The rules of sprinting

Cavendish vs Petacchi

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:

2.3.036 Sprints
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.

My rules
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.

Hot heads
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.

22 thoughts on “The rules of sprinting”

  1. There are enough decent cyclists – (past & present) who read this website to offer relevant opinions,
    but what i would add is that when the adrenalin is pumping, that split second mistake, or hesitation,
    at that level, loses races.
    Even the fastest finishers have messed up and lost races they should not have. That IS bike racing.
    Most carry those ‘memories’ to the end of their career -recall with detail, big sprints they have lost.

    Cavendish had his team ride for the finish, he made a mistake and lost.

  2. Personally it looked a lot worse live in the heat of the moment than it did on the replay. The moaning afterwards about how if that were him he’d be DQ’ed, perhaps true but moot, makes him look childish.

  3. The Sporza replay of the sprint highlighted there was contact and Ale clipped Cavs front wheel almost bringing him down.

  4. Looks like more fireworks for Stage 3: @MarkCavendish “My prediction for the final kilometers today……….fucking carnage”

  5. Nice piece, yet again. Accurate and relevant. However, you haven’t touched upon the fact that although the sprinters have unwritten rules about the way in which the finish should be ridden (see Mcewan’s tweet from yesterday), the rulings by the commisaires seem to be inconsistent. I’m not saying that they are particularly biased against Cav, but they are inconsistent.

  6. I didn’t want to make this Cav vs Petacchi.

    My view is that you just can’t win them all and it’s a telling point that Cavendish losing a sprint is almost a bigger story than Petacchi winning. It’s worth seeing how Petacchi won, he did it thanks to sneaky team work from Hondo and clever riding. See for an inside take on Petacchi.

    As FlashingPedals says one mistake and it can be game over. Watch out for today’s stage, the finish could be very lively.

  7. insanely sane stuff from inrng, as per usual: calm, dispassionate, thoughtful. I would suggest though that the rule vacuum you accurately describe is a significant, and inexplicable, problem. yes, adjudicating on these matters will always be extremely difficult (because the number of potential dodgy scenarios tends towards the infinite!), but commissaires should be equipped with rather more in terms of ‘hard and fast rules’ (in fact, that’s what they could be called). allowing the lunatics take over the asylum – that is, the sprinters themselves making up the rules (and on an ad hoc basis) – is asking for trouble, or at least frequent, deep satisfaction for fans.

  8. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think it’s Cav vs Pettachi, I just think that the rule vacuum allows race officials too much leeway which isn’t applied consistently. Anyway….v excited that we’re up to that time of year with race after race after exciting cycling moment etc and repeat!

  9. Derek: thanks. It’s hard to pen rules for such a fluid thing and as much as I think sport needs rules, we could end up with guys bickering for a long time, no?

    GreaseMonster: we’ll see. Some say he was “got at” yesterday as the tone changed but he might have just cooled down a bit. It wasn’t that much of a deal yesterday, I think he was frustrated to have a lost more than anything else.

    Matt: no, I quite agree, I didn’t mean my comment as a direct response to yours.

    Finally note the commissaire jury is usually made up of various senior international figures, it’s not a bunch a people from the finish town. I don’t know who is doing the Giro but at last year’s Tour it was a Dutchman heading the Jury.

  10. @Andy Raff and @GreaseMonster:
    Are you kidding me? Petacchi started his sprint to the right, then moves ALL the way to the left blocking Cav, then when Cav start to go round him on the right, Petacchi moves right again!

  11. I watched it twice, once live and once on replay, as I stated at first I was claiming foul. I do not think Petacchi was very sporting, but such pushing the boundries happens all the time he got away with it maybe not the next time. Hopefully yesterday fires up Cav enough for a win today.

  12. halcyonCorsair – you’re drifting toward hyperbole more than Petacchi drifted toward the barriers. Petacchi didn’t drift all the way to the left. quite the contrary – though he drifted left, he didn’t go to the barriers. he didn’t slam the door.

    *he made Cavendish THINK that he would* and that is why Renshaw referred to Petacchi as a very clever sprinter.

    Look at the sprint again but ignore Petacchi, and look at Cav’s lines, and the effect they have on Belleti. When a rider is in front, they get to pick their line, even if it makes the rider behind them have to guess which side they’ll be able to pass on. The heli shot makes it look like they were overlapping, but the heli was behind – Cav goes left-to-right-to-left behind Petacchi smoothly, which means that he was behind Petacchi. No

  13. I do think Cav has a point about consistency; he was penalised for allegedly baulking Hushovd in the Tour 2 years ago. Had the same standard been applied yesterday, Petacchi would have been disqualified.
    Some far more experienced and knowledgeable people, including Cavendish’s own tweets, have convinced me yesterday’s sprint was clever, not dangerous.
    Of course, now I’ve had my say we should forget it and get on with today!

  14. On these flat stages, there’s 200km of riding and 200m of racing are often decided by less than 200mm. You’re fighting for the smallest advantage; I’m surprised that mere head-butting is considered the scratch-and-claw side of competition.

    WRT the Hushovd incident: Cavendish absolutely blocked him, however well he played plausible deniability.

    Unlike Cav to Hushovd, Petacchi didn’t push the Manxman into the barriers. Ale-Jet did veer to the left, and when Cavendish adjusted and went over on the right, the Italian’s trajectory suddenly changed again. C’mon.

  15. Great post!
    Sprinting is a difficult subject, much more delicate than simply good or bad, black or white, dangerous or smart. Sprinting is mainly grey. Due to its tactical nature, a certain amount of swerving (as Petacchi did) should be allowed IMO. Endangering others should always be punished.
    Boxing in someone and riding someone into the barriers are two different things.

  16. @Broerie: and when the leader simply “boxes in” his challenger, what of riders in similar position on third/fourth/fifth wheel between them and the barriers?

    Holding a line doesn’t literally mean riding parallel to the barriers, but it does mean riding in a predictable direction. Petacchi’s “line” was rather V-shaped, conveniently finding its way right in front of Cavendish.

  17. Closing the door on another sprinter is a time-honored element of racing, which if done properly is frustrating but not dangerous, and if done poorly is potentially very dangerous indeed. As with all things of this nature, there is not a bright line between closing the door and dangerous sprinting. So officials at different races are never going to read things the same way, and they will come to different conclusions about borderline cases. So yes, there is definitely inconsistency, which Cav no doubt finds very frustrating, but this is not an element of the sport that can be judged by a stopwatch or camera. He may be right that if it were him he would be disqualified, but why? He’s had two high-profile relegations, in the 2009 Tour and in the 2010 Tour de Suisse. So those establish that he has been relegated before, but that he would have been relegated where Petacchi was not? That’s hard to establish and comes across as rather petulant. But nothing new, Cavendish has always had sort of a “me against the world” kind of attitude.

  18. If you want to see why Petacchi won the sprint watch all of the final 3k…Hondo kept him in the front of the field without taking a pull unti 450m to go, Petacchi then had the presence of mind to slot in behind Cav, launch ~1.5 seconds earlier and carry that speed forward over Renshaw…he was wheels clear when he crossed over and Cav even started to go to the right and then changed direction – of his own volition – to try and come back by on the left….sorry Cav, you just got beat by a craftier sprinter!

Comments are closed.