BERGERAC, France (VN) — There is no written rule that neutralizes in the entire Tour de France when the yellow jersey has a problem. Writing one would be crazy.
So is such an unwritten rule really sane?
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When a mechanical sent Chris Froome’s arm into the air on the slopes of Mont du Chat on Sunday and Fabio Aru ducked underneath that gangly elbow, the debate rekindled. It’s one that hits the Tour every year: Wait or race? What’s proper, what’s right?
Perhaps, though it’s very ungentlemanly for me to say so, it’s time to ditch the gentlemanliness. Rip that page out of the “Unwritten Rulebook” and chuck it in the trash.
It’s a noble act, waiting for a rival in a moment of great need and maximal vulnerability. There is an argument that pro cycling’s inherent danger forces this sort of chivalry, that cycling is gallant by necessity. Respect for competitors is a built-in safety measure. What better way to show respect than to wait in a crucial moment? It proves that a rider cares more about his competitors than any mere bicycle race. Bad luck happens to everyone; treat others as you wish to be treated; what goes around comes around; etc.
It wasn’t always this way though. As a tongue-in-cheek illustration, allow me to present a brilliant little tweet from a British colleague, Lionel Birnie:
Perhaps you know this story? If not, here are the “Spark Notes:” While riding in the overall lead of the Tour de France down the Tourmalet in 1913 (he was not in the yellow jersey, which hadn’t been invented yet, though Eugene Christophe would be the first to wear it in 1919), Christophe’s fork cracked and failed. He walked with his bike over 10 kilometers down the mountain to the next town, where he found a blacksmith. The rules at the time forbade outside assistance. He fixed the fork himself, hammering away on an anvil under the watchful eye of Henri Desgrange. He lost nearly four hours.
Nobody waited for the leader of the Tour. In fact, legend suggests that a few of his competitors taunted him as they rode past. It was understood, then, as it is not quite understood now, that staying upright on a functional bicycle is as much a part of a bike race as the pedaling itself.
These days, the peloton almost always waits. The Unwritten Rules are clear. When Froome’s hand went up Sunday, and Aru attacked, Nairo Quintana followed. So did Dan Martin and Richie Porte. But then the latter two began motioning for a ceasefire. They neutralized the front group until Froome returned, deescalating the world’s biggest bike race in one of the few moments across three weeks that was ripe for real escalation. The decision to wait likely affected the day’s result, and maybe the overall result, in ways we’ll never know.
The unwritten rule that compels rivals to wait for the yellow jersey even when the race is on — during important climbs or anywhere near the finish — is relatively new. Though there are select instances of such slowdowns occurring prior, the tradition was in stone, so to speak, during the Lance Armstrong era. Armstrong waited for Jan Ullrich in 2001 after the German tumbled off the side of the road. Ullrich then waited for Armstrong in 2003 following the American’s musette-bag crash. Within a few years, charging on as a rival floundered was seen as a treasonous.
The problem with the Unwritten Rulebook is that it is reliant on the elastic subjectivity of circumstance. While the Tour waited for Froome and his flat, it did not wait for Rigoberto Uran and his singlespeed. It did not wait for Dan Martin and his crash. It didn’t wait to see if Richie Porte could continue. This unwritten rule is not an indication of a rider’s respect for his competitors because it’s not applied to all of them, or even some of them. Not consistently, anyway.
One can hem and haw on the specifics. (Never wait when the race is on? When did he attack? Was it before or after the “on” button was hit? Where is the “on” button, and what does that button even look like?). That is precisely the point. Few can agree. Riders make these decisions on their limit, in the heat of the moment, without a full understanding of the events unfolding around them.
Riders can use the Unwritten Rulebook for semi-nefarious purposes too. Abuse of power, even. I present an incident from last year’s Tour de France. Sky’s Ian Stannard crashed in the leadup to Mont Ventoux, falling behind Simon Gerrans. Chris Froome pulled up a few moments later for a supposed nature break. And so with 30km to go, charging for Mont Ventoux, the crux of the entire Tour, Sky forced the peloton to make a decision: ride on and leave yellow behind, or wait under a questionable application of the “Don’t Attack A Yellow Jersey On Nature Break” rule.
Alejandro Valverde was livid, and he should have been.
They say this unwritten rule ensures that cycling is a test of athletes, not machines. But cycling is a test of athletes and machines. Always has been, just ask poor Christophe. If it was not it would be running.
They say this unwritten rule ensures that luck does not pick the Tour’s winner. But luck is sport and sport is luck and aren’t you supposed to make your own, anyway?
This is easy for us to say, us punters on the couch and in the pressroom. Some of these unwritten rules exist as a method of self-preservation. But not this one. This one can’t be written down because seeing it in writing would reveal how truly silly it is. Leaving it unwritten makes it no less absurd.