A society on wheels: Observing the rules of the peloton
Tour of Oman 2010, stage four
There are times when the professional peloton takes on the appearance of a class of tired pre-school children, ratty, irritable, quick to lash out at each other, but without a teacher present to keep the peace.
But if you were racing full-on in all weathers, day after day, cooped up in a hotel at the end of each stage, spending far too much time than is healthy reading what people think about you on internet forums, you'd be tetchy too.
Last year's Tour de France was an ill-tempered affair, with a low level of squabbling and bickering persisting throughout the race, boiling over on occasions with displays of petulance on the road. There was the internal squabble at Astana, of course, with Lance Armstrong Twittering his displeasure at Alberto Contador. Then there was the day to Besançon when it all got ugly. George Hincapie was on his way to the yellow jersey before Garmin began to chase. Armstrong weighed in to say how terrible it was and the internet nearly exploded with anger and recriminations as fans debated the rights and wrongs.
Garmin's decision to deny Hincapie a day in yellow may have looked mean-spirited, but it's a race, a competition, and there are reputations and sponsorships at stake. Unedifying as it may seem, perhaps Garmin didn't like the idea of another American team having another slice of the pie? No one is ever going to admit if that's the case or not, but it's a logical motivation, and it wouldn't be the first time.
In the 1980s, two big Dutch teams - one run by Jan Raas, the other by Peter Post - were constantly at each other's throats. It was once said that the only thing that made Post happier than seeing one of his riders win, was seeing one of Raas's lose.
The only rational analysis is to accept that the job is to try to get the best result you can for your team on any given day. And if that means chasing down someone who Lance thinks is a great bloke, then so be it. If it means levelling a score from a previously hidden spat, then that's fair game too, as long as you appreciate the consequences.
Because the peloton is a community on wheels. There is a society there, with a hierarchy and a code of conduct, both written and unwritten. The easiest rule to understand is that if you stitch someone up today, you'll be sure to get turned over, if not tomorrow, then at some time in the future. Revenge is best served cold, and the history of the sport is littered with people who would be difficult to beat in an international long memory competition.
One of the best anecdotes concerning the sort of bitter, petty rivalries in the bunch may well be apocryphal, but it's still a great one. A rider once told me that there was a Belgian on a kermesse team whose sole job was to chase down a particular rider on a rival squad that his directeur sportif hated. In cycling, making sure someone loses is a lot easier than winning yourself.
ANGER IN THE SKY
The Tour of Oman is a new race this season, extending the stay in the Middle East for another week. It is not the World Championships, but the way the controversy has spilled over following Wednesday's fourth stage might mislead you to think this is a very big deal indeed.
Even the riders who were in the bunch are unable to agree on what actually happened, but according to whoever you believe, some, or all of these statements may be true. Or not.
1. Team Sky put the hammer down through the feed zone.
2. Team Sky then tried to use the wind and the road to split the bunch into echelons.
3. Cervélo and other teams got mad and went to the front.
4. Team Sky's Edvald Boasson Hagen, the race leader, stopped for a wee with about 50 kilometres to go, just as Cervélo increased the pace.
5. Riders Twittered two points of view: That it was 'just bike racing' or that it was 'not really on'.
Boasson Hagen missed the split and lost the leader's jersey, just as he did in the Tour of Qatar, when Team Sky were criticised by other teams for not controlling the two-man break containing eventually winner Wouter Mol.
Greg Henderson, Boasson Hagen's team-mate, used Twitter to say: "Feel sorry for Edvald BH and the rest of the Team Sky boys in Oman. Fuel for the fire, though. What goes around comes around." Kurt-Asle Arvesen weighed in with: "Just talked to some of the guys in Oman. Shocking story from today's stage!"
So, who was right, who was wrong? We'll try to explain.
THE RULES OF THE JUNGLE
What are these 'unwritten rules' I keep hearing about?
Cycling has long observed several conventions that are not actually rules of the sport, but are seen as the right thing to do.
These include the following taboos.
You do not attack through the feed zone. It's chaotic and dangerous enough grabbing a canvas bag full of lunch and water bottles without some idiot using it as an opportunity to get away.
You do not attack when the peloton stops for a comfort break. Usually the peloton will neutralise itself, slowing down and allowing those who want to take a whizz to do so. However, once the stage reaches its final third and the pace is on, you're pretty much left to your own devices. If Boasson Hagen needed a wee with around 50 kilometres to go, as has been reported, he had two options, hold it, or go on the bike (as unpleasant as that sounds). You can't expect the bunch to wait, even if you're the leader, with less than an hour to race.
You do not attack the yellow jersey if he's crashed or had a mechanical. Like the rule about attacking in the feed zone, this has been abused plenty of times, but it's poor form. If the race leader suffers some misfortune, the bunch usually calms down and lets him get sorted out. Stopping voluntarily for a wee would not be seen as a misfortune, though.
Whose responsibility is it to chase a breakaway?
Team Sky were criticised by others for allowing a break in the Tour of Qatar to get too much of a lead, before trying to rope in help when it was starting to look dangerous. Who does the chasing is a tactical matter, not one of convention. Some teams would do well to remember that the race leader's team is not obliged to defend that lead. Perhaps Team Sky didn't want to slog on the front for three hours every day in February? Perhaps they had another tactical reason not to chase and if they did, that's up to them. Nothing was stopping one of the other teams chasing if they wanted to bring it back together.
Team Sky - just like any team - are perfectly in their rights to race however they want. They will have their tactical plan and they will stick with it. There may be times when their racing is unconventional, who knows, but they are entitled to do what they want. It's a long season and winning the Tour of Oman was probably not top of their list of priorities.
It was amusing during the Tour de France, to see Columbia get so irate when everyone sat back and let them do all the chase work in the heat on the first road stage. But ask yourself this: if you were a rival team, why would you help them to secure another victory? A weary Columbia lead-out train would play into the hands of others, so leaving them out there on their own was a legitimate tactic.
Do teams help each other out on the road?
Of course. Favours are lent and then called in. One good turn deserves another. It may suit one team to help another if they share a goal. The most common example of this is when teams with strong sprinters work to reel in a break.
Are Team Sky really unpopular?
They're not everyone's best friend in the bunch, it would seem. However much they would like to gloss over it, some of the things that happened during the winter did not go down well with other teams. Dave Brailsford may not have heard open dissent, but that isn't the way the bunch operates. Instead, those who do bear a grudge, however minor, will make their point on the road. As anyone who's raced will tell you, if you want to be successful, you do need friends because it's a lot easier to ride against someone to make sure they lose than it is to win yourself.
People may brush small, insignificant points aside as irrelevant but it is these tiny and perceived slights that add up to create an impression. Garmin and Katusha may appear sanguine about Wiggins and Swift, but they were not the only team managers to express distaste at Sky's tactics. Many may have been less than delighted to read Sean Yates hinting Team Sky may collaborate with Radio Shack at the Tour de France, for example. There could be a dozen minor motivations. And while it's easy to dismiss as jealousy, there is an element of truth in that point of view. Team Sky has a lot of money and has marched into the upper reaches of the sport. It's understandable others may want to take them down a peg or two.
What do all these arguments mean for the longer term?
In the final analysis, it's just sport. It's a competition and on any given day, there can be only one winner.
One unwelcome recent trend is this eagerness to distill what is a complex, fascinating sport, into two columns: winners and losers. The problem is that if you make cycling simply about winning, you're going to be disappointed much more often than you are elated. The only other mainstream sport that's like it in that respect is tournament golf, where 120 players battle over four days and only one can win. The other 119 are not dismissed as losers, there is honour and merit in the scrap. A birdie here, a great putt there, embellish the story.
Cycling should be assessed in the same way, not simply be reduced to a relentless round of point-scoring. If every Team Sky win, for example, is going to be hailed as 'one in the eye for the critics' and every defeat used to demonstrate they've 'lost the plot', it's going to be an exhausting and not particularly enjoyable season.
Drama, controversy, excitement are all part of the game. Working out who's collaborating with, or against, who and why is a great element of that enjoyment.
Let's not see cycling reduced to a game of rock, paper, scissors on bikes. Because as we all know, no one wins rock, paper, scissors in the long term, it's just a series of outcomes repeated over and over. Cycling has far more to offer than that and the debate and intrigue should be enjoyable, not niggly and unpleasant.