Dr Hutch: Why you don’t need rules for bike racing

You don't need a rule book for a cycle race, says Dr Hutch — real cyclists just know these things

As I’m sure you know, I always enjoy the work of cycling’s commissaires. This enthusiasm meant that the recent 40km team time trial at the Volta a Catalunya was packed with even more joy than I would normally have expected from a 50-minute TT.

The stage itself was, of course, just a preamble. The main event was the scattergun response to a few illicit pushes between Movistar riders within the race, which prompted the commissaires to change their minds fully three times about who the race leader ought to be. They managed to avoid having all three men turn up on the start line the next morning in matching leader’s jerseys, but that might have been luck.

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Most of us in cycling have come to barely notice this sort of thing. When the Olympic keirin final from Rio was at its chaotic height (disqualifications, reinstatements, multiple restarts) the general media got rather hysterical.

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“The News at Ten will follow the cycling,” said Clare Balding repeatedly, as the News at Ten gradually became the News at Half-Eleven. But cycling fans were opening another beer and settling in for long-lens coverage of perplexed looking commissaires.

Fuzzy logic
The truth is that, unlike some other sports (cricket, golf, sailing) cycling has always had a rather fuzzy relationship with its own rules. Sometimes they are ignored. Sometimes they are enforced with a pedantic zeal that would do credit to a German tax inspector.

Sometimes they are invented altogether. There is a restriction on the maximum size of gear a junior road racer can use. Many local events are open to both senior and junior riders; when I started racing the gear restriction was applied to everyone in such a race irrespective of age. This second bit of the rule appeared nowhere in any book. God knows where it came from. But it was diligently enforced for years, perhaps decades.

In legal theory there is a ‘bad man’ theory of law. If you want to know what the practical criminal law is, you don’t ask a lawyer or a legislator, you ask a criminal. Your common-or-garden crim knows what rules he or she can break with impunity, and equally knows what ‘rules’ to ‘obey’ even if they’re not on the statute book. If you want to know the rules of cycling, ask a rider.

Take the classic ‘sticky bottle’ tow from the team car for example. It’s clearly against the rules. But, well, you know… it’s traditional. You can’t stop someone doing it now, because they’ve all been doing it for so long. So riders know that you can get away with it up to a point, and they also know that where that point is depends on the distance to the nearest TV camera.

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Same with those ‘magic spanner’ mechanicals that people always have with their spare bike, the problems which can only be fixed while you hang onto the team car and the DS drives back up to the bunch at 60kph. (I imagine this is a safety measure, required because high-performance magic spanners presumably need a cooling breeze.)

If the officials do enforce a rule rigidly, everyone is rather surprised and often a bit affronted. Romain Bardet got disqualified from this year’s Paris-Nice for a very magical spanner, and while he didn’t argue about it, fans everywhere debated whether the commissaires should have enforced the rule or not, as they did with Movistar’s TTT.

I think most of us rather like this. There is an insider’s pleasure to knowing that the rules are only the starting point for negotiations, and that just because the race is over doesn’t mean the excitement is finished.

The Volta a Catalunya had had six leaders in three days. And if that’s not value for money, I don’t know what is.