Unwritten Rules of Cycling: It’s Getting Old

Tour de France 2003 Luz-Ardiden Lance Armstrong Crash
Lance Armstrong goes down in 2003 Tour de France on stage 15 to Luz-Ardiden

In Soviet Union, unwritten rules of the peloton was law.

As the unwritten rules go, they were not codified. You wouldn’t go to a library, pick up a Codex Cyclicus volume and find out what’s legal and what’s not. You learned the rules over thousands of kilometers listening to your older teammates brag about a stage race they did last year. No one knew where the rules came from or who made them. The rules are the rules, do what you’re told. In a country where you’re taught from day one to shut up and never ask questions, the rules made sense because the rules were stupid. Stupidity ruled the nation so it made perfect sense if stupidity ruled road cycling too.

The first one I learned was to never sit up in a breakaway. Ever. They’ll hang you by the neck if you do. A serious offense. Never sit up, unless.

Unless what?

Lawyers call this clauses. You’re verboten to do A unless B or C applies. Never sit up unless a) the breakaway, if successful, will hurt your team’s general classification standing. Team, the collective, is king. Your success is secondary to team’s success. Don’t care if you win or not, team’s first. This one was easy to figure out by looking at the pinned numbers. Jerseys were useless as clues because everyone wore a plain jersey, most of them red, with numbers pinned to rear pockets the only difference. If you’re alone in the break and at least one team has a numerical advantage, you can sit up.

Maybe.

Can or can’t will depend on where your team is on general classification. Above or below the team that has a numerical advantage? By how much?

Question: how am I supposed to know all this stuff in the middle of a race? Well, you go back to your team car and ask or they come to you and tell you. Sit up. Or not. It’s complicated.

Never sit up unless b) someone in the break will leapfrog your teammate who is… what? Leading the race? In top three on the general classification? Might win the race overall? Can win the race overall?

Question: even though I may know all of this information, how others in the breakaway are supposed to know it? Well, you tell them when they start beefing about you sitting at the back doing nothing. No one ever buys this bunk and they call you names and swear to remember this episode for the rest of their careers. You do the same in their shoes. Spray the bastard with the phlegm every time you slot behind the last wheel and empty your nose. It’s how it is, suck it up princess, no one likes freeloaders.

And on it goes, c), d), and who knows what else is there. By the way, the never sit up rules are different for stage races and one-day races because one-day races don’t have the general classification standing. It’s complicated.

My favorite rule was the piss rule because urinating from out of the saddle never worked for me. They say it’s a skill you have to learn but it’s one of those things where trial and error procedure can get kind of unpleasant, especially the error part. How far do you think you can piss away from yourself at 30 km/h? One try and one error with a wet shoe was enough for me.

This is why piss stops were great. No one knew how many riders had to stop for a pee before the peloton would wait. The rule was, a) the race had to be quiet, or b) if the boss stops, we wait.

In my time, Yuri Kashirin was the boss. He was the law, he judged what was or wasn’t kosher.

This one day we woke up in Southern Ukraine buried under mountains of snow that had fallen overnight. In the middle of a stage race, the last one on the calendar and the most important one, the Grand Prix of Sotsialisticheskaya Industriya. Early October, not supposed to snow here yet but it did, in a big way.

Snow meant no racing, an extra rest day. At least, that’s what normal people would do, right? Snow on the roads — no bike racing. It’s stupid. You’d think so except the commissaires didn’t. They’re not the ones racing so… They said let’s wait, let’s see what the weather would be like in two hours. In three hours. By 12, the sun had turned the snow into water and the water had flooded the roads. The race is on boys, off you go.

The stage was from the mainland Ukraine to Crimea peninsula through some farmlands and farmlands are mud kingdoms. After three hours in the saddle, you couldn’t tell who was who. Everyone wore a mucked kit with mud-splattered numbers and rode a filthy bike.

And then the cops at the front of the peloton took the wrong turn somewhere. You’d think they knew where to go to but maybe too much mud confused them or they drank too much vodka to keep themselves warm. No one knows but they got us lost on the way to Simferopol.

We noticed something was wrong when the sun was leaving the sky and going to bed and we were still in the middle of nowhere riding in the mud and then someone said hey, it’s a four-hour stage and we’ve been in the saddle for almost five and where’s the bloody Simferopol anyway, what’s going on?

This is when Kashirin, the boss, went back to the chief commissaire and asked him why we’re still on the road. They told him about the detour and even said sorry.

And then the sun had set.

Out in a country, it’s a dark place without the sun. Hundred-fifty riders soaked in mud, angry on their bikes riding to Simferopol with the sun out because a couple of cops had failed the one job they had to do — take us from A to B without a drama.

The boss went to the commissaires again and asked to neutralize the stage. Racing at night is insane even for the Soviet Union. No way they said. It’s Sotsindustriya, remember?

At this point the unwritten rules kicked in. Piano, the boss said when he came back, we ride piano to Simferopol, no racing. Piano was the word we borrowed from Italian language to describe a truce in a race. The only concession the commissaires made was to allow team cars to come behind the peloton with high beam lights on and this is how we reached Simferopol, like an army of demons expelled from hell for hooliganism.

The race blew up the moment we hit the Simferopol’s outskirts. The speed went from 30 to 50 in seconds and it kept climbing as we reeled through the city streets hopping over potholes if you saw one and hitting the ones you had missed. We had a fast sprinter on the team and my job now was to get to the head of the peloton, slot in somewhere in the top ten and wait for my teammate to find me.

We did okay that day and scored a podium but I couldn’t stop thinking about the piano order. Someone had spat on it and restarted the race. A stage win trumped the rules. We followed them one minute and broke them the next. And it made sense — no one cares how you win as long as you win. No one remembers anything about an offense against a chivalrous protocol breached the moment you decide you no longer want to respect it. And even if someone does remember, so what? Who cares? A win is a win.

The day the rules’ duplicity bit me on the butt I was leading a stage race. After winning the opening time trial, I was supposed to lose the yellow on a climb later in the race, but I didn’t. We went for stage time bonuses to beef up the buffer and even though I got dropped on the climb, I raced on and kept the jersey. With two stages to go, I had the race in my pocket. In theory.

Second to last stage’s crosswinds tore the peloton into pieces but I stuck with the front group and had an easy day at the back once the break formed, nothing to do but wait for the sprint. Bored sucking the wheels for an hour, I didn’t see the roadworks up ahead. My fault. I hit the road filled with rocks and sand without slowing down enough, tried to change the gears and dropped the chain, hopped off the bike to put the chain back on, couldn’t get going again, hopped off and ran to the side of the road for the harder surface and then only got going again. The gap was about 300 meters when I reached the tarmac.

I didn’t panic. They would wait, right? I’m the race leader and I had a mechanical problem, dropped the chain. They’ll wait.

They didn’t, not even a second. Still, I didn’t panic. I waved my team car to come to me and asked them to motorpace me back to the front group and they said no, not in front of the commissaires. What? I said. We do it all the time. No, they said, not when the stage race win is on the line.

I called in the commissaires’ car too and asked if my team car can motorpace me back. They smiled and drove away.

Cycling unwritten rules amendment: UCI rules apply when the race result is at stake.

Your team car will motorpace you back to your group after a wheel or a bike change, in front of the commissaires, if it doesn’t do anything to the race’s outcome even though a UCI rule forbids “sheltering behind or falling into the slip stream of a vehicle,” a rule ignored by everyone in every road race on the planet, every day, every time you need to get back to the group you’ve been dropped from for any reason unrelated to performance.

It’s a routine. Something goes wrong with your bike, or you crash and if you’re still in one piece, you stay cool because you know your team car will motorpace you back into the race if it’s close by. You know this since you were a junior. It’s how it’s done. Sheltering behind or falling into the slip stream of a vehicle is how you mend the glitch. You can use your team car or any other car from the convoy.

Sometimes, no one can help you like when the crosswinds blow the peloton into echelons or you puncture at the foot of a mountain. In this case it’s bad luck because it would be ridiculous to pull you through from the fifth echelon to the first. Imagine how stupid and unfair this would be if you hit a rock and snakebite your tire, pull over and wait for your team car and three echelons later you get the spare wheel, hop on the bike, tuck behind your car and they pull you back all the way to the first echelon where you’d punctured from. Stupid, right? But it’s not stupid when they pull off the same maneuver in other situations because the unwritten rules allow this.

What the hell? What kind of logic is this?

This is how you lose faith in a system you never bothered to question. You put two and two together — for the first time — and go, hold on a second, it doesn’t make sense.

It never did and it never will because road cycling doesn’t work like a country club dinner does. You don’t turn up for a race to banter about politics. You turn up for a race to fight. It might not look like a fight but it is. Even when you do nothing all day and sit in the bunch smoking cigars, you’re not doing nothing, you’re getting your legs and your head ready for another race.

The chivalry and all that jazz, it’s contrary to the notion of a fight. Works well in the movies and books and TV commentary, sucks on the road. Strip the window dressing and what’s left is this: you follow the unwritten rules when breaking them won’t gain you anything. Or, to flip it the other way around, you break the unwritten rules when they hold you back from striking your foes.

Think of any chivalry episode you can remember. Twenty-first July 2003, stage 15 to Luz-Ardiden in the Tour de France. Ullrich is 15 seconds behind Armstrong in general classification. Last climb, about 10 kilometers left to race, Armstrong attacks with only Mayo able to follow while Ullrich looks like dead meat and then Armstrong catches a spectator’s musette with his handlebar and crashes.

This is where the unwritten rules should kick in, right? Hold your horses and wait for the yellow jersey to get back into the race. It’s only fair, you don’t want to win the Tour de France like that, do you? You want an honest fight, blow for blow.

Except you don’t.

As you’d expect, the cameras stayed with Armstrong and we don’t have the footage of Ullrich’s reaction to the crash. We see him passing by without slowing down as Armstrong is getting his chain back on after the crash and then Armstrong is back on the bike in 25 seconds. Twenty-five seconds is all Ullrich has on Armstrong with most of the last climb is still ahead. And shot legs too.

Forty seconds after the crash we see Ullrich riding alone with a gap to the rest of the breakaway group and this is where the legend is born. Phil ‘The Voice of Cycling’ Liggett says: “Ah, I think he’s waiting.”

Sure he is. Lance Armstrong is 50 meters behind flying like a mad hawk at him.

No one knows what went through Ullrich’s mind when Armstrong fell. It looked like he tried to go hard but then with no legs to deliver the death blow eight kilometers from the top of the climb and Armstrong back on his tail in under two minutes, the best move was to heed the unwritten rules. He lost 40 seconds to Armstrong that day but won thousands of aficionados for his sportsmanship.

The narrative never changes. It’s a repeat. Every time. Stick with the unwritten rules when nothing is at stake and pay no attention to them when you can turn the tables in the race or clinch the victory. It’s a repeat of a story told, and it’s getting old.

3 thoughts on “Unwritten Rules of Cycling: It’s Getting Old

  1. Enjoyed the reminiscences & your reflections on sport and life, Nikolai. I realized today one thing I really appreciated about your memoir-series was the distinct lack of bitterness in the writing. I guess for me personally, regardless of whether or not someone is justified in feeling anger and disappointment at being treated unfairly, it’s just not enjoyable to read or listen to expressions of resentment. I have the impression that there’s a sparseness of hard feelings in what you choose to express, and as a reader, I thank you.

    • Thanks Joe. You’re right, I have no hard feelings about anyone or anything. I forgive. The best thing I can do is forgive.

Leave a Comment