It’s stage three of the Tour of Qatar and, as has become traditional, Quick Step's Tom Boonen is wiping the floor with his rivals. Procycling’s Ellis Bacon hitches a ride in one of the UCI commissaires’ cars on the day’s stage, and witnesses first hand a teeny bit of rule-bending…
Right from the off, I suspected a day of rule-bending. Drapac-Porsche rider Gene Bates had punctured barely a kilometre into the stage. I was there when it happened, I watched him raise his hand to indicate what had happened and, as we sped past and I looked through the rear window, I saw his mechanic leap out of the team car and replace his wheel.
I was riding in a car with the one of the UCI commissaries, the judges from cycling’s governing body who attend all pro races to ensure everything is done by the book.
And while the seconds ticked by and Bates didn’t get back to the bunch, and with the départ réel, as opposed to the départ fictif a few kilometres previously, about to be announced, the race radio piped up that the race would wait for Bates to return to the peloton.
At the same time, I saw race director Christian Prudhomme pop up out of the sunroof of his car (which was being driven by someone else) to gesture that everyone should wait before putting the hammer down. Bates eventually got back, the ‘real start’ was announced, up went the speed to race pace, and stage three of this Tour of Qatar was go.
It got me thinking just how beset by rules professional cycling is. It’s a sport of rules and regulations, whether it’s how bonus seconds and points are awarded, how much a bike can weigh and its dimensions, how the individual jersey competitions work, gentlemen’s agreements, doping…
And here I was with a representative of the very body that enforces many of those rules. Prudhomme explained to me later that yes, the rules could be bent slightly to accommodate bad luck – that it was in no one’s interest for Bates to have to fight to get back to the bunch. But it was all above board – chief commissaire on the race, Martijn Swinkels, gave his permission, so why not at least have everyone start the day’s stage on an equal footing?
It was to be an eye-opening day witnessing the ‘wrath’ of the UCI up close; I was in a car with Jacques Pailleux – an extremely experienced, firm-but-fair commissaire. Turns out our sport’s governing body are a cycling-loving bunch who just want things to be run properly, and are more than prepared to amend their own rules when necessary. Not that I really expected anything else.
But take the rule which states that riders can’t fetch extra bottles from the team cars in the first 50 kilometres of a race or in the last 20 – basically in an effort to avoid chaos.
“But there are rules, and there’s being sensible,” Pailleux explained. “When it’s hot like today and we’re at a relatively relaxed race, there’s little reason not to allow riders to get more water from their team vehicles a little bit sooner. I can’t really sit here casually sipping my bottle of water and then tell the teams through the window that no, you can’t get any more water until it’s time. Well, I can, but…”
One rule for the Tour of Qatar that the race organisers weren’t prepared to back down on on this occasion was the one stating that riders were not allowed to throw their empty bottles onto the side of the road. In Europe, eager fans virtually fight over them, but out in the deserted desert, you might easily find that same bottle lying there at next year’s race. Instead, riders were expected to dump them into the open-backed trucks that were being used instead of team cars. It didn’t actually seem to happen as much as was hoped, though; old habits are hard to break.
I saw the UCI in a very human light – as a rule enforcer which nevertheless recognises that cycling is arguably the world’s toughest sport. On several occasions, Pailleux waited, waited, waited while we watched riders sheltering behind team trucks on their way back from punctures or coming back having been dropped because of the echelons that were formed in the crosswinds.
But once they started to push their luck and stayed out of the wind for just that bit too long, expecting an easy ride back to the safety of the next group ahead, Pailleux would bark at the driver to get him up next to them.
“That’s it – time to get back up there. I’ve been very patient,” he’d yell out of the window at the latest offenders.
“It seems cruel, I know,” said Pailleux at one point, turning around to me in the back seat and somehow shrugging at the same time, “but there are rules, you know…”