In Friday’s U23 world championship road race, Nils Eekhoff of the Netherlands crossed the line in first place after a hard fought 171 kilometres. He was champion of the world. And then a short fifteen minutes later… he wasn’t. Italian rider Samuel Battistella, originally second, was promoted to first, and our dear friend Nils was out of the race for an incident that had occurred 125 kilometres and some hours earlier.
If you follow cycling closely, you are sure to have heard about it, maybe even seen videos of it on social media. The UCI later released one of his infraction, which only seemed to fuel the debate even more. This debacle spurred me to write in an effort to make some sense of it all.
Cycling is a complicated sport. Just try to explain a bike race to someone who knows nothing about it. Logistically, it’s insane. There can be guys in the same race kilometres away from each other, all competing together, and somehow everyone stands a chance of winning. Often, the guys in the back have a better chance than those in front!
We’re racing on sophisticated machines, durable in certain aspects but fragile in others. We travel long distances over varied terrains, sometimes rough, sometimes dangerous, and through all types of weather. Admittedly, this complex nature makes things like rule-making hard and enforcing them correctly even harder.
Without the rulebook, it would be a free-for-all, chaos. The rules exist for a reason. And I believe that reason is so that no one gets an unfair advantage. Makes sense. I think this is partly why we have commissaires at each and every race – to enforce and interpret the rules as they see fit, according to that reason.
The interpretation here is important. As I said before, cycling is complicated. With such a gigantic number of variables and potential dangers that can come into play, inevitably, shit happens. “Events” like punctures, crashes, broken bikes, broken bones.
Insanity. I mean, in what other sport do competitors get attended to by a doctor as they are still competing?! Imagine a tennis player trying to return the next volley with a doctor bandaging and hanging off of their leg at the same time!
Many of these “events” can be random, caused by a moment of inattention here, or a shift in the peloton there. But many are also what I would call a fault of either the organiser or those in charge of verifying the safety of the course.
I understand it isn’t possible to eliminate every potential danger out there, but minimising them is important. From watching nearly all of the World Championship races, I saw that there were A LOT of crashes. The weather plays a part, but that can also be taken into account when planning a race in the UK in September (or any month of the year, for that matter).
You can see what I’m getting at here: maybe the fact that Mr. Eekhoff crashed was not entirely his fault. He deserves the right to race on a safe course, and maybe that wasn’t provided. So now, he crashes, ends up off the back with a dislocated shoulder, a not-entirely-functioning durable but fragile machine – and it might not even really be because he did anything wrong.
That’s some seriously bad luck. And even through all this ambiguity, if there’s one thing I’m certain of, it’s that a race should not be decided simply on “luck.”
The kid pops his shoulder back in, fixes his bike, hops back on the thing, and chases like hell. He’s out of the peloton, out of the caravan, out in the middle of the Yorkshire Dales! There are still 125 kilometres left in the race and the peloton is miles ahead of him.
Numerous people believe his race should have been done right there. And the commissaires did too (even if they waited much longer to do something about it). They thought he cheated, gained an unfair advantage.
But the last time I checked, kissing the pavement, dislocating and then relocating your shoulder, and then chasing like all hell in the draft of a car to the back of the caravan, jumping from vehicule to vehicule through it, and finally after all that regaining contact with the back of the group with which you started before, is not an unfair advantage. It’s not an advantage at all. In fact, it’s a very distinct disadvantage.
Should the road and course have been perfectly safe and he didn’t crash, and just remained in the peloton, he would have had a much easier ride. And it is for that reason, in my book, Nils Eekhoff should be the world champion.
This incident shows that the rules must change. If not, professional cycling as we know it cannot go on. No one would finish a Grand Tour. Or the winner would just be the one guy who never crashed or punctured the entire three weeks (hello Gatorskins!) All races would be decided based on mishaps or luck.
That just can’t be. Which is why I propose a new rule be introduced, along the lines of:
“If affected by a crash, puncture or mechanical incident, a rider should be allowed to draft back into the race caravan to the position of his team vehicle. Or at least to the back of the caravan.”
That is currently the unwritten rule, but was for some reason not followed in this case. Let’s now make it a reality. I can relate to the position Nils Eekhoff was in and I think the entire professional peloton can too. I think you would be hard pressed to find a professional cyclist who would believe he, or someone else who did the same – regardless of result at the finish line – was in the wrong. We’ve all been forced to do it at some point in our careers, after a crash, puncture or some other kind of bad luck.
So, if Eekhoff is a cheater, then I am too. And I think most of the peloton would say the exact same thing.