The Moment The Race Was Sold?

There’s news that the trial of Alexandr Vinokourov and Alexandr Kolobnev over the alleged sale of the win Liège-Bastogne-Liège is going ahead next March. This is an old story or rather a slow story that has yet to reach a conclusion but brings some intriguing angles from how the law will deal with race tactics; to helping us explore how much a race is actually worth rather than the prize list and more.

In sport the practice of match-fixing is scandalous, in cycling it can be part of the charm. To explain, there can be shared interests in a race. Imagine a two rider breakaway where one stands to gain the leader’s jersey if they pair can stay away so a verbal pact is made where the other rider is promised the stage win, both stand to gain from this collusion. It makes perfect sense, no? Now imagine a tennis tournament where the two finalists agree among themselves that one can win the match as long as they goes easy on the other stands to top the ATP rankings: this sounds fraudulent, no?

The difference is that cooperation is the essence of road cycling. Rival riders will share the work in a breakaway in order to beat everyone else. When Peter Sagan attacked on the Poggio in Milan-Sanremo this year Michał Kwiatkowski gave chase followed by Julian Alaphilippe and the Pole and the Frenchman appeared to share words seconds before they shared the work to chase down Sagan, colluding if you like. Is this allowed?

1.2.081 Riders shall sportingly defend their own chances. Any collusion or behaviour likely to falsify or go against the interests of the competition shall be forbidden.

That’s the relevant UCI rule and it’s not very well drafted (unless it is meant to be deliberately vague) because by implication any collusion that falsifies the competition is banned but what is falsification? Racers may and do collude in more subtle ways such agreeing to ease up and fool the bunch into think they’re tiring only to pick up the pace and stay away for the win; or to carve up the rewards such as letting one rider collect mountains points in return for setting a steady tempo on a mountain pass. So far no money has changed hands but the spoils of victory have been carved up. So far, nothing too heinous and from a pro cycling perspective you’re only able to divide up what you’ve got, that you have to have ridden into a winning position before trading it rather than, say, two football teams agreeing to through a match.

It’s old too. We sometimes refer to riders working for their team leaders as domestiques, French for “servants”. The term was meant to be a withering insult when Tour boss Henri Desgrange directed it at Maurice Brocco in 1911 after Brocco had given up on his own chances and started to collude to help others.

All this is before the institutionalised component of pro cycling, the criterium circuit, from Aalst to Asia, where we often see noodle-limbed riders “outsprinting” the green jersey winner of the Tour de France and this is all treated as a harmless show, an act of pantomime to please the crowds.

Is a threshold broken when the result is sold? Certainly this turns tactical sophistication into a cold hard cash, a less than sporting outcome especially as the collusion is not obvious: we can spot the shared interests of riders in a breakaway to stay away, we can’t tell what to look for if they’ve sold the outcome in private.

How much is a race worth?
The amounts paid are interesting as they’re in excess of the prize money and this informs us how much a race is really worth; or at least tries to make an approximation in the moment. But the price depends on a lot of hidden things, it’s not like there’s an auction on eBay to discover the price. A rider may have a win bonus in their contract and if they know they stand to gain, say, €200,000 then paying away €100,000 may be corrupt under the law but it could be rational for the participants. Or maybe they are in contract negotiations and winning a monument classic can substantially up their market value? Either scenario can explain why some might pay a six figure sum for a classic. But is it the cash value or an insurance premium? If you were coming to the finish and felt great you might just take your chances. If you felt weak with fading energy levels and cramp starting to tingle then the calculations change.

[musical interlude]

Now let’s shift from the theoretical considerations to some specifics about the case that looks to be going to trial in March. Consider the context for a moment. Kolobnev rode for Katusha during its “Russian cycling project” phase with Gazprom’s name on the jersey, this was the height of Team Kremlin. Only Katusha was serially under-achieving during this phase, yes it enjoyed wins in 2010 like Pippo Pozzato’s stage win in the Giro and Joaquim Rodriguez took a stage in the Tour and Vuelta in his way to topping the rankings that year but it ought to have got more. So here was a chance for the team, with a Russian rider, to win a monument classic: just think of the symbolism and importance for the team. If there was a sale of the race – and for now there’s no trial, no verdict and all are innocent – then just imagine the irritation this could cause with the team’s Russian ownership if one of their riders gave up the team’s glory to bank some cash for themselves. The emails reportedly coming from Kolobnev include the memorable lineHere is a copy of all my bank information and clear it from your mail box, or my balls may be cut off“.

Joking aside there’s another angle worth considering here: the genesis of the story and the court case. It is based on claimed leaked emails originally published in L’Illustré, a Swiss magazine. It claimed the two riders were emailing after the race and discussing payment of a sum of €100,000 and the magazine followed with the email exchange in greater detail. Was a journalist at a Swiss magazine into hacking into email accounts? It is possible. So is the idea that there was some kind of background investigation by international police and these emails came out as a nice anecdote.

Lastly this case has taken its time, in part because Vinokourov and his legal team, as is their right, has been taking their time and raising objections and procedural queries. But there’s a lot at stake. A classic for starters and were Vinokourov to be stripped of the result then note third placed Alejandro Valverde was given a retrospective ban for this period so theoretically Philippe Gilbert gains his home classic. A criminal sanction could be a step too far for the UCI’s Licence Commission and the Astana team as whole could be in trouble. In recent years the team has become less Vinokourov’s fiefdom with more supervision from Kazakh sporting officials.

An old case? Yes but still an unsettled topic and it’ll be interesting to see any evidence presented in court and to read the verdict as the judges try to apply pesky laws to the peloton. Trading races may happen in cycling and sometimes it’s part of the sport’s charm, other times it’s outrageous but always handled in private. We might see strange outcomes, rider autobiographies allude to deals but never the specifics. This time the case going to court claims to involve email exchanges and bank records which probably explains why prosecutors are interested. It’ll take place in Belgium so we can almost expect a livestream from Sporza and more realistically comprehensive press coverage. As well as the legal and theoretical concepts involved the specifics relate to an active team manager so as old as this might be it could have fresh consequences.

40 thoughts on “The Moment The Race Was Sold?”

  1. I can thoroughly understand the indignation and as much as I appreciate the old world charm of “giving away” stage wins in order to gain a more valuable reward in a particular race, this kind of deal simply stinks.
    I can also understand that there must be a rule against it *within the sport* and a penalty for an offense against such a rule – but what I don’t understand on what grounds does a public attorney have a criminal case against the two riders?

    I mean, who was the victim here? Certainly not the race organisation nor the sponsors of the race. Katusha and their sponsors, no doubt, but they haven’t pressed any charges. Betting firms or punters? Don’t make me laugh!

    I think I can grasp the concept of a “victimless crime” and I can fully understand why it is in the public interest to fight corruption and bribery in business and in society, but I’m not altogether convinced it is wise to push the boundaries of civil law just because sports fan feel cheated.

  2. Good piece.
    You might remember the Basso-Simoni case and maybe something from the good ol’ US Postal times, I am not sure if some reference did even appear in the USADA papers. Those went public, or close to, but nobody wanted to brought it all the way down to the extreme consequences.
    Worlds have been known to be on sale for decades… as well as the precious help of rival teams for no sporting reward in GTs, even recent ones (some of the latter are nearly “official history”).
    As long as it is something circumstantial, I feel that’s a curious part of the sport that adds flavour. It’s like playing poker… money makes it more interesting albeit sometimes more deterministic.
    The need to negotiate a deal on the spot, with the bunch chasing, with no option to prove your rival that you’ll actually pay, I find it quite emotional.
    When it becomes team managers sitting at the same table and trading fees, it loses part of its charm, albeit perhaps not all of it.
    A curious twist of it (but it’s very personal) is that for some reason I find it more “sporting” when a rider is colluding for a reward than when he does it for, say, pure friendship or because he’s in good terms with someone else – riding for a different team, obviously. We had at least a couple of very impacting cases like this during the 2017 season. However, I don’t dislike this option, either: it highlights the social and political nature of cycling, after all.

    • ‘Facilitation payment’ I believe the term is; quite illegal under Belgian corruption law.

      Nevertheless I do agree with you. Where does collusion become corruption?
      Take Dumoulin’s Giro triumph – without the collusion of Bob Jungels et al on stage 20, the title would probably be resting with Nairo Quintana for instance.
      There are countless others and it’s part of the sport. A necessary part even, otherwise by nature the peloton would always win.

      I think the Law should keep out of this.
      Perhaps it’s a case of having to intervene if presented by such strong evidence from the journalistic investigation?

      • No race or rider is above the law though. Obviously no prosecutor is rushing to investigate criterium results. We’ll see what this brings, the UCI did investigate but the police/judiciary should have more powers to determine if the documents involved and any wire transfers are real.

  3. This case is one of those “in-your-face” capers that was so obvious it deserves the scrutiny and legal actions. File it under “Stupid Criminals” and then find a way to yank Vino’s Olympic gold medal while you’re at it!

        • I don’t think that’s much of a conspiracy theory (I’ve never seen anything so blatant): unless Uran is entirely lacking in peripheral vision there’s no way he could not have seen Vino’s attack

          • And even more recently, Il Lombardia in 2016 where Uran pulled for Chaves to the detriment of Rosa. Uran is a better sprinter than both, he sacrificed himself for a countryman from a different team, yet he seemed to have the chops to win. Gotta wonder what team car discussions were going on there and what of monetary value changed hands.

  4. The money transferred makes it a no-brainer for me. If Kolobnev said ‘I won’t sprint against you because you’ll win anyway, I’m started to lose it, go full gas and I’ll take second’ that’s okay because it’s a tactical decision. ‘Give me money and I’ll throw it’ just isn;t.

  5. If Vino were from any other country, he would have been banned for life many years ago, and we wouldn’t be talking about him right now. He needs to be sent away to the dark and dusty corners of the cycling universe, like where LA does his podcasts.

    • Right…. like all the other athletes who’ve doped before him.

      Barry Bonds is never in the public eye, Mark McGuire didn’t coach the Cardinals, Jose Canseco never wrote a few successful books (and by write, I mean talk to a writer), Ray Lewis (killer and doper) doesn’t work for ESPN….

      Lance is a guest at the Flanders Classics races next year.

      Big Mig (doped 100%) is a guest at the Tour whenever he pleases….

      So, which country do athletes get banned for life for doping/other “mild” issues????

  6. Much as I disliked what I was watching in this particularly blatant case, probably because of the presence of Vinokourov, it’s nothing new in bike riding.

    The sport is partly based on ‘collusion’ of some type, by a team, by managers, in breakaways or even by decisions taken by the peloton.

    This case going to court is yet another big dose of bad news for a poorly governed and administered sport.

  7. Am I the only one who wonders how much I should be owed for all the races I lost?
    More seriously, any legal involvement in this sort of issue is potentially extremely risky. Unless the jury instinctively understand the benefits of cooperation in cycling, there could be some very troubling outcomes. Yes, I think 95% of us would agree that Vino’s actions are wrong, but a jury without experience of chain gangs, etc may be unhappy with many legitimate agreements made in breakaways?

  8. Just a side thing – but would they go as far a Gilbert for the win? Or once they have lost the whole podium would they just mark it blank like Armstrong’s tours.

    • The UCI proceeded this way but in part they were guided by the rules. Belgian law might do otherwise but the verdict could prompt the UCI to act or review the result, this can happen and if any “statute of limitations” comes to mind, this is a WADA thing for anti-doping cases, for other things it doesn’t apply.

  9. The difference with this is that money changed hands and it was a one-day race, so one guy got everything and one guy got nothing.
    I don’t want to pointlessly watch races where the result has already been decided.
    I guess for Kolobnev, his paymasters must know the truth by now – we all do – so he’s probably safe.
    People say ‘It’s a part of cycling and always has been’, but the incredibly obvious response to that is so has doping. And, as a reductio ad absurdum example, what if it turns out that Sagan has had a motor in his bike in every race of his career – it’s been going on for years so it’s OK?
    This made the race meaningless: that’s not good for the sport.

    • In my opinion, buying a race, loading yourself with EPO is NOTHING compared to a motor in a bike

      Vino likely would have beat Kolobnev in a two-up sprint

      Lance had solid chance to win some TdF’s if everyone was clean

      But a human has no chance against a motorcycle.

      • Honestly, in terms of the sport’s image, every single anti-doping resource should go towards stopping this. None of my sport watching friends have heard that there are rumours of guys winning races on motorised bikes, but I guarantee if they do, it will ruin the sport for them.

        They always joked that Lance was dirty, but still appreciated the Tour de France, especially when their favourite mainstream athletes were rumoured to be using steroids too. For example, people are now accepting that Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds belong in the Hall of Fame. But, people don’t think Sammy Sosa should be in (rumoured to have used a corked bat his whole career). That’s the difference between motorised cheating and doping. The thought that these guys are really using engines in their bikes will take away all credibility… dopers can lose against clean athletes, but motors will always win.

  10. Colluding over something in a stage race, such as ‘you get the mountains points if you set the pace and don’t drop me’ or ‘you do all the work and tow me to the finish for the GC gain and I’ll let you win the stage’ are one thing when both parties have something to gain. That is harmless and entirely part of cycling. As are two rivals on different teams working together to bring back a rival like Alaphilippe and Kwiatkowski. But when you are in a classic and one man promises not to challenge the other in exchange for money then that is something entirely different, however long its been going on. Its completely bent and against the spirit and the whole point of sport. Plus its Vinokourov, who is the only person in my eyes who can challenge Armstrong on the bastard scale. I hope at the very least he gets stripped of the win.

    • I think the line here is that coordination is fine so long as it doesn’t run counter to your sporting interests. This could even include teams pulling for others in exchange for future considerations.

      Where it crosses the line in my opinion is where sporting interests are subordinate to non-sporting interests (money, but could include contracts, etc.).

    • Your point is very relevant right now. In the Vuelta, Nibali looks to be comming back on stage 17. He didn’t lose much time to Froome on the ITT and regains most of it on a mountain stage. Froome looks tired and his body language is telling. He “miraculously” bounces back on stage 18, due we now know, to a little bump in the salbutamol levels and reagins some of the time. Without the unwitnessed thirty plus puffs of salbutamol, he may have even lost time on that stage instead of gaining more. This sets the stage for the showdown on the Angliru, where reversing a one minute deficit is clearly within reach. Nibali tries an aggressive descent, but ends up crashing and breaking a rib or two. Becasue of this, Zakarin is able to close the time to Nibali, while Froome takes time. Without the assistance of Pellizotti, Nibali may have dropped to third or out of the race, and potentially/eventually lose the GC (that obviously depends on some urine testing at a Swiss lab).

      BTW the term gregario seems less demeaning and more accurate.

  11. As scandalised as people are that this type of thing happened… it always drives me nuts when courts step into the sporting world. The court system is developed to stop killers, thieves, rapists, etc. It’s designed to solve a situation where there is a real victim. In this case, who is the victim? The only victim are the citizens of Belgium who’s rich prosecutor is trying to prosecute another two genetically lucky individuals who didn’t let fate decide a bike race.

    The other victims are the cases that are waiting behind this case who may not get the prosecutor’s full efforts because he is reading Kolobnev’s emails about losing his “balls”… come on, what a joke!!!

    In a way, the same thing with Lance’s case. Who did he defraud? Postal knew (or should have known) from the beginning that Lance was clearly doping. If they had done any due diligence on their sponsorship it was obvious that Lance, who looked like Jose Canseco, was crushing a bunch of guys who were taking EPO.

    • “Who did he defraud?” Can you seriously not see the answer to that? How about those who tried to race clean? Those that lost their jobs because honest riders couldn’t beat cheats, or those he forced out of his team (and employment) when they wouldn’t dope. Then of course there’s Filippo Simeoni – the man who had the balls to do the right thing and testify in court against a doping coach.
      Please don’t try to make that argument again – it’s the “Everyone else is doing it” defence that dopers think justified their actions. We know where that got us in the past…

      • You’re spot on, AA.
        Also, as for who else he defrauded, even if USPS knew, they were owned by the government and thus, the people. So, 300 million or so people: even if some people at USPS were complicit, the public were not.

  12. Yeah, Interesting thanks INRNG

    The question that come to my mind are how much was Kolobnev was making in salary the year of the incident? He did finish second! both were clearly deserving of a podium spot that is if no PEDs were involved and many above have expressed concerns.

  13. I do not know the rules of law in Belgium, but in the U.S. you cannot compel a defendant to testify. The burden of proof rests with the prosecution. Unless, there is an evidentiary “quid” for the $150k “pro quo” the case is a challenge for the prosecution. Either a witness to the sale or a statement (written or verbal) by one of the defendants acknowledging a sale took place is needed. Otherwise the prosecution must create inferences. Do the emails state a sale took place?

    What will be interesting is whether Vino and Kolobnev remain unified all the way to the legal line. Or does one sell out the other to the prosecution. The stakes of this race are higher than L-B-L.

    PS – I watched the last 5k of the race again. You don’t see any conversation between the two on the broadcast I saw.

  14. Nearly 10 years ago now there was a strong rumour that Mick Rogers tried to “buy” the Aussie road championships from one of his breakaway companions – a virtual unknown called Peter McDonald – who I think was in a small group with Rogers and Adam Hansen (Highroad teammates at the time?). So the rumour goes, McDonald agreed to the deal only to then sprint away for the win at the line …. love it. I so hope it’s true.

  15. There is a boundary. It’s very grey, but there is one, and it’s worth keeping. To have a Sport which can be either bought and sold for personal gain is not Competition. It’s a con or a fix. Fans need an element of honesty. I agree don’t dispose the impromptu horse trading for a win that gets a rider from another team pulling so we have a finale worth watching, but flagrant purchase of a win is corrupt and as a fan we need more honesty than that.

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