Sportsmanship and Ethics in Pro Cycling

Watching the opening game of the FIFA World Cup reminded me why I don’t watch much football. A Brazilian player called Fred felt a rival’s hand on his shoulder and collapsed to the ground as if struck by a sniper. In football they call it a professional foul, elsewhere it’s called cheating.

Not that cycling is superior. Here cheating is elevated to an art and the rulebook can at times resemble an à la carte where participants, including the governing body, select the rules they want like a diner picking their dinner. What ever happened to sportsmanship?

We could say sportsmanship never existed. Early races saw competitors consume rat poison to thin the blood while others took the train to avoid the pesky obligation of riding the course. But this is to say California was once a wild and lawless place ergo it’s ok to break the law there today. The past might explain the culture today but it doesn’t excuse it.

Doping is obviously the big example of cheating. Forget a falling footballer, here were have a grotesque supply chain with pharmaceutical companies, private jets, bent doctors and more. But a lot of the philosophy behind the doping was simply pushing as far as the rules would allow. Let’s take the tales of EPO and blood doping as an instructive example. EPO might have been banned but for a long time there was no test. Once a proxy test came in for haematocrit levels riders would dope up to the permitted 50% ratio, in fact they’d go higher but then use other fluids to lower their count if testers were spotted entering their hotel on the morning of a race. When a test for EPO finally came in many switched to blood doping. What’s instructive here is the constant reactivity to the rules, as soon as a new rule appears someone’s trying to find the way around it. What is banned in theory is different in practice, we had half the peloton probing the frontiers of what could be detected and enforced. It created a scenario where because some are increasing their performances and cannot be caught the (commercial) logic incited others to either imitate or drop out of the game.

Breaking the anti-doping rules is an obvious no-no for many but pushing the limits of other sections of the rulebook is treated with the same curiosity and zeal. There are so many examples I don’t know where to start but let’s take an amusing one on bike positions. You might have seen riders slipping on their saddles during a time trial. Some tried to put glue on the saddle and others put sandpaper to provide more friction to hold the rider in position but this is against the UCI rules which state parts cannot be modified without prior approval. Once the UCI cottoned on they started checking for sticky seats. So some teams and riders started to use secret skinsuits with the crotch area impregnated with silicon to provide a rubbery adhesion to the saddle, knowing the UCI officials would not probe a rider’s crotch. This is just one light example but it shows how some consider a rule is there to be broken as long as they don’t get caught. The aim is not to comply with the law but to ensure you can break it without getting caught. There’s a word in the English language for gaining an advantage by breaking the rules: cheating.

My loophole is bigger than yours
But even gaining an advantage by legal means isn’t always sporting. A recent example is the use of painkiller Tramadol. It might be legal under the WADA rules but it is fair for riders to use this powerful opiate during competition? David Millar once said “as soon as you stick a needle in your arm it’s not sport any more” but a cocktail of painkillers and caffeine? It’s legal but it’s not sport either. Instead we have a contest of loopholes, this is sport in the spirit of the tax accountant looking to check what they can get away with.

Is “professional sport” an oxymoron?
Certainly pro cycling is a good test. There examples of sportsmanship but the pro element means business, competition and the incentive force of money in a winner-takes-all environment. Cycling takes it to another level with the concept of race sales and private deals. In almost every other sport match fixing is a cardinal sin, arguably more ostracising than doping. But in our sport it’s normal to trade results. It can go from a mutual convenience where two riders in a breakaway collude under the agreement of “the stage win for you, the yellow jersey for me” all the way to practice of selling a result for cash.

Institutional support
Sometimes the UCI doesn’t seem too bothered about the rule-breaking. Drafting a car in a race is against the rules but if a rider is caught they’re given a light cash fine. The amount levied, say 200 Swiss Francs, is irrelevant given the average pro team budget equates to a million Euros a month. In other words the UCI should add a zero onto the fines or even dock ranking points if it wants to get serious here.

Similarly this time last year we had Pat McQuaid’s desperate attempts to secure a nomination as he resorted to fixes with the Thai and Moroccan federations and pushing for retrospective Malaysian amendments to the UCI’s constitution. Here was the highest figure in the sport searching for any possible avenue to stay in the game.

But do we want a totally fair, open and honest sport? There could be a split of interests here. The UCI surely wants the sport to be spotless but fans want entertainment and the political intrigue is what makes cycling tactically sophisticated. From temporary alliances to team transfers, the business side is often fascinating and part of this blog’s raison d’être. From Shakespeare to The Sopranos people love stories where all is not as it seems. Perhaps the crucial point here is transparency, we know teams form temporary alliances on the road but accept this but other forms of fixing, when they’re hidden, are less welcome.

Let’s note the improvement in attitudes. Go back to 1998 and riders were striking and even quitting the Tour de France in protest of police raids, half the peloton thought it was above the law. Today’s generation just moan about the burden of updating their Whereabouts or that 6.00am anti-doping control. We’ve come a long way.
There are also plenty of everyday sporting gestures. Riders share food and there are unwritten rules that say you should not attack when others are down on the ground. At the US Pro Championships Lucas Euser stopped to help Taylor Phinney after his crash. None of these are in rulebook but they’re welcome and show a self-policing aspect to the peloton.

What if we went further? There’s a good piece on exploring ways to introduce ethics as a policy prescription.

Blatant cheating in football is off-putting but the subtle forms in cycling can be intriguing. Hypocrisy? Let’s plead guilty. But it’s not a binary case. Diving in football is amusing compared to the doping and match fixing stories that plague many sports while tactics and backstories often fascinate sports fans, for example transfer tales and training plans

Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said a game consists of the rules by which it’s played. If so then pro cycling has some shaky foundations. There have long been serious ethical issues and the cultural norm has been to explore what can be gotten away with rather than play fair. It’s debatable but there is a good argument that says the search for every legal advantage sets up a culture where some will cross the line into illegal means, especially if they see others getting away with it and creaming off the rewards. Put aside the big  “no-no” of doping and pro cycling has all sorts of fiddles from sticky bottles to unapproved kit. These are often treated as quaint exceptions and hidden charms of the sport but strictly speaking it’s cheating.

Can pro cycling become more ethical? Yes. Let’s note hope for a spotless sport but a start would be for the UCI to enforce its own rule and up the fines to a level that would make teams pay attention. Cultural change can take time but a steep fine can change minds quickly.

70 thoughts on “Sportsmanship and Ethics in Pro Cycling”

  1. Feel assured, in football you dive AND dope AND fix matches AND place illegal bets AND…

    * * *

    Another question: while I’m aware that police investigations many times provided the only possibile external and independent look on the doping problem, I’m far from convinced that a “criminal” approach is appropriate to tackle the riders’ side of the matter (whereas it’s very appropriate to face the whole doping criminal business). As you say, “we’ve come a long way”, but I’m not very convinced that it was totally in the right direction.

    “Ethics”? In the 2000’s Manolo Saiz was writing the “Ethical Code” all the teams were so eager to sign…

    By the way, “justice” (and hence “the Law”) implies that the means to prevent or to punish crime should be commensurate with the seriousness of (possible) guilt and the extent of (supposed) damage: not every crime is prosecuted nor every crime is punished, even when it would be technically possible, because “justice” recognizes this basic principle.
    Moreover, and on a different level, “ethics” – as such – should always involve an adequate balance between the enforcement of laws and the respect towards the existential dimension of the human subjects. Even if they’re guilty and rightly deserving a legitimate punishment. A story as old as Antigone (at least); maybe that’s why it’s so easily forgotten…

    * * *

    Wittgenstein meant both stated and unstated rules. Thus, cycling’s foundations wouldn’t be more or less shaky depending on the respect of rulebook rules, but on the agreement and strength of unwritten rules as well. “Illegal” rules included, and “unstated-rules-about-how-striclty -have-you-to-stick-to-rulebook-rules”, too.

    * * *

    Great post, as always 😉

    • Great comment.

      Long before Antigone, the Chinese were considering honour, ethics, punishment and rehabilitation. I believe that the best way to reform doping at least is to search out and prosecute the suppliers providers. Few cyclists are masterminding great cheating schemes.

      One passage from the I Ching, 2-3ooo years BCE:

      “It is not the purpose of chastisement to impose punishment blindly but to
      create discipline. Evil must be cured at its roots. To eradicate evil in political
      life, it is best to kill the ringleaders and spare the followers. In educating
      oneself it is best to root out bad habits and tolerate those that are harmless.
      For asceticism that is too strict, like sentences of undue severity, fails in its

    • Are you suggesting that the performance of InRng over the last couple of weeks has been out of the ordinary? Could it be that there’s other, sinister, reasons for the recent amazing productivity and quality? Or is this all in line with previous performance – if so, will stats be made available to dispel suspicion?

      The public has a right to know!


          • It is possible that our friend Inrng received a strongly-worded registered letter from Vino, indicating that the form needs another notch, and soon. It may or may not have also contained the number of a good (or effective, at any rate) doctor and an offer for big money (a lot of cycling caps shipping as we speak- or is it socks?) to take credit for the excellent post.

            Thanks, as always, for the piece.

            The passing of the bidon, sitting up for a fallen rider, etc., has always lent a sense of honor- and a certain beauty- to a sport that has sadly become known, at least to the general public, for cheating. Even in the murkiest of years, ethically-speaking, there have been wonderful examples of sportsmanship, which I’d like to think will outlast- and ultimately outshine- the darker side of pro cycling. I tell friends that cycling is like being bit by a vampire; once you’re in, you’re in for the whole ride, warts and all. (Apologies for mixed metaphors).

  2. Great topic.

    Regarding McQuaid, you have omitted the facts of why: He was nominated by Ireland. But then, a convicted IRA terrorist who now works for a dodgy internet gambling website discovered an honest but legitimate mistake in the process of the nomination. He and a few questionable friends used the loophole to force a new election and ran a full scale dirty smear campaign. Cookson’s own campaign was anything but ethical. Winning at any cost. Now, we have a eunuch in charge who has just been praised publicly by the IOC. That is as damning as a syringe in the bin.

    Sport is great fun, but ethical participants are outliers.

  3. One mans terrorist is another mans feedom fighter 🙂

    Insult is the poor mans arguement.

    A stich in time saves mine etc.etc bla bla


    Machine gun Kelly

  4. The UCI fine of 200 CHF has a reason: Fines upwards to 200 CHF cannot be challenged. That is why we very often write out fines of that sum exactly – in case anyone was wondering.
    So what needs to change here is the limit at which the fine can be challenged. And then, of course, a revised fines schedule with raised sums.

    On sportsmanship, allow me an anecdote:
    Tour of Denmark some years ago, I was riding behind a breakaway of Johan Museuw (yes, that long ago) Jacob Pill and, I think, the last rider was Bodrogi, but I’m not sure. The breakway has just slipped away 22-24 km from the finish on a short Danish “Muur”, time gap something like 45-50 secs, bunch chasing.
    Museuw signals for something to drink (experience shows, just before the 20 km limit) and seconds after his signal, while the neutral car is moving up, Pill punctures! Museuw, with his hand up signalling, in one smooth movement lowers his hand and points to Piils rear wheel for the car to service and forget about his drink.
    They do a quick wheel change while Museuw and Bodrogi continue at reduced speed and once Piil is back they, Museuw has had his dringk, they go all out and re-establish the break from 20″ t0 1’30”, At 1,2 km Museuw then leaves his companians in the dust but that’s another story. His display of sportsmanship was outstanding.

    • UHJ, your great story was a perfect illustration of the honor in bike racing- and even more poignant and relative to this blog entry, as the hero in this case is also an admitted user of enhancements.

  5. I get a little irritated by both the focus on doping and by the sometimes pious responses which doping in cycling arouses. It is, of course, cheating but needs some context, which this thoughtful piece touches knowledgeably upon. Cycling never had a Corinthian era. It was never ‘gentlemanly’ in the manner of the many sports codified and exported by the British, and projecting British class politics. It was always highly commercialised, and the (usually working-class) riders always used a little something, from brandy to amphetamines to steroids to EPO to give them an edge in an activity that was as commercial as it was sporting. We seem to expect (perhaps reasonably in 2014) cycling to somehow invert itself into a kind-of Corinthian future. Time will tell. I do think there are many examples of genuine sportsmanship and chivalry within road-racing that are often overlooked in the discussions around the sport, and suggest that despite the tacit acceptance of doping for many years, a way of conducting themselves and code of honour has existed amongst professional riders (as described by UHJ above) from which many other sports could learn and benefit.

  6. Epic topic, well written as always. comments also thoughtful and most cases cordial.
    you Irish guys need to calm down.
    Especially liked Vince’s take.

    One can win and compete and have no class, but we all agree when one wins with class they epitomise the extraordinary sportsmen.

  7. I find the blatant cheating in football disgusting. Let us imagine for a second that a player that sat on the bench in yesterday’s game tested positive for a banned substance. He would be banned for up to two years and people would argue that the result should be overturned, especially if he was on the pitch for even a few seconds. However, blatantly cheat in front of millions of people watching in the ground and on TV and nothing happens, despite the fact that the blatant cheating clearly impacted the result.

    Cycling has its own issues, but it seems to be attempting to handle them. It also has great displays of sportsmanship, such as today in the Dauphine. Football just seems to be a constant display of poor sportsmanship and blatant cheating that the governing body appear to have no desire to stop. The sad thing is that kids see these displays and copy them. Do we want them copying what we see on the roads in cycling or what they see on a football field?

      • +1, I think?

        For the non Anglo’s, WG Grace is seen as one of the ‘founders’ of cricket, in the sense that he played in its very early days and was a giant of the sport. He was also reputedly one of its greatest cheats…

    • Actually, a similar situation did happen in a European Championships qualifying playoff between Wales and Russia in 2003/4. One of the Russian substitutes, Titov, tested positive for bromantan after the first-leg game, in which he didn’t play, and which was a draw. He then played for most of the second-leg game a few days later, which Russia won 1-0 to qualify.

      Titov received a 12 month ban, but despite Wales calling for the result to be overturned, Russia went unpunished.

  8. Did Westra stop pedaling for for sportsmanship? When I saw the title I was expecting to read about the finish of the Dauphine today. First the peloton waited for Froome, then Westra holds up at the finish line. Watch the video and you can clearly see Westra stops pedaling before the green bike lane marker at 4:36 in this video

    Does he stop because he changed his line and is unethically (?) going to pinch Bakelants into the boards or just to avoid crashing himself?

    • He stopped pedaling when he realized he’d be relegated for what he’d just done. Sort of a plea of “no contest” rather than a laudable act of sportsmanship. He respected/acknowledged the rule against “closing the door” right after breaking it.

    • Nice pick up; he certainly stops pedaling toward the end, and I think that in his exhaustion he just continued a rightward lilt. As says Foley, he stops his momentum as a nolo contedere…what a moment of anguish for Westra on several counts…

  9. Aren’t there some big cultural differences at play here? I used to play in a football team with a load of Brazilians and we had endless discussions about diving and faking. They would do whatever they could get away with on the pitch while they would complain as much as anyone else when an opponent did any of these things. They saw all of this not as some black-and-white issue of ‘cheating’ versus ‘fair play’ but as ‘part of the game’. The rules were there not to tell people what was right and wrong but to be interpreted, bent, prodded and tested in any way that could be done. And this seems to be the common attitude in many countries. In some ways, I see this as a lot less hypocritical than the Northern European hypocrisy which insists on following the rules, while breaking them when it suits. I should stress that all of this was about what happened on the pitch. When it comes to doping, or bribery or any of those kinds of things, we were all agreed that this was not ‘part of the game’. I see much the same thing with the system of UCI fines – it basically recognises that in-race rules are going to be broken some of the time. But it doesn’t follow from this that doping and bribery are okay too.

  10. Not to be pedantic but…
    A professional foul is regarded as a foul carried out on purpose to stop a player from scoring or passing ie rather than just trying to tackle someone, hacking at their legs for the sole intention to stop them there and then.

    The hand on the shoulder would come under simulation, play acting, or being a drama queen.
    It is unfortunately perfectly accepted in football for someone who is 6ft plus, at the prime of their athletic career and ability to fall like a sack of spuds once someone runs up beside them, tends to happen more near the opponents goal.

  11. I’m kind of responsible for the regulations in my federation and we very often meet riders/DSs etc. that insist on following the rules (and bending where it suits) and refuse to interpret what I like to call the “spirit of the rule”.
    Sometimes the wording – be it in Englsih or another language – is ambiguous not with intent but because the translation was not thought through. That leaves it open for the verbatim interpretation when we, as translators and implementors – thought we had it covered “in spirit”.
    That is frustrating!

  12. Many athletes in all sports live by the creed that if you are not cheating you are not trying your hardest and it is only cheating if you get caught. This win at all costs attitude can in many cases be tied to the hyper-competitiveness of many top athletes. We all hear stories of these guys being ruthlessly competitive at any game like rock, paper scissors or checkers. What I loathe about soccer is exactly what you point out however it is mare about these guys acting like wussies that disgust me. One of these guys dive and stop the game they should be pulled out for 1/2 hour minimum. Then we would see it stop immediately. Penalties in all sport should reflect the seriousness of an offense and meted out without hesitation.

  13. There will be more dramatic acting during the World Cup than a weekend on Broadway, for that reason I will give it a miss. Besides Brazil have to win it anyway.

  14. I never noticed that supposed new rule requiring riders to ride on the road, not the gutter, ever being enforced this spring. Not once.

  15. Interesting, in Froome’s book he mentions that Movistar asked Belkin to wait on Stage 13 of the Tour as it was sporting and one of the Belkin riders turned round and said was in sporting that Valverde had doped previously.

    We all know the outcome of that stage.

        • Don’t know about the riders, the problem is that it was systematic team doping, and part of the structure is still there, I’m afraid… just like it happens in so many teams.

          * * *

          Curiously enough, Valverde was sanctioned while racing for a team, the current Movistar, which was the bitter rival, in many senses, of the team(s) and structures mainly involved in OP.

          After starting his amateur career with Banesto’s juvenile team, he moved to Kelme’s development team, not without an amount of backbiting. In his first years as a professional (22-24 years old) Valverde went on racing with Kelme – where a compulsory team doping program was implemented by Fuentes – then he moved (again, not without some polemics) to Illes Balears = Caisse d’Epargne = Movistar (= ex Banesto), where he spent the rest of his career till now.

          The TAS says Valverde possibly received a reinjection during his first months with IB, on the 7th of april 2005, but the fact is quite disputed, being a kind of non-sequitur (even in an ethimological sense). Note that the Banesto DSs were also the “historic enemies” of Manolo Saiz’s ONCE…

          These are facts.
          So? Well, it’s quite clear that OP was an “inside job”.
          I suspect (but, from here on, this is absolutely a personal, conspiracy-theory inspired, fictional work) that Valverde’s personal reactions to OP were related to the fact that he felt being “framed”, that is, being caught in some kind of backfire, incriminated for a doping program he *left behind*. Fuentes walking around during his daily life with a note in his pocket saying “VALVERDE”? A code name like “VALV-PITI”? It looks like a sort of key-code, more than else.

          Even if what I’m hinting at was true, I’m not implying that Valverde *was right* to be in such a huff (anyway, he was doping at Kelme, beyond any doubt…), neither I’m implying that Banesto/IB/CdE/Movistar are kind of a clean team (pfffff…), I’m trying to give a context-based explanation of… a narrative, the scornful attitude of Valverde. One of cycling’s unwritten rules is (was): “they must catch you while you’re at it, not when you’re out – or you’re doing something else”.

          End of story. Just to say, it goes far beyond the doper/no doper binary option (with “former dopers” often associated by the vast public with the first side, and “uncaught dopers” with the second…).

          • Not sure the “framed” approach works, didn’t the DNA test show that it was Valverde’s blood in the bag, and you can only be framed for something you haven’t done?

            Completely agree with this bit, though “One of cycling’s unwritten rules is (was): “they must catch you while you’re at it, not when you’re out – or you’re doing something else”; it explains a lot of responses.

            Perhaps also add “and if they accuse you of doing the wrong thing, they’re not allowed to change the accusation when they work out what you actually were doing”.

          • Yeah, I’m sorry, a linguistic matter here. I now checked that in English it’s “framed” if and only if it’s refered to an “innocent person”, which is something I wasn’t in any possible way meaning to say (for example, I wrote “he was doping at Kelme, beyond any doubt”).

            In Italian “incastrato” is used in a wider way, i.e., you’re in the gang but you just have to watch out and warn if police is coming… then everyone runs away and it’s all your fault, whatever it happened; or you agree to take part in some kind of *innocent fraud*, and suddendly you find out that the fraud is against the wrong persons, who will retaliate heavily (the examples are not *metaphors*, that is, they’re not related to the Valverde case, it’s just to show the slight difference in usage).

  16. I’m glad you gave the example of Euser. That he stopped racing and dnf’d to help Phinney is one of the sweetest things I’ve heard of in a long time, sport or no.

  17. I heard an interesting moral dilemma the other day at a Commonwealth games themed event here in Glasgow.

    Apparently gene doping is already proscribed by WADA even though, as yet, it’s not technically possible. But gene doping for medical purposes is called gene therapy and may soon be available to parents to alter the genetic make-up of their child before birth. If this is done in such a way as to predispose the child to success in a particular sport, who is cheating? Should the child be banned for life for the actions of the parent? Assuming it was detectable anyway, which it wouldn’t be…

    • A complicated subject. Genetics as in inheritance is impossible for WADA to regulate but it is illegal in many countries to alter the DNA like this.

      What people call “gene doping” is really the field of epigenetics which means non-heritable factors. So you’re altering the DNA in the adult, eg finding a switch for increased EPO production and using chemical triggers to flick this switch.

    • I love the crazy world of genetics. How are the UCI going to deal with men competing in the Womens world racing scene. Bare with me .
      Since early 1900’s there have been many (yes many ) instances of men competing as women in track and field/ swimming etc etc. These individuals may have rare Genetic compositions that give them the attributes of a women with the physical abilities of a man , some were transexuals with operations and hormone therapy . The OIC tried to mandate “SEX” testing but after the news got out that female athletes were made to parade nude in front of “Sexual Judges” things changed a bit.
      About 1 in 1,000 people have some intersex condition — ambiguous genitals, internal sex organs that don’t match their external ones or an extra chromosome such as men with an XXY combination . Who is going to make the call deciding which “sex” you must race as??
      Physiological abnormalities are probably very common in top level athletes ie larger than normal Lung volume, bizarre hematocrit numbers extremely long leg to height ratio etc etc , anfd then of course the Mosaic Blood types he he .

      food for thought

  18. What if vino had been on the same team as kolobnev? Then he’s paying kolobnev’s salary and it would be expected they’d work together or k would sacrifice for v. What’s the difference to what actually happened? In both cases money transfers hands, one rider sacrifices for another, it’s still 2 against 180 so not exactly the same as a team sport where one team is paid to throw it.

  19. I’m one of Vino’s biggest fans, and I get your point marking a difference with “team sport”, but even in cycling there are temmates who worked hard to help Kolo get there (and didn’t get any share, I suppose), and there is a third party putting his money in to have Kolo try his best. Funny thing that in this case both teams were quite different from the typical business-sponsored teams…

    On the other hand, I find it quite entertaining and I grew kind of fond of cycling’s tradition of selling races (maybe because some famous examples involve great champions of the past I nevertheless admire?).

    The difference with selling a match in a League is that in cycling you need to have earned something significant in terms of race situation and chances, to sell it away. It’s not just “now it’s your turn to play against me because the calendar says so, I’ve nothing to ask to this championship, how much do you offer?”.
    It’s about self-confidence (maybe Kolo sold the Liege because he felt he was going to make second anyway… as always ) and, more than everything, giving away for money what you had to conquer with hard work, sweat and sufference.

    Maybe that’s why I tend to “appreciate” race trading much more in one-day races; in a stage race the situation partially slips towards the “Serie A” example…

  20. Bakelants agrees with jkbrennan77. In the post stage interview (in French) he said that Westra shut the door in the sprint, but then when he saw Bakelants was alongside (in the fence) he eased up. He sounded pretty annoyed but then thanked Westra for playing fair.

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