The UCI were wrong to disqualify Nils Eekhoff from the men’s U23 road race, argues Ribble Pro Cycling and Huub-Wattbike rider Jacob Tipper…
The use of cars, sticky bottles, magic spanners, essentially limits the damage you have occurred from the bad luck incident
Nils Eekhoff (Netherlands) crossed the line first at the men’s U23 road race at the UCI Yorkshire World Road Championships in Yorkshire this week, but was subsequently disqualified for drafting behind his team car. This has led to some very divided opinions on the decision by the UCI commissaires and race jury.
After various Twitter arguments, I thought I would explain the basics of drafting in the race convoy, and give my two pence on the argument.
What are the rules?
Nils Eekhoff was disqualified for breaking regulation 4.7 of article 2.12.007 – sheltering behind a vehicle.
The regulation states you get fines first, then, “in serious cases, in cases of repeated infringement or aggravating circumstances, the Commissaires’ Panel may eliminate or disqualify a rider”.
On the face of it, it’s rather simple: those are the rules, and he did break them
On the face of it, it’s rather simple: those are the rules, and he did break them. Various videos have been released showing Nils behind a car for well over 2 minutes, and also receiving a sticky bottle in the process.
Why it’s complicated
However, cycling is significantly more complex than this. Road races over four hours long can throw up a variety of problems and challenges, mostly mechanicals and crashes. For this reason, teams have the convoy of cars behind the peloton to help support riders.
It has become normal practice to use your team car, or other riders’ team cars, to help catch back onto the convoy to limit your misfortune
This is normally in the form of a change of bike or wheel change, or even picking you up and putting you back on your own bike. At which point you can suddenly be somewhere between 30 seconds to 2 minutes behind the peloton (or more – I once had a double mechanical leaving me 3 minutes astray!). For anyone who has watched cycling, you will know that for a solo rider, closing a gap of anything over a minute to a full peloton is not easy and, depending on the time of the race, could almost be impossible. So it has become normal practice to use your team car, or other riders’ team cars, to help catch back onto the convoy to limit your misfortune and carry on as you were.
It’s even explained in the UCI Sports Directors course….— Bob Varney (@bob_varney) September 28, 2019
This decision is completely wrong and totally mystifying.
I cannot begin to think how Nil’s & his family & friends are feeling. I’m sure he’ll bounce back & have a wonderful career.
But will he ever be world champion?
So how does this work?
After getting back on your bike after a crash, mechanical or puncture, the basics are: mechanic gives you a push, you start getting up to speed, your team car comes and offers you a bottle which conveniently accelerates you up to around 50-60 kph, and you then sit behind your car until you catch the back of the convoy. Then depending on the commissaire, you can sometimes follow your car up to its original position in the convoy, or sometimes you are left but behind the bumper of the last car.
Most directeur sportifs (DSs) who are ex-riders will then pretty much help anyone pacing back on by closing the gap to the car in front of them gradually and waving you around. In fact it’s fairly frowned upon when certain DSs don’t do this. Eventually you end up back to the commissaire’s car, when sometimes even he will close the gap to the peloton himself and you carry on racing.
So is this cheating?
Well define cheating. Are you gaining an advantage over your competitors? You may overtake someone who crashes with you whose car doesn’t wait for them. Although you will regularly see riders catching back on as a group, not many riders just get left behind.
Many times the chase back on for me has been one of my highest sustained periods of power for a full race
So are you gaining an advantage over the riders in the bunch? From experience, no! And many others will agree with me. It’s really not that easy: many times the chase back on for me has been one of my highest sustained periods of power for a full race. And twice I’ve caught back on, and instantly blown up as chasing on was so hard!
The use of cars, sticky bottles, magic spanners, essentially limits the damage you have occurred from the bad luck incident. And I don’t believe any racer has an issue with this. A good argument I saw on Twitter was ‘would anyone from that main group want to have swapped with Nils at the time he was chasing’ – to which the answer would obviously be no.
So when is it cheating?
Well, when you are using this to gain an advantage. If you have been dropped fair and square and then get a bottle, sit in the convoy and catch back on once the pace settles then it is cheating. Although if you have been dropped, the chances are you aren’t going to win anyway, so if someone uses it just to help them get to the finish and roll in 80th, again, I don’t think anyone has a problem with this. I did once have a full team take it in turns to attack the grupetto, then have the car pull them up to the main bunch. Now that’s cheating, and I was not happy! But when I look back now, am I really bothered I got cheated out of 60th place on day 1 of the Tour of the Reservoir in 2014 when none of us sprinted from the grupetto anyway? Again, it’s really not a big deal.
The one area the UCI have clamped down on is the grupetto doing this on mountain days in the big tours. There were certain sprinters who used to get a lot of sticky bottles to help make the time cut on the mountain days. Although they rolled in 30 minutes down, they would then win the next day, which is gaining an advantage over riders legitimately making the time cut. Especially considering some riders may have also sacrificed some sprint power by focusing on their climbing leading into the event to avoid this situation.
So what is the solution?
Well, to be honest, the old ‘turn a blind eye system’ used to work okay. There were some people who took the piss, and the rules got tightened because of that. However, it now seems to be punishing the legitimate riders, to the point a world title has been taken off the best rider on the day.
And it’s not even as simple as, ‘well maybe you should be allowed X amount of time behind a car and 1 sticky bottle per 4km’, as its very context dependant. A 30 second deficit if the group has sat up is easy to close. A 2 minute deficit as the race splits in echelons, and you’re probably going to lose time even using the car. This is also where a few subtleties come in. Is it fair to pace back on past a group who have been spat in the time you were sat on your arse looking for a spare bike? Well, if you hadn’t crashed you would have been in the front group, and you will get back to the front of the race with more tired legs than the lads who missed the crash. But it still doesn’t go down well with Nibali being punished when jumped a few groups holding onto a car in a similar situation. Again, completely holding on is a little bit different, but not many people ever really risk doing this.
Okay, so still no obvious solution other than applying the rules consistently in black and white, no drafting in the cars, and bad luck will just be bad luck. Sorry you wanted to be a pro cyclist but thorns just decided you weren’t going to finish a stage race this year.
Or we have stronger commissaires who can stand up to their own decisions, understand the sport and apply a simple logic of, ‘has athlete X gained an advantage over the riders in the bunch by using a vehicle’. If yes, disqualify the rider. If no, then carry on. And again, to clarify, it’s not ‘has rider X gained an advantage over a rider with no car or a rider getting dropped’, it’s simply compared to the situation they were in before the misfortune took place.
Featured photo: Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com. 27/09/2019 – Cycling – 2019 UCI Road World Championships – Men’s Under 23 Road Race – Yorkshire, England – Nils Eekhoff of the Netherlands before he was disqualified.