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New UCI president warns of illegal gambling threat

New UCI president David Lappartient is reviving the call to ban race earpieces. Why? It’s not the well-worn argument that the two-way radio communication somehow dampens the excitement of the race. Rather, the newly elected UCI boss says it could open the backdoor for the corruptive influence of betting in cycling.

“Betting on cycling is like the tip of [an] iceberg,” Lappartient told the Belgian daily Het Laatste Nieuws. “Most of it is out of sight.”

Lappartient has yet to provide a concrete example of how betting has directly altered a race but has suggested the possibility exists. Where’s the money, there’s always the chance for cheating. Lappartient said he wants to get ahead of the issue before it’s too late.

The Frenchman, who stunned Brian Cookson in an election victory last month, suggested that race radios could be hacked by third parties to intercept the radio signal between riders and teams, and illicitly alter the outcome of a race.

This is not the first time Lappartient raised the issue of illegal betting. The alleged threat of illicit gambling, and how it might corrupt the authenticity of racing, was a central theme of his platform in his campaign to win the UCI presidential election last month.

It’s difficult to gauge how much of a problem betting is for professional cycling.

There is an active betting culture surrounding the sport. Whether it’s an office pool of friends, or an underground network run by a mafia, sports and betting go hand in hand. And Lappartient insists there could be a problem for cycling.

Over the past two decades, the advent of online betting houses has taken betting on cycling mainstream. Dozens of websites offer fans a dizzying array of chances to bet on races across the racing calendar. There are already odds online for the 2018 Tour de France, with Chris Froome favored to win a fifth yellow jersey at 6/5 odds.

Online betting houses are tightly regulated in Europe, however, and frequent winners can be banned from a site if they start winning too much.

Lappartient warns it is the alleged illegal betting houses and underground networks that could encroach on the peloton. The concern is that sport directors, team managers and riders could be tempted to either directly throw a race, or provide insider information that could determine the outcome of a race and subsequent betting action.

Another worry, according to those who follow online betting, is altering the second-line bets. Bets aren’t placed only on the winners, but also for placings, jerseys and other categories inside a race. For example, there are side bets on Rider A beating Rider B in a certain stage or race. There is a risk that Rider A might sit up, and let Rider B finish ahead of them, even if it’s not for the outright win, simply to lose the position bet on purpose.

VeloNews recently asked a half-dozen top pros and sport directors if they thought the corruptive influence of betting and the prospect of fixing races was a real worry inside the peloton. All agreed that it would be all but impossible to fix a race.

“There’s no way you could fix a race ahead of time. There are too many moving pieces,” one pro said, who asked not to be identified. “I don’t see how it could happen, even in a sprint or a big group coming in for the win.”

Of course, deals between riders are as old as cycling itself. Riders have long “bought” and “sold” wins on the road. Racers have been known to hatch under-the-table deals between themselves. One rider might be desperate for a win, and offer to “buy” the victory with a few discreet envelopes full of cash. That kind of bald-faced dealmaker has become less common over the past 20 years, but it is still known to happen. In that scenario, however, it’s a bargain hashed out between the riders (and sometimes team cars) in the heat of a race, not from outside influences.

Even more common are bargains of convenience agreed upon out on the road to assure collaboration. The deal is easy: the stage win for you, and the leader’s jersey for me, so let’s work together.

Rumors of illegal betting and criminal elements have been around for years. Some even suggested that Marco Pantani was set up for testing for high levels of hematocrit in the 1999 Giro d’Italia because the mafia was poised to lose millions if Pantani won the pink jersey.

Those allegations were never authenticated, but it’s just that kind of corruption that Lappartient wants to keep out of cycling.

“We don’t want to have dig ourselves out of the hole doping in cycling, only to face something like this,” Lappartient said. “The UCI doesn’t have one rule in its regulations about it. Gambling is not allowed, but it happens.”

What Lappartient hopes to do about the problem, if it even exists, remains to be seen. Perhaps raising the issue if the first step.

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