Red Cards: Cycling’s Need For Visible Justice

The call for riders to be given yellow and red cards as warnings and sanctions in a bike race got a few laughs last week. Unlike other sports where play can be stopped you can’t stop a race unless in the most severe of circumstances so seeing officials waving cards could be a symbolic gesture at best. But that’s the very reason why we need them.

Look at it the other way
Let’s imagine a game of ice hockey or soccer and instead of the referee having a whistle, they merely have a notebook. The game is played without interruption – which could delight some – and once the contest is over any offences are recorded and instead of a sporting sanction, cash fines are issued to the offending players and teams. Now imagine the list of fines is kept hidden. It sounds absurd… but this is what pro cycling does.

As loyal readers will know the UCI rulebook is very prescriptive with rules on everything from sock length to logo placement, not to mention more important things such as conduct, whether for image or safety. There’s a whole section on “Discipline and Procedures” and this sets out a range of offences and the accompanying tariff in Swiss francs (Swiss francs because the UCI is based in Switzerland).

In almost every race there are riders and team managers who get fined. Pick a stage of the Tour de France and it’s normal for several names to be cited for “sticky bottles” and other offences. Here’s an example from 2011:
It’s a typical day with Movistar getting a fine for giving Amador a big tow behind the car, the rider gets a time penalty and the team gets a 200 franc fine. Robert Gesink cops CHF100 for “incorrect behaviour” and Leonardo Duque, then with Cofidis, got named nice. Note nobody’s doing anything unusual, the riders named above aren’t particularly villainous. During a three week race a large proportion of the bunch will get fined as they go about their jobs.

But there’s a big problem with all of this: it’s a hush, a secret. Every day people can read the results but rarely get to see the fines. Now the daily commissaire jury bulletin does accompany the results sheet given out in the Tour’s press room but you won’t see the fines reported unless they’re particularly juicy, amusing or relevant to the race. Certainly they’re not on the race website nor published alongside the results. This is a problem.

Justice needs to be seen to be done
Let’s reheat the example of Gianni Meersman from Paris-Nice. It’s an example rather than anything critical of Meersman and the OPQS team, it could have been anyone else. You might remember Meersman crashed during Stage 2 and was paced back to the bunch by his team car. A written rule says nobody can be paced back, an unwritten rule tolerates a rider taking advantage of the convoy to make amends for their misfortune. To crash and then, open-wounded, dash back to the peloton is always difficult, even when sat in the vacuum of a team car. But TV viewers were treated to the spectacle of Meersman flying past other crash victims and dropped riders, an inequitable situation.

We can debate whether it’s ok to be paced back but the rules do say “no” and Meersman got a fine, was docked time and the team took a penalty too. Only the viewing public didn’t see this, they just saw a rider being paced back. It’s here that a red, yellow card or even a rainbow-striped card could come into use. A commissaire in a car or a motorbike could pull up alongside and theatrically wave a card. Perhaps the chase could be stopped? Or if not, it would at least signal that the offence has been noted and will be dealt with.

Better still the commissiare doesn’t have to travel but could sit in the TV production car and when something naughty is noticed an on-screen graphic appears with the rider, the team and a red card logo. All this is thinking-aloud but it is a means to allow the public to see that sanctions are noticed and dealt with as opposed to the current discretion. Just because the fines are in Swiss francs doesn’t mean we need Swiss-banking levels of secrecy.

Business Expense
Currently the fine system looks like a tidy money earner but the funds are spread around. Not all the money goes to the UCI, some penalties are paid to the national federation of the race in question (in the Tour, the French cycling federation) and in other cases to the licence holder’s national federation. But more than the quantitative side, its the qualitative aspect that counts. The sport seems to treat fines like a cash expense rather than a breach of the rules. It’s a bit like a country that fines motorists for speeding with such low rates that many drivers in a hurry prefer to put their foot down because their time is worth more than the fine. In fact in cycling many rules are broken because the fines are so cheap it simply doesn’t matter if you get caught. Consequently the table of fines and sanctions in much of the UCI’s rulebook is an à la carte menu where riders and teams can see the bill for offences just as a diner knows what a bottle of wine or a side of fries will cost. Of course some acts come with severe penalties like exclusion from the race but the majority don’t. Sling some litter into the countryside and maybe there’s a cash fine when what’s needed is on the spot action and visible justice so that the millions of TV viewers know it gets dealt with.

Go ahead, make my day

We could give out red and yellow cards to dangerous riders but the peloton often knows who takes the risks and like any micro-society, tends to deal with it in a private way, for example if someone “dive bombs” into a corner one day chances are they’ll get chopped the next time they try. Trying to legislate for safe racing is very difficult with riders fighting for gaps while under pressure and fatigue.

But rather than penalties for bad cornering or poor braking technique a system of visible sanctions like giant bright cards could be workable even if it was merely designed for public consumption. It wouldn’t capture every offence but it could reassure TV audiences that it was noted, indeed there are arguments for a “TV commissaire” tasked with reviewing live footage to ensure that what the audience see is dealt with as a priority.

Maybe it wouldn’t work. But too often viewers see an offence committed in public but it gets dealt with in private via wire transfer. I can’t think of another sport that does this. A start would be for the UCI to publish the fine data and the next move could be to up the tariff towards more prohibitive levels to make some think twice.

52 thoughts on “Red Cards: Cycling’s Need For Visible Justice”

  1. Not sure how the UCI fines are ‘secret’ or ‘hush hush’ when they’re posted in the press room in the official communique at the end of each day’s racing. It’s down to the press as to whether the report. If this didnt happen, and it was purely a communication between the teams and the UCI, I’d get the ‘hush hush’ term.

    Could it be more transparent? Sure. But its not secret.

    • That’s the point, the fines are there but nobody reports them and if they’re given out in the press bulletin, they’re never part of the results you see online nor in La Gazzetta, L’Equipe. There’s no means of getting the info as a matter of record whereas every sanction in a football game is obvious and public. It’s no so much the media though, more a collective approach where fines and sanctions are just part of the back end of racing, a cost of business with only a few incidents getting reported. But should this be the case?

  2. I agree that there needs to be more visible “on the spot” discipline, but isn’t there also a need for circumstances to be taken into account. (I am possibly showing my naivety with that second statement). Even a simple “Rider X is under investigation for offence Y” (like you see on screen in F1 races) would probably have the effect we want. Immediate feedback on rider behaviour, plus the possibility of more nuanced justice being delivered later.

    Maybe also mandate that TV coverage shows the punishments the next day 30km from the end of the stage? That way it’s always visible, and not just at the whim of the journalists covering the race.

    Possibly do a punitive totting up – for every 1,000 francs of fines a team earns, all riders from that team get a 10 second penalty? Not sure if this would work for one day races, but it might be a deterent in the grand tours.

  3. How about a football approach. When a player receives a yellow or red card they can be banned from playing in the next N matches.

    Or maybe time penalties incurred by a rider are applied to all team members in that race. That would make the DS and rider think a bit before encouraging pacing and sticky bottles.

  4. In Formula 1 difficult cases are mentioned via on-screen graphics to be discussed after the race (simpler issues are indeed dealt with via stop-and-go penalties). I guess something like that isn’t too hard to implement if the organisation hands out such statements immediately upon spotting transgressions.

    But that’s still not solving the issues of (non-)consequences. Perhaps the fines could factor into the DS car position behind the peloton? Especially in the one day classics being behind all other teams can have negative effects. I’ve heard of teams trying to score points early in the season to get good positions for their team cars in the classics, so it could be an incentive to avoid sticky bottles and such.

  5. I think it’s a good idea to show when a rider transgresses. It would certainly be interesting for the viewer and could give the commentators something else to talk about on the long, dusty stages of the Vuelta!

    However, depending on the circumstances the whole screen could be covered by red and yellow cards. There could also be issues with visibility – we do see some blatant examples of rule bending but how many more are not spotted by the cameras or the commissar? Or if they are spotted by a commissar but are not televised, would these be displayed on screen?
    Obviously a 30 Franc fine is hardly going to break the bank, so could sanctions include loss of UCI ranking points for teams? If the cost of transgression goes up, however, would that lead to more appeals and so the whole system may get bogged down by teams arguing the toss? An interesting topic.


  6. The fact that many other sports use this card system is not as such a valid reason for road racing to follow them.
    A foul in hockey or soccer has nothing to do with the fouls penalized in cycling. Except in a “roulston” case of a rider making other fall (can’t remember a rider penalized for that ?), or in case of an illegal block in a sprint (usually penalized) , the fouls in a road race are no more than indirectly affecting the other “innocent” riders.
    I can’t understand why a rider who fell, punctured or needed to change bikes should be left alone in the countryside and come back to the peloton on his own for “equality” reasons. Firstly because anyone who raced knows that it is impossible in a vast majority of race situation, and secondly because if with just a puncture or a fall (which could be due to anything, from a rider’s fault to a spectator carelessness) you can lose a race, then no wonder a sponsor will feel difficult to invest millions in a sport so prone to non-sportive elimination.
    To me the solution to situations like the Meersman’s case in PN is to allow drafting by default for riders victim of incidents. Forbidding it and enforcing it with cards is like saying to a soccer player injured on the field “just exit the field by your own means, get to the infirmary and come back, we will continue to play the time you crawl to get to the doctor”.

    • Meersman’s draft lasted a good 10km and saw him being helped to blast by other riders who’d been caught up in the same crash e.g. EBH but who weren’t drafting. Then after the OPQS had been warned by the commissaires, we had the sight of a Cofidis rider drafting directly behind the OPQS car, with Meersman in his draft – clearly OPQS calling in a favour with Cofidis.

      Hardly fair in anyone’s book.

      • With drafting allowed by default in these cases any team wanting to try to get their rider back could try to pace them back.
        It would be down to what the teams want (e.g. no need to bring back a domestic for the finale) and to the rider ability (a motorpaced rider is generally going all-out, and will still have to make his way through the convoy).
        Here I think the unfairness come from an ambiguous and not equally applied rule.

    • Except, the problem with allowing drafting is then suddenly numerous riders are imagining ways to draft cars. That back brake was rubbing! My seat post binder bolt was loose! … for 10K.

      Again, Inrng and racers know that the low-budget teams are blamed for crashes when the overwhelming reason for them is bigger-budget riders caught out are fighting for position at the back.

      The boring, technical, logistics of a red card system fed into the broadcast are a nightmare.

      Bottom line, for me, is starting a red card system changes the race viewing experience for the worse. It defeats the experience of the race on the road more or less relentlessly moving forward. Simplify and enforce the sticky bottle rule.

  7. Live penalties would be good for TV because it will inject some emotion into the viewing experience. Riders will start to be labeled “Bad Boys” or “Goons” if they rack up too many, and we can start judging rider behaviors less on intangibles such as “Panache” and more on their ability to avoid penalties.

    It also may help with team loyalty. If you have a favorite team, you may react more emotionally to a penalty against another team, giving you a more concrete reason to dislike a rider besides innuendo and rumors.

  8. So what about the fines for littering you may ask? That tab is even picked up by the race organizers some times, doesn’t even get back to the teams!

  9. Be interesting which team racks up the most fines in a stage race or the whole season. Like you say all this should be public and not invisible.

  10. If ever a red card was needed it was yesterday in Paris Roubaix for Haydon Roulston. What on earth was he (not) thinking? That’s the dumbest and most dangerous riding I’ve seen in a while. I bet he’s going to be short on favours in the peloton for quite a while…

    • Spot on. Roulston was seven ways of stupid.

      The muppet came from the footpath too, isn’t that illegal now? The sight of the OGE rider crashing a couple of years ago is enough to say the UCI are doing it for the riders (and spectators’ safety).

      I don’t think the system is that broke with drafting back to cars, it’s all part of cycling’s unique attraction. The last thing we want is homogenous sports, the worst thing in many local sports (like the AFL in Australia) is when their media and administration try to copy other sports. It’s not “our version of the Superbowl”, it’s just our game.

      Riders (usually) slow for toilet stops or out of respect for a GC leader having a crash in Grand Tours, so I expect they’d just slow the bunch down if drafting back was not allowed.

      A red card for dangerous riding (ie. causing a crash) is worthy of considering however.

  11. there are 2 distinct issues here.
    firstly the uci need to simplify and clarify the rules.
    then they need to enforce whatever rules they end up with – meaningfully so that it actually discourages teams from breaking the rules.
    of course there is some interaction as when setting the rules you need to ensure that they are enforceable, otherwise you end up back in the situation we have now where the rules are ignored.

    drafting is a tricky one though as there are situations where it seems fair for a rider to be paced back to the bunch eg after a crash that wasn’t their fault – its not safe or possible for everyone to be at the front all the time.

  12. I laughed at this idea before and I’m still laughing. Who gives a rat’s-ass about the casual TV viewer? This kind of crap is what’s behind the social-media driven destruction of cycling, with races in places where nobody cares about cycling while races with passionate fans go bust. The example of F1 is exactly what I DON’T want to see emulated. Like F1? Terrific, watch (and pay for it) all you want, but don’t try to create F1 cycling. It’s a broken system with more corruption and double-dealing than pro cycling. Why do we need to quantify everything? Can’t there be some art with the science? Some passion instead of just greedy bastards counting the profits? Some SPORT instead of pure business? I’ll (carefully) climb down from my soapbox now 🙂

    • Haha. You can scream it in Cookson’s ear and he still won’t hear you.

      For reasons I don’t understand the federation is obessed with the F1 model of “exclusive” events and yet ASO is out there basically owning the monopoly on the biggest races AND video production. Strange.

    • The casual TV viewer pays for the sport, they buy the Quick Step flooring, the FDJ scratchcards and Neri olives. It needn’t be F1 to make public the disciplinary sanctions given during the course of a race; the Giro’s “fairplay prize” is based this. Teams get points for bad behaviour, ranging from 0.5 points for a fine to 2,000 points for a positive doping case. The squad with the least points on the day wins a prize

    • Sport instead of pure business? That exits the stage as soon as ‘pro’ is added to cycling. Go watch your local amateur crit if that is what you want. I don’t need to repeat here that most of the major races were started to promote newspapers, not to please the fans, or do I? As INRNG says, the casual viewers are why most of the sponsors are there and the reason those ‘races with passionate fans’ go bust is because there’s not enough of those passionate fans to make these races interesting for sponsors.

  13. Legal drafting might cause few issues in a race where it’s an expected bunch sprint but in a race such as the Ronde, (where this year it seemed like there were crashes every 5 minutes), that is spread over a number of k’s, it would be impossible. Simple scenario: 50k’s to go. 4 groups on the road. Crash back of group 1 where a rider is affected badly going into a ditch and wasn’t at fault. Gets back up. Quick check from doc, changes bike and gets paced back but is now behind group 3. Catches group 3. What next? Lots of horns, pack finally moves across, car goes past and only the affected rider gets in the draft? Not likely. Meanwhile rider who caused crash was able to get going before group 2 came along and is paced back to the lead group at a speed that actually means he’s putting in less effort as it takes 12k to get back on. I think the answer is no motor pacing and if in the convoy then a maximum period allowed behind a car before having to get out of the slipstream.

    They way this is signalled to the viewers, riders etc can be debated but the premise behind a more open way of punishing or disciplining riders and teams should be about looking for measurable, understandable, equitable and most importantly, consistent means.

  14. Legal drafting might cause few issues in a race where it’s an expected bunch sprint but in a race such as the Ronde, (where this year it seemed like there were crashes every 5 minutes), that is spread over a number of k’s, it would be impossible. Simple scenario: 50k’s to go. 4 groups on the road. Crash back of group 1 where a rider is affected badly going into a ditch and wasn’t at fault. Gets back up. Quick check from doc, changes bike and gets paced back but is now behind group 3. Catches group 3. What next? Lots of horns, pack finally moves across, car goes past and only the affected rider gets in the draft? Not likely. Meanwhile rider who caused crash was able to get going before group 2 came along and is paced back to the lead group at a speed that actually means he’s putting in less effort as it takes 12k to get back on. I think the answer is no motor pacing and if in the convoy then a maximum period allowed behind a car before having to get out of the slipstream.

    The way this is signalled to the viewers, riders etc can be debated but the premise behind a more open way of punishing or disciplining riders and teams should be about looking for measurable, understandable, equitable and most importantly, consistent means and not so much about the medium used.

    • The current system of discretion for using the convoy after a mechanical works and allows for bad luck, although it is impossible to spot every rider who is ‘taking-the-piss’ without video feedback. Barrages can stop cheating when applicable and perhaps they are not used enough especially for sticky bottles.

      Video commissaires should be mandatory. Post-race penalties are the norm for Cycling and dedicated video commissaires, although expensive, would slot right in to that system. On-the-spot sanctions would be difficult to implement, even getting the message across to the rider that they are in the wrong is not always simple, despite radios.

      Football fans always rant about how video referees would spoil the “flow” of the games (which is ridiculous because they stop & start every few minutes) but by their very nature bike races do flow and stopping one is a huge event – on the fly penalties are too complicated.

      Clearer rules and consistent, equitable sanctions applied from a strong position with “always on” video review is what is needed.

      The big problem for commissaires that they don’t have enough clout, cards wouldn’t help. Compare football and Rugby-football (remembering: a gentleman’s game played by hooligans and a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen). In football they use the card system to poor effect – players are disrespectful, diving and acting is rampant and the refs have little credibility. In Rugby the rules are more “interpretable” and complicated but refs decision is the law and players almost never argue – it uses video assistance and it works well.

      Commissaires are somewhere in the middle in terms of respect from competitors but they have to work on a vastly more complicated and larger field of play – make their jobs easier…

    • PS. Inner Ring: Any idea what race is it in the first picture? What is the commissaire is doing, he looks frustrated/baffled and why is he in a team car?

        • There’s an ‘Amstel Bier’ logo on the car so Amstel Gold Race would be the best bet. The sign on the right with the coat of arms on it probably has the name of the ‘gemeente’ (similar to ‘county’ in US English) on it, if you have a higher res version it might be legible.

        • Thanks.

          Suppose he could be moving forward and passing a chasing group and waving to push other race vehicles forwards/out of the way. Seems an odd place for a commissaire to be if it was the front of the race in a crosswind, unless he’s about to pull over and get behind a break but the chasers are too straggly for that. Puzzling?

          Interesting to try to figure out what’s going on – Cyclo-forensics. Do you have a high-res version of the photo to read what it says on the roadside marker?

          • Genemuiden is definitely not in Amstel Gold territory. It’s not in the province of Drenthe either but I can’t rule out that that race would pass through.

  15. This talk of motorpacing reminds me of the long, long ago motorpaced races. I bet there’s a few other odd formats for racing that died like the durney racing. Maybe a fun historical story for the Inrng?

  16. There is a danger with this of creating Pantomine Villians out of some riders I suppose. Pro cycling and the peloton has its own way of dealing with “offenders”. As a long term fan of the sport I have never felt the need to know who has been fined for what etc. As for F1 ha ha what a bore fest that has become ok for the techno geeks.

  17. I’m with Larry – leave it alone… sticky bottles, magic spanners etc it’s all part of what makes it interesting and unique. The UCI must be quickly realising that their ‘ride on the road’ initiative in the Classics season is unworkable. Obvious transgressions should be punished , and they are (Meersman etc). The whole Froomebonk episode on Alpe d’Huez last year added a whole layer of debate and interest to that stage for me. I love all these little idiosyncratic quirks. I think it would be very difficult to apply much stricter sanctions to a 200 rider peleton spread all over a mountain without an expensive army of motorbike commissaires (getting in the way no doubt…)

  18. Not one of your better posts.

    It’s part of cycling. It’s fantastic. It’s what makes the sport unique.

    New fans will just need to get used to it. Why destroy a rich heritage for easier tv understanding. No thanks.

    • All criticism and debate’s welcome. After all this is a blog to explore these things.

      But out of interest how would publishing the fines or signalling that the commissaires have noted a breech of the rules destroy anything? None of the race is changed.

  19. Sometimes the referees (ie commissaires) get it very wrong too – and such a system needs to apply to them too. I witnessed a pretty disgusting not to mention dangerous action of one in this years Tour of Flanders. At the the point where Rasch had a crash we got the usual bottleneck of cars filling the narrow road – one commissaire suddenly swerved and in the process almost took out a Lotto rider. This happens, so no real biggy, but after the rider in question did the natural thing of banging the car window in a mix of displeasure and also to alert the car to his presence the car in question then tried to clip the rider in some form of retribution – and this was no accidental action, because when this failed, he passed the rider the proceeded to try and put him in the ditch by a mix of braking and ‘closing the road off’ to the rider. It was sickening to watch!

  20. You cannot referee a race the way a football match is refereed. If anything I would look to reduce the number of vehicles and motorbikes around the riders. As mentioned above, the sport has so much art to it that not everything can be quantified, logged, tabled, fined, analysed etc etc. Leave that to those which thrive on stats and figures but for gods sake don’t try and fix something that isn’t broke. I gave up on F1 a few years ago, its a techno bore fest now and sadly Moto GP could be ruined the same way I fear

  21. Great article and a great concept. But… the television coverage here in the US for Paris Roubaix was so appalling, I can’t see how they could ever get their act together enough to put up graphics to go along with the cards. Our major broadcasting coverage started with 20 minutes of commentary without any graphics on who was in the race- who was in the lead group- who was in the peleton etc. Then, at minute 26 we got a graphic with Kristoff’s name. To cap it all off- the France television feed MISSED THE SPRINT FOR THE PODIUM POSITIONS! Cycling is a wonderful sport that is so poorly organized it’s easier to keep the status quo until life becomes too painful and then changes are made. Al a carte menus of fines are easy- having to create a reasonable system of punishment takes a level of organization they simply don’t have. Nor do I see ANY desire for change. Television coverage is indicative of the ‘we will do what we want’ attitude in cycling. When compared to other leadership organizations such as the NFL in the US and the FA in the Premier League – the UCI looks amateur.

    • Hello! I absolutely mean the NFL. I’m not saying they (or the FA) are without problems, but from a business model perspective that includes how to best cover a sport on television and how to handle the athletes, the NFL reigns supreme. The television coverage is superb. The equivalent of what I experienced with Paris Roubaix would be The Cowboys putting out their starting team with no names- only numbers- no screen graphics and commentators who had limited views of the actual playing field.

      Cycling coverage is often so frustrating- I feel that they don’t want new viewers. Julie

      • hi Julie – the FA are mostly a bunch of crusty old blazers from the regions whose main interest is probably the buffet at the end of each meeting. Football in the UK has been hijacked by Sky television (initially) and the Premier League, to the huge enrichment of Sky and the Premier League players, and to the huge detriment of everything below the top tier. Granted the TV coverage of the top games is pretty good but this isn’t a model I would recommend cycling should follow.

  22. As a thought, given that you are a website with a not insignificant readership, why don’t you publish the fines, better yet, if you can get hold of the data, you could do a fines/points system for bad riders over the season.

    • My point is more that sport needs to be open about the fines so viewers know there’s a penalty for chucking litter, drafting etc, it should all be in the open rather than left to bloggers to compile private indices.

      It’s hard if not borderline impossible to list all the fines from all the races… but I have covered the topic a bit during the Tour de France last year, here’s the chart I compiled in July:

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