The Unwritten Rules

After a look at the written rules time to explore the issue of the unwritten rules, the code of the peloton. It sounds vague, mysterious even but it’s merely part the glue that holds society together, a set of etiquette and customs that help a group to function.

Apologies if you expected a list like yesterday’s highlights of the UCI rulebook. It’d be a thankless task because there’s a good reason these things aren’t typed up, they’re often contextual and circumstantial. To illustrate this let’s imagine a hypothetical scenario of a crash:

  • Hard luck and there’s no implicit obligation for the peloton to stop or slow
  • But what if lots of riders went down?
  • But what if it was through no fault of their own, perhaps there was oil on a corner or a dog ran into the bunch?
  • Now imagine many of the fallen riders are up and trying to get back to the peloton, one accepted practice here is for those uninvolved in the crash not to attack because it would be unseemly to profit from an accident
  • But what if those at the front of the race were already trading attacks or going “full gas” at the time of the incident then to attack now is to continue what was happening already
  • But it also depends on a range of factors, is it a stage race or a one day event?
  • If a stage race then was the race leader involved (because the leaders jersey has weight)?
  • If it’s a stage race and the race leader was involved was it early during the stage or is it during a decisive phase of the race closer to the finish?

You get the point, there are so many questions and scenarios, “is it X, if so then Y, but if not then maybe Z could apply”. Imagine trying to draw all of this as a flow chart: you’d need a giant canvas just to try but it would never capture the nuance, nor the moment. Besides it would only apply to scenarios following a crash. What about a puncture and is that different from a dropped chain? What about all the other things that can happen during a race?

That’s why we have etiquette rather than prescribed rules. Consider a simpler dilemma: should you hold a door open for someone? Now we could try to note down the considerations, perhaps it depends on the person’s distance from the doorway, their approach speed and other factors like whether they’re a frail 99 year old, the weight of the door and more. But we don’t, it’s a matter of instinct and mood that’s processed quickly. This doesn’t guarantee a rational result but society, or at least public doorways, work for most people without requiring regulation. The peloton is similar, if there’s an incident then riders make their minds up in the moment, often swayed by the race leader or the patron of the peloton or at least the race leader who becomes a figure of authority not always. There’s no rule on who is the wisest or most convincing.

Information asymmetry
If the peloton has long had its ways a recent phenomenon is the outpouring of comments on social media while the peloton remains more indifferent. Our reaction to events is shaped by our vantage point and this often means television. We can sit outside Italy yet have a better view of the front group during a mountain stage of the Giro than riders and officials thanks to prodigious television production. So when Tom Dumoulin stops at the foot of the Umbrailpass it’s live on TV. The camera dwells on him, a helicopter can pan in. Meanwhile for those racing it’s possible that many in the group don’t even notice Dumoulin. The point isn’t the precise chain of events on that day, just television affords us multiple views that are replayed and parsed for significance and context. This is what makes for good television and it gives viewers a lot more information than racers, not to mention the ease of analysis from a sofa compared to a saddle. This helps explain why social media erupts following an incident while riders often don’t demonstrate the same concern.

Another effect of TV and social media these days is that private actions can be public. There might be some road rage during a race, a bottle thrown or a fist flying. Etiquette says a handshake in the hotel or start village can calm things, the done thing among people who need to work together in the peloton but staging this in public can help diffuse tensions online too among fans.

Sometimes things are sorted internally. The peloton is a microcosm and what goes around will eventually certainly come around. If a team picks up the pace after a crash to profit from the moment – this is still their right, no commissaire will stop them – there may be a price to pay. They could find themselves being chased or blocked later in the race; perhaps even years later when a cold dish of revenge might be served up. Because the peloton is only a few hundred riders someone who is regularly transgressing accepted norms risks trouble in a sport where you need your rivals to help you win: what is a breakaway but a temporary alliance with rival teams?

In the past the peloton has self-regulated itself to the brink of disaster. Look at the height of the EPO years, a pharmaceutical version of Lord of The Flies where the group had its own code in spite of UCI rules and even national criminal laws. It seems bizarre these days but in the wake of the Festina affair in 1998 the peloton was protesting about police raids and displaying a sense of self-entitlement that suggested riders felt immune from the law. All this is a far cry from today’s more frequent post-stage polemics about whether someone should have waited following a bungled gear change or whether a team accelerated after a crash but a reminder that the peloton can’t ride in the opposite direction to society, that internal rules can’t pull too far away from outside society.

Because they’re unwritten these codes and practices can seem shrouded in mystery, like private rituals or secret handshakes. But there’s nothing particularly covert, these customs are more about helping the peloton function as a society from day to day, a place where trust counts for mutual security during a fast descent or rivals temporarily cooperating during a breakaway.

Listing or even outlining such these ideas is pointless, they change and depend on circumstances and this flexibility might confuse at times but the fluidity helps the peloton, like any group, rub along. Should someone have done something following something happening? Maybe but it will depend on who, why, where, what, when and so on and there’s not necessarily a correct answer, even with hindsight.

45 thoughts on “The Unwritten Rules”

  1. This part of cycling has always intrigued.

    Good points, as you say a lot of the decisions are in the heat of the moment and based on etiquette displayed in the past from other riders but could be under very different circumstances so not all situations are equal I guess. Also if you don’t have the likes of say riders like Cancellara who was an authority figure in the peloton who you regularly saw berating riders does it become more of a free for all anyway with riders deciding for themselves?

    Although is there an element of self-policing in the peloton and karma that also intrigues me? By that I mean if someone attacks in a situation that is seen as bad form the peloton remembers and may be less inclined to help that rider out in future rides.

    As you’ve pointed out it is quite clear social media has changed how actions taken in the race are viewed and are already hotly debated before the riders even finish the stage. Where in the past it probably would have passed without much notice but these days you have video loops and GIFs of incidents within minutes of the event and the armchair experts come out in force debating about what is right or wrong.

    • With respect though, the phrase ‘armchair experts’ implies that they are ill-informed or wrong.
      This is not necessarily the case, after all it is the unwritten rules and there is no right or wrong.
      Cycling is missing, or ignoring, the chance to interact more with its audience perhaps.

      Most sports have (had to) grasp the opportunity that technology presents to them to provide for a ‘fairer’ outcome, be it real time decisions or even retrospective ones to right a wrong.

      To have a poorly-parked moto take out eight riders, and hold up another ten or so, at the foot of a crucial final climb and then be explained away as a racing incident is just incredible to me.
      You have the cameras, the race radios, a car up front with a light on it or a commissaire standing through a sunroof, but nothing happens…oo la la.

      • That incident was a good case were TV viewers surely see much more clearly what happens in the race than participants. Any commissaires would be behind the group and not able to know what caused the crash and given the speed it would be very difficult to take any action.

        • What, you don’t / can’t have a commissaire watching the television and relaying advice to those on the ground?
          I say again, oo la la 🙂

          • We know some team cars have TV’s with live images from time to time, but it still then relies on the TV images showing the potential danger in enough time for it to be spotted, then relayed and then reacted. We’ve all seen the images of that police moto crash, no way could a commissaire or DS relay that danger in enough time!
            In fact there’s so few cases where live TV shows a potential problem that far ahead that would not be spotted via other means.

          • I heard somewhere (probably Orica Backstage Pass or The Cycling Podcast) that the TV pictures are 30-60s behind live, so often there is nothing the car can do to warn ahead of something they can see on the pictures.

          • That’s because the teams are watching the normal race live broadcast available to the local consumers (complete with ad breaks!) rather than a direct feed.

            The delay to a commissaire watching in the host broadcaster’s production truck would be more along the lines of two seconds. If cycling was to get serious about safety, this would be close enough to real time for it to be used to direct a lead car or moto to put on yellow lights and slow the group they are leading.

          • So after 5 minutes watching slow mo replays, some “tv comissaire jury” tells the guys on the ground to neutralize the race, or what?
            Next step is a twitter/N troll poll where armchairs decide which part of unwritten rule has to be applied on the ground. Immediately.

          • Where does 20″ become 5′?

            But the bigger point is the unwillingness to intervene.
            It was immediately apparent that something extraordinary had happened but not extraordinary enough it seems.
            I’m just totally puzzled as to what does constitute extraordinary – I’ve read comments criticising the decision to award Froome the time back on Ventoux for instance.
            Even the decision to neutralise the race after the mass pile-up at TdF 2015.

          • In cricket, the third umpire (usually for video replays) has the ability to instantly communicate with the on-field umpires if they notice something. In the past this has has led to cheating being caught on the spot (Shahid Afridi ball tampering incident in 2010) and to a dismissed batsman being told to wait on the field rather than finish walking off while replays were checked.

            If a cycling commissaire had the same assistance from the host broadcaster as the third umpire does to view any angle at will, there’s no reason they couldn’t be assessing penalties or directing a neutralisation inside of a minute from when they occur. Most of the ~20 second delay is with the TV networks, not with the images getting from the cameras to the RAI truck at the finish line.

            Only an uninformed numpty would criticise the stopping of the race after the pileup in the 2015 Tour, as that was a pure safety issue of the race using up all its supply of ambulances.

  2. My own intuition, unsupported by any spreadsheet analysis or forensically studied list of cases, is that “the unwritten rules” are slowly but surely being followed less and less. The recent Poogate at the Giro was notable not for the actions of the riders during the stage so much as for the responses of people like Nibali when they were asked about it. “No one stops for me” I think was the quote. The inference being that he doesn’t see why anyone should stop at all for anyone. And Mr Nibali certainly has form for that if I recall a certain tiny mechanical for the yellow jersey in a recent Tour on a mountain stage which Mr Nibali was seen by some to have taken advantage of. But this post is not only to tug the forelocks of Nibali fans. Its my genuine impression that in the unending search for ever more difficult to achieve gains on the road the etiquette of the sport is slowly being shredded. Riders seem to be saying more that “the race was on” or “its racing”. Every man for himself? Sad if true.

    • It’s hard to tell, each generation seems to say the younger one has no respect. I heard Mark Cavendish say this the other day; I remember him passing Mario Cipollini during the Tour of California TT stage with one leg unclipped 😉 Cipollini was a patron of the peloton at one point, today Cavendish is one of those authoritative voices.

      Worth noting, as cited here before, that in 1957 Giro leader and defending champion Charly Gaul stopped for a pee only for his rivals to attack and ride away with the race. I don’t know if this says that the old days were as wild or inconsiderate but these things happened. It might depend on the people, for example Bernard Hinault was able to impose his will on the peloton at times in a way few others could.

      • Wasn’t that because Gaul had been massively disrespectful in an earlier race? He wasn’t a popular rider IIRC, which might explain why his rivals felt no compunction in attacking when they did.

    • When you have that kind of perception, the answer is usually found to be nostalgia – that previous generations were kinder, more respectful, etc, somehow by virtue… of their virtue (which is lacking in today’s crop of riders).

      Even Plato complained that the youth of his time had no respect.

    • Inrng made the point that the sport periodically needs to reform bad “self-regulation” as with doping. The function of some of bad unwritten rules probably amounts to something like initiation “hazing,” which often seems gratuitous while also being intended to compel obedience via kompromat. So it’s good that younger riders show the capacity to disrespect some aspects of the regime.

      About the unwritten rules around competitive ethics, I’m not sure the situation seems any worse than it used to be (so I don’t agree with the RonDe’s inference from the Nibali quote). One thing that struck me about some of the “ethical” debates during the Giro, was that we had fundamental disagreement about things that were actually covered on video. The questions, “did the peloton ‘wait’ at all for Dumoulin?” or “did so-and-s0 interfere with whats-his-nuts during the sprint?” were answerable questions, but we could not agree on the answers. The subsequent “ethical” debate was based on inadequate premises. The hand-wringing about bad sportsmanship seems of a piece with the broader world today as Inrng says, and it does get tedious sometimes. But maybe a bright side is that in the absense of substantial controversy, these moot debates can still help advance the cause. Or at least have decent infotainment value.

    • I just re-re-re-re watched the stage that you note above. It was apparent from the first climb of the day that Niabli was going to try to win the stage and began attacking on the first climb. Scarponi was on the front shredding the peloton within the first 10 k of the race. Froome was down to one or two helpers by the KOM point. His head is lolling back and forth like when he is on a long climb, note the first one of the day. They caught back on on the descent, as Nibali could be seen slowing the attack just prior to the apex. He didn’t want to tow the peloton across the subsequent flats, he wanted Sky to waste themselves doing so. On the next climbs he did the same. 3-5K prior to the “event” Nibali is probing Froome, Contador, et al and Froome is down to only Poels. Valverde attacked about 2-3 k prior and is about 10-15 seconds up the road when Nibali puts in the big dig that breaks him free. Interestingly, about 3-5 k earlier Froome reaches back and opens his rear brake, with his left hand. He could have pulled over at any time along here but doesn’t. He appears to pull over just after Niabli attacks. And BTW he appears to be on the limit prior to this point, just my opinion here. In fact later on the next climb Valverde is seen remonstrating Froome to take his pulls and Froome doesn’t have the juice to do so. If Lotto hadn’t come to his rescue he would have been cooked. Generally the comments here are well thought out, other time they are just restating what the poster “heard or saw” from someone else. I would respectfully suggest watching the race or stage in questiona and not repeating speculative untruths.

  3. Having commented above, and playing Devil’s Advocate somewhat, one aspect of this situation that I do like is the ‘what goes around comes around’ element.
    I do wonder whether some natural justice was established on the Giro’s final stage in the alliance that saw Dumoulin chase the breakaway group for instance.
    It’s not self-enforcement, because I don’t think that ever works effectively (the EPO problem being the classic case in point) but it is adding a layer of intrigue that makes cycling a fine sport to ponder over.

  4. Nail and Head INRNG.

    The unwritten rules are applied fairly strictly and uni-formally when there is a strong Patron like Hinault or Armstrong in the Peloton. Weak or conflicted leadership results in hesitation, confusion and conflicting instructions from the team cars.

    • But this explanation just totally proves why self-enforcement can never work effectively; Armstrong as the peloton’s moral patron?

      • Armstrong’s position as Patron cam as much through fear and strong teammates as through respect. There’s plenty of stories around to illustrate as much.
        Fear that he could get you removed from a startlist, fear he could even get you fired. Heck, he got his own teammates fired when they fell out.
        Strong teammates could control a race. You wouldn’t make a Tour break without USPS permission to do so. Hincapie gives great examples in his book, and if two or three riders like him are chasing you you just give up.

    • I also wonder if the ubiquity of two-way radio and sporting directors treating the sport like a 1:1 version of Pro Cycling Manager has diluted the authority of the senior riders in the peloton?

      Make radio one way (rider to team only, like in CX) and they’ll be left with only two options on the road – think for themselves, or scream on the radio for a neutralisation which the team might then pass on to the commissaires.

  5. To use the analogy of holding the door open for someone, it seems less and less that we see such forms of common courtesy these days. So why should the peloton be any different if it is a microcosm of the larger society? Then to see Dumoulin hold up for Quintana when he took a fall tells a lot about his character and upbringing–a true gentleman and sportsman!

  6. Am I the only one doubting there was ever any set of “unwritten rules”? I just don’t have the comprehensive historical knowledge to say, but the only one that I can think of that I would suggest has been followed for decades is the rule that during the TdF the maillot jaune stops the peloton for piss breaks and everyone is supposed to honor this.

    All the rest of it seems like so much internet blather, often taken to absurd levels by partisans of the riders involved. Contador’s “chaingate” is a good example. The maillot jaune, Andy Schleck, unwisely gets out of the saddle while cross-chained to attack his rivals and shockingly drops his chain. His rivals, especially Contador, ride right over the top of him. (Lol. I’m laughing just remembering this!) A legion of Schleck fans, most of whom seemed to have been Anglophones looking for a new hero, if not just dopey, sentimental Americans, were in uproar, because the evil Spanish doper associated with Armstrong and Bruyneel put their hapless young naif to the sword. The livid Schleck-loving Anglophones decreed with certainty that Contador had broken some venerable but unwritten rule of honor, when I’d dare say no one in the history of cycling had ever under those circumstances stopped racing to wait for a race leader.

    I’m pretty sure all that madness had little to do with unwritten rules and a lot to do with a desire to put Contador to the whip. Heck, the mob even forced an apology out of him. God, that was bizarre.

    Have we discussed yet how cycling journos might be promoting controversy over riders violating unwritten rules now for clicks? It’s an unending source of controversy, since no one really knows what these rules are.

    • I think there must have been, simply because it’s impossible to ride hard all day, every day, so the peloton has had to agree when it’s necessary to ride and when they can rest. That’s exactly the sort of situation that gives rise to social mores and patrons “enforcing” them.

  7. Is there really a coherent set of “unwritten rules”. Would riders be able to spell out any set? The only one that I can recall that seems to be consistently followed is that at the TdF, it’s up to the maillot jaune to stop the peloton for piss breaks, and everyone is supposed to honor this.

    All the rest seems like so much internet blather, made more more intense by partisans of the riders involved. Contador’s “chaingate” would be a good example. Schleck had an avid fan base and Contador was under suspicion at a time when many were very frustrated with doping in the sport. Schleck’s fans decreed with certainty that Contador violated an unwritten rule, when I’d dare say no one in the history of the sport had ever stopped for a race leader under those circumstances.

    And should we discuss the fact that controversies about unwritten rules are grist for the digital journalist’s click mill?

  8. I like the way you used a door as an example and the thought process that takes less than a second to determine if you hold the door open or not.
    But then some people will never conform to societies etiquettes and as such they are a dick, and I’m sure there are some of those in the peloton too!

    • That can be true but if there’s a dick at the door it happens sometimes. In the peloton it’s unsustainable, someone who keeps annoying everyone else (charging into a corner, riding dangerously) is going to be educated, perhaps politely, perhaps not because it’s good for the group as a whole.

    • Somehow reminded me about an ancient story from the national scene, way back in the sixties:
      The national elite group of riders had a very fast sprinter that was kind of know to suck wheels until the last 10 meters. At one race this guy was in a break with Ole Ritter (at least so the story goes, it might have been some other rider) and with Ritter pulling the break for quite some time. After a while Ritter turns and asks: “Do you wanna win this?” The guy nods (probably the only thing he is capable of following a TT-wheel that fast) then Ritter goes: “You should have taken that left turn 10 km ago then…”
      Apparently the sprinter got schooled by Ritter giving up his own chances and deliberately going off route.

  9. Excellent piece. I tried to raise a similar point on a forum recently, but inevitably the discussion turned to “who should have waited” instantly. The key point for me is that the peleton is self regulating, a small society where collaboration is an essential part of competition. Everything that happens, from forming the break to chasing it down, is framed by an open ended game of prisoners dilemma, where your actions as a team or rider are remembered not just by those they directly affected but by the entire peleton. You develop a reputation, a character assessment. I think that’s unique to cycling, and part of the reason we all love it.

    • It’s hard to remember everyone in the peloton, there’s a lot of “that Movistar guy” or “the Greenedge rider” but many will keep a private ledger of credits and debits in a mental “favour bank”, do you share a joke, a gel, close a gap, trust the wheel in front down a descent etc… or the opposite.

      • Yes, exactly. Though I’d claim the ledger isn’t entirely private. “That Sunweb guy, he’s alright, see if you can get him to tell you the Tour Down Under story, it’s a cracker”… “That tw*t from AG2R, he *never* closes the gap”. And of course “Voeckler says he’s burnt and can’t take a turn? Hah!”

  10. Very interesting, thank you.
    I find the whole concept fascinating, especially when it comes to what British people call ‘fair play’. I’m not a great believer in fair play, as it often seems to me to come across like “Landlord’s generosity” – that’s to say, it’s easy to be kind when you own the land, you can be ‘fair’ when you’re ahead. People often cite Wiggins waiting for Evans when there were pins on the road, but that was with only a descent left in the stage, and a 3’19” gap in the standings. Dumoulin waiting for Quintana when he slid out in Lombardy this year looked great, but nobody said he should wait for Kangert who crashed later, when waiting might have meant losing a lot of time to someone.
    I can’t think of an example when a rider waited in a situation where they genuinely had the chance to gain a lot of time, but to do so “unfairly” in the eyes of fair play. And if there is, and I was a teammate of that rider, I have to say I’d hang up my bike.

  11. My view is that whenever an incident happens, the riders should continue riding as though it had never happening. No attacking, no waiting. So if a team was riding hard on the front, keep riding hard on the front. If they are riding tempo, keep riding tempo.
    The exception would be if the incident was the result of an act of malice (the only recent example I can think of was the tacks at the Tour in 2012), as that should not encouraged.

  12. I am fascinated by these concepts in cycling and in other sports too. They signify the culture of the sport, such that sporting cultures are more than just the combined or co-mingled cultures of those participating (including spectators, lawmakers, etc.).

    It’s interesting to think about how they have changed over time – for example, in ye olden days if you nicked a ball to the keeper in cricket but the umpire hadn’t seen/heard it, then as a batsman you would walk off the pitch. At the highest level of the game ‘walking’ has ceased to exist. Many people complain about the loss of this sporting side of the game, but a lot has to do with greater pressures, money, more tv coverage, etc.

    Similarly, in motor racing the “sportsmanship” side has evolved considerably, but in terms of wheel-to-wheel racing this is largely due to the cars becoming safer. aggressive driving, likely to cause a crash, was unheard of in the 60s (when many crashes were fatal) but became increasingly common from the 80s onwards as the consequences of crashing changed.

    In cycling many of the unwritten rules controversies only become so because they have been seen, real-time and shared around the world in seconds. the self-policing side of the peloton is surely only truly self-policing if it is not being observed from the outside.

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