Cycling. A sport which has, recent events suggest, more shades of grey than Dulux. But what exactly are these grey areas we keep hearing about?
Clearly, at one end of the grey spectrum, there is the glorious white uplands of obeying all the rules, in full, and all the time. At the other, the black valley of oversocks that are 10mm too long.
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But in between? The problem is that one rider’s grey area is another rider’s marginal gain.
And the reactions from the rest of us are similarly divided. For everyone who read the DCMS report concerning Team Sky last week and was appalled, there were just as many who simply felt that it wasn’t strictly against the letter of the rules, so we should all move on.
The DCMS report introduced the concept of ethics to the whole show. It suggested that Team Sky had crossed an ethical line. Up till now, the only role ethics has played in professional cycling is as the home county of Alex Dowthett. But we should always be open to new ideas, so let’s take a look at this ‘ethics’ thing.
It’s simply about telling right from wrong. I tend to work out this sort of thing by imagining my mum watching me. In an ideal world, the rules of a sport and the ethics of a sport are the same.
You’re required to do what you ought to do, and even then it doesn’t really matter because you wouldn’t dream of doing anything else anyway.
If this sort of code of honour sounds familiar, you’re clearly reading the wrong magazine. One of cycling’s problems in this area is that unlike many other sports it never had a golden age of Corinthian amateurism. Cycling has always been a bar fight conducted by other means.
For instance, Corinthian Casuals football team used to miss penalties on purpose, on the basis that no gentleman would have deliberately fouled an opponent. In the same era that the Casuals were doing this, many of the riders in the second-ever Tour de France were doing much of the race by train, and were jolly put-out when the organisers raised objections.
Almost everyone is complicit. Never mind grey areas, most of the sport looks the other way when we all thunder into the black.
At Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne the other week half the peloton dived off the cobbled road and onto the bike path, in violation of the rules, and the commissaires’ reaction was, “Well, we can’t disqualify all of them, can we?”
I’d have said you could, but in a strange way it would go against the ethics of the sport, which has always striven to avoid disciplining anyone if doing so would be unpopular with the audience and sponsors. (Except in the case of Peter Sagan at last year’s Tour de France, obviously, where they overcompensated somewhat.)
The thing is that the ethics and the rules of cycling are often miles apart. Rules about maximum frame dimensions are enforced with a pedantic zeal, despite the fact that no one sane really cares.
Rules about the granting of exemptions to use drugs with performance-enhancing side-effects seem to have an alarming amount of slack, despite cycling sometimes seeming more like a pharmaceutical field trial than an actual sport.
There may have been a time when doping that was far beyond the rules was so prevalent in cycling that any attempt to tidy up the therapeutic use exemption system was going to come under the heading of rearranging the Titanic’s deckchairs.
But it’s now too far out of kilter with what everyone concerned with cycling — or any other sport — wants.
Recently, UCI president David Lappartient suggested that Team Sky had cheated without breaking the rules. As any lawyer will be quick to tell you, that means the rules are wrong.