On unwritten rules

For Tour de France lovers, I wanted to chime in on the debate over Aru attacking Froome on the mechanical.  For those who have no idea what I am talking about, here is a brief summary of the situation:

There is an unwritten rule in professional cycling to never attack a rival on bad luck (like a mechanical failure on a bike).  But the other day Fabio Aru attacked Tour leader Chris Froome on a mechanical, though up the road he held up after other riders – especially Dan Martin and Richie Porte – told him to wait for Froome to catch up.  This reignited a long simmering debate about the validity of these unwritten “gentleman’s” rules.

This tweet went somewhat viral on cycling sites:

— Tour de France 1913: “Oooh, don’t attack Eugène Christophe while he’s in the blacksmiths!” —

If you don’t know the history, in the old days of the Tour riders were not allowed any outside help.  Christophe was leading the Tour when his fork broke.  He had to walk miles to the nearest town, then had to find a blacksmith shop where he could fix his own bike.  No one waited at the blacksmith shop for him to finish his work, and he ended up losing ours on the day and lost the Tour.

The point of this side of the debate is that the old unwritten rules that say you should never attack a rival on bad luck (a mechanical, a no fault crash) should be ignored because they are not evenly applied.  After all, on the descent after Froome’s mechanical, Froome did not hold up to wait for Dan Martin on the crash.  And commentator Bob Roll argued that it is racing so all bets are off anyway. Cyclists are there to win, so teams should take every chance they can to make time on rivals.  All is fair in love and war, as they say.

Others note that these unwritten rules can be abused.  Team Sky abused the unwritten rules last year.  A Sky rider had a mechanical just before Mount Ventoux.  As he pulled back to the team car, Froome (in yellow) told the peloton he needed a “nature break”.  The peloton held up for Froome, and it allowed his sky team mate to catch back up.  All of this ambiguity suggest to folks like Bob Roll that we should simply forget the gentleman’s rules.

I grant that the unwritten customs are imperfect, so I cede all of those points to Bob Roll and others on his side of this debate.  But for all that, I still think Aru was wrong to attack and I still support the unwritten rules. I note the abuses, and frankly think Team Sky did abuse the rules last year.  But to that I say that the peloton should punish them.  And arguably Froome and the leaders should have waited for Dan Martin to catch up after a crash on the descent, just as Lance Armstrong waited for rival Jan Ullrich on a crash (a gracious gesture which Ullrich returned when Lance crashed a few years later).  Froome’s failure to do so ought to result in the peloton doing him no favors in the race.

And there is an interesting philosophical point to be made in all of this.  Imperfect rules are better than no rules at all.  Those unwritten rules are part of what make civilization possible, not only in the peloton but in society.  Most of our customs are handed down and if you poke at them enough, you will see they are not entirely rational and not entirely fair.  But they are better than nothing, better than an “anything goes” attitude.

The political theorist Edmund Burke makes just this argument about the importance of tradition.  He uses it to distinguish between the French and American revolutions.  The French Revolution was more radical.  It destroyed everything of the old regime and tried to create something entirely new.  The American Revolution was, on the other hand, more of a reform than a revolution.  We kept much of the English common law tradition intact, for example.  It is why the American project has been more successful: it kept traditions – however imperfect – alive.  We might think, as the French did, that we can produce something that works from scratch.  But really we cannot.  Human life is too variable, you just cannot invent a system that can deal with all the contingencies and accidents of human life.  So better to rely on time worn conventions which, however imperfect, have been worked out over generations and manage to hold society together.

So I still support the unwritten rules and think it would be a terrible shame if this younger generation of riders dispenses with them.

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About Kleiner

Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Utah State University. I teach across the curriculum, but am most interested in continental philosophy, ancient and medieval philosophy as well as Catholic thought, all of which might be summed up as an interest in the ressourcement tradition (returning in order to make progress). I also enjoy spending time thinking about liberal education and its ends.
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6 Responses to On unwritten rules

  1. Luke Stepan says:

    It is an interesting topic, I share your respect for traditional rules but I tend to doubt the idea that bike failures are any more bad luck than cramped muscles, dehydration, irritable bowels, etc. when it comes to a bike race. Any of these variables can come in to play and even change the outcome of a race. It seems likely that with mechanical failures a cyclist could prepare for and avoid them (I’m no expert in cycling, but knowing a little about mechanical reasoning I can say you should always look for root causes to better predict and avoid failure whenever there is a mechanical failure… maybe the condition of the bicycle, the terrain he chose to move on, the design, the pressure and rate of pedal movement he chose were all predictable and controllable factors at some point before and/or during the race). At any rate, it seems like a substantial characteristic of the Tour De France is that it is in part a mechanical race, so mechanical failure, just like bodily failure, SHOULD result in an opportunity for your opponent to gain ground. Having said that, I am no expert on the Tour De France, nor cycling in general; and maybe my ignorance of these things is what makes the rule seem to me like a bad one.

    • Kleiner says:

      That is an excellent point. This is another area of ambiguity that makes some want to get rid of this unwritten rule. Some mechanical failures are flukes. Mechanics did a fine job of preparing the bike, but you get a fluky flat or other mechanical issue. But some mechanical failures are preventable, so part of having a winning bike race team would be having mechanics who avoid all preventable mechanical failures. So your point – if your rival’s team did a lousy job of prepping the bikes for the day, why not attack on a mechanical. It is a bike race.

      I see the wisdom in that. But oddly enough, after 35 years of watching the Tour and other cycling events, I can’t recall a time when commentator blamed mechanics for mechanical failures. They get treated – rightly or wrongly – as fluky mechanical failures every time. This might just be decorum, or it might reflect that these teams all have top shelf mechanics who are not screwing things up.

      Back to the ambiguity – how is a rider to know if a rival’s mechanical was avoidable or not? Of course there is no way. At that point, there are two camps: attack on what might be bad luck or don’t attack on what might be bad luck. Issues like this are even more pointed in classic races like Paris-Roubaix, where the treacherous cobbles make mechanical failures and flats almost inevitable (no matter how well the bike is prepped). Luck is going to have quite a lot to do with most sporting events. The question is whether or not there are gentlemanly rules to try, however imperfectly, to minimize the impacts of bad luck on rivals to win “square and fair” (as Jens Voigt put it).

      Another friend emailed me yesterday saying my view on this particular unwritten rule ends up systematically disadvantaging riders who follow the gentlemanly rules. I hope that is not the case. In fact, I hope the opposite is the case. I would want this to be like hockey – if you break the unwritten rules, the peloton will punish you and your team in informal ways (giving your team no room to work, etc).

      • Jedd Cox says:

        I think, for me, the grand tours should emulate the classics. If Tom Boonen or Fabian Cancellara were to suffer a mechanical or flat in Paris Roubaix or the Tour of Flanders, there’s no way anyone would have waited for them. It’s full gas until the finish.

      • Luke Stepan says:

        Good points, great topic, thanks Harrison.

  2. Kleiner says:

    Jedd actually rides fast on a bike in actual races (I think a top 5 or 10 finish in LOTOJA), so my impulse is to defer to him. But, do you really think you can compare one day classics like Paris-Roubaix and Tour of Flanders to protecting overall GC contenders in the grand tours? I agree – no one holds up for a flat on Paris-Roubaix, but the cobblestone classics are one day races where everyone knows luck is a huge part of it. The “race is on” from the start. On the overall GC classification in the stage races of the grand tours, I think the gentlemanly rules can neutralize some bad luck some of the time (even if they do so imperfectly and create their own symptoms of unfairness). But even in the grand tours, the unwritten rules are justifiably ignored at some point in each stage when “the race is on”.
    That is what excuses, arguably, Froome from not waiting for Dan Martin. Bardet Romain was ahead of him on the road and was a major threat to take the jersey if Aru and Froome did not chase him down. So the race was on, bad timing on his bad luck for Dan Martin.

    • Jedd says:

      You’ve got a point regarding my poor comparison between the classics and the tour. In the classics, the race is designed to emphasize the role of luck and adds drama to the experience. And, I had not considered similar practices applying to the Porte/Dan Martin crash. Descents seem to demand a different kind of ethic.

      In this regard, the power of the yellow jersey only goes so far. For example: if Froome was off the back, and were to suffer a flat, the leaders would not wait. If Froome suffered a flat in the last 10k or 20k of a sprint stage, the sprinters don’t really care.

      So the jersey carries a localized power, applying to “bad luck” while among his peers of other gc contenders. And, the power is topographical (is the road pointed up or down?).

      I do think your quote from Jens carries the weight of the contenders’ decision process while also forming romance in cycling. And, in this case, beauty precedes glory. “I would rather lose than be perceived to have won unfairly. I want to win, but I want to win the right way.”

      In any case, it’s a tight race. Too bad Valverde, Porte, Martin, and Fuglsang have suffered bad luck.

      It would be interesting to actually poll all of the racers to see what they prefer in the moment a racer is taken down by a team/commissare car or motorcycle, or when a railroad crossing comes down and the break is up the road. (You can imagine how distracted they would be, voting during the race through race radio or by pressing some button on their handlebars to handle the dozens of questionable scenarios every day!).

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