Does road cycling have a problem with match fixing?
Belgian research shine a light on road cycling's culture of cooperation, paying for wins, and how riders feel about it all.
Belgian research shine a light on road cycling's culture of cooperation, paying for wins, and how riders feel about it all.
On April 25, 2010, on the final climb of that year’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège, Alexandre Vinokouorov punched away from Alexandr Kolobnev and opened up a gap. The controversial Kazakh rider maintained his lead all the way to the line to take his first big win since returning from a blood doping ban. ‘Vino’ was back.
Late the following year, Swiss magazine L’Illustre alleged that Vinokourov had paid Kolobnev €100,000 to let him win the Belgian Monument. The magazine went on to publish emails between Vinokourov and Kolobnev that seemingly confirmed the deal.
Both riders denied that the result had been bought, but both eventually found themselves defending fraud charges in a case that rambled in and out of court until late 2019. Ultimately both riders were cleared, due to a “lack of concrete evidence”.
But more than a decade later, the 2010 Liège-Bastogne-Liège is still the first case mentioned whenever the topic of match fixing comes up in cycling.
So why are we talking about this now? Well, that’s because a group of Belgian researchers recently published a journal article with the eyebrow-raising title: “The grey zone between tactics and manipulation: The normalization of match-fixing in road cycling”. In it the researchers question whether cycling does indeed have a problem with match fixing, and if it does, how that came to be.
Before we get to what they found, we need to first define match fixing.
What is match-fixing? At its simplest, it’s a form of corruption; a “deviation from public expectations that sport will be played and administered in an honest manner”. Or to give a more thorough definition from the Council of Europe, it’s:
“An intentional arrangement, act, or omission aimed at an improper alteration of the result or the course of a sports competition in order to remove all or part of the unpredictable nature of the aforementioned sports competition with a view to obtaining an undue advantage for oneself or for others.”
Under that strict definition, cycling does have a problem with match fixing – there is no doubt that the above sometimes happens in the world of road cycling. But as the authors of the study point out, it’s important we take into account the context of the sport.
Deciding the winner of a tennis or soccer match before play begins? Clearly match fixing. In road cycling though, it’s far less black and white.
Road cycling might just be unique in the way it encourages rivals to cooperate with one another. Breakaways are an obvious example – riders in the lead group are incentivised to work together for a shared goal of staying away from the peloton. Rivals often work together in the peloton too, with the teams of the sprinters and GC contenders often collaborating to keep breakaways in check. This sort of cooperation between rivals is and ingrained and defining feature of the sport.
But then there are the more overt cases of collusion where an agreement between rivals decides the result of a race. We’ve already mentioned the 2010 Liège-Bastogne-Liège (noting again that both Vinokourov and Kolobnev deny the result was fixed), but agreements happen at all levels of the sport.
In a stage race, a GC contender and stage-hunter might find themselves together up the road. It’s not uncommon for the two to work together, and for the GC contender to ‘gift’ the stage win to their rival, in exchange for the stage-hunter’s efforts in helping maintain an advantage over the GC rider’s rivals.
We saw exactly that situation on the final stage of this year’s Itzulia Basque Country, when David Gaudu (going for the stage win) and Primož Roglič (going for GC) were clear of the field. “Roglic told me he didn’t care about the stage,” Gaudu said afterwards. “I knew that if I took him to the finish in the last climb, he would let me [have] the victory.” Sure enough, Gaudu won the stage and Roglic won the race overall.
Is it problematic for a race to be decided like this? Based on the definitions above, it does seem to be match fixing, but does it go against the spirit of the sport? And does it contravene the laws of the sport?
Section 1.2.080 of the UCI’s regulations says: “Riders shall sportingly defend their own chances. Any collusion or behavior likely to falsify or go against the interests of the competition shall be forbidden.”
This rule offers some guidance, but it’s far from an ironclad definition of what’s permitted and what’s not. Where’s the border between acceptable behavior between rivals, and misconduct? As fans of the sport, how much cooperation are we OK with?
For example, are we comfortable with rivals in a breakaway working together to stay away from the peloton, and then splitting the prize money (known as ‘The Chop’ in Australia), rather than racing fair and square for the win?
Or what about when riders at Worlds put their national team loyalties aside, to help support a rival nation? Was British Cycling justified in blasting Charly Wegelius and Tom Southam for doing that at the 2005 Worlds, or did the federation overreact, having misunderstood the very nature of the sport?
And what about riders themselves? How much cooperation with rivals are they comfortable with?
To find out, researchers interviewed 15 adult Belgian road cyclists, all of whom race at an elite amateur level or higher. Of the 15 riders interviewed, 11 were male and four were female. Three of the 15 race at the highest level of the sport – the WorldTour.
The feeling among the interviewees was that real match fixing is something that occurs before a competition begins, not mid-event like cooperation does in road cycling. Given this, there was a perception that match fixing doesn’t actually occur in road cycling. Indeed, almost all of the riders believed match fixing was no threat to the sport.
Rivals cooperating in breakaways wasn’t seen as match fixing, but rather just an acceptable and ingrained part of the sport. One suggested that cooperation was simply a way to maximise one’s chances of winning: “you just help each other to be in the most favorable situation, but you continue to pursue victory.”
The interviewees explained that there are a bunch of reasons that cooperation happens between rivals. Usually an arrangement is of mutual benefit to all parties involved, but that’s not always tied to winning:
Let’s say for a moment that rivals cooperating with one another isn’t match fixing. What about paying those rivals to let you win a race?
The riders in the study explained that the buying and selling of victories is not uncommon, particularly at lower levels of competition (specifically at Belgian kermesses and other races among elite amateurs). One respondent gave an example showing that riders often don’t have a choice but to cooperate with rivals.
“I was in the decisive breakaway (during a kermesse) with two other cyclists,” the rider explained. “One of the cyclists asked me how much money I would like to have, so he could win the race. However, I had already noticed that the other cyclist in the breakaway had already made an agreement with him. So, from that moment I knew that [if] I would refuse his proposal, they would ride with two against me. So, I had to accept his proposal.
“I know it’s unfair and I would rather have taken my own chance, but at that moment I had no other choice.”
Anecdotally, the buying and selling of bike race victories happens around the world, wherever there’s prize money (or prestige) on offer. Often, a rider’s offer will be accepted. Other times it will be knocked back.
Back in 2011, former rider Peter McDonald told CyclingTips that Michael Rogers had offered him $10,000 to let Rogers win the 2009 Australian road title (McDonald ended up winning in a sprint ahead of Rogers and Rogers’ teammate, Adam Hansen). Rumours suggest the 2012 Olympic men’s road race (see video below) was decided by money changing hands (silver medalist Rigoberto Uran strongly denies that). And years earlier, at a Monument in the early 1990s, a rider in the winning move reportedly offered his rival a vast sum to let him have the win. That offer was apparently knocked back.
Stories like these abound.
The interviewees in the Belgian study had mixed feelings about race results being bought and sold, but they didn’t see it as match fixing exactly. Why? Because it’s not as simple as buying a race – you still have to be strong and smart enough to be in a winning position to begin with, before you can start making deals.
This is often the case in Belgian kermesses where money regularly changes hands to determine the winner from a leading group. The real fight is getting into the winning move to begin with.
Some of the interviewees mentioned that the outcome of kermesses can also be influenced by roadside bookmakers, in a roundabout sort of way.
“Some cyclists dare to play with the bookmakers,” one interviewee said. “They let someone else bet money, and they know what their odds are. Then they know how much money they can win, and how much money they can use during the race to buy the victory.”
CyclingTips has heard stories of kermesse bookmakers being used in a slightly different way – to make money once the winner has been determined. A rider in the break will indicate to a roadside friend or family member who’s going to win the race. The friend or family member can then go and bet as aggressively as they like.
And then there are the post-Tour de France criteriums.
Where most forms of match fixing in cycling fall into a grey area, post-Tour de France criteriums are a different story. Held around Europe in the days and weeks after the Tour, these events are headlined by riders who competed at the world’s biggest race. The outcomes of these races are decided ahead of time by race organisers, and almost always finish with a top rider – e.g. the Tour winner, wearing their yellow jersey – taking the win.
Surely such events are problematic? They’re quite clearly against UCI rules (even if the races aren’t UCI-sanctioned), and they seem to go against the spirit of the sport.
Based on the responses in this latest study though, it seems the riders aren’t fazed. As the researchers write: “Although cyclists thus admitted that these criteriums were fixed, no uncomfortable feelings were present.”
Such events can be likened to professional wrestling. Everyone involved – organisers, athletes, spectators – know the outcome is scripted ahead of time, but it doesn’t matter because the real goal is to entertain the crowd, not provide a pure sporting experience.
So where does that leave us? In the closing section of their paper, the researchers discuss how cooperation in road cycling is routine, rationalised, and normalised. And that “this normalised behavior causes a grey zone that may be considered as match-fixing, depending on who interprets the behavior.”
Most fans of the sport, and those within it, don’t seem to have a problem with any grey zones that might exist. Cooperating with rivals? That’s just an integral part of the sport. Buying or selling victories? Even that doesn’t seem to be such a massive deal. But should it be?
The researchers aren’t convinced that “cycling’s culture of agreements” can really be called match fixing – even though it goes counter to UCI rules – but they do believe that a grey zone exists between what’s technically allowed by the laws of the sport, and what actually happens in the sport. And in the eyes of those researchers, it’s the UCI that needs to bear some responsibility for the existence of that grey area.
“By formulating 1.2.081 in such a vague manner, the UCI actually initiates a grey zone,” they wrote. “Additionally, by not enforcing this rule properly, the UCI helps to maintain the grey zone.”
The researchers suggest that the UCI should clarify its own rules.
“We emphasise the responsibility of organisations rather than the responsibility of individuals to clarify the rules, and the grey zone regarding collaboration and match-fixing,” they write. “To pursue fair play, where everyone competes at the best of his/her abilities, clear rules should be implemented to clarify the grey zone and to change the normalised behaviour.”
But again, does that normalised behaviour actually need to be changed? Is cycling’s culture of cooperation really a problem? Most fans and participants don’t seem to think so.
It’s an interesting area of study though, and one that’s probably ripe for further investigation. What sort of perspective would you get if you interviewed more than just 15 riders? And what if you interviewed riders from a range of nations, not just Belgium? And what if you did some sort of quantitative analysis to find out how often various forms of match-fixing happen, at what levels of the sport, and how much races are being sold for?
In reality, it’s hard to see anything changing anytime soon. Cooperation with rivals is such a part of road cycling that it would take something quite remarkable to upset that particular apple cart. And in all likelihood, if the 2010 Liège-Bastogne-Liège didn’t do that, nothing will.