This week, the 105th Giro d'Italia begins when the starting gun fires in the Hungarian capital of Budapest. After COVID-related issues forced race organisers…
‘Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.’
Bill Shankly, former manager of Liverpool Football Club
I was reminded of Shankly’s famous quotation when the barriers came down with just 90km gone of Paris-Roubaix 2015, barriers intended to stop people being pulverised by trains traveling at over 150km/hr.
Big trains too, not soft little trains. But trains made of steel and stuff, proper hard, fairly deadly (if you stand in front of them and they’re moving) trains.
The commentators on Eurosport were aghast at the impulsive idiocy displayed by several members of the peloton who squeezed through even several seconds after the barriers had gone down.
Fabian Cancellara even tweeted UCI Rule 2.3.034, regarding level crossings specifically:
It shall be strictly forbidden to cross level crossings when the barrier is down.
Cancellara as Hall Monitor. I like it. Wag that finger.
The French national train company, SNCF, has lodged an official complaint with the police and released a statement to accompany that:
Several riders deliberately crossed a level crossing, which is against all safety regulations. Millions of TV viewers were able to watch this unauthorized crossing which was extremely serious and irresponsible, that could have ended in tragedy. SNCF has decided to lodge a legal complaint and will leave it up to the investigation to determine who was responsible and we regret that such foolhardiness took place.”
Hard to disagree with rules such as ones to stop people getting killed needlessly being in place, and for normal people these rules are great, but everyone seems to be forgetting that these guys are bike racers.
And bike racers, almost to a man, are selfish arseholes – at least whilst on their bikes. And proud of it. They’ll take just about every opportunity they can to get ahead, to sneak an advantage, to dupe a foe or to dope themselves, so why be surprised when a few of them sneak through a close barrier to be sure that they don’t lose time and gain an advantage on others instead?
It’s built into the psyche of the professional athlete to jump on every weakness and deficiency of your opponent and to make them pay for it. This is right, if that weakness is a physical weakness – lack of power, cramps, fatigue. However, when athletes are cashing in on unfair advantages – be it in the form of a mechanical, a train barrier coming down or even, more fool you, in the form of having the ethics not to dope, there are enough guys out there that have, do and will continue to take advantage of all this.
It’s the nature of the beast. Like an aggressive dog that will chew up even a child, it’s been bred in these people. Sure they make choices too, but when the choice is so clear to so many – skip the barrier, take the dope – there isn’t then much of a choice is there?
In that moment when those guys ignored the moto rider and sneaked under and around the barrier at that level crossing, you saw a little of what is wrong with professional sports – and indeed much of amateur sports too these days.
It was the propensity of the athlete to sneak an unnatural advantage. It was the heeding of the urge to cheat, to bend the rules, to ignore those willing to abide by the rules to get ahead.
That the race was neutralized to allow those held up to get back on was a decision that did not come from the riders but from the commissaires. I’ve been in enough UCI races in Asia to see how riders behave in similar situations to know that it really is every man for himself and screw any chump that gets left behind.
I’ve seen riders risk life and limb when a traffic cop has inadvertently allowed vehicles on to the race route, as in the 2012 Tour of Thailand where the entire peloton encountered a traffic jam with 3km to go to the line, and riders were hammering at 60km/hr through narrow gaps with cars still moving along.
On the flip side I witnessed a guy leading his category at the Mongolia Bike Challenge last year, who came around a corner and saw a bike but no rider so he stopped, found a guy under a bush and completely wiped out, then rode in with him to the line basically having pushed him for 40km, losing all hope of winning in the process.
That incident stands out, however, in over five years of professional racing.
Professional sports are heralded as a platform for the spectator to see greatness unfold, to see feats that make us wonder a the power of the human spirit. Cue the classical music, hit the slow-mo button and let the magnificence roll.
Yet these same sports deliver up massive contradictions, serving as avenues for the largest, baddest egos to be pumped up and polished by sycophantic fans and commentators, encouraging cheating in all forms, rewarding those who don’t get caught and tying to the stake those who are dumb enough to get busted.
The riders sneaking through the barriers on Sunday was not the worst thing that ever happened but it did reveal something to us that we don’t often see so starkly – that athletes are willing to risk their lives to get a jump.
Until we accept this reality and work to change it, little will change.