Stick to the Road

What are the clichés of a Flemish race? Cobbles and crosswinds come to mind but amongst the others are big crowds, Luc, Rodania and riders exploiting every space possible including the cycle path and kerb.

Only now this last part will be outlawed in 2014. A new UCI rule is coming and any kerb-hopping, path-picking, lane-switching riders will be disqualified.

Here’s the new rule that will come into force on 1 January 2014:

1.2.064 bis It is strictly prohibited to use sidewalks/pavements, paths or cycle paths alongside the roadway that do not form part of the course. Non-respect of this requirement is sanctioned in accordance with Article bis, without prejudice to any other sanctions that may apply.

Note Article bis states the rider is liable for a cash fine and crucially “elimination”, ie disqualification. The rule seems to have two purposes:

  • fairness: the course can’t involve shortcuts or easy sections. If  the race organiser includes a section of cobbles then they and the UCI don’t want riders taking the easy option
  • safety: to stop riders trying to move to up the bunch by exploiting paths and pavements to the side of the road. If you want an example of why this is dangerous, here’s Sebastian Langeveld and Filippo Pozzato:

There’s some ambiguity with the wording with the “do not form part of the course” wording. Take the example in the video above, is the cycle path here part of the course? Presumably not as the race must stick to the road and those trees separate the lane from the road. But often the bike lane can be right next to the road with no barriers, obstacles and the only clue is a painted line so presumably this is ok. Next the offence has to be spotted by an official and this isn’t always the case in a race where chasing riders can be spread over a large distance.

Above all the incident has to be deliberate. Imagine a wave through the peloton sees forces some riders to swerve and so a few have to hop the kerb, surely they can’t be eliminated for this? Perhaps commissaires can just use the elephant rule. What is the elephant rule? It’s not in the UCI rulebook, instead it’s just something that rather than trying to describe an elephant in prescriptive terms (big animal, large ears, tusks and long trunk etc) you just know it when you see one. The same with a race incident, officials can make up their own mind.

But what if the law of unintended consequences strikes? If riders know there’s no escape route then instead of hopping the kerb they’ll have to hold their ground and almost shoulder-check anyone in the way.

Also note there are existing rules that aren’t enforced. Ever seen a mechanic leaning out the window do fix something? Well the rulebook says all repairs must be done by the roadside and when stopped. The difference here is that disqualification beckons for those that use the paths.

You can see why the new rule is coming but at the same time exploiting the terrain to your advantage has been part of racecraft. Knowing that a crucial climb or cobbled sector is coming up is one thing, knowing where you can move up the bunch is another and being able to use a short section of cycle path or maybe just a well-kept piece of grass in front of a few houses has been vital to saving energy.

It’s also made for great TV, take Stybar’s angle-widening hop. The good news is that rides can still use the gutter as demonstrated by Rabo’s Annemiek Van Vleuten.

“Taking the wrong path” seems to be the fashionable excuse these days only next year it might have a more literal sense.

The new rule applies to all races, including someone trying to take a shortcut on a roundabout or another sneaky move. But it’s become part of the lore of Flemish racing to use bit of space going, often because the roads are so narrow in the first place. You can see the safety justifications for the rule but it might be hard to enforce it and a springtime polemic over the disqualification of riders is possible. You’ve been warned.

40 thoughts on “Stick to the Road”

  1. This is a good rule change, and not just for the safety of the riders. What about the fans?? I cannot believe that you have made no reference to the dangers posed to spectators by riders taking to pavements or footpaths. Would you be happy to see a scrum of 18-stone rugby players spill into your lap at Twickenham? Or a couple of heavyweight boxers take their bout upto Row 18 in the stadium?
    This piece sums it up neatly. It was written after this year’s Paris-Roubaix, but also applies to any of the early season classics:

    • Agreed, though even to this non-cyclist, using the verges seems acceptable, so long as spectators are aware they are considered part of the course and they are expected to stay out of the way. However, jumping the kerb and riding the pavements appears a recipe for disaster. I guess if there had been nasty incidents previously, I would have heard or read about it, and the rules changed much earlier, but the risk is obvious. The new rules probably seem a bit po-faced and elf-and-safety-gone-mad to traditionalists, but I was amazed to see riders nipping in between groups of pedestrians (who presumably may just be going about their daily business, with no intention of watching the race).

      • The knee-jerk outrage of many is not surprising but as Trevor Ward points out safety is probably the prime reason for bringing in this regulation. At the end of the day the riders are paid to race and are almost universally proficient in their trade and aware of their surroundings and abilities. The same cannot be said about the spectators and although you can sit in the peloton and know what is coming up, too much happens for many stationary viewers to be fully aware what has just past and what is about to appear and you can’t look in two directions at once – the riders generally don’t have that problem.

        I doubt any commissaire would penalise a rider for trying to avoid a crash and consider… the cobbles are there for our entertainment, riding on adjacent smooth path is in effect avoiding work and I feel cheated by it 😉

        • I think the interesting thing will be whether the rule is enforced at all and if so, how much it is enforced and how much teams brief their riders on the need to change. A problem with a rule like this is that there are always grey areas.

  2. This is a shame, as you said it is part of what makes flemish racing the best racing in the world. Will they still try to apply this rule for Kermesses?

  3. Although one can see the safety advantages to spectators of such a rule, it surely goes against everything that is cobbled racing. It would be much better if spectators acknowledged the danger of the positions they have chosen ! It is the unexpected that is one of the crucial factors in Belgium racing.
    A sterile environment, which this rule is just another step towards, will remove much of the expectation, chaos, suspense and drama that is part and parcel of cobbled racing.
    I look forward to the rule that disqualifies and fines any rider who falls off !

  4. Fans also need to show the racers some respect as well. We’ve seen incidents when they get too close and cause crashes of riders. The rule seems sensible though, we’ll see how it is enforced.

  5. I, for one, agree with the new rule. It’s called “road biking” or “road cycling” for a reason – the riding/racing takes place ON THE ROAD. If there is a tough section of cobbles (the most common situation) they are there to toughen up/liven up the race. By-passing these sections, to me, seems the same (in spirit) as cutting the course. Not all riders in the peloton or break may have the same opportunity to deviate from the course and take the easier path; this gives the riders that do an unfair advantage. Almost as bad are the riders that take a cobbled climb (or maybe a flat cobbled section) in the gutter. While not illegal it kind of seems the same to me; they’re called cobbled classics for a reason.
    I know many will disagree and say something to effect of, “don’t point fingers until you’ve done it yourself.” Well, I have ridden cobbles (thought not the same duration as the pro’s) and know it’s really hard to do. Would not ever care to do an entire cobbled classics season in the form I’m currently in. Just stating my opinion. If it’s too hard to ride them, you’re probably not a Flandrien.
    Totally agree also with both riders & spectators using common sense regarding encroachment onto each others “turf”.

  6. I can see both sides, I felt for the OPQS riders last year, but it was also partly there fault as they riding in the gutter. I do worry for the riders in the GT’s with all the crowds on the mountains. It’s crazy on those mountain finishes.

    I actually like what the organisers did for Flanders by putting the metal guard rails in the gutter that forces riders on to the cobbles.

    Don’t know how they will enforce this, will it end up being another rule that is there but never enforced, like sticky bidons and mechanics leaning out of windows.

  7. Bah, bad for TV. Watching the skill and daring of riders weaving in and out of cycle lanes etc was part of the fun. What next, no running man celebrations? No attacking your teammate on a mountain top finish? No sticky bottles? What? Oh.

  8. I hate to see more rules – but when guys do stupid things like in the video clips the UCI needs to do something to discourage this stuff, since they can’t fence off the entire route. Just more issues for the race officials to consider – same as penalizing for sticky bidons and rear brake “adjustments” when they’re more about creating an unfair advantage vs helping a guy get back in after a mechanical incident.

  9. I don’t think this rule is a bad idea…at the least I don’t find it somehow against the spirit of the races. It’s not like Flanders is ruined now because riders cannot get on the sidewalk. One could argue it is against the spirit of the race to avoid the marked route at critical points. I think fans complain when almost any new rule, route change or whatever is announced.

  10. This rule smells of anti-lawsuit elixir for race organizers.

    “I was just ‘spectating’ when that crazy racer knocked me over. I’ll sue!”

    “Sue her/him, but not us, we have clearly fined rules, he/she broke them.”

  11. Regulations should state what goals they intend to achieve and explain exactly how the regulation can achieve them. Just publishing a norm, without a rationale for it, is to me sheer authoritarianism.

  12. Loving that hop by Stybar, things like that and Armstrong carrying his bike across the grass verge a few years ago only add to the folklore of pro races.
    That said, safety is paramount, not only for the riders but for spectators too, so I’m all for increased sanctions, elimination for something small and relatively insignificant (elephant rule!) may be a bit too prohibitive.

    • Glad someone mentioned this, it was the exact incident that I first thought of. Presumably each of these will need to be looked at on a case by case basis, which means inconsistencies in the rulings and potentially unfair elimination. I think a cash fine would be better rather than outright elimination.

      • Which is why the rule will probably not ever be enforced except when the incident is the main shot in the video feed and there is sufficient outrage following one or two of the dozens of infractions per race and hundreds per season.

  13. Surely the key point here is safety. The race officials are responsible for the course. Racing off the course endangers the riders and bystanders – there’s no way the officials can be responsible for this as the boundaries are limitless.

    Interesting that it specifies ‘sidewalks/pavements, paths or cycle paths’ rather than being a catch all. I’m surprised that there isn’t already a rule in existence forbidding riders to race off the course in any circumstances. Does this mean grass verges, bus stops, car parking areas etc are fair game?

  14. A solution: stage all races in Qatar and the US on those exciting long straight roads – you could fit plenty of those VIP tents alongside too.

    Call it the ‘Iodoform World Series Cycling’.

    For the excitement component make it mandatory for victors, in the elite races only – not junior/u23, to pop wheelies and/or peform other rehearsed celebrations.

    Now THAT’S exciting.

    Here’s some real problems:
    *Riders being hit (or towed) by race vehicles – eg. Flecha, Bozic, Sorenson
    *Road signs/furniture unmarked/unmanned/unprotected
    *Vehicles parked on the course
    *Camera motos stationary, in the road of course, looking back at the exit of tunnels while the peloton are careering through it.
    *Idiot fans waving at the TV cameras not looking at the rider(s) coming towards them.
    *Idiot fans looking at their cameras/phones at the end of their extended arms not looking at the rider(s) coming towards them.
    *That tool from the US with the antlers.

  15. Will any violations be retrospectively enforced? Can’t imagine Boonen being dragged from the podium because British Eurosport highlighted him taking a brief detour would go down too well.

    • Good question. In theory riders can be sanctioned from video evidence.

      It’ll be interesting to see how the rule is enforced but it’s the same for other rules, it’s one thing in the rulebook but another on the road. Someone has to spotted doing it in the first place etc.

  16. Left side edge (kerb?) of Paterberg makes the climb almost looking too easy in early season
    warm-up races before Ronde.
    In Ronde there is (always) fence to prevent drivers using that. Good.

  17. A bit of a late comment but now that the classics have started it is time to see what happens to the rule in practice. It seems for now the riders are still using the bike lanes and sidewalks as they always did. Saw some examples in the heli shots in the Omloop yesterday, but I guess the best example I’ve seen is in Tim de Waele’s pictures of KBK:
    If the UCI wanted to drive this point home they should have immediately taken the whole lead group out of the race.

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