It is time for ‘racing chivalry” to become a relic of the past. As with every sport, there is a professional code amongst bike racers. Part of that code is that you do not attack race leaders when they suffer mechanical issues; flats or bike problems. That code needs to go away.
a. Once upon a time, there were no support vehicles. In the years leading up to the 1930s, the Tour was contested by individuals. In those early years, pre-derailleur shifting, the riders had two gears. One cog was on each side of the wheel and at the base of the climbs, the riders would stop en masse and flip their wheels to their climbing gear. For many years, riders carried spare tires wrapped figure eight style over their shoulders. No spare wheels were provided by Mavic neutral support or your team cars. Neutral support didn’t begin in 1973. In those days, the idea of “All for one, and one for all” made perfect sense. With no help forthcoming, riders crossing the high-alpine goat paths that passed for roads in the post-WWII era needed the support of each other.
In 2015, rider support has become more sophisticated.
b. Once upon a time, equipment was unreliable. In the years leading up to the Merckx era, equipment was not to be trusted. Rims were wood. Tires flatted frequently. Post-war derailleur mechanisms were sketchy, and often went out of adjustment. Chains broke. When Mavic popularized the aluminum rim, early glues often came unglued from the heat generated during braking. As a consequence, the tires would peel off at speed, and riders would crash. With all of these issues, the idea that one should profit from a competitor’s mechanical issue seemed both un-sporting and unwise. Unwise, because he who would profit at another’s expense would surely be the next to suffer a mechanical.
c. Once upon a time, there was no money in cycling. Riders were called “les forçats de la route,” the convicts of the road, for a reason. They were poor. The sport made money for a few sponsors, but little was left for the racers. Today’s world-class racer is the monetary equivalent of many sporting heroes. Today’s teams are multi-million dollar investments for sponsors. The sponsors are now Fortune 500 companies. They invest in the teams because the teams generate return on investment. French business magazines estimate the value of the Tour at between 1 and 1.5 billion dollars.
With this much money at stake, let’s envision a meeting between a team and a sponsor who has not yet decided to renew a 10 million euro contract.
Oleg (the sponsor): Well, the Tour didn’t go as well as we’d hoped. We were promised a top stage finish. Our guy Vincenzo was right there. He looked great. When he attacked, I knew he’d win the stage. Talk about a great return. He’d be on the cover of L’Equipe wearing my company’s jersey! Why’d he sit up?
Sean (the team’s sporting director): Well, his big rival Chris had some problems with his chain.
Oleg: So? Sounds perfect to me.
Sean: Well, cyclists don’t like to take advantage when something like that happens.
Oleg: So, let me get this straight. I write checks for about 10 million bucks. I write a check to Vinnie for about an extra million five. And you’re telling me that because this Chris guy breaks a fifty dollar chain, we have to wait for him to fix everything up before we can race again? Are you nuts? That chain is this Chris guy’s problem. Not ours. Your problem is winning races. Oh, and you gotta another problem-finding a new sponsor. This is crazy. I’m out.
It is crazy. When Sebastian Vettel has an engine problem, does Lewis Hamilton slow down and wait? No. Formula One is a big business, a freaking huge business, and the teams hire the very best people to run their programs.
In 2015, professional bike racing is also a freaking huge business, and it is time to start acting like one.