Tour de France 2017: From not racing during last stage to forming 'groupetto', here are some uncommon rules

All modern sports have a long list of regulations. Some are straightforward and easy to understand, while few are only understood by a minority of specialists. However, without these rules, no sport can be conducted in a reasonably fair and appealing manner. Then there are certain guidelines (also otherwise known as codes or etiquettes) that are respected and followed by the sportsmen and women to maintain the spirit of sportsmanship and esprit de corps among the competitors. Of course, you don’t become a sportsperson by just reading the rule books. One has to master the ropes and uncover the hidden codes, which can only be learnt by competing.

Action from Tour de France 2017. AFP

Action from Tour de France 2017. AFP

Cycling and the Tour de France are no exceptions to the above, and if anything, the rules and guidelines may be one too many. These “official rules” and “unofficial guidelines” have been perfected over more than a century and are part of the reason behind the success of the sport. Firstpost had recently penned a “Beginner’s guide to the Tour” and today we have scoured through some lesser known rules, especially ones which have already impacted the race this year (or are expected to do so soon). So here is an essential guide to the ‘not-so-common’ rules a Tour fan needs to know, starting with the unofficial commandments.

Thou shalt not attack: It is a tacit understanding between the peloton – especially the top GC contenders – that a rider will not launch an attack if his rival is having mechanical trouble. This was witnessed recently on Sunday’s Stage nine when Fabio Aru attacked as race leader Christopher Froome raised his hand seeking the help of his team mechanics. Aru was immediately chased down by Richie Porte and Dan Martin (themselves in the top five at that time) and instructed to slow down, till Froome recovered. The Brit rider also conveyed his displeasure to Aru when he caught up with him.

Riders also do not attack when passing the feeding zone and also if there is a pause-pipi, when the peloton slows to relieve itself (please don’t ask how). This, of course, makes sense, no one would want to be the jerk who takes advantage of a guy having his meal or taking a leak.

Thou shalt not race: This may sound ridiculous, but it is true. Riders don’t race during the last stage of the Tour. It is considered to be a ceremonial saunter to Paris, in which all riders pay their respects to the yellow jersey and his team. The race leader himself can be seen sipping champagne during the ride. The racing does resume once the pack reaches Champs- Élysées, as they complete the final seven laps around it. But the competition is not for the overall leadership and is primarily only for the sprinters to claim one last moment of glory.

Also, the peloton can mutually decide to call a neutralisation and slow the pace if they find the weather conditions/ route to be too dangerous. If you wonder how difficult can it get, then do have a look at this Instagram post from Geraint Thomas after Sunday’s crash.

Thou shalt help thy colleague: To ensure that riders take the race seriously and do not coast on a tough day, all riders have to finish the stage within a certain time of the stage winner (calculated by the organisers based on various factors as on that day). Riders finishing beyond this time limit are disqualified from the race. Sprinters are particularly vulnerable to this rule during the mountain stages, as they lag far behind the mountain goats. For such cases, the peloton has its tacit agreements which are honoured from time immemorial. To avoid disqualification, these riders form a groupetto, uniting irrespective of team allegiance, and pacing each other so that they can all finish within the time limit.

Thou shalt not be left behind: Riders are not allowed to shield themselves behind any official vehicle/ team car. Apart from the pacing benefits, this also significantly reduces air resistance being faced by the rider. However, any rider who falls behind the peloton due to mechanical trouble or a crash can pace himself back to the group by taking advantage of the caravan following the race. Even rival teams cars happily provide a helping hand to the beleaguered rider. Further, if a rider is receiving medical treatment whilst riding (it happens more frequently than one would imagine), he is allowed to hold on to the medical car – for the minimum time required – cruising along as the doctor stitches his wound (yes they do get stitches on the move!)

Thou shalt not betray: “Omerta” – an Italian word that would be familiar to fans of The Godfather series. It means a code of silence, especially from the authorities, often aimed to suppress official action on illegal activities, and this for long was the basic code of conduct among cyclists. The origins of the code were probably to avoid excessive interference from the organisers and maintaining camaraderie among the peloton, where everyone looks after each other’s back. Unfortunately, this led to covering up of nefarious activities like doping in the nineties and noughties. Today, the riders are far more opinionated and candid, but the spirit of Omerta while diluted still lives on, and thankfully for the right reasons.

Though the aim of this piece was to highlight the code of conduct among the riders, it would not be fair to leave without giving the race organisers their due. The officials have also done their bit to make the competition fair and humane. One such benign “official” rule applies to the flat stages that entail sprint finishes. These sprints are fiercely contested – as we have already seen this year – and often lead to mass crashes. The Tour organisers have realised that a top rider (or a group of them) falling near the finish in a mass pile up, could skew the rankings and give fate a bigger hand in the race than would be desired. Therefore, any rider crashing, or getting held up due to a pile up in the final 3 kilometres of a sprint finish, is awarded the finish time of the riders that escaped the crash.

Many ask why does a modern competitive sport have such feudal traditions and codes. The answer probably lies in the nature of the sport. Cycling is a tough sport asking immense physical demands of the rider and carries a very high risk of injury. A cyclist does not get to enjoy the calmness of golf, the riches of football or the safe confines of a tennis court. It's a small dangerous world in which everyone needs to look out for the other. In the initial days the demands were even higher and the equipment very crude. Therefore these codes have developed to provide the riders with an element of safety, share the spoils among each other and make the sport a happy place to be.

For all its detractors, it is these codes of honour which give the Tour (and road cycling in general) a romantic and gallant edge. Coupled with the fact that the Tour does not charge a penny from its spectators (you can stand anywhere along the route and witness the race for free), it becomes a physical expression of the core French values Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. One only wishes more sports honoured such codes which encourage sportsmanship rather than brinkmanship. So for the next two weeks and the remaining eleven stages, let us all enjoy the honourable yet competitive sport of cycling in its grandest avatar.

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Updated Date: Jul 12, 2017 17:57:36 IST

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