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In 2017, on a steep, roasting slope in the Pyrenees, Rigoberto Urán snatched a water bottle from someone in Cannondale-Drapac green on the side of the road. He was 5 kilometers from the finish line. George Bennett took one at 6.7 km. Romain Bardet took one too, as did a few others. It was hot, and they were thirsty.
The race jury, citing UCI Rule 2.3.027, docked Urán and Bennett 20 seconds. Bardet, oddly, escaped unscathed.
Shouts of French favoritism ensued, though the head of the race jury then and now, Philippe Mariën, is Belgian. The disparity in treatment led Urán’s general manager, Jonathan Vaughters, to raise a colossal stink on social media and for his sports director, Charly Wegelius, to make pleading phone calls to Mariën himself.
Rather incredibly, those tactics worked. The jury reversed its decision, giving Urán and Bennett their 20 seconds back, admitting that the rule, that day, was unenforceable.
On Wednesday, Julian Alaphilippe grabbed a bottle from a member of the Deceuninck-QuickStep team staff. He did so with 17.5 km to go. A series of hills had made it difficult to find a spot to stop, his sports director Tom Steels would say later. It was the last bottle of the day. Who knows if Alaphilippe even knew how much of the stage was left; as racers are trained to do, he spotted a soigneur in the right kit and took a bottle from him.
Right after the stage, Alaphilippe posed in his yellow jersey next to teammate Sam Bennett in green.
Minutes later, the race jury handed that yellow jersey to Adam Yates. Alaphilippe had run afoul of the same rule as Urán and Bennett and, almost, Bardet.
It wasn’t the way Yates wanted to take yellow. It certainly wasn’t the way Alaphilippe wanted to give it up.
The UCI rulebook has been, and remains, a deeply flawed document. It contains rules that are ignored so often they all but don’t exist, rules that are brought down with the randomness of a blind archer, like that one about drafting cars that got Nils Eekhoff disqualified at Worlds last year. Rules with such minor repercussions that teams simply break them and build the fines into their budgets. Vague rules. Arbitrary rules. Rules about socks, enforced with a special sock ruler.
The rule in question, the one that took the yellow jersey off Alaphilippe’s shoulders and put it on those of Yates, is not vague, but it is arbitrary.
It states: “Feeding is prohibited on climbs, descents and during the first 50 and last 20 km.” The penalty is a 20-second hit to your GC ambitions.
Quite frequently, the rule is waived. Or altered. Commissaires come over race radio and inform teams that the day is too hot or too hard and that they may feed up to some other line they’ve drawn in the sand. Perhaps 10 km from the finish, or 5. Maybe there’s no line at all.
The rule is intended to prevent dangerous feeds in the middle of fast chases or leadouts. And to force teams to think ahead, make sure they have enough food and water to get to the end. But there is no real rhyme or reason to the 20 km mark. It’s just the line.
Still, there is a line, even if it moves. Today it was 20 km. Simple enough.
The UCI made it clear that they would be enforcing the rule today. It was announced at the start of the stage. Teams knew. EF, according to Vaughters in today’s Tour Daily podcast, pulled one soigneur back after they’d accidentally driven past the 20 km to go mark for a feed.
This was Deceuninck-Quickstep’s fault. Steels said so himself. That’s an easy case to make.
The more difficult case is that a late feed should ever be in a position to alter the framework of a bike race. That any rule amended stage-by-stage should ever rip the yellow jersey off someone’s shoulders.
Piss on someone’s lawn and they fine you 200 Swiss francs; take a water bottle 2.5 km too late and you lose the maillot jaune.