You Can Ride Off-Road

Ian Stannard Varentstraat Kerkove

This time last year the UCI had brought in new rule requiring riders to stick to the road. This time last year the peloton ignored it. The result is that the UCI changed the rule and riders can use paths as long as it’s safe to do so.

Also Ian Stannard appears 10 times harder than the rest in the image above. But he ended up on the cobbles by accident, briefly missing a move adopted by everyone else.

That’s the new text. Note the woolly wording where it is “strictly prohibited… …if a dangerous situation is created” or if it “procures a significant advantage“. So it’s forbidden if it leads to something happening but in the heat of a race when a rider flicks onto a footpath they simply can’t forecast if it’s going to be dangerous. Presumably if some idiot pulls a wild move by switching across the road to dive onto a cycle path causing spectators to leap out of the way then it is dangerous whereas the imagine of riders switching onto the dirt footpath isn’t because wise spectators have left the route clear. As for “significant advantage” this is hard to quantify but presumably we’re talking about taking a short cut.

Up to the race?
If a race organiser picks a cobbled road it’s because they want to soften up the riders in the same way a cook softens a steak with a meat tenderiser. So is the sight of riders jumping onto the smoother path undignified? Not really. Because the path is faster and easier means there’s another fight for position and the riders are lined out. Nobody can overtake because it means having to cross into the damp grass section and being slowed by the sticky mud. So knowing this section is coming up is helpful to save energy.

Stannard: hardman or error?
The image above suggests brute force, a man who gives the cobbles a pounding while the others shirk on the sidelines. But revisit the race footage and reality is less prosaic: he made a mistake.

It’s the Varenstraat outside Kerkhove and entering the cobbled section Stannard appears to miss the moment to switch onto the footpath. In the clip above, see 1m54s as Stannard looks to be trying to overtake riders and moves left to pass just as the entrance to the path arrives. As others dive right, Stannard is too far on the left of the road to make the move. He pays the price for the inattention and has to endure the stones for a while before he flick across the road to get a wheel. A mistake? Yes but one to learn from and it made a memorable image.

Last year the UCI tried to block riders from leaving the road but it didn’t work and the rules got tweaked. Following the weekend’s racing several people, including riders and journalists, were asking why the rule wasn’t being enforced. It’s been changed and it’s permissible to ride on the side. The rule change isn’t perfect, it’s subjective even when viewed from the cool position of a desk meaning it’s a lot harder to interpret when you’re in the middle of a race.

49 thoughts on “You Can Ride Off-Road”

  1. If you cause a crash or hurt someone, it’s illegal; otherwise it’s ok.

    Brilliant rule. To be fair though, it’s such a massive grey area.

  2. The ‘significant advantage’ part provides some huge leeway, because it’s an indicator that’s relative. But to what?

    In the above image the footpath might provide a significant advantage over the cobbled road (although you provide some fair points that weaken this proposition INRNG).

    But what if everyone uses it? If the journalist goes up to the DS after the race and says ‘your riders were using the footpath’, the DS will say ‘So did every other rider’. So out of the window goes the relative advantage.

    All in all, it’s good to see that there is a sense of realism with this rule tweak. While I personally prefer the previous version (I mean come on, they should just ride the cobbles…), better have trimmed rule than a massive rule that you can’t enforce.

  3. Surely if one rider ends up riding down to cobbles for 100/200m+, like Stannard did, then the other riders should be deemed to have gained an advantage. At what point does it become significant though; When that rider loses the group? Loses his position in the group? Punctures? Wastes energy so is dropped later on?

    It really should be a clear cut policy: use a bike path, get DSQ. If a following moto or team car can’t do it, then neither can the riders. But the UCI has set it’s precedent for 2015 now. And then next year riders will say “But we could do it in 2014 and 2015, so we will do it now”. It will take a brave person to uphold the rules now and that is more than a little bit wrong.

    • The problem (in my opinion) would be that the black-and-white version of the rule would not allow riders to prevent crashes by escaping onto bike paths.

      • Agreed, but doesn’t that just require another tweak of the rules?

        ie at present the rules state “you can’t use paths if it’s dangerous for others” but what you’re saying is “you can’t use paths unless you can show that doing so was necessary to avoid danger for yourself or others”

        So although I agree that a black and white rule may not suffice, I don’t think they’ve tweaked the rules in the correct manner.

  4. The image improved Stannard’s hardman image – whether he made a mistake or not… expect to see other hardmen riders on the cobbles in the next few weeks… seeking that elusive i’m harder than you image 🙂

    Cancellara one legged, Boonen smoking a cigar, Paolini beard trimming etc …

  5. Another example of why this is such a great blog, looking beyond a basic image and telling the real story.
    Granted you have spoiled some of the fun in the image which has become a bit of a meme sensation amongst UK fans at least but better to know the facts.
    I didn’t know about the rule change and had looked back to your blog from last year to see if I had remembered things correctly. Infact I was about to start a campaign to give Stannard the KBK title as well since everybody else cheated 😉
    Keep up the good work.

    • Thanks. I did see the image on Twitter yesterday and thought “he probably hesitated when he had to switch across” but didn’t want to spoil the fun of what was a symbolic image; today allows a bit more context and time to review things.

      • On the other hand, the very first bit of path wasn’t that great (as the Quickstep rider at the front indicated when he got onto it) and Stannard did still move up nearer the front of the line by a couple of positions overtaking on the cobbles, so not much of a mistake.

  6. You can’t really have a clear cut rule as often it can be hard to tell where the edge of the road is? Is a painted cycle path ok, if the dividing line is solid or dashed. In some cities the boundary between footpath and road is blurred on purpose to encourage slower driving

      • I hate to sound pedantic but the correct name is Strade Bianche, I made the exact same mistake and a friend, who has a degree in Italian, helped me learn the correct use. The rule is that in Italian the adjective will always have the same gender as the noun so it’s:
        la strada bianca (singular)
        le strade bianche (plural)
        (the road is feminine and I learned that from the famous Italian movie La Strada by Fellini)
        If you refer the male gender then:
        lo squalo bianco (singular)
        gli squali bianchi (plural)

        I have a very long way to go to learn Italian properly but I just love the Italian language. I apologize again for the off-topic.

        P.S. In Italian there is no neuter gender.

  7. I’d like to see race organisers – using barriers or whatever – force the riders to use the road: I want to see them ride the cobbles. This is particularly true on the cobbled climbs: in every race bar the Ronde, the riders use the gutter. Why don’t the crowds in the smaller races just move into the gutter?
    As for safety, they should make an absolute rule that the riders have to stick to the road – it’s never save (if fun to watch, at times).
    One rider is thrown off a race for breaking the rule and then the riders stop.

    • The gutter is part of the tactics, because it means the fastest way up the climb is a 10cm wide path there’s a whole strategy based on getting to the climb first / on the right wheel otherwise you can lose the race. Remove the gutter on, say, the Taaienberg and it might not be so tough because the bunch can go up four wide.

      • Also these roads don’t exit solely for bike racing. If you remove gutter, the road would require resurfacing much more often and, given it’s cobbled, at much greater expense than other roads. The Koppenberg, for example, doesn’t have a gutter and is ridged with rounded off stones because the (bountiful supply of) rainwater has nowhere to go but down the thoroughfare.

        The gutters present their own challenges, filled as they are with silt, mud, mulch and the odd grid they are often slippy and being so narrow are hard to maintain a line on. Also an old woman pointed and laughed at me from her garden beside the Paterberg because i was using the storm gutter there. Maybe that’s what we need to resolve this situation.

        • Both good points above (although I wasn’t recommending removal of gutters!) – I just prefer it when they go up the cobbles en masse, as opposed to single file in the gutters (and even more so when they use pavements, etc. to avoid cobbles altogether); but that’s just a personal preference.

          As for a rule on riding on non-roads, it would have to be ‘unless in emergency’ and the race commisaires would rule on this (always going to be a grey area).

          Can I just say how nice it is to have comments on a site where people make good points, rather than the usual insults/pedantry/snideness/points-scoring, etc.

          Love your site – can’t believe it took me so long to find it (purely because I didn’t look).

          • I agree with J Evans original point (and Yogi’s – intentional or not – statement as illustrated): In the “cobbled classics” I want to see riders suffer on cobbles. If I wanted to watch “gutter classics” I could simply take a stroll through my home town on a Saturday night.

            However, riders will always follow the road/gutter/bike path of least resistance and enforcing rules saying they should not follow this fundamental principle, makes for a whole lot of enforcing!

            This is a job best left to race organisers. If you want riders on cobbles, do as they do with the Arenberg sector of Paris-Roubaix and put up barriers.

  8. Good clarification article, thanks, but having seen the headline on the twitter feed I was a bit disappointed. I don’t know why but imagined there was some Velominati rule about only ever riding a road bike and you were going to argue it was okay to crack out the mountain bike too.

  9. With the rule as it is now, it’s up to the race organizers to place barriers where they don’t want the riders to go. Indeed in some cases the single track aspect adds a layer of tactics but not always, and it may not always be in the best interest of the race image to see riders evading the cobbles. So the ball is in the organizer’s court now.

  10. As anyone who has ridden over any of these stones well knows, you enjoy a real advantage if/when you can ride on a smoother surface. Unless the race organizers (as they do on parts of the Paris-Roubaix course as well as others) are able to put up barriers to prevent this, trying to stop it via a rule like this is laughable at best. I too would like to see them forced to ride on the cobbles but you can’t blame a guy (or gal) for jumping onto a convenient sidewalk or gutter. I’d hate to see arbitrary DQ’s result from violating this rule….let ’em race!

  11. I’m usually fine with the gutter being used, especially at the point in a race when the group is big and it serves a tactical purpose. However in the final of Paris – Roubaix I’d prefer if the riders were forced to stay on the cobbles. I can’t remember if it’s on Carrefour de l’Arbre or the section after it (or next again), but often then we see the riders completely ride besides for cobbles for a long stretch. I think it should be up to the race organizers to decide, so they can inform the teams/riders before the start that if they ride in the gutter in a forbidden zone (even though there might not be barriers) they will be dsq’ed (I don’t know if that is the case already tbf).

    • You mean Lance Armstrong. After all we always talk about Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault or Fausto Coppi, not Eddy, Bernard or Fausto.

      • Hee hee, You sound like me, one who doesn’t understand when the “first-name basis” idea went away. These days fans think nothing of calling these people by their first names…it’s one of those generational things old-farts (like me) don’t understand. I wouldn’t walk up to Eddy Merckx and say “Yo, Eddy!” or up to Felice Gimondi and say “Ciao Felice!” but many younger fans would see nothing wrong with it.

          • He’s BigTex to me. He used to annoy the hell out of Marco Pantani by using the “Elefantino” moniker and reportedly hated being called BigTex in return…so that works for me. I met the guy for the first time many, many years and he seemed like a spoiled brat then…and it seems nothing much has changed since, except he’s got (for now at least) a lot more $$ and notoriety than when he autographed a cover of the Tour DuPont (or Trump? I can’t remember now) race program along with (I think it was) Bobby Julich.

  12. This is one of those cases where pictures tell a better story than the video footage. Cycling has countless of images like this from the mass-television era; images that capture the public’s imagination and make the sport seem more grand and romantic. Not that this image is on par with the famous Coppi/Bartali bottle exchange, but if the latter were to happen today, they’d be plenty of video footage that would’ve settled that argument almost immediately.

  13. It’s a road race. Not a road and footpath/bridleway etc. race.

    I know it’s not as black and white as that but it would be very easy to define where riders could and couldn’t ride and in reality it’s very obvious what the road is and isn’t. All road have an edge, be that a grass bank, a footpath, a curb. I have no problem with the gutters, they are part of the road, but examples like the above video shouldn’t be allowed in my opinion, regardless of how clever the tactics are.

  14. How would you interpret the rule as part of a race winning move, like Stybar in the Eneco Tour in 2013? Would that get a fine, a time penalty, DQ, or would it be ok?

  15. Remember that you have 100 guys all aiming for a 4 inch path in the mud! Instead of a open roadway full of pave

    It all adds to drama that is racing on Belgian roads which has been and should always be the way the classic road races in the area are governed.

    As well gives the local guys ( Belgians) an advantage. They know the route and they have CX’d lots.

  16. When I first saw that photo I immediately thought Ian–oh, pardon me, Mr. Stannard–was lacking the intelligence to take advantage of the side pathway like the rest of the peloton. Thanks Inrng for clarifying that he merely lacks the racing saavy to keep his eyes up the road rather than being big and dumb.

  17. I think it’s obvious we’d all like to see them racing on the roads, whether they’re made of tarmac or cobbles, but having ridden Paris – Roubaix I can see why riders would avoid them if they can especially if they have a clear footpath to ride on in the Stannard picture.

    It may have been because of a mistake but it’s still an epic hardman picture when you ignore the context!

  18. Seems very odd that rides can go off piste like that. Surely it is worth someone going round with a pot of red paint and clearly demarcating where this should not be done.
    Great picture for Stannard’s CV though!

  19. Apologies for yet more pedantry, and this indeed may seem like excessive concern for minor detail, but nowhere in the video do we actually SEE Stannard make a mistake in failing to follow onto the path.

    We see him ride on the outside, and further along we see him still on the cobbles, but we don’t see a mistake, merely assume one. Look closely though, and you’ll see Vanmarcke (I think) also riding along the cobbles for a section longer than the rest of the riders. He does this, despite being in a position to follow – the implication being he chose not to follow, rather than failed to follow. In fact, I counted around 10 riders who didn’t follow initially, and moved over later, despite having plenty of opportunity to do so.

    At the initial point where Etixx riders moved onto the path, the access was wide, providing plenty of opportunity to move over. Many declined at that point, but we don’t see it. We do then see Vanmarcke move over at the next access point to the path after moving UP on the riders who went on the path. At that point Stannard clearly chooses not to move over, remaining on the cobbles for a further section, as he too moves up on the riders now on the path.

    Again, I hate to contradict the assumption, but it is merely that – an assumption that Stannard made a mistake. In fact, Vanmarcke’s (or whoever the LottoNL rider is) actions suggest it wasn’t a mistake, more a decision, as Stannard continues to ride along the cobbles (and move up) for some distance even when Vanmarcke takes the opportunity to move over.

    Study it closely (and that’s what pedantry does to you), and you’ll see Vanmarcke moves from fifth in line to third by staying on the cobbles, closing a gap to the front two in the process, and Stannard moves up from about 12th in line to fifth by doing the same.

    So even though the assumption seems reasonable, the pedant in me argues in fact Stannard didn’t make a mistake, but a clever move to work his way up the peloton at an important stage of the race when the group was breaking up.

    I’ll get me coat.

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