Race fixing

Contador and Tiralongo

The sport of cricket has two international players jailed after a trial in Britain. The case is about match fixing, in particular the players conspired to bowl the ball wide in return for money and that these actions would allow a gambling syndicate to bet on the outcome of these mid-game incidents. Rightly so this is a scandal.

But I can’t help contrast match fixing in many sports with professional cycling, where attitudes are very different. Put simply riders sometimes conspire to fix the results of a race. But this is different.

Let’s take a recent and obvious example but there are others. On Stage 19 of the Giro d’Italia Paolo Tiralongo (Astana) was alone at the front of the race, having attacked with 5.5km to go on the final climb. But the others were closing in fast, in particular Contador. Here’s the video:

As you can see, Contador has words with Tiralongo and then the Spaniard takes a long pull and is “outsprinted” by Tiralongo. In fact Contador was team mates with Tiralongo the previous year and with six kilometres to go he told Tiralongo to attack and then helped him win. Many acknowledged the gift, headlines said this aloud. In cycling this was seen as a great thing, a moment of noblesse oblige with a rider rewarding an old team mate, with Contador sharing the spoils of the race after he’d taken so many stages already.

But hold up. Is this not two athletes conspiring to fix the outcome of a race? Isn’t this illegal?

We can review two things. First the hard rules and their black and white text and then softer subject of culture and tradition of the sport.

1.2.081 Riders shall sportingly defend their own chances. Any collusion or behaviour likely to falsify or go against the interests of the competition shall be forbidden.

The wording is confusing. Is it meant to say “any collusion…. shall be forbidden” or does it mean “any collusion… that goes against the interests of the competition shall be forbidden”? The rules on gambling are clearer and stricter:

1.2.030 Anyone subject to the UCI regulations may not be involved directly or indirectly in the organisation of bets on cycling competitions, under penalty of a suspension of between 8 days and one year and/or a fine of CHF 2,000 to 200,000.

Now for the softer side. Collusion is essence of bicycle racing. When two riders escape they share the pace and even if they are rivals they co-operate and conspire to escape the peloton’s grasp. This is what makes cycling so intriguing, the contradiction where rivals form a temporary alliance to beat others. Chess on wheels, spandex diplomacy, call it what you want. It is all about collusion, no?

You can take this further. Take a stage race where a tiny climber and a larger GC rider are in the lead on the final climb of a mountain stage. The climber might try to jump away but knows if he’s caught and it comes down to a sprint then he’s not going to win; the GC rider is keen to put time into rivals further down the mountain. So the lead duo make a pact where the climber gets the stage so long as he rides steady and the GC rider takes the overall lead. Both stand to gain from this alliance.

But does everyone win? With the rise of gambling, some might be watching the sport and dropping money on the outcome and if riders are fixing the result with 10km to go then is then I can’t help wonder if the police or a judge would understand the rider’s pact in the same way as we might.

There is plenty more to this subject. I’m only looking at the most innocent and obvious examples. Money can change hands, team directors can phone rival team cars for help. Results can be bought and sold. Jobs are even offered. Some of this crosses an ethical and sporting line. For the sake of brevity, I won’t lift this stone right now, preferring to stick to obvious gifts and pacts.

Cricket players are going to jail for conspiring to fix events in a match. Riders openly collude in a bike races. I wanted to explore the issue of what is scandalous on one sport but tactical in other.

The differences are stark. The cricketers took money in a pre-planned conspiracy, cycling is about circumstantial alliances forged during a race and often in the closing moments. Find riders fixing a race before they’ve clipped into the pedals for the day and you can ban them, even jail them. Instead it is only once, say, two riders have made it to the final climb of the day and have a margin big enough to discuss the finish that any deal-making can occur. It is near-impossible to try and fix a race result prior to the physical selection.

I gather sumo wrestlers can conspire to lose. In Formula 1 a driver can ease up to let a team mate win. But few other sports see collusion so essential to the result. Perhaps this is why gifting wins in cycling is tolerated and at times celebrated when it could cause outrage if, say, a football team let a rival win?

The practice of allowing others to win is more an act of generosity more than a conspiracy and more akin to an emperor handing out favours rather than skewing the result of a race;  a rider has to be in command to make the gift. I can see legitimate frustrations if someone placed a bet for a rider to win a mountain stage only to see him sit up and let a lesser rider sneak the win; but then again the practice is known and should form part of the predictive homework, one of the what-if scenarios a shrewd gambler considers. And besides, the sensitivities (and wallets) of those gambling are secondary to sport.

The practice of awarding wins and making deals is part of cycling’s tactical sophistication. It is part of what makes a six hour race compelling to watch and nobody is throwing away wins in the classics or the overall stage race. These practices are far removed from criminal conspiracy and corruption. Finally remember the vast majority of races are fierce competitions and most days the best rider wins thanks to their fitness and tactical abilities.

34 thoughts on “Race fixing”

  1. If a gambler is allowed to place bets after the race has started and after a break has formed, then the book keeper is expected to adjust the odds to match the current situation in the race. Gambling is a game about information. When information is increased, odds are adjusted.

    Problems occur when important information (injuries, result fixing, etc) is limited to a small group of people who are involved in gambling.

  2. I think it’s usual buy teams to help your work during a stage race. Sometimes to control the peloton for a leader jersey. Looks more with cricket than Contador example.

  3. This kind of collusion is rampant in top level chess tournaments in much the same manner. While authorities have tried to clamp down on pre-arranged draws, players very frequently indicate that they would prefer not to expend much mental energy in one round in order to preserve strength for subsequent rounds. The players then play a very quick, short draw and rest for the next round. There are some similarities to a stage race in this sense. There are famous instances of this during the Soviet era—working together to rest against one another while making sure some opponents had to struggle in every round—but it still exists. The bigger tragedy here is that any sporting element is negated in the chess instance. (Before the jokes begin, chess requires considerable nervous energy, but I don’t mean to pretend it’s quite the same thing—just mutual consent or collusion.

  4. The point is that things were arranged with a view to being able to bet on supposedly unkown/random events. Anyone who knows anything about cycling knows the sort of deals described take place, and take the risk accordingly when gambling.

    The equivalent in cycling would be for all the riders before a race to decide a rider – who otherwise could never be expected to – was going to cross a sprint point/KOM prize line first, with certain people knowing this was arranged in advance and betting accordingly.

  5. There’s an important difference in the fact that a Stage Race is unlike most other sporting events, and unlike a one-day race – as you well know.

    I couldn’t think of the notion of ‘gifting’ a rival a win without thinking of situations in other sports where you provide your opponent advantages that are really for your sake. In baseball, you can walk an opponent to put them on to base, but it’s not seen as colluding with your opponent against the interest of competition by offering them an advantage – it’s for the sake of the overall strategic milleau.

  6. Interesting as always. I would draw paralells with two level games assuming the peloton is the domestic and the GC potentials are the international.

    On a simpler note – as a fan I think we recognise that there are many races in a stage races. For contador, the victory is the time gained – for Tiralongo the stage is everythiing. In situations like this it is not sporting for contador not to snaffle the stage given he has been protected compared to the breakaway rider.

    Its a little like running out a batsman for backing up too far out of their crease technically correct but just not the done thing.

  7. One instance in cycling that definitely goes one step further can be found in the well-know post-Tour crits, where the winner is usually fixed. for some reason, it is always the big Tour star, who has been contracted for a large sum of money.

    Sometimes there have been overzealous local youngsters wanting to do their sporting duty, but in post-Tour crits theyré simply not allowed to do that. they are taught accordingly, by their older colleagues, the soft way or the hard way.

  8. All interesting points and a common point it’s all about the degree of things. A great example was the Vuelta when Frenchman Laurent Jalabert caught Bert Dietz, the German had been away all day on a mountain stage but Jalabert let him have the win. Dietz had worked hard all day and was close to coming up empty and Jalabert didn’t need another stage win; if anything it made him more popular and gave him additional popularity. “The public” have long appreciated the “moral winner” and that’s a subject for another day.

    Leandro: oh yes, there is plenty but I wanted to contrast the open forms of collusion and fixing the results of a stage or minor one day race.

    As for post-Tour criteriums, yes these are exhibition events and usually the organiser picks the 1-2-3 instead of riders fixing things. Once upon a time a local kid tried to mess with the pros and they struggled to chase him down. His name was Bernard Hinault.

  9. Great piece as always but just to be a pedant there were three cricketers jailed. Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir (along with their agent Mazhar Majeed). This was BIG news in the UK last week, so much so I can remember their names off the top of my head.

  10. Every day hundreds of domestiques sacrifice their own chances of victory for the good of their team. Contador may have ‘gifted’ Tiralongo the win but he earned the right to that gift and it would be a sad day for cycling where others to be denied. Mark Renshaw would be another who has benefitted from this practice.
    Given that the UCI points system now effectively prejudices not just a domestiques chances of victory but also their career it’s even more important that they should have some opportunity for glory.

  11. As others have mentioned, the Contador/Tiralongo example is not one that ” goes against the interests of the competition” – it’s simply that the two riders are each in a different competition, one for the stage win, the other for the GC win. As the article notes, there is no such collusion in one-day races because every rider is competing for the same outcome.

    What seems to me to be anti-competitive and collusional are the races like ToC and Tour de Quiznos, where it appears from the start that the peloton know that it’s in cycling’s best interest for Americans to be at or near the top. I doubt there is anything explicit, but it’s really hard to believe your eyes when Andy Schleck gets badly dropped on a moderate climb by Chris Horner and Levi L. or Cadel Evans looses a time trial by several minutes. I believe there are comparables in smaller, regional European races as well.

  12. The removal of bonus seconds in the Tour, or in the case of the Giro the fact that AC was up by minutes seem to encourage these ‘sporting’ gestures.
    In the Australian Football League teams throw inconsequential games at the end of the season for bonus draft picks, despite it obviously being illegal several matches in recent seasons are seen as being thrown. They give picks based on final ladder position with an additional ‘first round’ priority pick for teams finishing with less than 5 wins for the season (normally 22 matches). There has also been several documented cases of betting plunges on ‘first goal kicker’ with players who are normally defenders, starting further forward.
    Regarding the Pakistani cricketers, they haven’t yet properly investigated the ‘miracle’ win by Australia in Sydney 2 years ago where the captain and wicketkeeper (amongst others, but those were the most blatant) appeared to be trying to lose, the three jailed players were also in the side. TheAge newspaper published a good article on that match last week, which was initially withheld at the time due to legal advice.
    Corruption in cricket in the 90s was largely blamed on the rise of inconsequential matches as money spinners, such as a long one-day match series played at the end of a long international tour. Several Australians were offered $10,000+ USD while playing in Pakistan to perform badly, and the South African captain admitted to throwing matches and was banned for life.
    Inconsequential mathces/races and exotic bets such as the Pakistani fast bowlers deliberately bowling No Balls, seem to encourage fixing. No chance of a cricket world cup or Aus v Eng test match being thrown, just like a spring classic or grand tour.

  13. Every now and then we see in pro cycling a surprising result that does not make sense. Some of these results are real and the result of exceptional form, good timing, lots of luck, and the element of surprise. Some of these results are there because of doping (think Schumacher winning Tour time trials over Cancellara). And sometimes those results may be the result of deals.

    One such example of a suspicious result that has stuck in my mind for years was Yaroslav Popovych winning stage 12 in the 2006 TdF. This was Discovery’s first Tour without LA and they were struggling to get a significant result under heavy media attention. Popo was in a break with Freire, Ballan, and Le Mevel. Somehow in the last 5 km he just manages to ride away and Freire does not respond. Strange no? Freire was obviously the fastest of the 4, and he was chasing points in the green jersey classification. I have always thought there was some money changing hands between Bruyneel and Breukink on that day.

  14. During the 2011 Tour du Haut-Var, stage 2, Thomas Voekler, having attacked with a few kms left was joined by Julien Antommarchi, a neo-pro with La Pomme Marseille. They took turns pulling and gained enough time on the rest of the field so that Voekler, knowing he had won the overall classification, waved to the youngster, shook his hand and followed him across the finish line. The then Champion of France was hailed as a “Grand Seigneur”, got more accolades from the French media than if he had contested the sprint and probably won. The commentators were positively gushing.
    Alberto Contador and Thomas Voekler have something that I find lacking in Wiggins and Evans: PANACHE!

  15. We have some examples of riders gifting a win to a rival. What about when rivals conspire to deny a rider a win? Remember the George Hincapie vs. Garmin controversey in the stage 14 2009 TDF. Or was this an example of “collusion in the interests of competition”?

  16. Interesting points, inrng. Makes on think about what’s acceptable and what’s criminal (cricket, soccer, olympic host cities, etc.)

    That particular gift by Contador marked the moment when I began to like him. He’s gotten a lot of unfriendly coverage b/c of the Lance issue, but he sure looks to be a guy who is sincere and a seriously classy rider. He’s gifted a number of stages to others, and he’s clearly working for Tiralongo in the finish of this one. The boys at RKP had some favorable comments as well, after meeting him.

    Watch for increased coverage of the guy, as he’s now doing interviews in English.

  17. I have been on teams and worked for teams where deals are made in the morning by a phone call to the hotel room between 2nd and 3rd overall and sometimes 4th to help shape the podium or get the stage victory. This never seemed strange or illegal until now.

  18. @Jim – the Hincapie example you cite was greatly blown out by the American media trying to make a bigger story. My take on that day was that Hincapie was too greedy, he was trying to take the maillot jaune AND get the stage win. In the finale, he did not completely sell himself out riding on the front of the group in the interest of getting time, he rode tactically to try to win the stage. If he really wanted the jersey he should have buried himself to get it, instead he gambled and lost on both fronts.

  19. An agreement between riders in a break is ok – it’s all part of the game – but I have issues with a DS phoning another DS to ‘arrange’ things. It can end up that the winner is the one with the most friends ranther than the best legs or tactics.

    It’s really frustrating to see a rider who has done every thing right, whose team has isolated the main competition, only to be pulled back by a third team who is obviously not riding for themselves.

  20. Frogboy

    In defence of Cadel Evans you will usually finds him grafting for his team mates in early/late season one day races, I don’t recall Contador even riding many let alone working for his team mates. Voekler of course is the supreme opportunist and generally looks for his own cahnces.

  21. re: Haut Var, if you watch the full 15 mins it seems to me like that young gun looks way smoother than Tommy V, who appears all tired out – I think Antommarchi would’ve taken him in the sprint anyway.

  22. What about Levi and Discovery Channel working together during US Pro RR because he was leaving Gerolsteiner. Does any other sport have athletes leave their team mid season yet finish the season with their former team?

  23. Good topic. Any sport that directly involves humans and money results in cheating. Always has, always will. The TDF has a long history of this.

    The really sad thing is when the gamblers/gambling money dominates the sport as per South Asian cricket (and who knows, maybe Aussie cricket as well?) with vast sums searching for new ways to make more money. Surely this is unlikely to happen routinely in road racing with large peletons, it being prohibitive and potentially counterproductive to bribe everyone? So the answer is keep the gambling low key and the problems will remain low-key also.

    I, for one, like the instances where “in the spirit of the sport” a rider will clearly gift a win to another. When it is less than transparent – not so much. I detest the team directors colluding.

    What is worse than gambling-affected sport is often the complete mess created by ‘well -meaning’ administrators in their pious attempts to “clean-up the sport”. A good example is the random, draconian bullshit that Major League Baseball dished out to the 1919 Chicago ‘Black Sox’ and baseball ever since. The ordinary player suffered, the gamblers and team owners prospered. (And one of the demonstrably greatest players ever, an innocent, “Shoeless” Joe Jackson never played MLB again. The UCI, and indeed all sports administrators, when caught in the glare of the headlights, often persecute the weakest, sadly the individual sportsmen/women.

  24. inrng – on this (rare 🙂 occasion I think your analogy is seriously flawed. If Bertie had had the discussion with Tiralongo and then called his DS and got him to put 1000 euro down with his bookie on Tiralongo winning the sprint, then there might be some comparison.
    Also – the cricket example was not match-fixing, it was spot-fixing. I don’t think anyone is claiming it had any real significance in determining the outcome of match. Three no-balls over the course of 4 or 5 days’ play would have about as much effect on the result of the match as a Saxobank domestique taking an extra 30second pull affecting Evans’ chances vs Schleck’s in the GC. On the other hand, it made a significant difference in a small section of the betting market, which was why it was done. Bertie’s ‘gift’ had no impact on the result of the ‘match’ he was in (ie.for GC).
    Collusion is at the heart of cycling, and that’s not a bad thing. Betting on spot-markets (with the cyclists getting involved) is a very different thing, and could be very corrosive to the sport.

  25. diamondjin is right. The equivalent of the cricket case would be if bookmakers paid a certain cyclist to be at the head of the peloton at some inconsequential point on a stage (which was not an intermediate sprint or anything). Though, this would not affect the race, it is bad for the sport as the actions of any rider would then seem suspect, and people would be put off the sport.
    The Contador incident was strategic, though Contador would have had to justify not taking the prize money to his teammates.

  26. Diamond Jim / Kartik: quite right. Maybe I didn’t phrase it right but yes there’s a big difference between this incident in cricket and tactics in cycling. But you have rivals colluding, gifting wins and more and I wanted to explore how much of this is a fix. Like I say, it’s what makes cycling interesting as a good move can include letting a rival win, a level of tactical sophistication most sports don’t have.

  27. I don’t care much if Contador lets Tiralongo win in a sporting gesture. I doubt any money was bet/won on that result. What I question is the payoff deals like the Giro when Paolo Savoldelli won over Gilberto Simoni. There were some questions as to riders not on the Discovery team being paid afterwards for helping Il Falco close the gap to Simoni on the Colle Finestre stage. Those kinds of things should be discouraged, but when the corruption in the sport goes all the way to the top – I’m not holding my breath. In any case the doping scandals are much more destructive – when you don’t know who really won the 2010 TdF in November of 2011, can you blame any less-than-rabid cycling fan for not caring anymore?

  28. I think that gambling on sport can only work when the rewards for victory/what you are betting on are greater than the rewards of the gamble. Either you bet on the GT victories or big one day races or nothing as the rest is likely to be “manipulated” anyway and fans of the sport know this. Spot betting on inconsequential things (first throw in time, number of corners, time of first free kick etc) is stupid – stupid for people betting and for people laying the bets as it is all controllable in a context separate from the actual (important) result. Like was said – the 3 no balls are unlikely to change the outcome of the match so it is easy to manipulate. The idiots that take and make these bets deserve all they get.

    *surely no discussion on gambling in cycling is complete without talking about Japanese Keiron racing and the lengths they go to to protect the riders from being manipulated.

  29. diamondjim makes the point I was going to make – for the american readers an equivalent would be betting that the next pitch will be a foul ball. However, cricket matches certainly have been sold in the past and betting agents have rung up SA cricket captains with suggestions for how to get otherwise abandoned games started (so that betting, any betting, can take place). Someone should have mentioned to the three Pakistanis that they only had to bowl a bit of a no ball rather than the massive joke of a no ball. I can’t bowl even a little bit and my eyebrows shot up when I saw that!!

    My thoughts jumped to a similar conclusion to Inner Ring’s as well, although a fairer comparison would be deliberatly riding badly to not win (which, i don’t think in cycling would work really as there are a potential 100+ winners rather than one of two). Certainly the buying of races bears some comparison to match fixing and the excuse that “it’s the done thing in cycling” looks a bit thin in comparison.

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