Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Spare Wheels and Rules, Damn Rules!

 It was the early 1970's and my father was competing in the annual "Mt Gambier 100" cycling classic, a handicap race and one of the jewels in the crown of national cycling at the time. He was off a reasonably generous mark and had been riding well and was in fact having a bit of a purple patch. It was one of those rare occasions when being in your mid-thirties was not a retardation but an advantage. You know yourself well enough that you can push your limits, the impediment of adventurous youth, when you may have forced yourself beyond what you were capable of due to over-enthusiasm, being left far behind and you are now a wily veteran and know the subtleties of the game better than you did in the days of yore. You also slip beyond the gaze of the handicapper who, thinking of you only as a rider who is just making up the numbers may inadvertently give you a handicap mark that suits your capabilities down to the ground. Such was the case for my father that day in South Australia.

 His bunch had hit the front of the race with several kilometres to go and the riders who had started well behind on handicap were now all but out of contention. Dad was going to be in the money, The curious arrangement in cycle racing which is known as "the chop" had kicked in. Each member of the group had agreed to work, that is swap turns, break the wind, and give everything they had left until the finish, after which they would split all the prize money between them no matter who won. Egalitarian Australian sport at it's best! There was one catch to this arrangement. You had to finish with the group!

Dad leading his bunch out in the Wang 90.
I won't say Dad was counting coin in his head as he rode along but he was confident enough that he would get to the finish with this leading group of riders and share in the spoils, no matter where he finished in the final sprint. The long trip from Wangaratta was going to pay for itself with this ride. But then, disaster struck.

 Dad's front wheel deflated along with his hopes and ambitions. Changing a tyre under such conditions was a death sentence for his chances. He could see the faces of his co-markers as they glanced back, not exactly grinning but framed by a sense of satisfaction that one of their own was gone from their presence and there would be one less man to pay at the end of the day. Dad grimly dismounted and began the solemn task of changing the tyre and contemplated the lonely ride home to the finish.

 It was then that a following car pulled over and a fellow who had pulled out of the race earlier in the day and who Dad knew was out of the vehicle in a flash offering a spare wheel. Salvation was at hand. But there was a catch. "You can't change wheels", Dad told him. "You can in South Australia!", was the reply. The long standing rule in Victoria which disallowed following cars from providing service to cyclists in such circumstances didn't apply under the auspices of the cycling authorities across the border. Relief was at hand. Dad accepted the wheel like a hungry man accepts a free dinner and was soon on his way, much quicker than he or his former colleagues ever thought was possible. He regained the group  in short time and finished second in one of the best bike races in Australia. And received a nice little sum for his troubles. A good story retold to me often over the years.

 I was reminded of this tale this morning when I heard the news that Australia's Richie Porte, riding for Team Sky, had been penalized two minutes for an illegal wheel change in the dying kilometres of last night's Tour of Italy stage and is now basically out of contention for honours in the race for the overall classification.

 It is a shabby way to end his chances and shows that cycling officialdom often errs when interpreting the rules by which the sport is governed.

 I certainly appreciate that you have to follow the rules in any sport otherwise chaos will reign but sometimes the arbitrary way in which these rules are applied leaves the sport a laughing stock. As is the case today at the Tour of Italy.

 The Tour of Italy peloton was nearing the finish of today's stage when Porte punctured seven kilometres from the finish. Waiting for your team car to get to you under such circumstance will basically render you helpless when it comes to regaining a speeding bunch which is preparing itself for a bunch sprint and is probably travelling at or over fifty kilometres and hour. He was never going to make it back.

 Fellow Aussie Simon Clark from the Orica-Greenedge team, perhaps showing a little too much parochial pride, stopped and gave Porte his own wheel in violation of the rules of the sport. Porte finished 47 seconds down having never regained the peloton but a bigger blow was to come. He was penalized two minutes for an illegal wheel change. You can only receive a spare wheel from your team or the neutral service car.

 What does one make of such a penalty? It was an international panel of Commissaires who made the decision but one can only wonder what would of happened if it had been Italian contender Fabio Aru who had received a wheel under such circumstances. Would the rule have been applied so vigorously one wonders? 

 Rules are rules and one can argue that Clark should have known better than to offer the wheel and Porte should have known better than to take it. But in the heat of battle with his Giro hopes riding down the road away from him, Richie made an error of judgement. And paid the price.

 I can see the point of the rule in trying to discourage collusion but it has also stifled any sort of sportsmanship and of course the inconsistent way which rules are applied in the sport certainly makes it an episode which should leave a distressing taste in the mouths of the cycling fraternity.

 Richie Porte was really unlucky puncturing when he did. Perhaps a significant fine would have been a better option but it appears the judiciary doesn't have a lot of room to move when handing out such punitive punishments. Unfortunately it has wrecked Richie's race.

 Cycling officials in these races often appear to have little actual experience of racing themselves. They follow the rule book to the letter when a more knowledgeable person may realize and accept that there are extenuating circumstances involved and some leniency needs to be applied. The governance of this great sport is a real problem. It needs to be fixed before the game can move forward.

 It's unfortunate for Richie that he was't as lucky as my father was that day in Mt Gambier! 

 Have a nice day.

No comments:

Post a Comment