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Commentary: Cycling shoots itself in the foot, again

Richie Porte broke the rules by taking a wheel from Simon Clarke, but should the UCI have imposed such a steep penalty?

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FORLI, Italy (VN) — In a sport with a public image about two shades greyer than black, Tuesday’s 10th stage at the Giro d’Italia showed cycling at its best. And a few hours later, its most convoluted.

Late in an otherwise routine stage, the Giro caved in around pre-race favorite Richie Porte (Sky). The popular Tasmanian punctured with about 7 kilometers to go at the worst possible time, and as his dreams of the pink jersey disappeared up the road, a savior appeared unannounced from inside the ruthless, seething pack: a rival, but also a friend, in Simon Clarke of Orica-GreenEdge. There was no malice. No pre-scripted deal. It was two blokes, chasing a shared dream of racing bicycles, and they acted on gut instinct.

“Clarkie” and “Richie” are friends, they’re from the same country, and in Australia, where the character trait is to help out a mate, it’s what you do. So when Clarke, a journeyman rider who is never going to win a grand tour, saw a compatriot who might, he did something very generous and very authentic. Here, mate, take my wheel.

There were two problems. First, technical assistance between opposing teams is explicitly forbidden by the rules. And second, it happened in the Internet age, where nothing can escape the collective moral microscope of Twitter.

When a desperate Porte crossed the line 47 seconds in arrears, he seemed relieved to have limited the damage in a mishap that could have been much worse. Plucky Porte could have never imagined as he stepped onto the Sky bus how quickly things would spiral out of control, and with such crippling consequences.

It’s interesting to conjecture about how much Twitter and the social media landscape influenced the jury’s decision. One member of the UCI race jury said he witnessed the illicit wheel change, but according to VeloNews’ Caley Fretz, both Sky and Orica ride identical wheels, Shimano Dura-Ace C-50s, so it would have taken a very keen eye to catch the difference.

In a pre-Twitter world, the “news” of the wheel change might have passed unnoticed, or at least until it hit websites, or, even going back further in the technological timeline, the next day’s newspapers. Photographers captured the wheel change, however, and soon images showed up on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook within an hour of the stage’s conclusion. Porte, too, posted photos on Twitter, thanking Clarke for his gesture of good sportsmanship and fair play.

But Twitter can also be a very good equalizer. It has helped to take down dictatorships, so it didn’t take long before someone reminded the world that Clarke’s gesture of sportsmanship was smack gob against the rules. It’s hard to tell how many sport directors and riders remembered that rule — Porte admitted he didn’t know about it — but now it was clearly in the public realm, and the race jury had its hands tied. The UCI jury could do nothing except apply the strictest interpretation of the rule: a 2-minute penalty and a 200CHF fine. Porte can certainly afford the fine, but the time penalty was a stake through his Giro heart.

And it’s no small irony that it was very old school dynamics — a puncture and an arcane rule — that caught out Sky. Its concept of marginal gains, with wind-tunnel testing, germ-free RV campers, and space-age skin suits fell trap to the most banal elements of bike racing.

Why have the rule? The non-assistance rule is designed to provide an equal playing field, and avoid collusion among riders and teams. It’s been enforced before, most recently in the 2009 Tour of Hainan, but how much did Clarke’s wheel help Porte? In one photo, Sky teammates could be seen nearby, poised to help out their teammate. In the heat of the moment, no one was thinking about rules. Instead, they were scrambling to change a punctured tire. The rules are the rules, but it’s clear that some rules need to have some wiggle room.

Everyone on Sky and Orica insisted there was nothing nefarious between Clarke and Porte. It was one of those spur-of-the-moment sporting gestures that capture the collective imagination of the public. Indeed, Clarke’s deed, and the ensuing jury’s decision, quickly rattled across the Internet. Yet the UCI’s application of the rule revealed just how difficult it is to apply law and order to a sport that is essentially rolling chaos.

Anyone who follows cycling realizes that rules are applied with a fair dose of common sense. “Sticky bottles” and dropped riders pacing through team cars is common practice, and yet those violations are only called out in the most blatant of cases. The railroad crossing debacle at the recent Paris-Roubaix was also plain as day, but the race jury chose to largely ignore it. Gianni Meersman (Etixx-Quick-Step) admitted he received a wheel from Sky earlier in this Giro, but no one took notice of that.

The rules left no room for maneuver, and instead of wrapping its collective arms around the Porte-Clarke feel-good moment, cycling once again ended up with pie on its face. Perhaps there was no other option. Had the race jury not followed the rules to the absolute T, there would have been inevitable shouts of corruption, favoritism, and cronyism, from — where else? — Twitter.

The rules are the rules, except when the rules don’t make sense. When huge swaths of the peloton miss the time cut in the mountains, there is room for interpretation. Many were questioning the consistent application of rules. Sometimes someone is fined and penalized, sometimes not. That’s the nature of imposing justice on a rolling, broiling beast like the professional peloton.

Remember the 2013 Tour de France on Corsica? Ted King crashed horribly in the opening stage, but fought for all he was worth to stay in the race. Once back in France, King was quickly popped in the team time trial. No one on Cannondale waited for him. It was King alone versus the clock. The American rode through the pain and the agony. He just wanted to make the time cut. He wasn’t going to win the Tour. He wasn’t going to win a stage. He probably wouldn’t have made it through the first mountain stage. His fight was one that deserved some mercy. According to the official timekeeper — though there was some evidence they might have botched it — King missed the time cut by seven seconds. Seven seconds. No quarter.

In both cases, the letter of the law was firmly enforced, in sharp contrast to the concept of the spirit of the law. In many courtrooms around the world, especially when no one acts maliciously or with intent, there is a chance for clemency. There was no sense of proportionality in Tuesday’s ruling. Just as King deserved to live another day in that year’s Tour, Porte didn’t deserve a death sentence in the Giro d’Italia. The jury could have cited the rule, issued a heavy warning, and perhaps an even heftier fine. Porte was already losing time with the puncture, and photos reveal Sky teammates were nearby, ready to give a wheel. How much more time Porte would have lost or gained seems irrelevant now compared to the 2-minute penalty.

To many in cycling, the harsh interpretation of the rules sits in sharp contrast to larger perceived injustices of the sport. More than a few were wondering how teams with serious doubts hanging over their organizations retain UCI WorldTour licenses, yet Richie Porte was forced to walk the plank? Of course, a race jury at the Giro d’Italia has nothing to do with vetting WorldTour licenses, but the sense of frustration and injustice was atomic Tuesday afternoon.

Cycling could use a boost. It needs heroic moments. It’s crying out for guys like Richie Porte and Simon Clarke. It’s aching for a narrative that reaches beyond the bleak discussion of biological passports, a dirty past, and an uncertain future. A bloke passing off his wheel to a comrade is a story that encapsulates all that’s good about cycling.

Instead, Porte was clobbered over the head with an additional 2-minute handicap in the Giro’s second week. It’s not the UCI’s fault, nor the jury’s. More than anyone’s, it’s Porte’s and Clarke’s fault. They’re professionals, and they should know the rules. Sky should have had riders right with Porte from the very first instant. But the jury and the court should also have room to interpret. Life is rarely black and white. And in cycling, even less so.