-costs mentality.

Why take a pull for the sake of some pointless guidelines if it makes you look tactically naïve? What’s better: being the moral victor or standing atop the podium, calculated and cold-blooded?

In short, being reasonable and generous is irrelevant when a result is at stake.

As Sans Vega says, the rules are all well and good, but ‘if there’s a small option that plays in favour of your team, you will take that option’.

So, for how much longer will the unwritten rules exist – especially if, as Stephens ventures, they’re already practically a ‘meaningless, romanticised concept – an anachronism really’?

Kelly feels it’s a ‘discussion that will go on for as long as we live’, but senses that the more the rules are broken and re-broken via the ongoing cycle of payback they will eventually ‘go out of the window’.

It’s a stance the Irishman’s Eurosport co-commentator shares.

‘The rules are there for the convenience of the riders and when it’s inconvenient for the majority then that will be the end of the rules,’ says Kirby.

One thing’s for certain – they won’t just disappear overnight. They’re too ingrained in the fabric of cycling, but the cultural shift in the sport makes these romantic vestiges more and more redundant.

Stephens concludes, ‘By their nature they’re unenforceable and all you stand to lose is possibly the respect of an increasingly diminishing amount of people.’

Illustrations: Steve Millington / instagram.com/drybritish

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