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Unofficial rules of the Tour de France matter most

Riders in the Tour de France are engaging in a battle of wits as they follow two sets of rules – the official rules and the other set of “unofficial” rules that come with any competitive sporting challenge…

There are rules, and then there are ‘rules’ for riders. EPA/Kim Ludbook

Riders in the Tour de France are engaging in a battle of wits as they follow two sets of rules – the official rules and the other set of “unofficial” rules that come with any competitive sporting challenge.

This other set of rules can occur in any sport and is described by Australian philosopher Fred D'Agostino as:

[an] unofficial system of conventions which determine how the official rules of the game will be applied in various concrete circumstances.

This means that while there are important rules in sport that define and regulate particular activities and competitions, they do not fully explain or determine how sport is actually played.

Basically, you don’t learn how to play sport by reading the official rule books. The full truth of how sporting competitions unfold is only revealed in the contest itself.

Seeing the unofficial rules in the Tour

The 2014 Tour de France is just a few stages old, and already we are seeing evidence of the official and unofficial rules of this great race – the Tour on paper versus the Tour on the road.

The first such moment came last Saturday when star sprinter Mark Cavendish crashed and badly injured himself metres from the finish of Stage 1 in Harrogate.

Footage of the incident shows Cavendish using his head to move Australia’s Simon Gerrans and secure a clear run to the finish line. Cavendish later apologised, admitting he caused the crash that brought him and Gerrans down.

The official UCI Discipline and Procedures rules specify penalties for irregular sprinting by riders. The Tour de France race regulations also say:

To ensure that sprints proceed according to regulations, riders who deviate from the line they have chosen will be subject to the penalties provided for in the table of penalties.

The crash between Australia’s Simon Gerrans (centre) and British rider Mark Cavendish (bottom L) during the sprint of the 1st stage of the Tour de France 2014. EPA?Yoan Valat

So, after viewing the crash video, it may come as a surprise to many that no official penalty for Cavendish’s seemingly reckless behaviour has been forthcoming.

As Gerrans’ post stage comments show, no rider enjoys being on the receiving end of a shunt that costs them a podium place (or worse). Gerrans was extremely diplomatic in his comments after the crash, when he had every right to be otherwise.

But, by the same token, rider protests and official complaints are rare in races such as the Tour.

Few penalties for crashes

And, while there are past examples of similar incidents in Tour de France sprint finishes that have resulted in official penalties (Mark Renshaw in 2010, Robbie McEwen in 2005), the riders doing the pushing and shoving mostly escape sanctions.

Australia’s most successful Tour de France sprinter, Robbie McEwen, was famous for his physical approach to sprinting, and is still lauded as one of our toughest ever road riders.

The Cavendish/Gerrans crash highlights the fine line that exists between the official rules and the unofficial (yet no less influential) racing etiquette of professional cycling in big races such as the Tour de France.

Being pushed off a wheel or a line in the final run to a stage finish is a common and accepted part of professional cycling. Chances are we will see it again before this year’s Tour is done.

The unofficial rules

If you look closely enough, a host of other unofficial rules and race etiquette becomes apparent every year in the Tour de France.

Some entertaining and informative descriptions of these can be found in past opinion and commentary, sports journalism and in cycling blogs. There have even been books written on the topic.

In the yellow jersey Vincenzo Nibali (centre) of Italy greets Mercel Sieberg (left) of Germany. EPA/Nicolas Bouvy

Some of these unofficial rules include:

  • don’t attack the yellow jersey (race leader) on the last stage, even if you’re only seconds behind in the general classification
  • don’t attack in the feed zone, or during a nature break
  • don’t attack the yellow jersey or other contenders if they crash or experience a mechanical incident
  • riders can draft behind the team cars or take a “sticky bottle” to get back to the main bunch (especially in the case of a mechanical incident or crash)
  • race leaders and the experienced riders in the peloton (main pack of riders) can call a neutralisation or go-slow if race conditions are dangerous

If you doubt these things happen in the peloton, then you only need watch this year’s race. Or consider some of the more famous incidents in professional cycling over the years, for example:

  • Criticism of Nairo Quintana after his attack during a neutralised stage of the 2014 Giro d’Italia
  • The reaction to Alberto Contador attacking Andy Schleck after his chain slipped during Stage 15 of the 2010 Tour de France
  • Jan Ullrich waiting after Lance Armstrong fell during Stage 15 of the 2003 Tour
  • Second place GC riders not attacking the yellow jersey on the final stage despite being mere seconds behind (e.g. Cadel Evans 23 seconds to Alberto Contador in 2007, and 58 seconds to Carlos Sastre in 2008).

Jan Ullrich waiting after Lance Armstrong fell in the 2003 Tour.

What is especially interesting is that many of the above unofficial rules are at odds with the written regulations that supposedly govern professional cycling.

Consider the following prohibited behaviours from the UCI discipline and procedures rules:

  • irregular sprint in a stage race
  • pushing off against car, motorcycle, rider
  • cheating, attempted cheating, collusion between riders of different teams
  • rider holding on to his team’s vehicle
  • sheltering behind or falling into the slipstream of a vehicle
  • follower leaning out or holding supplies out of vehicle
  • acts of violence among riders, or towards anyone else

Again, you will see all of these in this year’s Tour de France.

Why do these unofficial rules exist?

It may seem strange that a sport like cycling with its long history of cheating of all types (including drug use and doping), also has a strong ethos of honourable racing within the professional peloton.

Crowds cheer on a pack of riders in action during the Tour de France. EPA/Lim Ludbrook

It has been argued that the ethos exists because of the extreme demands and dangers of professional cycling.

[…] merely to survive, the riders had to evolve a way of existing together, competing without putting each other in danger, and without making daily life impossible.

These unofficial rules of professional cycling are therefore an important part of the culture and functioning of this sport. To some extent these are also replicated at its lower levels, even down to the amateur club grades.

Some have even argued that the unofficial norms of cycling can complement the official rules and add to the attractiveness of the contest - especially where official monitoring and sanctioning costs imposed on riders for transgressions are low, or applied inconsistently.

Indeed, so entrenched are some of the unofficial rules that they may be seen by many riders as more legitimate than the official rules (and have a bigger influence on race progression and outcomes).

The strength of these unofficial rules is likely due to the following factors:

  • they are made by, implicitly agreed, and explicitly practised by most riders
  • these rules allow the riders to govern and control key moments in the race, especially around risks and dangers
  • unofficial rules also provide a means by which a kind of natural justice or order of the peloton can be preserved from within
  • such rules and race etiquette can build social cohesion in the peloton

So, in the Tour de France each year it is possible to see the influence of unofficial race rules and etiquette on the practice and outcomes of professional cycling.

The irony is the unwritten rules of the Tour may matter more to the riders than the official regulations.

The danger is the cultural processes responsible for producing these examples of in-race etiquette may be the same mechanism by which behaviours such as doping and other extreme forms of cheating develop and become normalised.



More Tour de France coverage on The Conversation.