Riders may not, without due care, jettison food, bonk-bags, feeding bottles, clothes, etc. in any place whatsoever.
Riders may not jettison anything on the roadway itself but shall draw to the side of the road and safely deposit the object there.
UCI Regulation 2.2.025
Words by Joe Dombrowski
My mother has no real background in cycling, but as my racing has progressed, she has begun to learn a little and she follows more closely. I’m not sure she really understands the tactics, but she likes to watch my races on television.
I think, more than anything, she enjoys the helicopter shots of some of the scenery that I blow past without any time to take in.
She made a comment once while watching the Tour de France that the peloton is like a flock of birds, working in harmony to speed as efficiently and safely as possible towards the finish line.
I sort of laughed, and explained that her assumption could not be further from the truth. From afar, maybe the peloton does resemble a well-organised, multi-coloured, harmonious group. The harsh reality, though, is that the peloton is a rough place.
We are often a pack of two hundred, hurtling down narrow European roads loaded with road furniture, trusting in the eyes ahead of us to alert the rest of us to the dangers that lie ahead. Prior to crucial moments in the race, everyone wants to occupy the real estate at the front of the bunch, and it comes at a high cost.
Those that have the pack skills, the power and the willingness to take a bit of risk are awarded those premium spots when the race is made. You can’t back down: give someone an inch and they’ll take a foot. Frankly, it can be total chaos.
One particular part of the race that almost never hits TV screens, but is one of the most chaotic, is the feed zone. Generally, it is situated around halfway through the stage, usually prior to the arrival of TV motorbikes and helicopters. The irony is that if someone was capturing what goes down in there, it would make for great viewing.
Now, I’m not looking to place blame on anyone, but it is not only the riders who can wreak havoc at the feed. The soigneurs await our arrival wearing their respective team’s kit so we can locate them as we pass through. The problem is the swannys want to be seen.
Usually, the first two or three are on the far right side of the road, but as you get deeper into the zone, they step further and further out so their riders see them. It’s like their own little fight for position. Sometimes, by the end of the zone, the peloton is sneaking through less then half a lane.
But I don’t want to pin down the issue on the staff, as the riders are probably even more at fault. As we are cruising along throughout the day, we look out for each other. We point out dangerous objects in the road and respect the space that a team riding as a unit occupies. When we hit the feed zone, this all goes out the window.
Instead of everyone’s eyes looking to collectively keep us moving down the road in a safe manner, they become fixated on the musette their soigneurs are looking to offload as they pass. Riders often locate their swanny at the last minute and then attempt to cut all the way across the peloton to nab their food bag.
Crashes abound. Sometimes, if it’s especially sketchy, I will just skip the feed altogether and shoot up the left side to avoid the chaos. Then I’ll drop back to the car to collect the contents of my musette once it’s safe again.
Of the whole experience, the most dangerous part of the feed zone is actually the exit. Due to the aforementioned chaos, there is often a massive accordion effect in the peloton upon the exit. The riders at the front passed through with relative ease, slowing very little. At the back, riders came to a near standstill as people were swerving all over the road. The unfortunates at the back then have to catch up. A period of being strung out at 50kph ensues: head down, pedalling furiously, with this damn musette slung around your shoulder, all the while trying to get the goods out of the bag.
The musettes themselves are, in reality, a pretty antiquated system. They are nothing more then a cotton sack with a long strap. They work okay, but seem to have a strong affinity for front wheels as they flap in the breeze.
It’s a situation that can prove deadly. Even if your own doesn’t take you down, you’ve gotta watch out for the riders ahead discarding theirs. Once devoid of their contents, the musettes can take on a life of their own. And you definitely don’t want those things near any moving parts.
The contents themselves, or more specifically the rider’s disposal of them, can also be hazardous. I’d say around 60 per cent of what’s in the bag is tossed by the roadside. Most of the time, we don’t really need it. It’s more an assurance, or a means of bartering with riders on other teams for the goods you really want, like a Coke or a Snickers bar. Gels, bars, and paninis fly in all directions.
Occasionally, those objects even provide a little mid-race entertainment. I found myself laughing hysterically at this year’s Tour of California when an Etixx-Quick Step rider discarded his banana peel. The airborne yellow skin caught wind and took flight, landing squarely on fellow American rider John Murphy’s forehead. A direct hit. It was pure gold.
A bigger issue, though, is the bottles and unopened Coke cans. Some riders seem to think nothing of dropping a can of in the middle of the pack, or mindlessly throwing a bottle at a stone wall lining the road, only for it to roll back in. You know someone’s done it when you hear the uproar in the pack. The object then rolls around with a mind of it’s own. Trying to avoid it is pointless. It seems as if they are homing missiles, locked on a trajectory towards your front wheel, intent on destruction.
As is often the case, things are not always as they seem upon casual observation and professional cycling is no exception. There’s a big push these days to present racing in unique media formats that give fans a view – literally at times – inside the peloton in an effort to make the sport more exciting and more appealing to a broader audience. Many teams are racing with on-board cameras and real-time data telemetry devices. In terms of video footage, the focus seems to be on capturing the chaotic nature of sprint finishes, and rarely do viewers see the action inside the peloton in the seemingly benign mid-stage riding.
If you ask me, they ought to broadcast some of the antics I get to witness firsthand in the feed zone each day. I can almost guarantee it’d make for good television. If anyone ever took me up on the idea, you just might see me out there, but I can tell you now, you won’t find me amongst the scrum.
I’ll be gingerly skirting the left side of the road and trying to pass through unscathed. And then I might just see if I can grab some lunch.
Joe Dombrowski rides for Cannondale-Drapac and is a fussy eater.