As much as I like the internet and Twitter, the ability to replay the final moments of a sprint – or another incident in a race – means debate rages for hours after the race. In fact, I don’t mind debate as this is often an exchange of views and you can learn things and sometimes change your mind.
No, it’s the online skirmishing, the sniping that gets to me. Last summer’s Tour de France saw “Chain-gate” as well as the Renshaw headbutt. More recently debate over Hushovd’s role in Paris-Roubaix raged long after the municipal staff swept up the Roubaix velodrome. It’s not so much the chat, it’s the way a certain move is seen because people prefer certain riders and thus certain behaviour is excused… or inexcusable.
At the risk of reheating yesterday’s mini controversy over the finishing sprint between Alessandro Petacchi and Mark Cavendish, here’s a wider look at the rules on sprinting.
First up, for such a dangerous and risky activity, there are very few rules on sprinting. Here’s the sole mention in the UCI book:
Riders shall be strictly forbidden to deviate from the lane they selected when launching into the sprint and, in so doing, endangering others.
That’s all you get. Note it’s a bit ambiguous too. What does “and” mean? Is it it that you are strictly forbidden from changing lanes… or forbidden from changing lanes if it endangers others?
The first rule of sprint club is that you not talk about the rulebook
But dangerous sprinting is a bit like an elephant: you don’t need a book to define it, rather you know what it looks like. A rider switching direction and forcing others to swerve is dangerous; the same is true when the lead rider cuts across others and makes them brake. An accident can happen but even if it doesn’t the rider can get punished.
By contrast a rider drifting across the road is more subtle. It seems that you can change lanes here so long as you do it over time. Rather than hopping from one side of the road, you lane doesn’t have to be straight. A diagonal charge to the line is often ok.
The next step
Big races have a jury of commissaires and they can review TV footage. If they think something untoward happened then they’ll revisit the result and can punish the dangerous rider if necessary, even throwing them out of the race. We saw this in the recent Tour of the Basque Country where Oscar Freire got demoted after a team mate gave him a push.
If the jury doesn’t act, a rider or someone from his team can protest the result and insist the jury reviews something.
Riders have their own rules
More often nobody’s citing the rulebook at the finish line, it’s more a matter of riding within the rules set by the sprinters themselves. Once a rider gets a reputation as dangerous they can find themselves shut out of the sprint. Others know a particular rider is not a wheel to be on and sprint trains try to shunt the riskier riders out of the way.
If it helps, I’ve got two tests to help rule on a contentious sprint. Before applying these, try to imagine the sprint gets recreated by CGI and the riders look identical, so you don’t tend to see the sprint through the eyes of a fan but more neutral. With this is place, first ask yourself was a move not dangerous but really dangerous. If so then a rider might get in trouble because a certain amount of danger is tolerated by the commissaires. The second test is whether the move was very obvious, whether it’s a hand-sling, a headbutt or a punch then this is very visible and likely to get punished. Here, it’s not so much what you do it’s whether you get caught doing it.
Sprinters are often lively types. You don’t hear it on TV but the sprint itself is lively with a lot of shouting, sometimes you can see the shoulder rubbing and more. Once over the finish line fast-twitch fibres aren’t just in the legs but tongues wag quickly and many can type fast too via twitter.
Given the intensity of the last kilometre it’s normal, it’s not like a climb where riders attack and don’t tend to get in the way. Take the same riders in a sprint finish and repeat 10 times and the result can vary, less so if you ran a race up the Mur de Huuy or the Zoncolan but the real variation is in the risk. Nobody crashes (ok, it can happen) uphill but a crash at 70km/h is scary at best.
It might be the riskiest and most dangerous aspect of a race but the rulebook doesn’t say very much. Like any vacuum, the group tends to make its unwritten rules. Here it’s sprinters who take the risks and who tend to assess who’s dangerous and who isn’t, although this is often selective at times.
It’s hard to write down what’s safe and what isn’t, it’s all about judgement and interpretation. If the rulebook is slim, it’s hard to write precisely about what’s ok and what isn’t. It’s more you know it when you see it.
Given it’s all so open to interpretation, it’s no wonder riders and fans let debate rage over the sprint long after the finish line scaffold has been dismantled.