A helping hand?

Romandie help

Mark Cavendish won in the Giro today but the post-race TV debate on the RAI coverage saw even Eddy Merckx get sucked into a debate over riders getting help to finish a climb. The TV show is called the Processo alla Tappa which translates several ways, including the “trial of the stage”.

As well as praise for the win, for a moment Mark Cavendish was in the dock following allegations he used help from a team car to get up Mount Etna in time to avoid the cut-off. Cavendish came in with a group 26 minutes down and then at 56 minutes, a long way back, came the Aussie sprint tandem of Robbie McEwen and Graeme Brown and they were duly eliminated from the race, finishing outside the cut-off.

The allegations come from Spanish sprinter Francesco Ventoso, via Twitter who said a whole group was clinging on to a car and then told Italian TV that Cavendish was holding on to a car, adding “he should have been disqualified“. To which Cavendish replied he was accompanied by a camera crew and a commissaire. I doubt his words were that carefully weight but that wasn’t a total denial.

The rules

2.3.030 Whatever the position of a rider in the race, he may receive such assistance only to the rear of his bunch and when stationary. The greasing of chains from a moving vehicle shall be forbidden.

That’s the UCI rule and there’s also another banning riders from pushing one and other. In short no rider can get a push from another vehicle. But that’s not to say it doesn’t happen. Indeed, it’s often tolerated and you’ve probably seen footage of a rider getting mechanical assistance from a moving car.

This can often mutate into more than mechanical aid, for example the clip above shows BMC Racing’s Manuel Quinziato getting a new front wheel, presumably after a puncture… only for the mechanic to start work on his back brake. Meanwhile the Italian is being hurtled back towards the bunch at speed. This is but one example and let’s not get too cross with Quinziato as everyone does it. I’m ambivalent, if you puncture then the tow just helps save some energy to get back on but the net result is a tired and stressed rider, they still pay a price for the puncture.

L-B-L help
Motorised doping

As you can see in the image above from Liège–Bastogne–Liège by Elvis Boudoin, riders are holding on to a motorbike. This is very different to a move to regain the bunch after a mechanical incident. Similarly riders cling to team cars for help in the mountains and some even ask for fans to given them a push.

I’m inclined to forget the Cavendish incident here since so many other riders do it, to single out one rider here is a bit unfair. In a visit to see the Tour de Romandie, Alpine blogger extraordinaire Will wrote:

“I really didn’t have any good race photos. However, it was fascinating to see just how many of the stragglers were “assisted” by cars as they tried to stay ahead of the broom wagon.”

Despite not having any good photos, the pic at the top of the page is by him, a great image of the so-called “sticky bidon”, where a rider pretends to get a water bottle but holds on to it. Sometimes this happens for a moment, sometimes it can last for minutes.

If it’s banned, remember the race convoy is very long. Riders can be many minutes down on the action and the commissaires are not spending much time policing every rider, they want to observe the breakaway and the bunch. So it’s common for riders and teams to try their luck. It’s wrong but many get away with it.

After the TV studio controversy I wanted to check the rules. Interestingly all moving help is forbidden and a mechanical incident requires a rider to stop. But this is never enforced. Once rules aren’t enforced it’s predictable that some will to pick and chose when it comes to other rules. Consequently a few riders and teams get fined for obvious “sticky bidons” in a race but not many eyes watching what’s happening at the back of the race so it’s long been a question of what some can get away with.

If Mark Cavendish is being mentioned by name today then I hope the informants citing his name to the media know a good glazier because their glass house is probably damaged this evening. This is widespread.

24 thoughts on “A helping hand?”

  1. Another fine piece and I tend to agree, ‘assistance’ happens in every race. Its a grey area that’s always been part of cycling. Commisaires clamping down will only sanitise the sport. This is one can of worms that Ventoso won’t be thanked by the peloton for opening.

  2. Ha, I believe I had photos of at least 7 riders towing that Romandie stage – and there were more than that And they were only a little ahead of the broom wagon. I believe Farrar (or another american?) had his number taken off (disqualified) by the broom just a few kms below this spot.

  3. Oops , to be clear, my point wasn’t too accuse Farrar of cheating. But to point out if they are going to disqualify riders then they can’t allow cheating just ahead of the broom.

  4. Its an unwritten rule that a rider who punctures can be ‘helped’ back to the group he was in.
    That mentality has been around for a long time – i’ve seen it in amateur or pro races.

    Where it gets ‘greyed’ is when whole groups of riders are towed or the car comes across in a waaier and shelters a whole group of riders who can then ride away from a break, or splitting bunch.
    Both of those instances occurred in top class events with commisaires amongst the team cars.

    Its naive to think it doesnt occur now – and i can think of one oustanding spectacular TdF stage win in after a crash, when the miracle of a sprinter recovering, getting back to the group, in less than 5km & winning the sprint, owed more to Skoda than panache.

    Cavendish was accused of something similar in the ToC a few years ago, which when questioned, Bob Stapleton allegedly said ‘Cipollini was practicaly in the f#cking car’ as a response to the accusation of his rider cheating.

    The over long ‘take a bidon’ or the ‘let me check the gears’ mechanic ruse / or the puncture. This one is a longstanding joke really….
    rider punctures – mechanic hops out, changes wheel, grabs old wheel, pushes rider, back in car..
    then the rider needs the wheel adjusting on a bike usually in excess of 5-6,000 euros, with full time mechanics, and well tuned bicycles, yet almost to a forumla, they always need further adjustment.

    Either the mechanics crap as are the bikes, or there’s something else going on…

  5. It’s not just Ventoso who blamed Cav’ fools attitudes, also Manuel Belletti (source Cicloweb) said it on his facebook :

    “Uno si fa il culo tutto il giorno per arrivare all’arrivo e poi gente come Ccavendish e non solo…altri “velocisti ” italiani! che erano a un’ora di distanza quasi rientra sul mio gruppetto attaccato all’ammiraglia e resta in corsa…. E magari vincono i prossimi arrivi in volata…. Vergognatevi !”

    He said that there was others sprinters doing the same.

    Here you could see it : https://www.facebook.com/#!/manuel.belletti/posts/1858418231906

  6. In addition to sticky bidons and magic spanners is the drafting of your own team car. In general the practice is to allow riders to come back through the caravan, as long as they are not motor paced up by their own team car. However the commassaires often overlook this subtlety, and allow riders to get back on sitting behind any caravan vehicle, even their own.

    However, blatantly hanging onto vehicles after being dropped is very different matter than extended assistance following a mechanical or dropping back to the team car for conversation/supply exchanges.

  7. Jez: thanks and it seems weird to single out Cav when it’s very common.

    Will: they all do it, Farrar shouldn’t mind.

    Flashing Pedals: thanks, I like the view from the inside there.

    Biarnes72: merci. I saw you on Twitter earlier that Pozzato accused Cav of the same in 2008. But isn’t the Giro famous for this?

    Mike: not it’s not a big deal. I think Cav would have finished in the time limit on Sunday, McEwen and Brown were both dropped very early on the first climb up Etna.

    Touriste-Routier: quite, it’s about what’s reasonable.

  8. In my eyes there is a big difference between the guys in lbl and this. The guys in LBL had no(no!) chance of winning the race. But a sprinter in a stage race(like cav today) can win stages afterwards and so take that win from somebody that climbed alone.
    Btw, I don’t remember the groupetto in the TDF ever doing this.

    And one more thing: if you allow this for sprinters in mountain stages; why then not for GC contenders on flat stages?? It just doesn’t make sense.

    This said, I understand your point. Even with technology you can’t see everything.
    But still, in my eyes he stole the win from a more complete rider!

  9. Besides the “sticky bidon” trick, how often do you see the leading moto have to race away from the acceleration of a winning attack? I don’t think it’s deliberate assistance, but it’s assistance nonetheless.

    There’s a similar phenomenon in the time trial. Surely you’ve noticed that it’s much harder to overtake a minute man, even on a long straight, than he is to catch.

  10. I have to side with LeBurger.
    I mean it seems to be accepted to receive some help after a mechanical and I can understand to some extend even if it is forbidden.
    I also can understand that some riders in one day races that are far behind cling to this help so they can get earlier to their post race recovery since that doesn’t influences the race in any way and the space in the broom wagon is limited. Also, I can understand when riders of smaller KT teams do it just to make it through so that not all have a DNF behind their name. But in a stage race, where a rider can make the time cut only with illegal assistance and then win on the next day, it should not be overlooked anymore.
    Although I understand the commissaires cannot be everywhere and generally have to be where the decisions happen.

    But what puzzles me most in this it is that quite a handful of riders spoke out against Cavendish. As far as I understand Ventoso and Cavendish aren’t really best friends, but what about all the other riders? Are they too engaged in some anti-cav movement or was what Cavendish did so much over the generally accepted norm in the peloton that they felt compelled to point him out?

  11. Check the strain on the Euskadi mechanic’s arm! That is one sticky biddon!!

    I reckon its actually poor form, especially for a rider gunning for the points jersey. The jersey’s only open to you if you finish the race, no matter how good a sprinter you are . If you get assistance getting over the climbs within the cut off, its as good as getting the Mavic neutral spares moped to lead out your sprint!

  12. This is a pretty interesting topic, so it’s good to see some open discussion on it. I just wanted to add that many sports have rules like this: a general prohibition on something that is very common in actuality. For example, in (American) football, if holding were called every time it actually happened there would be penalties almost every play. Same with hockey and interference. The issue there, as in cycling: what was the impact on the flow of the game/final result and was it simply a flagrant violation. So, yeah, it will be a judgment call each time, but there are some implicit standards.

    I have no idea how much assistance Cav got on the climb, but I am not entirely sure he would have made the cut. I haven’t seen it mentioned here, but I think he came in only 25 seconds before he would’ve been over.

  13. Still more controversy over Cavendish today, with Szmyd joking Cav’s time up Etna was faster than Contador! Like others I’m not sure why one rider gets singled out, it could be for a range of reasons.

  14. Why Cavendish gets singled out is the crux of the issue. He’ll say things like “they’re jealous” but that doesn’t really add up when the same thing doesn’t happen with other dominant riders.

  15. I was on the Zoncolan in ’07, many of the knackered domestiques and back markers were getting pushed up by spectators or holding onto bikes/cars, just seems more acceptable in the Giro than in the Tour. They were very thankful for it too.

  16. I dont really have very strong feelings one way or the other about this, but I find it interesting that here we have a case of a rider doing something that gives them an unfair advantage over others, but it is ok b/c it is widespread in the peloton.

    There is something else that gives riders an unfair advantage over others, and is also widespread in the peloton, yet we all collectively suck in our breaths and gasp in horror at that.

  17. James: they used the ‘flow of the game’ argument against tightening up rule enforcement in rugby union; now however you have a game where the referees are respected, the game still flows, but by and large the result is fair. Contrast to top level soccer and see the difference. Contador broke the rules and should be sanctioned. If you have a problem with anyone else’s behaviour – dob them in.

    (btw – I am working in Germany where there is little regard for pro cycling due to doping – this kind of flagrant cheating isnt going to help the sport in any way)

  18. In a way somewhat similar to Szmyd’s cynical remarks, I heard today that Cavendish arrived at the foot of Mt Etna 25 minutes after the leading riders. At the finish, the difference was 26.35.

    So he (and maybe other riders, too) were not so much faster than Contador, but they clearly did something they were not capable of under ‘normal’ circumstances.

    Personally I find it a shame. Of course, there’s always SOME cheating. But this is way beyond the ordinary. So the race commissaires are to blame here, I think.

  19. In Belgium, this was referred to as the “turbo bottle”. It was typically used to regain a place lost to a mechanical or a crash, I never really thought much about.

    Then again, this was amateur kermesse racing in the mid 90’s in Belgium, so rules were only relevant when you got caught out!

  20. The first year the Tour de Georgia went up Brasstown Bald many of the Euro teams only had 25 tooth cogs (way over-geared). I and my friends pushed lots of riders for reasonably long distance. Of course, we didn’t touch the leaders – Grajales, Horner, Armstrong, etc. – but the guys at the back were fair game. It was a hoot.

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