Stage Four of the Vuelta a España saw race leader Alejandro Valverde lose his race leader’s red jersey after an unfortunate accident 40 km from the finish, when a crosswind hit the peloton and Sky accelerated.
Valverde and his Movistar team had let a breakaway gain 13 minutes on the peloton; it seemed he was willing to give up the red jersey.
Sky had planned to attack on the long flat center portion of the stage if the wind was favorable; when a sudden crosswind hit the peloton, Sky jumped into action, pushing through the pack and forming an echelon and pulling away, tearing the peloton into pieces as other teams scrambled to organize.
In the sudden burst of activity, two riders touched wheel and crashed right in front of the Movistar riders; six went down, including Valverde.
Sky pressed on, joined by Katusha, opening a couple of minutes’ gap over Valverde. The former race leader rode his heart out to get back to the front, but at the base of the final climb BM C and Saxo Bank put in a burst of acceleration, stretching the gap again. In the end Valverde lost 55 seconds on the day, and probably any chance of a podium finish.
Movistar’s Sporting Director Eusebio Unzué addressed the issue on the team’s website. “That’s one of those crashes that happen in cycling and I don’t think there wasn’t any intentionality, but I think there were enough reasons to wait, because everyone could see the race leader crashing, six of his team-mates… There was nothing at stake because the stage victory was for the escapees, so that’s why I don’t understand why being so cruel to take profit from the leader’s crash.
“I’m really disappointed with the attitude by the bunch and certain riders. The incident raised different interpretations of the unwritten racing etiquette which is essential to cycling a sport in which many teams have to work together at many times, in order to have a chance to compete for the win.”
Sky’s Sports Director Marcus Ljungqvist also commented on his team’s website. “Let’s be clear, we are not the type of team who would ever try to benefit from some else’s misfortune, and there is always two sides to the story,” he said.
“It was clear that the peloton was nervous because of the crosswinds, and it was only a matter of time before one team hit the front. We took that responsibility because it was vital Froomey [Sky leader Chris Froome] was well positioned, and then unfortunately the crash came soon after that.
“There’s always a lot of confusion straight after a fall and it takes time to know who’s been affected, and who’s been held up behind. Before we knew Valverde was down we were already 50 seconds in front and we had to keep chasing the break before the last climb of the day.
“It’s really unfortunate that it was the race leader who was caught up, but we didn’t have any choice but to keep going by the time we found out because there were other teams riding hard as well.”
Chris Froome ended up second in GC, while Valverde dropped from first to ninth.
The incident raised different interpretations of the unwritten racing etiquette which is essential to cycling a sport in which many teams have to work together at many times, in order to have a chance to compete for the win.
One “rule” in cycling is that it is not acceptable to attack when a rival has a mechanical issue or crash. A perfect illustration of this principle is Stage 14 of this year’s Tour de France. When 2011 winner Cadel Evans got a puncture at the top of Mur de Peguere (saboteurs had thrown tacks on the road—at least 30 riders got punctures) eventual race winner Bradley Wiggins slowed the pace of the race, saying after that it seemed the honorable thing to do.
“Everybody sees those situations differently but personally I wouldn’t want to benefit from something like that. I thought the best thing to do is to wait.
“If you can’t gain times on the climbs, then you don’t do it when someone’s punctured—not even when it’s an ordinary puncture. So when it was something like what happened today, something external affecting the race, then it’s even more so.”
The matter is more complicated: if a rider has made a “racing maneuver” prior to the crash or mechanical, then it is considered acceptable to continue. An example would be Alberto Contador attacking Andy Schleck on the HC Port de Balès climb in Stage 15 of the 2010 Tour de France when the latter missed a shift and dropped his chain.
Many people felt Contador should have waited while Schleck fixed his bike, but Contador pointed out that he had initiated an attack prior to the incident. Schleck was responding to Contador passing him; the Belgian rider tried to shift gears while pedaling hard, and sometimes that can cause the chain to pop off or stick to the chainring and jam.
This problem was of Schleck’s doing; plus, Contador had already started his racing maneuver—he didn’t accelerate after seeing Schleck in difficulty. Contador did apologize later, but that might have been a response to popular pressure rather than heartfelt regret.
Of course, there is no “right” view. Many felt that Wiggins should have pressed on and Contador was right to; many more think Contador “stole” the 2010 Tour de France with an unsporting action. Even codified laws can be debated; unwritten rules can never be clear.
In this case the salient points seem to be that Valverde was not defending the jersey, and that Sky initiated its attack ahead of and before the Movistar rider. It might make sense to stop if a GC contender crashed, so that the race win wouldn’t be tainted. When someone back in the peloton crashes, no one stops. If Valverde and his teammates had been up front and fighting when the crash occurred, the situation would be more complicated.
Sky’s Juan Antonio Flecha said something similar to cyclingnews.com.: “If the crash [in the Vuelta] had been a result of our acceleration, it would have been wrong on our part.
“Nobody told me to stop yesterday and I only found out late that Alejandro Valverde had been involved.
“There are lots of crashes in a race. When should we stop? I’m not going to become a commissaire and decide when we stop. It’s not the first time, nor will it be the last.”
Interestingly, an informal poll of eight Spanish former professional riders by Spanish paper AS showed that seven thought Sky should continue.