Was Movistar in the wrong on stage 19 of the Vuelta?

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Vuelta a Espana race leader Primoz Roglic went down in a crash, and before he even had a chance to pick himself up Movistar hit the front and pinned it.

In doing so, the Movistar team did not make many new friends on stage 19 of the Vuelta a España. But were they wrong?

Some 65 kilometers from the finish in Toledo, several riders crashed in the peloton while rounding a wet corner. Roglic, multiple Jumbo-Visma teammates, and Astana’s Miguel Ángel López (the current white jersey) were among the many riders that either hit the deck or were caught up behind the crash. Jumbo-Visma’s Tony Martin was forced to abandon the race due to injuries sustained in the fall.

While those affected by the pileup regained their bearings and remounted, however, a blue train of Movistar riders hit the front of the reduced pack up the road and started hammering out a torrid pace. Suddenly, the red jersey was staring at a gap of over one minute on a Movistar-led “peloton.” For 15 tense kilometers, Roglic, López, and others chased as the team of Alejandro Valverde and Nairo Quintana refused to relent, until finally, as the chasers neared the pack, Movistar eased off and the catch was made.

At the end of the day, the situation at the top of the general classification remained unchanged, but as usual, the polemica ignited a debate over unwritten rules: Was Movistar wrong to pull after the crash?

Normally, I’m not a fan of unwritten rules. If a “rule” is important enough that people get angry when someone breaks it, you should probably write it down and just call it an actual rule. If not, trying to live by unwritten rules usually creates more trouble and confusion than it is worth. Context, however, is important, and if there was ever a time to be sympathetic to the chasers and the unwritten rules, Friday was it.

Friday was not the first time – or the second or third – that some manner of incident has left a Grand Tour race leader chasing while his rivals push to extend the gap. It probably won’t be the last. The circumstances are always worth a closer look.

Sometimes, the split is caused by a mechanical (Andy Schleck at the 2010 Tour de France). Other times it’s a sudden need to use the toilet (Tom Dumoulin at the 2017 Giro d’Italia). Other times it’s a crash.

That’s what happened on Friday. Was Movistar in the wrong to try to take advantage of the incident?

The chasers certainly thought so. As Roglic, López, and Co. rejoined the peloton, angry words were exchanged with the Movistar contingent, with plenty of exasperated hand gestures accompanying the conversation. The cycling Twittersphere and media world erupted with opinions. Former pro Joaquim Rodríguez did not approve of Movistar’s actions, tweeting “what a shame.” Others voiced similar views.

Bradley Wiggins assumed that Valverde simply didn’t know what had happened behind.

After the stage was over with no major GC changes, Jumbo-Visma sports director Addy Engels said that his team “would not have done what [Movistar] did.”

López was less diplomatic.

“It was a lack of respect for the red jersey, and it’s not the first time,” he said. “They always take advantage of these moments. They’re always stupid. They are the same ones who do these things. It’s their usual reaction.”

Movistar sports director José Luis Arrieta vented his own frustrations with a handful of counterpoints, saying that his team was prepared for that part of the course – and that race officials looked the other way while the chasers drafted in the slipstream of team cars on their way back up.

“If this is cycling, if the UCI decides who wins the races, okay, fine,” he said.

Movistar’s point of view is understandable. At the end of the day, it is a bike race after all. And if there was some kind of directive from the UCI to allow the chasers to break the (written) rules, that’s beyond the pale of what is acceptable. Just the same, it’s hard not to sympathize with Roglic, López, and the rest, considering the context – and that’s the key.

The way I see it, riders should not be expected to actively pump the brakes as rivals chase back. Again, it’s a race. And on a mountain stage with 20 kilometers to go, I’m not going to fault a GC contender for going full gas when a rival is caught behind. The race is “on,” at that point, either way. The same is true for sprint trains winding up to speed to battle for a bunch kick even if a race leader is off the back. Those things are especially true if it’s purely a mechanical issue causing the incident.

The reason the waiting “rule” is unwritten, however, is that nuance is important, and there are times when it is okay to fault a team for hammering while a rival is caught out. Friday was probably one of those times.

Roglic wasn’t off the back because he was dealing with personal digestive issues. He wasn’t gapped because of a dropped chain or anything that could be blamed on his team’s equipment sponsors or mechanics. He was caught up in a crash in which real people hit the deck – and at least one of them was hurt – more than 60 kilometers from the line. According to Astana’s Luis León Sánchez, several riders were in pain and the race doctor was trying to get an ambulance to the scene. And given the flatter profile and the distance to the finish, Movistar’s pulling could hardly have been interpreted as anything other than an attempt to distance Roglic and López.

I wouldn’t fault anyone up the road for simply continuing to ride. However, actively pushing a high pace and putting Roglic into a situation where checking to see if teammates are okay could mean a serious time loss at what otherwise would have been an uneventful part of an uneventful day? That pushes the boundaries of what’s okay. That’s why the unwritten rule exists.

At the end of the day, it’s still an unwritten rule. It’s Movistar’s prerogative to ride as hard they want in that situation without being penalized by any governing body.

Then again, it’s also the prerogative of Movistar’s rivals to keep it in mind moving forward, and that’s the real risk Valverde and Co. took in pulling at the front while their colleagues chased behind. Don’t expect their rivals to forget any time soon. López obviously hasn’t forgotten past examples of the Spanish squad pushing the limits of the unwritten rules.

Politics in the peloton are not simply a meaningless topic of discussion for the media. Races are won and lost based on alliances made and broken out on the road. It probably doesn’t matter to Movistar how a commentary piece on CyclingTips frames their actions, but it might matter just a little bit how Roglic and López feel when they hear that Valverde is waiting for a new bike after crashing midway through a sprint stage at next year’s Tour.

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