The Darker Side Of Cycling

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As you might have already read Alexandre Vinokourov is accused of buying his 2010 Liege-Bastogne-Liege victory from Alexander Kolobnev for 100,000 Euros.

You can read the full story here.

The Swiss magazine L’Illustre bases this accusation on an exchange of mails between Vinokourov and Kolobnev the day after Liege-Bastogne-Liege (are these News of the World journalists? Was his email password “Vino”?). Kolobnev denies that he sacrificed the race and Vino tells L’Illustre, “It’s another story to blacken my name. I often loan money left and right.” In case you don’t remember, Kolobnev was the only rider to test positive at the 2011 Tour de France, so it’s unlikely that he’ll repay Vino anytime soon.

This isn’t a surprise. Riders buying races is as old as bike racing itself. In fact, the only thing I’m surprised about is that one of the Five Monuments in cycling went for only €100,000. It actually only cost Astana and/or Vino only €80,000 since Vino’s prize money was approximately €20,000. I don’t know what Vinokourov’s current salary is, but in 2007 it was €1.2M and Kolobnev’s estimated salary was €500-700k. If there’s any truth to the accusations, the conversation likely first took place in the team bus where Astana would have agreed with Vino what the win was worth if the situation were to arise. This was Vino’s first chance at getting a big result in his comeback, so if true, €100,000 may have been worth securing the win. Kolobnev would have thought he couldn’t win otherwise he wouldn’t have accepted.

Call it “the chop” or “the joke”, “collusion”, “gifting”, whatever you will. Sometimes it happens between the strongest riders in insignificant races before the start, and other times it will happen as the situation dictates in the final kilometers of the race. (I don’t want to give the impression that riders are standing around at the beginning of L-B-L talking about who’s going to take the win – it’s not like that in the big races).

Sometimes it pays much better to come in second than first. If two riders are away and the winner splits his prize money with the other, second place usually comes out on top. I know of a recent race where the two riders in a break made a deal in the closing moments and the second placed rider came away with $5500 while the winner received only $2500.

In the Belgium Kermesses the riders buy races all the time. Hiring riders to chase down breaks, set the tempo on the front, and split the winnings is common. Even the punters on the side of the road place their bets on who has the most money to buy the race. It’s well known that this goes on.

I was told a story by an ex-track racer (sorry I can’t name him) who made a career out of negotiating half the prize money from the race winners for his “leadout services” throughout the carnival. He’d come out with hundreds of dollars at the end of the weekend (which would be thousands nowadays).

Peter McDonald was allegedly offered $10k by Mick Rogers to buy the National Championships from him in 2009. That deal was called off when Hansen bridged across to the break and Macca out-sprinted both of them to take the green and gold.

Damn, Crowie even EBay’d a leadout for a SKCC criterium last year! The stories are endless…

It’s not only about money however. Sometimes gifting a race is about mutual benefit. There are races within races during the Tours. In a recent example from Stage 19 of the Giro d’Italia, Tiralongo (Astana) was alone at the front of the race and was caught by Contador who was already dominating the Giro. Contador pulls his ex-teammate to the line, gives him the win, and makes no attempt to hide it. This was seen as a noble gesture by Contador and did a lot to help his public image.

It’s fascinating how the ethical and sporting values differ so drastically between various sports. While cricketeers are going to jail for match fixing and the fans find it deplorable, NFL players get a few games suspension for failing multiple drug tests and most fans couldn’t care less. In cycling it’s accepted that match fixing is simply a “tactical” element of the sport, but if a cyclist is caught taking banned substance his career will be ruined.

Professional cycling has always been about making money. Of course victories are important, but in order to win you need to be astute to the deals taking place. The fact that there are so many bike races in a season means there’s always another chance for victory in a few days. A bike racer’s mentality is that if you’re offered money in a race, you should always take it. If you don’t, there will be other riders who accept the deal and you won’t stand a chance.

“We are not sportsmen, we are professionals!” -unknown

“If you concentrate on making money you’ll lose races. If you concentrate on winning races, you’ll make money” – Jacques Anquetil

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