The subject of “unwritten rules” reared its head again last week. Thanks to Movistar’s rascally little move at the Vuelta, when they seemed to choose the moment of a massive crash which took out half of Jumbo Visma to begin a wholehearted attempt at breaking the race apart.
“Unwritten rules” is a phrase I have long bristled at. It’s an oxymoron. If it’s not written, it cannot be reasonably adjudicated. If it cannot be adjudicated, it cannot be enforced. If it cannot be enforced, it’s not a rule.
What people actually mean when they talk about “unwritten rules” are “conventions”. Behaviour which is assumed but not codified. Semantics, you might say. Well, no. The choice of word matters because people generally understand a “rule” to be rigid, tangible, breakable.
Here in Britain at least, we feel particularly strongly about rule-breaking. The pearl-clutching, “won’t someone please think of the children” outrage that consumed cycling Twitter last Friday evening was testament to that.
We might not like it but in choosing to attack at the point they did, shortly after the leader and his team went down, Movistar didn’t break any rules, written or otherwise. Rather what their riders did was challenge a convention.
Conventions are similar to rules in that both govern behaviour, but in practice they’re very different. Rules are enforced by an authority external to the actors whose behaviour they govern. Conventions are agreed upon, consented to, and managed from within the group or community, by the actors themselves. Rules are created while conventions evolve. Rules are, indeed, written. (In actual law it’s a bit more complicated than that, but while common law is a thing, in sport, common rules are not.)
Part of the reason this one is not, and is not likely to ever be, codified is, as one individual on Twitter, who described themselves as a former UCI commissaire, pointed out, any such rule would be very difficult to enforce. Not to mention time-consuming and disruptive to the race.
Assigning motive or premeditation, which would be necessary, is notoriously hard in any criminal proceeding. Movistar protested – perhaps too much – that they had previously identified that point in the race as an opportune moment to attempt to cause another split in the bunch, and all they were doing was following through with that plan. Can anyone prove otherwise?
We might well take the side of Superman López – as well as that of, apparently, half the peloton – that what Movistar did was not on, but would we want the UCI to be involved? Do we really want more rules than there are already?
Cycling is a sport uncommonly dependent on the principle of cooperation. The athletes ride at such close quarters that their very safety depends on it.
Favours can be currency and Movistar might well find at some point in the future that other teams are rather less forthcoming when it comes to granting them one. Likewise the withholding of cooperation can be used as a subtle, unofficial form of punishment or retribution.
It could be something as trifling as not offering a bidon or gel, or something more meaningful, like refusing to help another team to claw back a rogue escapee.
We may, in fact, have already seen this natural justice in action. On Saturday, when Alejandro Valverde took off from the roja group on the hunt for Pogacar, he seemed to be hoping for some assistance from others and was visibly dismayed when he didn’t get it. Quintana subsequently slipped off the podium. Tough s**t? Karma? Just desserts? Maybe.