Race Rules and Adverse Weather

Without wanting to revisit the Giro’s Stelvio scandal again the stage and ensuing debate was still instructive as a means to explore race safety, especially the rules for racing in cold weather.

After discovering the UCI rulebook has little to say on descending a snowy mountain pass many have called for new rules to regulate racing in poor weather. It sounds sensible given the dangers and regular visits to the high mountains. But the more you look at it the harder it is to define a sensible rule.

That’s the most relevant part of the UCI rulebook. If we’re being picky note it says “in case of an accident or incident” which implies something has to happen before the race director can act. In other words it’s not enough to be cold or hot, there as to be an incident. But in practice the race can be stopped and restarted according to the weather conditions.

One reason why the rules are so vague is because the sport takes place in the great outdoors, half the point is to complete a course across a landscape and the weather is included. Otherwise we’d all watch track cycling.

Snow, sleet, slush
It’s hard to set rules on the weather. Take snow, it might be snowing but is it settling on the ground or more importantly is it settling on the road? And just as the Inuit people have many different words for snow the rulebook could have to specify snow against sleet but who in the race convoy is there to check the flakes? Plus these questions aren’t easy to answer, the race director could be accompanying the riders in the valley while high up it’s snowing on a mountain pass and a race could ride into a storm within seconds… and ride out of it quickly too. It’s warmer going uphill than downhill and so on.

Thermometer Degrees
Still, let’s take temperature as a means to explore the subject. We could set a minimum temperature for racing to protect riders from icy conditions but does this mean the UCI commissaires would need approved thermometers? But cold temperatures are about exposure, you can walk into a freezer but you should not linger. So the Celsius scale is arbitrary, it’s not the absolute temperature recorded but the duration and exposure. Dry cold is usually easier than wet cold and what makes cycling so tough is the windchill. In other words the temperature is only one thing, you’d have to model the scenario to account for rain, humidity, snow, temperature and how long this was experienced for. It’s ridiculous.

Describe an elephant
For fun imagine trying to describe what an elephant looks like. Most people would mention a trunk, the greyish hide, the tusks, big ears, four legs and so on. But normally you don’t need to define an elephant to know one when you see one. It’s the same with dangerous conditions in a race, you know them when you see it.

We might still want to see some rules but what could be drafted? Perhaps we could set an arbitrary temperature, for example no racing if it’s -5°C (23°F) or below? A nice idea but what happens if the thermometer briefly flickers at this temperature? Well then we say no racing for -5°C for more than X minutes, for example to allow the passage up and over a mountain pass. But any effort to get prescriptive with the rules would turn the commissaire’s car into a mobile weather station and add pages to the rules meaning every time a snowflake appeared the rulebook would be whipped out faster than a pair of thermal gloves.

Other sports do account for temperature. In triathlon the water temperature is measured at several points over the course a fixed depth one hour before the start. This is rigidly prescriptive but water temperature is stable, the readings before the event are likely to be near-identical when competitors go through. By contrast even if a bike race could measure the temperature at several points along the route an hour before it could be completely different especially as the weather can be so changeable in the mountains.

Indeed to use another example from the Giro, let’s look at the stage finish in Bari. You might remember the riders crashing just because they touched the brakes, the road was that slippery. Clearly there’s no way to measure this, it’s just a question of judgement.

Rules, schmules
Even if the UCI hired someone with Solomon’s wisdom to write such rules on dealing with adverse weather it pre-supposes the ability to enforce them. Right now very time it rains the UCI rulebook appears to have at least one page printed in water-soluble ink:

This rule is ignored by almost everyone… including the UCI itself which rarely fines teams for black rain gear.

The Stuff of Legend
Name a famous stage of the Giro? You might well cite the day Andy Hampsten rode over the Gavia to take the maglia rosa. Go back in time and Charly Gaul made Monte Bondone famous. Or what about Liège-Bastogne-Liège, many will cite Bernard Hinault’s 1980 win. The common factor? Appalling weather. Races today still rely on the “hard man” legends of the past, what Antonine Blondin called “the virile show of the the Tour de France… where you’re more injured than shaken”. Clearly there’s a balance to be struck between conquering the conditions and workplace safety.

The high mountains can define a race but it should be for the right reasons. The weather can change so quickly here that it seems impossible to draft rules to define the difference between acceptable and unacceptable conditions.

Several of the 2014 Giro’s polemiche were because of the weather. If it had been warm and sunny in Bari, Cassino and atop the Stelvio none of this would have happened. But that’s out of RCS’s control. Instead their error was confusion over race radio. It wasn’t the rules, it was translation and the chain of command.

Still after the incidents in the Giro we might like to see all races adopt a more certain position when faced with adverse weather but imagining what these rules might be is hard and writing them down in unambiguous terms harder still. That’s before we get to enforcing them given the obvious commercial tension that “the show must go on”.

For more thoughts on racing in hot weather, see January’s How Hot is Too Hot?

41 thoughts on “Race Rules and Adverse Weather”

  1. Presumably melting tarmac is as much a hazard as icy corners no?
    A rider calculates his own efforts within his own levels of ability, the result being risk takers or those better placed at the start off effected areas may benefit from less / more weather conditions….
    By contrast, do those in the bunch complain that crowds are not as oppressive as they climb together compared to that of those racing uphill individually?
    Its racing over the conditions of the course in that given time frame and its why we love it I guess…wouldnt it be boring even if INRNG always predicted the winners?

  2. Coaches at the World Championships this year were complaining about the weather. Headwind on the back straight and tailwind on the front. Or vice versa. Obviously unfair to somebody. Front wheel choice was a conundrum.

    But the atmosphere lent to the ambience which was much more lively than the hermetically sealed sterile environment of other venues, where one couldn’t tell day from night except with a 24 hr clock. Big boxes may be good for selling goods cheaply, but not everyone wants cheap goods.

  3. I don’t think we need rules on when you can race or not that is what the commissaires are for and it is there judgement. However I agree with one of the riders from the Giro (sorry cannot remember which one) – that there should be a clear guide/ruling on communicating issues or problems like there is in F1. There are enough bikes/cars around surely they can carry a couple of different coloured flags which the riders know the meaning of, that coupled with race radio should reduce issues. ie Red flag – stage cancelled / Yellow flag no overtaking the vehicle with the flag etc etc

    • Definitely. Radio on its own has proved insufficient, so visual signals such as flags are needed. I imagine they’d need to be fairly customised, to avoid copycats in the crowd. Also, it might only be able to apply them from a given point, as races are often spread out. If the rider missed the flags, tough. Even still, problems can occur, as with the F1 marshall waving the chequered flag a lap early – in this case, it didn’t affect the result greatly, but at least they stuck to the rules (AFAIK).

  4. There was a time when the Tour was designed to make it so hard that only one rider could survive. We seem to have moved to a more professional and caring model today, but are we done?

    This seems a bit like the way that stop lights are assigned in some communities. When either:
    A – Enough people are killed, or
    B – Enough stakeholders complain long and loud
    a traffic light is installed.

    We are at that point with the Giro and some other races. Look, I enjoy the spectacle a great deal, but I really don’t want to injure or kill a few riders in order to see officials start to make good decisions.

    Recently, the officials intervened when the Giro organizers wanted to put up nets to catch riders who were trying to descend one terrible pass. The precedent is there for officials to tell the race organizers a very simple message:
    “No, you are not going to risk that route to sell advertising.”

    I think that the article to follow this very excellent and thoughtful piece would be a suggestion to the UCI and the AIGCP that they stand up and tell the race organizers that ‘A’ from above is not an acceptable criteria for a change.

  5. “Otherwise we’d all watch track cycling”

    Off topic – but what chance of some commentary of track cycling? Bring a bit of the flavour of Euro 6 day to us antipodeans which is pretty much all about Olympics or nothing. Or at least talk of those road pros who cross over between road and track, or those that made the transition from track.

    So many dangers in the sport of road cycling, just look at road furniture and spectator control, the way feed zones work (there’s a topic to discuss).

    Really there only needs to be judgement made on health and safety matters, and then clear and unambiguous communications to the teams and riders. Not all health and safety matters can be precisely pre-determined as you say. Road races are a dynamic organism.

    I do agree though the communication protocols need work and this is where the game needs lifting.

    I think there is scope for a series of common communication codes to be developed.

    If a commissaire’s/race director’s information alert or instruction is accompanied by a Code number indicating the severity of the issue and specific requirements for that type of alert are already pre-defined and understood by everyone, it may help avoid language translation issues and misunderstandings across all race personnel and teams/riders (and the viewing public).

    So when commissaire / race director make a communication, it is also categorised as either a Code 1, Code 2, Code 3 etc, and having a code number has some very specific meanings and implies specific actions required by riders etc. And certain Codes can only be issued by certain levels of race authority.

    Say Code 1 is a simple advisory to take extra care due to something a little unusual in next few km (or at a specified point), but there is no neutralisation – it’s rider’s choice how to deal with it – can race normally – just a general advisory for their information.

    Code 3 might be a more serious issue and race is neutralised from km X to km Y. Breaches of neutralisation rules will incur a penalty. e.g. Commissaires learn of loose rocks from a small rock fall appearing on a descent, but no time to clear them all away. If everyone hears “CODE 3 ALERT” or sees a Code 3 alert symbol, then everyone knows it’s a neutralised section and neutral rules apply. No ambiguity.

    Code 5 maybe a race abandoned.

    and then various codes in between as necessary, but not too many, just a handful so that codes can be quickly conveyed in various manners (race radio, flags, mobile message boards etc) and everyone know exactly what’s expected and the consequences of any breach.

    In this manner, the decision by race officials then is not what words to choose but what code category a communiqué falls into. The precise meaning of that code category is already understood by all.

  6. I think the problem is that there is no rule describing proper protocol for how to handle a caution or a neutralization. If there had been a universal signal that every cyclist understood, There would never have been any confusion, even if the radios all lost signal.

    Sailboat racing is a great model; it happens in ever changing weather conditions, there is standard protocol for every possible situation an a redundant communication protocol so everyone knows what’s going on at all times. Unless you don’t know the rules. Motor racing rules as well.

    I was disappointed at first with Rolland, Quintana and Unzue. But they didn’t actually break a rule. Then I was disappointed with the Commissars. But there’s no rule, if you’re picky, which you maybe should be, to declare that stage “null and void”.

    Now I’m just disappointed we didn’t get to see what would have really happened between Uran and Quintana. But, it was a great GT with great coverage.

  7. I would suggest that a rule for every possible race scenario would leave the sporting spectacle the poorer. The history of the sport is crowded with unbelievable deeds of heroic and epic proportions, its history is just one reason for its popularity. We should allow race organizers, who are ‘on the spot’, to make any decisions concerning dangerous course conditions and have confidence they will act according. It appears the Stelvio problematic was caused in the main by poor decision making of those travelling in the comfort of warm team cars.

    Racing capes are a different matter altogether. Why are teams not fined heavily for blatantly ignoring the rules ? It can be almost impossible to identify riders when they are all attired in anonymous black. The excuse that to manufacture in team colours is difficult does not wash. I suspect that it is simply that because officials turn a blind eye, the issue is never addressed at team level.

    • Yes, the cape issue is annoying.
      Why do we turn a blind eye? Well, the origins of this rule is from back when electronic chips were not available and having the rider’s number show on the photo finish was vital to establish the placings.
      This was how we was brought up as commissaires and I believe we simply forget about it until the finish line is reached. We have a lot of other things to worry about. And in the heat, we are used to going by the frame number if we cannot see the other.
      As the subject is now raised, I admit it is quite irritating not to be able to see who is who. And with the increased quality of helicopter shots, it is becoming ever more so. I believe the UCI is aware of this.
      I know the above is a poor excuse, but I think this is – at least – one of the reasons.

      • A valid reason – it’s just if it’s in the rules why do so many teams go all black and stealth when it rains – they still need to promote their sponsors. But if the rule can’t be upheld, scrap it.

        • I agree completely on that, Inrng but scrapping a rule does not solve the issue of covered numbers. And that is, I think, the reason for the discussion; with the riders veiled in helmets, winter attire etc. a visible number is the only means of identification we have; as television spectators, that is, others by the road side can still see the frame nos.
          But as I wrote I think the UCI is aware of this by now. This being the second year in a row where we see (or not) these covers “en bloc” in a GT hampering our experience and feeling of the race.

          • It would not be too difficult to manufacture rain capes which are transparent over the rear pockets. Huh, it’s not a breathing material over that area? big deal…
            It’s just it’s not enforced, so they do not bother.

    • I agree with your thoughts regarding “on the spot” weather and course conditions. My comments above were directed at the lack of a protocol for a temporary neutralization (freezing fog on a descent at altitude for the first 5 switchbacks…) and if you read the whole rule book you find that lack of accepted protocols is the root of a lot of misunderstanding. The misunderstanding on the Stelvio descent affected riders overall standings and probably cost some riders a considerable amount of money.

      Some riders thought a red flag flown from a moto meant “do not pass”, but reading the rules reveals that it means absolutely nothing.

      On rain capes; in this world of fresh kit every day and sublimated everything, there’s no excuse for not following the rules. Someone had commented on this blog suggesting permanent rider numbers for the season so they could be printed onto the kit. That seems to me a no-brainer.

      • Any DS worth his salt should know the rule book back to front. In Motorsport you have 30 minutes to make a protest or protest a decision by quoting the chapter and verse of the yellow book (which is about 5 cams thick). Unless you know exactly where to find the relevant ruling you shouldn’t be taking part.

        • I agree; I believe Unzue knew the rule(s) didn’t exist and took advantage of the confusion. In the Racing Rules of Sailing there is also a protocol for protests. And in F1, we just saw a very clever gaming of the rules that ultimately led to a win in Monaco.

          Just as importantly, the commissars need to know what the rule books says and doesn’t say. If they had, they wouldn’t have made an announcement that couldn’t be enforced, we wouldn’t even be discussing the topic and we’d all know who really earned the Maglia Rosa.

  8. The winter sport of Biathlon is often affected by the weather. When I was involved, if the temperature had not warmed above -20c at race start, then the race was off.

    The advantage biathlon has is that it is a ‘circuit race’ in a fairly confined area – albeit one exposed to mountain winter weather. But, it’s mainly a time-trial so early skiers can be disadvantaged by early weather that then improves.

    They have plenty of rules that deal with ‘unusual’ weather in order to try and make it’s effect fairer on the field. In the 1998 Olympics the race was stopped halfway through (though as it was a time trail, many had finished) as the snow was so thick, people couldn’t see. The guy on the hot seat at the time – looking good for gold – was not happy. He did however go out the next day and win when it was re-run.

    • Surely in biathlon or XC ski you know if it’s -20 degrees at the start it’ll be -20 degrees at the finish too, the course doesn’t have much elevation for a big change. By contrast a bike race can easily have a 20 perhaps 30 degree variation in temperature.

      • Yes you are right, there’s no meaningful difference on the course – but there can well be a difference over the time a Biathlon TT takes to process all 140 skiers, through a 30 min race.

  9. Excellent subject you picked there, Mr. Inrng, it really is difficult to judge these “incidents”.
    @Alex Simmons, that is a great suggestion; to have codes describing the severity and category in a short unambiguous way. Acutally, believe it or not, the UCI have tried to do this but so far it hasn’t had an impact. A few years ago, the UCI published an Organiser’s Guide (300+ pages) and chapter 4 sect. H deals with Radio-Tour and holds some 4 pages of standard phrases.
    Problem here is that very many races allow for the local multi-lingiust to function as Radio-Tour and he/she did not check out these phrases beforehand, nor is he/she probably aware of their exsistence.
    But adding the “code”-thing to the catalog of phrases would go along way to avoid situations like we just experienced in the Giro. I shall bring this to my commissaire colleagues and the UCI, if you don’t mind, when I meet with them next time.
    Another thing is; it appears the peloton no longer has a “Patron”. In “ye olde days” the subject of cancellation of a stage would often be the result of a discussion between the peloton-patron (on behalf of the riders) and the organiser+ jury. I remember cancelling the final stage of the Olympia’s Tour in Holland once due to adverse weather conditions (heavy storm, trees falling etc.), but not until I had had a talk with the yellow jersey (can’t remember his name) and the organiser. What I mean to say is that the riders themselves (or their patron) also should take it upon themselves to suggest neutralisation or cancellation, after all, they are the ones racing. I do not know if that happened in the Giro.
    As a commissaire, I would perhaps suggest as such but I would definately leave it up to the riders to decide if we should neutralise or not. If they find the conditions okay, then I am okay with that (I am also in a car 😉 )
    Finally, suggesting time-reductions on grounds of the weather: What about a TT? Should the ones riding in the rain request time-additions or a reduction from the riders not riding in the rain? The weather is part of the race, when the race is on, the race is on and if you want part of the glory; – you race. At the front, I may add.

    • You are welcome to bring the suggestion to their attention, if you are in a position to do so / have influence and think it would help.

      Getting rules and regs right is an interesting balancing act. It has to be reasonably enforceable, practical, understandable, comply with spirit of the sport etc. Such things can be quite tricky in a road race that might have riders on road with a 15- or 20-minute spread from head of the race to the rear.

      I think the code idea might help though. All the race officials have to agree on is what Code level an incident/scenario falls into, then they can use whatever language descriptors are needed to convey the detail. But if everyone hears “CODE 3”, they know what they can/can’t do irrespective of the words.

      If there are many scenario descriptions already available, then these examples can be coded by severity and serve to provide clear examples of what would or could result in e.g. a “CODE 4 / RED – Race to be immediately halted temporarily”.

      Current race status can be readily displayed by race official’s vehicles, e.g.:
      Green – race on
      Yellow – general caution in place, no neutralisation
      White – severe caution/neutralisation in place/specific rules apply
      Red – race halted
      Black – race abandoned

      Obviously if colours are already in use then alternatives can be made, easy to have a striped flag for instance.

      I’m less enamoured with the idea of a patron having an input into an official’s decision. It places the “patron” in a position of a conflict of interest between what’s good for all and what’s good for their team. Just because one’s team’s protected rider doesn’t descend or handle conditions as well as another, why should the more skilful rider suffer a lost opportunity? There’s a difference between more difficult conditions / extra care required, and what’s dangerous.

      I am also not convinced riders are always in the best place to make decisions about what is / is not dangerous, since the danger may not be immediately apparent to them until it’s too late. If an official can’t make that determination when they have the information, they shouldn’t be an official.

      • I have the access to suggest this and I shall do so.
        You are right, Alex, on the patron-thing, it will be complicated and the new structures of teams/riders not having the “one and only” also hinders this option. Which is my point; this is not likely to be part of the “new wave” in cycling, I may not have been clear in my writing.
        It goes without saying that as an official you have right of decision – and should use it – otherwise you are in the wrong place. But relying on the riders is part of the information gathering prior to making a reasoned decision. One that should not be left out provided the conditions allow for it, of course. Everything is subject to the conditions at any given moment in the race.
        We are well aware that riders also reacts differently to the conditions, believe me.
        Still, you “code”-idea I really like.

          • And this, if I may add, is one of the many reasons why I really love to follow INRNG!
            Maybe sometime in the future, if the rules change, we ‘ll be able to say that the discussion we first read here led to safer AND more exciting racing with clearer rules for all participants.

  10. Surely its not the rules at fault but who gets to make the decision. In the Giro the decision to go over the Stelvio was made by RCS but they are the promoter and if the cancel the race they are the ones who lose out. There is a conflict of interest.

    To take F1 as an example where there is also a trade off between safety and spectacle they have a much more sensible arrangement.

    The promoter, Bernie Eccelstone, is responsible for getting the race arranged and ensuring the course meets the required safety standards as prescribed by the FIA. But once the race is on Bernie has no influence on safety decsions such as red flags, saftey cars etc. That is all decided by Charlie Whiting as a representaive of the FIA. The equivalent of the commissaires in cycling.

    Charlie still has provision in the rules to make a judgement call, for example on how wet the track is or how the debris on the track will affect the racing.

    Cycling just needs the UCI to fill this role and to then have a sensible and coherent process for comunicating and enacting these rule.

    The actions need to be known to all ahead of the race. I.e. if a section is neutralised the commisaires car will drive at x miles an hour over the neutralised section and nobody must pass. Sure the breakaway will lose their advantage but if this is known upfront then this just becomes part of racing and a break on a snowy day just becomes a gamble against the conditions.

    • The point is well made but there is only one F1 race at a time (and even Charlie Whiting is not consistent). The problem with subjective judgement is that the head man on the Criterium du Dauphine needs to make decisions consistent with this on the Tour de Suisse or you will get complaints from the teams.

      • You’re right, there is only one F1 race at a time and only one Charlie Whiting.

        But the FIA also has other world-level events on the same day as F1 races (e.g. the World Endurance Championship) which also have FIA-accredited race directors and FIA-accredited stewards (who rotate between different events) who keep things relatively consistent. They aren’t going to get a 100% record so long as there are humans in the loop (but there’s also no guarantee computers would do better) but there’s no reason the UCI can’t up the ante and start to look a bit more professional.

  11. A small pedantic point if I may: the Inuit do not have numerous words for snow.

    But otherwise an excellent post and some thought-provoking responses.

  12. Was the descent of the Stelvio dangerous? And if so, why?

    The road was wet from snow melting on contact, but was it icy? Were there incidents from the riders, motorcycles, or cars slipping on the road? From the TV coverage I saw, riders were safely negotiating the course.

    Was it because the riders were not dressed for the descent? There were team cars and personnel at the col with warm drinks. If a rider has a flat, they stop for a wheel change. If a rider’s gear fails for the conditions, they can stop for better gear. There’s a saying in mountaineering: “There’s no bad weather, only inappropriate gear.”

    • If it’s ok I don’t want to revisit one incident, the idea was to see how we could get some more comprehensive rules to apply to other races on other days.

      But the Stelvio was instructive of course. The roads weren’t icy, they’d salted them and it would take -7C to get ice, it wasn’t that cold. As for the clothing, this is a debatable thing because some riders thought it was ok to stop as the race was being neutralised. A few stopped and changed several layers, taking time to have warmer and dry gear for the descent. One thought for the teams would be to staff the top with more helpers to give riders a “pit stop” change that’s faster than handing a jacket up.

  13. Some good discussion going on here! Maybe I am wrong but I have the impression that there is also a bit of a cultural clash in this subject. I think Europeans are in general more comfortable with rules that are flexible and allow the official in charge some freedom to decide, while Americans prefer rules that are followed to the letter even if that means unintended consequences every now and then. I noticed this before in other areas but I see it reflected here. Another example in sports would be the reluctance of FIFA to allow video refereeing and keep the authority with the ref instead.

    • @AK, good observation!
      Certainly there is a cultural clash here. But it is even within Europe too. Northern Europe tend to assume a more pragmatic attitude whereas my southern European colleagues often – personal observation, mind you – tries to follow the letter if possible. I often put it so: Some go by the letter, others by the spirit of the rule.

  14. The concept of “pace cars” is well established in auto racing. Bike races have at least two: one at the breakaway and another at the peleton. If conditions become too unfair or dangerous for racing, pull out the yellow (or whatever color) flag, and nobody can pass the pace cars. No race radios required, except between the pace cars/motorcycles.

    The practice might give a break to riders caught in “no man’s land” between the break and the peleton, or trailing the main bunch, but that’s just racing luck.

  15. I must wholeheartedly disagree with this talk about “pace” cars, “flags”, etc. As Inrng noted above, our sports iconic moments that we remember for decades often involve extreme weather. Giro 1984, TDF 1998 Pantani!, etc.. Using F1 as an example, I feel a great disservice was done (to Senna, and we the people) when Monaco 1984 was stopped early. We were truly watching a great talent, and without the weather we would not have seen it that day. If this is truly the highest level of competition, the athletes should be able to use good judgement to mitigate the risks to their health. Will I remember this Giro years from now? Only the descent of the Stelvio.

    If anyone really wants to change the rules, start with eliminating the majority of moto’s & cars – that will make for a safer environment.

    • I think you need to avoid conflating the use of flags (or a functional equivalent) to convey in clear and unambiguous terms to all what the status of the race is, with the decision on what flag to use.

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