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BMC Racing steamrolled the competition at the USA Pro Challenge last week, winning four of seven stages, with three different riders, and taking first and second on the general classification. Behind the scenes, however, domestic riders complained of the team’s strong-arm tactics in the peloton.
Previously documented, both here on VeloNews and in a column by Optum-Kelly Benefit Strategies rider Phil Gaimon on Cyclingnews.com, tensions were high between visiting UCI WorldTeams and the domestic teams that race in North America all season long.
Some references to the tensions within the bunch were purposefully opaque. Robbie Squire of Hincapie Racing sat third overall after four stages, and complained that those “riding at the front” had hassled him. When pressed, he said he preferred not to name specific riders or teams. However BMC led the race, riding at the front, from stages 2 through 7.
“People like to ask me what I’m doing, riding at the front, that sort of stuff, ‘show some respect’ … on the climb, at the base of the climb, people don’t like to give us wheels,” Squire said. “But hey, do what you want? We’re here to race bikes.”
After four stages, Squire’s teammate Robin Carpenter had a similar complaint. Without naming any riders or teams, he tweeted:
Hey WorldTour: some of you pull some outrageous crap in these races, and you’ve got no right to. Give respect, get respect.
— Robin Carpenter (@RobinmCarpenter) August 20, 2015
Not everything was vague, however. There was video footage of Trek Factory Racing’s Laurent Didier, wearing the orange jersey of most aggressive rider, purposefully blocking Daniel Jaramillo (Jamis-Hagens Berman) from passing on Independence Pass, forcing the Colombian off the road, which resulted in a crash.
The following day, Trek’s press officer Tim Vanderjeugd told VeloNews Didier would apologize: “He made a wrong decision and there’s no excuse. That’s very clear to us. Laurent tells me they spoke during the race already, but maybe both their heart rates were still too high then.”
Jamis director Sebastian Alexandre confirmed that Didier apologized to Jaramillo during Friday’s stage 5 time trial, in Breckenridge.
The incident with Didier wasn’t Jaramillo’s only brush with a WorldTour rider on stage 4. Earlier, when he attacked from the peloton on Independence Pass, his move was met with hostility from BMC, resulting in yelling and something being thrown at the Colombian.
What exactly was thrown was has been debated, with Jaramillo and several of his Jamis teammates telling Alexandre that a water bottle was thrown.
BMC Racing director Jackson Stewart, who spoke with Alexandre about the incident after stage 4, said that it was only a wrapper from a panini sandwich and that the act of aggression must be understood in the context of when it happened — after, he said, the day’s breakaway had been established and race leader Rohan Dennis had pulled over for a nature break.
“Supposedly there was a water bottle thrown at a Jamis rider. I hadn’t heard anything about it until Sebastian called me,” Stewart said. “The funny thing is, I saw this whole situation. … I didn’t see anything thrown, because they went around a corner on the climb. I don’t know what kilometer it was, but it seemed like we’d controlled, maybe 15km up this climb. Maybe 10km. The break was gone. It was five, seven guys. I don’t know if [the breakaway] was together yet, or whatever.
“Watching the race, it seemed like things were established, and it was a good, acceptable time to call the truce and do the piss break,” Stewart continued. “And of course, it’s to the yellow jersey’s advantage to do a piss break on the climb, or any time, really. And I see this left-side attack. I could tell it was a Jamis rider, but I didn’t see the number. And I see Brent [Bookwalter] and [Michael] Schar sprint after it, and then they went around the bend. I was certain there were words exchanged. I’m not sure how anyone would think otherwise. I didn’t know anything was thrown. … It’s one thing to be a bully, and trust me, anyone that races bikes knows that stuff goes on … but they accuse us of throwing a water bottle, and I have two guys telling me it was the paper from the Panini that Rohan was eating when they called the piss stop. So it was a Panini, it bounces off your back. I’m assuming. I didn’t see it. There’s no video or anything. But I talked to my guys, and I believe them.”
Stewart said that the aggression was because Jaramillo broke an unwritten rule in cycling that no riders will attack the race leader during a nature break — a tactic often employed by the race leader to ensure a suitable breakaway is given sufficient leash to go clear.
“Sebastian called me, and said, ‘Look, we’re a small team, we need some respect. This is unacceptable.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, of course, if Rohan did this, I’ll talk to him, it’s not acceptable,” Stewart said. “But you also have to understand, if you attack our guys, with the yellow jersey’s foot out, pissing, you’re going to make someone angry. If you had the jersey, it’d be the same.’ Those are just little rules that we follow…. It’s not a bullying thing, it’s a respect thing. Those guys are totally right, we don’t need to be throwing anything at them, or bullying anyone. But it’s also a respect thing, you know?”
When asked to address an incident that took place two weeks earlier on stage 6 of the Larry H. Miller Tour of Utah, when BMC’s Joey Rosskopf attacked from the peloton after race leader Mike Woods (Optum) had called a nature break, Stewart said that situation had been different because the day’s breakaway had not yet been established.
“[Optum] tried to call it when things were totally out of control,” Stewart said. “So that’s the difference. Joey said the race was still going. And that’s the difference. When you have the yellow jersey, you call it when you’ve demonstrated that the race is under your control. It’s like a truce: ‘Seven guys are there, those are the ones that made it, otherwise we’ll bring it back, and we’ll let this go.’ That’s how it always is. And they tried to use the yellow jersey as a trick. It’s like saying, ‘Guys, I’m taking a piss’ at 1km. It just doesn’t work that way. And it’s not their fault. You try every trick you can. But everyone can see the race, and it was still full gas. They were losing control, they weren’t as strong. And at that point, it’s not an acceptable time to call it.”
Alexandre’s version of what happened on Independence Pass differs from Stewart’s. According to the Jamis director, the breakaway had not yet been established.
“The team plan was to try to get Jaramillo into the break,” Alexandre said. “We know he is close on GC. The BMC guys were not confident in letting him get too many minutes. On stage 3 he was in the break, as well and Dion Smith (Hincapie Racing), so that is the why [BMC] needed to ride all day and keep the break close. But Jaramillo was dropped on the climb. So on stage 4, there was an uphill start, we tried to get him to get some KOM points, that was one of the goals for us. BMC didn’t want him in the break. They yelled at him, and actually threw a bottle at him, and to [Jamis rider] Stephen Leece they throw something, we don’t know what it was, but apparently it was food.
“It’s not something you can tolerate,” Alexandre continued. “We understand when they didn’t want to stop… the break wasn’t established. We know the unwritten rules, but we are here to race. We need to represent our sponsors. BMC is the best team in the race, they are one of the best teams in the world. They don’t need to do that. They don’t need to yell at the rider because he is trying to represent his sponsor and his team. Throwing a bottle or food, that’s not something we need.”
Later in that stage, after BMC reeled in the breakaway containing Jaramillo and Didier, BMC’s Damiano Caruso went into the daylong breakaway, sitting on his companions before attacking alone. With Cannondale-Garmin driving the chase, Caruso was caught with about 30 kilometers remaining, and Dennis went on to win the stage.
One domestic team director, who spoke on condition of anonymity, complained that BMC had been “greedy” by having Caruso sit on the breakaway.
“BMC has got a $30 million budget. They’ve got two stage wins, and first and second on GC, and then Caruso sits on the breakaway for 100 miles before attacking? Couldn’t they have just let the smaller teams fight it out for a stage win?”
Stewart said if Jaramillo had not attacked on Independence Pass, the initial breakaway would have gone to the line without BMC’s representation.
“We would have let that break go,” Stewart said. “We tried to, with that pee stop. That pee stop didn’t have Caruso in the breakaway. We would have let that go. It was gone. It was going to the line. It didn’t have anyone under 1:30 down. The guy who attacked us [Jaramillo] was 1:30 down. We didn’t ruin it for anyone. We protected our interest. We were letting the stage go away, and then a GC threat went up the road, and we had to chase it. Trust me, in the meeting, it was like, ‘Guys, let’s give this away.’ We don’t have interest in winning the stage. We have the jersey, let’s take it home. Caruso got into the next move out of defense, so that we wouldn’t have to chase it back. Because it had [Roman] Kreuziger, it had big names, and we had no one really looking to chase. And we had no one helping us, either.”
In his online column, Gaimon, a rider who has raced on both sides of the WorldTour/Continental divide, addressed both perspectives.
To the WorldTour riders, Gaimon wrote, “The rider that attacks the pee break is only doing it because he wasn’t strong enough to go when everyone else was attacking. He can’t make it across. He’ll fry in no man’s land for a while and come back before the feed zone, his jersey covered in salt. When he does, you should yell at him. He’s not attacking to disrespect you. He’s doing it so he can keep his job.”
And to the Continental riders, Gaimon wrote, “You know how you get annoyed when an amateur tries to take your wheel at a local race? To the WorldTour guys, you’re an amateur. If they gave you a chance to make the break, but you’re not fit enough be at the front, that’s your fault. Accept it. Don’t worm your way up when it’s gone… Sometimes, you might have to break the rules. Make sure it’s worth it. And expect to get yelled at.”
As for Alexandre, he said he’s directed teams in the U.S. for eight years without complaining about interactions with other teams, but felt that BMC’s actions on stage 4 crossed the line.
“For people who know me, and know our program, we’ve never had any issues, so I just feel like I have to say something,” he said. “I could stay quiet, and just forget it, but I just needed to speak up for my riders. Respect to the others is something that is very important to me, no matter if is the best rider in the race or an amateur. The idea with all this is to stop it from happening in the future. Everyone deserves respect. We got the support of several riders and teams. That was something very nice to my boys, as they didn’t do anything wrong. They were just trying to race. Whether it’s someone throwing a bottle or Panini, it’s the same for me in this case. It’s violence, and we don’t need it in cycling.”
Stewart said that he believes his riders understand where the line is drawn, and that as a former rider for the third-division Ofoto and Kodakgallery.com-Sierra Nevada teams, he’s cognizant of the struggles small domestic teams face.
“Yelling at someone is one thing,” he said. “I raced bikes, I got yelled at every friggin’ day. Even assaulted. And assaulted, that’s unacceptable. Throwing, crashing, pushing, that’s unacceptable. But words are just words. Yelling is going to happen, no matter what. These guys, they want to win. And they’re going to do everything they can to win. If they cross the line, they need to be reprimanded for it. I’m glad Sebastian called me. We don’t need to be doing things that are unacceptable. And honestly, I don’t think we did.
“But it’s like there’s this thing, where we’re the bad guy, because we’re the biggest,” Stewart said. “But we’re not always the biggest. At Utah, we couldn’t win a single stage. We’re in the bike race, just like everyone else. In America, we have to separate this from a big-team, little-team thing, and that we want to squash you. We’re all here in the same competition. They always seem to exaggerate it. I’m just getting tired of this bullying thing. I came from those teams. That’s the last thing I want to do, is to step on a small program that’s trying to develop riders.”
Unlike perhaps any other pro sport, professional cycling is rife with unwritten rules as 15-20 teams simultaneously battle one another for various objectives. With its fast pace, varying abilities and team budgets, and language barriers, it’s a perfect scenario for tension at 50kph. And while there’s much that is unclear, what is clear is that, in the pro peloton, there are at least two sides to every story, with unwritten rules being interpreted differently by varying parties as it suits their own interests. And that’s not likely to change.