Vincenzo Nibali has been disqualified from the Vuelta after he was caught holding onto the Astana team car and the driver, Aleksandr Schefer, has been thrown of the race too.
President of the race jury Bruno Valčić said it was a hard decision to take but to have taken any other would have been harder. In a late night Facebook update (translation here) the Italian champion tried to rationalise it saying he wasn’t the first and won’t be the last to do this and he was only trying to make up for lost time. But he was caught twice over, first with irrefutable TV images and second because the attempt was so outrageously advantageous to him. There are times when you can bend the rules but this went too far.
Cycling has some grey areas where the rules say one thing and practice does another. If there’s a crash you can sometimes draft a team car and surf the convoy to get back, the idea is there’s some moral justification when you have crashed, you lost time waiting for a bike and perhaps you’re injured too. The commissaires may tolerate this – note the conditional – because none of this brings a free ride, it merely saves energy and thus reduces the cost of the crash, it mitigates rather than distorts the contest. However a line is crossed when a returning rider starts to use their team car for obvious, extended and exclusive advantage. Nibali’s taxi ride went too far:
- he wasn’t drafting but he was riding and therefore not completing the course under his own steam but instead relying on the team car to tow him
- the televisual evidence meant the public wanted the issue resolved especially as social media can relay the images in an instant and certainly before the race jury retires for the night
- getting ahead of all the other riders will only have angered those riders also delayed by the crash but without the temerity, or just the team car, to hitch a high speed ride back so he’ll have had little support from others who were dropped nor sympathy from the jury
Many riders get help from the team car but heavy sanctions are rare. In the 2014 Tour de France J-J Rojas was thrown off the race after he was dropped on the Tourmalet but used the Movistar team car to get towed back to the peloton, not so much correcting a mishap but actual cheating. A more subtle case came in Paris-Nice that year when several riders were caught in a crash including green jersey wearer Gianni Meersman. As some grouped to chase back Meersman found the OPQS team car and sat behind it like he was on a high speed motorpacing session. Meersman’s sin wasn’t to slipstream, it was the fact that he used this for his exclusive advantage and it was all on TV too so the commissaires had to act. He was docked time and points as a consequence. Nibali though didn’t draft, he was holding onto to a car, a higher level of cheating.
“Claude, do your job and give him a 20 second penalty. Otherwise he’ll be three minutes down.”
That’s Spanish team manager José-Miguel Echevarri who was confronted by UCI Commissaire Claude Deschaseaux in the 1990s for pacing Armand de la Cuevas back to the peloton, as explained in L’Equipe during July. In some cases the rules are so weak they incentivise cheating: a sticky bottle may bring a time penalty measured in seconds yet not doing it could cost minutes. The professional choice is obvious.
As well as inconsistent rules there’s the inconsistent application. Richie Porte got that time penalty in the Giro because it happened right in front of a commissaire but a few days before Gianni Meersman, him again, got a wheel from Team Sky only nobody saw it so it wasn’t punished. There will always be blindspots. What frustrates more is the connivance sometimes of the commissaires, take Paris-Roubaix where riders ignored the closed level crossing barriers only to see the officials invent rules on the spot. You can understand the need to keep a race flowing and there can’t be breaks in play like a football game but once officials start to interpret the rules they’re supposed to uphold then don’t be surprised if riders want to pick and choose too.
Nibali’s Facebook apology shouldn’t be parsed too keenly for every word as it was typed late at night when he was confused but the broad “other people get away with it sometimes” message isn’t helpful. It implies that because some get away with breaking the rules it’s unfair that he gets caught. Reductio ad absurdum imagine a murderer deploying this defence strategy. His team look bad too and if Shefer is thrown off the race it Giuseppe Martinelli was riding in the passenger seat and surely complicit.
Just as Nibali is annoyed, the frustration for outsiders is that cycling has many unwritten rules. Yet there’s nothing wrong with implicit codes and practices. Your household functions more efficiently without a 200 page rulebook. The problem with unwritten rules is not that they’re unwritten but that they change. Compile a rulebook for cycling and it would resemble a palimpsest as attitudes come and go from season to season and intepretations vary according to the scenario, a two second sticky bottle could be critical but another day maybe we overlook the 20 second tow? The how and why are hard to codify. Holding onto a car which then accelerates away from everyone else is visibly wrong and once video evidence emerges, especially if it appears within hours, means that a rider is going to be judged and punished.
You can bend the rules but not break them. This flexibility frustrates at times as some rules are more brittle than others. A sticky bottle is tolerated sometimes but holding onto a car is not so where do they draw the line? Well you tend to know it when you see it. Had Nibali merely opted to draft his team car, even at outrageous speed, he’d probably be starting the Vuelta’s stage today and facing no more than a few jokes and raised eyebrows. Instead he’s out of the race and the video of him and his team cheating is being shared around the world, turning a disappointing season into a humiliation. It’s all the more awkward for a rider fuelled by pride and who has tried to differentiate himself from the scandals in the Astana team by citing his own reputation. Facebook justifications only go so far, can the Tour of Lombardy save his season?