Commentary: When it comes to equipment, it’s time to bid adieu to ‘gentleman’s rules’ in stage racing

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Road racing is a sport steeped in tradition, and nowhere is that more evident than at the Tour de France, with its plethora of rules — written and otherwise.

Cycling fans worldwide saw the unwritten variety being violated once again on the slopes of Mont du Chat in Stage 9, when Fabio Aru (Astana) attacked Chris Froome (Team Sky), just as the race leader had put his hand up to signal that he had a mechanical issue.

“I had a bit of a problem,” Froome said after the finish. “The gears stopped working and I had to change bikes. Richie [Porte] was instrumental in slowing that group down. I think this is not the moment to attack the leader of the race, so I want to say thanks to Richie.”

Many were outraged at what they perceived as an unsportsmanlike move, but there were many others who saw no wrongdoing on Aru’s part. After all, the leaders were just starting the final climb of Mont du Chat, on what many regarded as the hardest stage of the Tour — and, as a result, one of the best opportunities for GC contenders to regain time on Froome.

Plus, there was the core issue at hand — the Tour de France is a race after all, and many viewers simply want to see the top riders go at it full-tilt rather than engaging in seemingly anachronistic games of etiquette.

In fairness to tradition, cycling is supposed to be a contest of rider vs. rider, and no one wants to see a top contender’s chances evaporate due to a broken bicycle or an untimely crash. But there are no hard and fast guidelines as far as when these unwritten rules are applied, and there’s a frustrating abundance of gray area.

As CyclingTips editor Neal Rogers put it, “When the race is on, all is fair game.” But who, if anyone, decides when the race is “on,” and why are those rules always skewed in the favor of whoever is currently leading in the general classification? Is that fair?

Whether those unwritten rules applied to Froome and Aru is a debate that isn’t likely to be resolved soon, if ever. But it does pose the question of how exactly equipment selection, preparation, and operation should factor in competition.

I can think of no other sporting discipline that involves man (or woman) and machine where an equipment failure results in a wholesale pause in action.

A driver can spend years preparing for the 24 Hours of LeMans, for example, but the other teams don’t just stop and wait if the leader’s engine blows. Eli Tomac — the son of mountain biking legend John Tomac — arguably lost the Supercross championship last season due to a crash and a subsequent broken front brake. No one waited for him. Likewise for Formula 1, NASCAR, or any other form of motorsports.

Mind you, that sort of situation doesn’t just apply to motorsports where the machine plays a bigger role in the final outcome — it applies to most forms of bicycle racing.

If the race leader in cyclocross or cross-country mountain bike race flats far from the pits, the rest of the competitors don’t pull over while the stricken rider limps their broken machine home; certainly no one paid Peter Sagan that courtesy at the Olympics last year.

Similarly, a downhill racer with the fastest split times of the day doesn’t get a re-do if they have a mechanical at the end of a winning run.

Even at Paris-Roubaix, the race-day favorite can be left on the side of the road waiting ages for a spare wheel but no one cries foul if a breakaway simply carries on. Sorry, folks, but that’s just racing.

Stewards of the sport can pine all they want for a pure rider vs. rider contest where the bike has no influence on the outcome, but there’s simply no way to wholly separate the two in modern racing.

Much as people like to surmise that the bike doesn’t matter, basic physics dictates otherwise. All else being equal, a lighter bike will ascend faster than a heavier one; a more aerodynamic bike will go faster than a less aerodynamic bike; and tires that generate less rolling resistance will help a rider save more energy than ones that sap more power.

Yes, the UCI has rules governing bicycles and bicycle equipment, but it’s become the mission of teams, riders, and equipment sponsors to stretch those rules as far as possible in order to provide even the smallest of advantages. Parts get lighter, but perhaps less durable; bikes get stiffer, but often sketchier through bumpy corners; tires with lower rolling resistance roll faster, but at the expense of puncture resistance.

So when it comes to that equipment, where is the line drawn between chance and inadequate preparation or incorrect choices? Is it just bad luck when someone gets a puncture, or should that rider have been running a more durable tire? Is it bad luck when someone’s drivetrain starts acting up, or was there a mistake further upstream in design, engineering, or installation?

I appreciate seeing how far the envelope of equipment technology can be pushed, but part of the strategy of every other sport that directly links an athlete and a piece of equipment is figuring out the fine balancing act between performance and durability — yet it’s only in stage racing where an equipment failure can be used as an excuse to call a temporary truce between competitors.

Trek has provided its riders in years past with either non-replaceable derailleur hangers or replaceable ones made of steel instead of aluminum — partially to improve shift performance, but also in the aims of preventing a small crash from disabling a bike completely. Likewise, several teams have long been rumored to inject a few milliliters of latex sealant in their tires, willingly adding a few grams of rotating weight in trade for the promise of seal-sealing punctures (Bora-Hansgrohe and Orange Seal even made their partnership official this year).

In both of those cases, there was a conscious decision made to prioritize durability over other performance metrics.

Toward the end of Stage 9, Rigoberto Uran (Cannondale-Drapac) found himself in a decidedly disadvantaged position. He narrowly avoided the crash that took out Richie Porte (BMC Racing) and Dan Martin (Quick-Step Floors) on the tricky descent into town, but contact with Martin’s foot — and a subsequent quick fix by the Mavic neutral service mechanic — left Uran stuck in the 11-tooth cog.

With the stage finish in Chambéry fast approaching, the race was most definitely “on,” and it was clear that no one else was going to sit around and wait for him while he got a replacement machine.

Uran easily could have accepted his bad luck, threw in the towel, and limped home, rightfully blaming his crippled machine for a less-than-ideal finish. But he didn’t let an equipment failure dictate the result, nor did he request that the rest of the race pause to accommodate him. Instead, he merely gritted his teeth, made do with the hand he was dealt, and won the stage anyway — and the show was better off because of it.

Cycling fans deserve to be treated to a proper race, and it’s the responsibility of everyone involved with the race to ensure that the riders’ equipment doesn’t impact the performance of the racers — in a positive or negative way. Exceptions will always be made for extenuating circumstances, but the days of riders being sidelined for hours due to a broken bike are long over.

Race etiquette is of course subjective, and when it comes to the unwritten rules of stage racing, I’ll leave matters like crashes and potty breaks to others to debate. But as much as we’d like to pretend that equipment doesn’t influence the outcome of a race, there’s no escaping the fact that it plays a significant part. Perhaps it’s time that we stop pretending and just let the equipment pendulum swing in both directions.

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