Movistar just hacked TTTs, and the UCI needs a patch

Movistar just hacked team time trials, maybe accidentally. In fact, the team may not even realize the powerful TTT tool it just invented.

Update: The UCI overturned its race ruling Tuesday night and slapped a 1:00 penalty on Movistar, which gave BMC Racing the win in the stage 2 team time trial at the Volta a Catalunya.

Movistar just hacked team time trials, perhaps accidentally. In fact, the team might not even realize the powerful TTT tool it just invented.

Poor suffering sprinter J.J. Rojas was hanging on to the back of his Movistar team in the Volta a Catalunya TTT on Tuesday when he began pushing teammates back into the team’s slipstream. This noble gesture, at first glance, is actually banned, and for good reason. It dramatically improves the efficiency of a paceline, and thus the speed of a team time trial. And though the riders directly involved suffered time penalties (each push was worth a one-minute penalty), the UCI’s failure to enact a team-wide time penalty sets a dangerous precedent for future stage races.

Why? Imagine for a moment that Team Sky designated a rider to sit at the back of a team time trial at the Tour de France and push every rider except Chris Froome back into the slipstream. All these riders would pile up one-minute penalties, but who cares? Froome wouldn’t, and his TTT would be faster for it.

And there’s no question a TTT squad using this technique would be faster. The hardest part of a team time trial is not the pull on the front, it’s re-accelerating back into draft at the back of the line. A little push in this moment can make all the difference. Therefore, leaving a rider at the back of the group for the express purpose of guiding riders back into the slipstream creates a large advantage. This is why pushing any teammate in a team time trial is banned by the UCI.

Yet on Tuesday, UCI officials Ernesto Maggioni of Italy, Jose Miguel Aranzabal of Spain, and Guy Dobbelaere of Belgium made the decision to only penalize the riders directly involved in Movistar’s pushing. That resulted in a three-minute penalty for the pusher, José Joaquin Rojas, two minutes for twice-pushed rider Andrey Amador, and one minute for Nelson Oliveira, who was pushed once. The team’s GC riders, including new race leader Alejandro Valverde, suffered no time penalty.

This is why both Movistar’s action and the UCI’s failure to react properly set a dangerous precedent.

The English version of the UCI’s rules are quite clear on this subject: If you push a teammate in a team time trial, your whole team is automatically docked one minute. The rule reads: “1’ penalty in stage classification for each rider in the team + 200 per rider involved.” In other words, a one-minute penalty for the whole team per push, plus a 200 Swiss Franc fine for the rider doing the pushing. Simple.

The rule, if enforced as written, would have added at least one minute to the time of the entire Movistar team, thus moving the squad from first to third in the day’s team time trial. Depending on interpretation, it could have added three minutes to the team’s time. Ben Hermans of BMC would have the leader’s jersey, not Alejandro Valverde.

Maggioni, speaking in French with Eurosport and Sporza, claimed that his hands were tied by the French version of the regulations. In French, the UCI’s rules state: “1’ de pénalité au classement de l’étape à chaque coureur de l’équipe et 200 par coureur impliqué.”

This, at first glance, reads the same way as the English translation. Chaque can be translated as either “each” or “every,” but even the English went with “each,” and the meaning remains the same: The whole team should be penalized.

There is precedent for such an interpretation of the rule. In 2010, the entire Cervelo Test Team was docked one minute for pushing in the Tour of Qatar team time trial, bumping them from second to last. But precedent shouldn’t matter. These are sporting regulations, not case law. They should be written and translated clearly so that interpretation is not required.

The ruling may change the final outcome of Catalunya — but we won’t know for a week. But the broader implications are far more important. If the UCI continues to read the rule as it did on Tuesday, there is no reason for GC-oriented teams not to use the powerful TTT hack that Movistar just accidentally invented.