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.