There are times when the professional peloton takes on the appearance of a class of tired pre-school children, ratty, irritable, quick to lash out at each other, but without a teacher present to keep the peace.

But if you were racing full-on in all weathers, day after day, cooped up in a hotel at the end of each stage, spending far too much time than is healthy reading what people think about you on internet forums, you’d be tetchy too.

Last year’s Tour de France was an ill-tempered affair, with a low level of squabbling and bickering persisting throughout the race, boiling over on occasions with displays of petulance on the road. There was the internal squabble at Astana, of course, with Lance Armstrong Twittering his displeasure at Alberto Contador. Then there was the day to Besançon when it all got ugly. George Hincapie was on his way to the yellow jersey before Garmin began to chase. Armstrong weighed in to say how terrible it was and the internet nearly exploded with anger and recriminations as fans debated the rights and wrongs.

Garmin’s decision to deny Hincapie a day in yellow may have looked mean-spirited, but it’s a race, a competition, and there are reputations and sponsorships at stake. Unedifying as it may seem, perhaps Garmin didn’t like the idea of another American team having another slice of the pie? No one is ever going to admit if that’s the case or not, but it’s a logical motivation, and it wouldn’t be the first time.

In the 1980s, two big Dutch teams – one run by Jan Raas, the other by Peter Post – were constantly at each other’s throats. It was once said that the only thing that made Post happier than seeing one of his riders win, was seeing one of Raas’s lose.

The only rational analysis is to accept that the job is to try to get the best result you can for your team on any given day. And if that means chasing down someone who Lance thinks is a great bloke, then so be it. If it means levelling a score from a previously hidden spat, then that’s fair game too, as long as you appreciate the consequences.

Because the peloton is a community on wheels. There is a society there, with a hierarchy and a code of conduct, both written and unwritten. The easiest rule to understand is that if you stitch someone up today, you’ll be sure to get turned over, if not tomorrow, then at some time in the future. Revenge is best served cold, and the history of the sport is littered with people who would be difficult to beat in an international long memory competition.

One of the best anecdotes concerning the sort of bitter, petty rivalries in the bunch may well be apocryphal, but it’s still a great one. A rider once told me that there was a Belgian on a kermesse team whose sole job was to chase down a particular rider on a rival squad that his directeur sportif hated. In cycling, making sure someone loses is a lot easier than winning yourself.

The Tour of Oman is a new race this season, extending the stay in the Middle East for another week. It is not the World Championships, but the way the controversy has spilled over following Wednesday’s fourth stage might mislead you to think this is a very big deal indeed.

Even the riders who were in the bunch are unable to agree on what actually happened, but according to whoever you believe, some, or all of these statements may be true. Or not.

1. Team Sky put the hammer down through the feed zone.

2. Team Sky then tried to use the wind and the road to split the bunch into echelons.

3. Cervélo and other teams got mad and went to the front.

4. Team Sky’s Edvald Boasson Hagen, the race leader, stopped for a wee with about 50 kilometres to go, just as Cervélo increased the pace.

5. Riders Twittered two points of view: That it was ‘just bike racing’ or that it was ‘not really on’.

Boasson Hagen missed the split and lost the leader’s jersey, just as he did in the Tour of Qatar, when Team Sky were criticised by other teams for not controlling the two-man break containing eventually winner Wouter Mol.

Greg Henderson, Boasson Hagen’s team-mate, used Twitter to say: “Feel sorry for Edvald BH and the rest of the Team Sky boys in Oman. Fuel for the fire, though. What goes around comes around.” Kurt-Asle Arvesen weighed in with: “Just talked to some of the guys in Oman. Shocking story from today’s stage!”

So, who was right, who was wrong? We’ll try to explain.

What are these ‘unwritten rules’ I keep hearing about?
Cycling has long observed several conventions that are not actually rules of the sport, but are seen as the right thing to do.

These include the following taboos.

You do not attack through the feed zone. It’s chaotic and dangerous enough grabbing a canvas bag full of lunch and water bottles without some idiot using it as an opportunity to get away.

You do not attack when the peloton stops for a comfort break. Usually the peloton will neutralise itself, slowing down and allowing those who want to take a whizz to do so. However, once the stage reaches its final third and the pace is on, you’re pretty much left to your own devices. If Boasson Hagen needed a wee with around 50 kilometres to go, as has been reported, he had two options, hold it, or go on the bike (as unpleasant as that sounds). You can’t expect the bunch to wait, even if you’re the leader, with less than an hour to race.

You do not attack the yellow jersey if he’s crashed or had a mechanical. Like the rule about attacking in the feed zone, this has been abused plenty of times, but it’s poor form. If the race leader suffers some misfortune, the bunch usually calms down and lets him get sorted out. Stopping voluntarily for a wee would not be seen as a misfortune, though.

Whose responsibility is it to chase a breakaway?
Team Sky were criticised by others for allowing a break in the Tour of Qatar to get too much of a lead, before trying to rope in help when it was starting to look dangerous. Who does the chasing is a tactical matter, not one of convention. Some teams would do well to remember that the race leader’s team is not obliged to defend that lead. Perhaps Team Sky didn’t want to slog on the front for three hours every day in February? Perhaps they had another tactical reason not to chase and if they did, that’s up to them. Nothing was stopping one of the other teams chasing if they wanted to bring it back together.

Team Sky – just like any team – are perfectly in their rights to race however they want. They will have their tactical plan and they will stick with it. There may be times when their racing is unconventional, who knows, but they are entitled to do what they want. It’s a long season and winning the Tour of Oman was probably not top of their list of priorities.

It was amusing during the Tour de France, to see Columbia get so irate when everyone sat back and let them do all the chase work in the heat on the first road stage. But ask yourself this: if you were a rival team, why would you help them to secure another victory? A weary Columbia lead-out train would play into the hands of others, so leaving them out there on their own was a legitimate tactic.

Do teams help each other out on the road?
Of course. Favours are lent and then called in. One good turn deserves another. It may suit one team to help another if they share a goal. The most common example of this is when teams with strong sprinters work to reel in a break.

Are Team Sky really unpopular?
They’re not everyone’s best friend in the bunch, it would seem. However much they would like to gloss over it, some of the things that happened during the winter did not go down well with other teams. Dave Brailsford may not have heard open dissent, but that isn’t the way the bunch operates. Instead, those who do bear a grudge, however minor, will make their point on the road. As anyone who’s raced will tell you, if you want to be successful, you do need friends because it’s a lot easier to ride against someone to make sure they lose than it is to win yourself.

People may brush small, insignificant points aside as irrelevant but it is these tiny and perceived slights that add up to create an impression. Garmin and Katusha may appear sanguine about Wiggins and Swift, but they were not the only team managers to express distaste at Sky’s tactics. Many may have been less than delighted to read Sean Yates hinting Team Sky may collaborate with Radio Shack at the Tour de France, for example. There could be a dozen minor motivations. And while it’s easy to dismiss as jealousy, there is an element of truth in that point of view. Team Sky has a lot of money and has marched into the upper reaches of the sport. It’s understandable others may want to take them down a peg or two.

What do all these arguments mean for the longer term?
In the final analysis, it’s just sport. It’s a competition and on any given day, there can be only one winner.

One unwelcome recent trend is this eagerness to distill what is a complex, fascinating sport, into two columns: winners and losers. The problem is that if you make cycling simply about winning, you’re going to be disappointed much more often than you are elated. The only other mainstream sport that’s like it in that respect is tournament golf, where 120 players battle over four days and only one can win. The other 119 are not dismissed as losers, there is honour and merit in the scrap. A birdie here, a great putt there, embellish the story.

Cycling should be assessed in the same way, not simply be reduced to a relentless round of point-scoring. If every Team Sky win, for example, is going to be hailed as ‘one in the eye for the critics’ and every defeat used to demonstrate they’ve ‘lost the plot’, it’s going to be an exhausting and not particularly enjoyable season.

Drama, controversy, excitement are all part of the game. Working out who’s collaborating with, or against, who and why is a great element of that enjoyment.

Let’s not see cycling reduced to a game of rock, paper, scissors on bikes. Because as we all know, no one wins rock, paper, scissors in the long term, it’s just a series of outcomes repeated over and over. Cycling has far more to offer than that and the debate and intrigue should be enjoyable, not niggly and unpleasant.

  • Mike Lucas

    Untill cav wins a major race and lives by the same code as Hushovd?
    What about Milan San Remo? Not a big race?
    And you think winning the green jersey by protesting after a stage finish is the right code?
    Not in my book. That is no way to act in defeat.

  • joscelin ryan

    Best article I have read in Cycling Weekly in a LONG time..

  • Mick Tarrant

    Extremely well written and considered piece. Chapeaux Lionel.

  • Woody Boonen

    Peter, quite the contrary. I’m glad there’s no Yanks on the Team because even one would make it Team USA! My point is that it will take some Stateside collaboration with Shack Attack before Team Sky pick up a gong of any kind cos evidently the Euro Teams dont like us! Call Cav a champion when he wins a Major Winner (sorry, more golf parlance) or he learns the same code that Hushovd lives by. Because he too has to learn to lose before becoming the Champion we know he is…like Team Sky, he’s not up there yet outwith the UK cycling media!

  • El Cid

    Enjoyable read – well done – thanks

  • Peter

    Woddy, ever heard of a guy called Mark Cavendish? Champions come from all nations and all walks of life. Sounds like you’re upset there’s no Americans on the team. That’s pretty short-sighted.

  • Woody Boonen

    Super article and at last a balanced look at winning and losing in the peloton in regard to Team Pie in the Sky. Bets are on that they win nothing of any note without an empathatic Yank! Love to see them win the British way but like golf (excellent comparison and indeed it was Jack Nicklaus who said that you lose more times than you win..(so get used to it!)) I dont see any Brit champs on the road for a very long time! And again, like golf, lets observe the code, or etiquette as we weekend hackers know it.

  • Tom Krause

    In the current climate it is nice to read a balanced article from a British publication. Top read!!!

  • Dan Bates

    I agree with John Devine on this one. Think Mr. Brailsford bit off a bit more than he can chew maybe? Maybe he now realises that the road is different to the track where he earned all “his” credentials. All the press hype surrounding the team presentation where Sky presented Dave Brailsford as the larger-than- life cycling manager makes him look rather silly now, no?? How is the aspiring “Sir” Dave going to work around this intrinsic road community issue?

  • mike finch

    Excellent writing, as ever, Mr Birnie. Cut yourself an extra slice of cake!

  • Ken Evans

    Paying for assistance also works.

    But it isn’t worth it for smaller races.

  • john devine

    Good article. Let us not forget that cycling is a very close community and perhaps or for certain David Brailsfords methods of doing business are not going down well in the community!

    Have no doubt his methods may work on the track but the road is a different matter. After all why di Halfords not stay with a UK Women’s team – after all they had the World and Olympic Champion in it?

    Why did Persil pull out of British Cycling?

    Maybe there is a lot we really do not know about?

  • mike wall

    this is a really first class piece of writing…congratulations!!!one of cycling weeklys better articles.

  • Robin

    Good article chaps.

    Mike Lucas – good points too. I always felt Ullrich was unfairly maligned in 2003 – it was one of those things and Jan didn’t exactly turn up the diesel full bore, more he carried on at his pace.

  • Cefn Kendall

    One of the great things about cycling is the camerarderie in the peleton which results from empathy and understanding of collective suffering. It would be a shame if large injections of cash from various quarters were to render this aspect redundant.

  • JonPorter

    Cracking piece Lionel (as ever)

    Now can we share this with the Sky News anchors please or atleast have someone sit them down and go through a Noddy and Big Ears explanation of road racing and its subtle nuances?

  • Fran Reyes

    Great article!!
    I think Team Sky hasn’t done well this whole pre-season. They look amazing for cycling fans, but other teams doesn’t think so because of their way to deal with them. Altough it’s normal in other sports, talk-and-grab with cyclists who are already part of other squads has never been done in cycling… also, being the best team for sprints causes obvious jealousy

  • Steve Boddy

    I agree with the previous comment, tremendous article

  • DanG

    A very well thought out and well written article. Brings a great deal of clarity to what goes on in the peloton. Should give newcomers to the sport a great deal of insight into tactics as well.

  • PaulG

    Great piece. The subtleties and intricacies of the tactics make this so much more fascinating a sport than most others. Sadly, I fear that this will be lost on those who are more used to their sport coming in sky sports soundbites. I really hope that Sky’s coverage is not going to drive a dumbing-down of cycling. This is NOT a shot at Team Sky. I wish them the best but will be shouting for Garmin when the chips are down.

    An exciting season is in store, and a little friction never hurt (well, unless you forgot your chamois cream)

  • Mike Lucas

    On the point of not attacking the Yellow Jersey/Leader.
    I still cant get my head around Armstrong complaining about Ullrich in the 03 Tour.
    They were on the last climb of the day. A mountain top finish. The peloton was nowhwere as the race was down to the favorites at the front. Everyone was on there maximum, flat out, trying to get to the top first. Armstrong gets too close to a spectator and goes down taking a Euskaltel rider with him. The others, quite rightly in my opinion as they were all close to the finish going for the win, maintain there pace.
    Hamilton gets stroppy and shouts that they have to wait.
    They were not attacking the Yellow. They were all at there maximim going for the win. Armstrong made a mistake by trying to cut the corner too fine and paid the price.
    He argued that he waited for Ullrich when he crashed in an earlier Tour. Two points about that one.
    Firstly they were half way through a long stage with at least two big climbs to come so attacking Ullrich then would have made no sense anyway.
    Secondly he did not wait ,he maintained his pace untill caught by Beloki and another rider and joined them. Sensible as its easier to ride in a bunch rather than alone.
    I fully suport the view that you dont attack the leader when he has a crash or a mechanical, but when the top guys are going for the finish at top speed it is not an issue.
    Would the rest of the peloton wait for the best sprinter if he crashed with 500mtrs to go? I dont think so.

  • Steve Penn

    Fantastic article