To many cycling fans, the idea of giving away a potentially nailed-on race victory is preposterous: ‘it devalues the competition,’ ‘it’s disingenuous,’ ‘it’s sentimental or simply frivolous,’ are many of the arguments that have been railed against the bestowing of victory by one rider or team on another.
Stemming back decades to the days when riders would offer sizeable sums of money in return for the opportunity to win, there is an understandable sense of distrust among the cycling fraternity for such acts of apparent benevolence. Yet in the modern era, riders are as likely to be criticised for not allowing another rider to take a win – under certain circumstances – than they are for gifting the win.
Sunday saw two examples of so-called ‘gifting,’ of very different types – with the victories of Remco Evenepoel on stage seven of the Volta a Catalunya and Christophe Laporte at Gent-Wevelgem generating a great deal of discourse both on social media channels and within cycling media outlets. Were the riders right to gift these wins? What motivations, both extrinsic and intrinsic, govern these decisions? And in a contemporary environment so fraught with opinion can anyone really ‘win’ anyway – they are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.
Best of rivals
Gifting a stage win to a rival doesn’t sound like something any sane elite level sportsperson would do. Yet it’s a reflection of the complexity of road racing that it’s actually possible (just try for comparative purposes imagining Andy Murray hitting every shot out of court just to make sure his good pal Roger Federer won a match. A ridiculous notion).
Cycling, of course, is a different beast. The multi-layered narrative of a stage race lends itself to complex scenarios whereby one rider could conceivably clinch one win while giving away another less valuable one. It’s a narrative Primož Roglič has been the protagonist of more times than most.
But the Volta a Catalunya wasn’t Roglič’s first rodeo. Rewind to the 2021 edition of Paris-Nice, where he single-handedly rekindled the debate surrounding gifts in cycling on the penultimate stage when he steamed past Bahrain-Victorious’ Gino Mäder just a few hundred metres from the finish at Valdeblore La Colmiane. Mäder had laboured in the break all day and had ridden solo for the final few kilometres of that effort, and many fans felt he ‘deserved’ the stage victory. With just one stage remaining and over 40 seconds lead on his nearest rival, did Roglič really need to chase the bonification seconds which would see him add another 10 seconds over his closest competitor, Max Schachmann? But with Schachmann just a few metres behind, Roglič stormed past Mäder to snatch a victory which many argued Roglič should have gifted to the Swiss. It began an emotionally charged discourse with one side asking, ‘why should he give gifts, he’s riding to win?’ and the other questioning the need for it given the circumstances. The drama continued, with the race ending in defeat for Roglič, who suffered two crashes and had to relocate his own shoulder on the final stage the next day, clinging desperately to his ever-diminishing lead and struggling to find allies in a peloton that hadn’t apparently taken kindly to the events of the previous day.
Later that spring, on the final stage of Itzulia Basque Country, Roglič discernibly put the situation to rights, despite not wearing the leader’s jersey, dismantling the challenge of UAE Team Emirates and allowing Groupama-FDJ’s David Gaudu to take a well-earned stage win. On that day, Roglič had the security to put right the perceived wrongs of Paris-Nice, with overall victory assured despite the lateness of the hour, and the fist bump with Gaudu just after the flamme rouge was an acknowledgement of Gaudu’s hard work – the two had ridden together for over 40km, and Gaudu raised his arms essentially with Roglič’s blessing. The debate, for now, was put to rest, and Roglič ostensibly redeemed.
At the weekend on the Montjuïc circuit of Barcelona, with the bonification seconds at the intermediate sprints gobbled up by other riders, all the Slovenian had to do to ensure he took home the leader’s jersey and secured his second stage race general classification of 2023 would be to ensure the Remco Evenepoel did not get a gap. A situation which seemed assured given the nature of the course and the absolute confidence Roglič had in his legs. Locked together as they rode the circuit four times, Roglič even pulled a few turns on the front; something which he had refused to do on stage five to Lo Port, much to the Soudal - Quick-Step rider’s frustration.
Evenepoel was allowed to win the final stage in Catalunya uncontested (Getty Images)
As they rode to the finish Roglič made it clear he would not sprint against Evenepoel for the stage win – he effectively gifted the stage to his rival, knowing he had the bigger prize in the bag. A gesture of sportsmanship, and respect; a recognition of their hard-fought battle and the contribution Evenepoel had made to the race. They embraced one another following the stage and there was a sense of fairness, and of justice having been done, closing the race in a satisfactory fashion and setting up a scintillating rematch at the Giro d’Italia.
The real MVPs
Wins aren’t always gifted to rivals. Sometimes a team is so dominant that they arrive at the line with not only their team leader but a domestique too, and if they have enough of a gap on the rest, they are in the enviable position of deciding who will take the victory. Of course, just as in the previous examples, if there is any doubt whatsoever over the race lead, then the leader would likely go for the win and secure as much time as possible. Such was the scenario in the UAE Women’s Tour earlier this year, when Trek-Segafredo’s Gaia Realini worked for Elisa Longo Borghini up Jebel Hafeet, yet wasn’t gifted the win by her senior team-mate as apparently the orders from the team car were for Longo Borghini to protect her lead at all costs. Fair enough.
In last summer’s Tour of Slovenia though, Tadej Pogačar’s lead was so secure that he could famously afford to play a game of rock, paper, scissors with helper Rafał Majka to determine who would enjoy crossing the line first (it was Majka). Alright for some.
It was an example of gifts being bestowed on riders who have served a team, or particular team-mate. For example, Richard Carapaz allowing Michał Kwiatkowski to cross the line first on stage 18 of the 2020 Tour de France, having already secured the king of the mountains jersey for himself (although he eventually lost it to Pogačar on the penultimate stage), and Team Jumbo-Visma honouring a career of loyal service from Robert Gesink by allowing him to cross the line first in the opening team time trial of last year’s Vuelta a España, thus allowing him the honour of wearing the esteemed red jersey the following day.
Van Aert allowed his team-mate Laporte to win Gent-Wevelgem despite appearing the stronger rider (Zac Williams/SWPix)
This then, is the category to which the second edition of yesterday’s not-so-secret Santa belongs. Wout van Aert allowed his team-mate Christophe Laporte to take the win after the two had attacked together up the Kemmelberg with over 50km remaining in the race. Later, Wout confirmed he asked Laporte with around 10km to go if he would like to take the victory. It wasn’t a gift horse the Frenchman was likely to look in the mouth. Having come second to Biniam Girmay in 2022, and second in E3 Harelbeke the same year after he and Van Aert had forged clear of the pack in a similar fashion, it was a Classics victory a long-time coming, and Van Aert’s expression of gratitude to a team-mate may also have represented a continuation of his statement to the press that he has nothing to prove. The Belgian has been open in the past about his lack of interest in amassing repeat victories at the same competition and has already been seen in ebullient mood with regards to the Belgian press, shouting ‘ik moet just niks’ (I don’t have to do anything) down the camera after his win last week at E3. The press pack in his home country gives no quarter to a man who is garnering success across the board in cycling, and it seems Van Aert is done allowing them to dictate what he does, or doesn’t do. His public display of gratitude towards a loyal team-mate is a bold move, but one which he was completely within his right to deploy, as he sets his sights on bigger goals – namely the Tour of Flanders, and Paris-Roubaix.
To gift or not to gift
Gifting race wins could be considered a noble act of sportsmanship, an expression of gratitude, or simply a massive flex. But could it simultaneously be perceived as a devaluation of the contest for riders who aren’t able to compete on the same level? To riders less used to being at the sharp end, perhaps the thought would not even occur, even if the opportunity were to arise. There are many other factors at play than simply an expansion of one’s palmarès. Winning races is worth a lot of money, and in the modern system of relegation and promotion, UCI points are also vitally important for many of the less ‘winning’ teams.
There were no gifts between the SD Worx pair at Strade Bianche (Getty Images)
Moreover, sometimes a rider just really, really wants to win, no matter the cost – consider the tooth-and-nail fight to the line between SD Worx team-mates Lotte Kopecky and Demi Vollering at this year’s Strade Bianche. Kopecky had won the race the previous year, but unlike Van Aert, she would not settle for second place just because she had Strade Bianche on her palmarès.
To recognise these variations is to accept that an individual rider’s motivations for giving gifts are just one aspect of the debate. The option to ‘gift’ wins is also, at least in part, a reflection of the imbalance in the state of cycling as a sport. It is telling that most of these examples come from within one team – a team which arguably has the resources and firepower not to worry about missing out on a stage here or there (the other two examples come from the other top two teams, in terms of finances). And herein lies the rub. The luxury of offering a gift is only open to those who have already won, both literally within an individual race situation and figuratively, in the sense of their position within the sport. In short, giving gifts is a lovely thing to be able to do, for those who can afford it.
Cover image by Zac Williams/SW Pix