After discovering the UCI rulebook has little to say on descending a snowy mountain pass many have called for new rules to regulate racing in poor weather. It sounds sensible given the dangers and regular visits to the high mountains. But the more you look at it the harder it is to define a sensible rule.
That’s the most relevant part of the UCI rulebook. If we’re being picky note it says “in case of an accident or incident” which implies something has to happen before the race director can act. In other words it’s not enough to be cold or hot, there as to be an incident. But in practice the race can be stopped and restarted according to the weather conditions.
One reason why the rules are so vague is because the sport takes place in the great outdoors, half the point is to complete a course across a landscape and the weather is included. Otherwise we’d all watch track cycling.
Snow, sleet, slush
It’s hard to set rules on the weather. Take snow, it might be snowing but is it settling on the ground or more importantly is it settling on the road? And just as the Inuit people have many different words for snow the rulebook could have to specify snow against sleet but who in the race convoy is there to check the flakes? Plus these questions aren’t easy to answer, the race director could be accompanying the riders in the valley while high up it’s snowing on a mountain pass and a race could ride into a storm within seconds… and ride out of it quickly too. It’s warmer going uphill than downhill and so on.
Still, let’s take temperature as a means to explore the subject. We could set a minimum temperature for racing to protect riders from icy conditions but does this mean the UCI commissaires would need approved thermometers? But cold temperatures are about exposure, you can walk into a freezer but you should not linger. So the Celsius scale is arbitrary, it’s not the absolute temperature recorded but the duration and exposure. Dry cold is usually easier than wet cold and what makes cycling so tough is the windchill. In other words the temperature is only one thing, you’d have to model the scenario to account for rain, humidity, snow, temperature and how long this was experienced for. It’s ridiculous.
Describe an elephant
For fun imagine trying to describe what an elephant looks like. Most people would mention a trunk, the greyish hide, the tusks, big ears, four legs and so on. But normally you don’t need to define an elephant to know one when you see one. It’s the same with dangerous conditions in a race, you know them when you see it.
We might still want to see some rules but what could be drafted? Perhaps we could set an arbitrary temperature, for example no racing if it’s -5°C (23°F) or below? A nice idea but what happens if the thermometer briefly flickers at this temperature? Well then we say no racing for -5°C for more than X minutes, for example to allow the passage up and over a mountain pass. But any effort to get prescriptive with the rules would turn the commissaire’s car into a mobile weather station and add pages to the rules meaning every time a snowflake appeared the rulebook would be whipped out faster than a pair of thermal gloves.
Other sports do account for temperature. In triathlon the water temperature is measured at several points over the course a fixed depth one hour before the start. This is rigidly prescriptive but water temperature is stable, the readings before the event are likely to be near-identical when competitors go through. By contrast even if a bike race could measure the temperature at several points along the route an hour before it could be completely different especially as the weather can be so changeable in the mountains.
Indeed to use another example from the Giro, let’s look at the stage finish in Bari. You might remember the riders crashing just because they touched the brakes, the road was that slippery. Clearly there’s no way to measure this, it’s just a question of judgement.
Even if the UCI hired someone with Solomon’s wisdom to write such rules on dealing with adverse weather it pre-supposes the ability to enforce them. Right now very time it rains the UCI rulebook appears to have at least one page printed in water-soluble ink:
This rule is ignored by almost everyone… including the UCI itself which rarely fines teams for black rain gear.
The Stuff of Legend
Name a famous stage of the Giro? You might well cite the day Andy Hampsten rode over the Gavia to take the maglia rosa. Go back in time and Charly Gaul made Monte Bondone famous. Or what about Liège-Bastogne-Liège, many will cite Bernard Hinault’s 1980 win. The common factor? Appalling weather. Races today still rely on the “hard man” legends of the past, what Antonine Blondin called “the virile show of the the Tour de France… where you’re more injured than shaken”. Clearly there’s a balance to be struck between conquering the conditions and workplace safety.
The high mountains can define a race but it should be for the right reasons. The weather can change so quickly here that it seems impossible to draft rules to define the difference between acceptable and unacceptable conditions.
Several of the 2014 Giro’s polemiche were because of the weather. If it had been warm and sunny in Bari, Cassino and atop the Stelvio none of this would have happened. But that’s out of RCS’s control. Instead their error was confusion over race radio. It wasn’t the rules, it was translation and the chain of command.
Still after the incidents in the Giro we might like to see all races adopt a more certain position when faced with adverse weather but imagining what these rules might be is hard and writing them down in unambiguous terms harder still. That’s before we get to enforcing them given the obvious commercial tension that “the show must go on”.
For more thoughts on racing in hot weather, see January’s How Hot is Too Hot?