Dead Heat: Dissecting the Close Finish at the Amstel Gold Race

Discussing the tight finish at the Amstel Gold Race, previous occasions where this has occured and whether draws are a valid result in cycling

One kilometre to go. It has become clear that the 2021 Amstel Gold Race will be won by Maxi Schachmann, Wout Van Aert or Tom Pidcock. Following an unsuccessful attack from Schachmann, Pidcock and particularly Van Aert, the two quicker riders on paper, are heavy favourites.

Wout Van Aert is forced to the front of the group, a job he's become accustomed to – after all it comes in tandem with being one of the world's best sprinters. With just under 200 metres to go and the chasing group closing exponentially, the sprint is on. Tom Pidcock is a great match for the Belgian superstar and slingshots out of Van Aert's slipstream towards the finish line. His momentum is strong and he draws level as the line comes and goes. A photo finish.

"Oooh it’s a close one, Van Aert, Pidcock, photo finish there!" screamed Matt Stephens as they approached and then crossed the line.

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Neither rider could celebrate immediately, and in the following moments as the riders came to a stop Pidcock and Van Aert briefly conferred with each other. Swiftly though, and to the surprise of many, Wout Van Aert was announced as the winner and he celebrated his second one-day classic win of the season following Gent-Wevelgem.

However, more confusion over the final result ensued. Repeated replays gave no further insight as to who had won. As more angles were shown, we could see that Van Aert’s front wheel lifted slightly as he threw his bike towards the line.

As fans and riders awaited official confirmation, cameras cut to an image of a man’s smartphone which displayed the photo finish. Many chipped in on social media with some asking for it to be called a dead-heat. 

Eventually, after much confusion and delay, a final conclusion came and Wout Van Aert was the confirmed victor.

Wout Van Aert spoke after the race: “After the finish I didn't know (who had won). They said on the radio that I won, but another few moments later I saw some images on the big screen so I was in doubt again. It took until the jury came into the changing room and said it was sure. It was just super tight. I never had something like this”.

Tom Pidcock was shown the photo finish on a reporter's phone following the race. "You can't really tell", said the Brit.

This was not the first time we have seen a finish this close in pro cycling and it certainly won’t be the last.

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Just last week in the Women’s Brabantse Pijl, Demi Vollering sprinted ahead and looked to have won, celebrating as she crossed the line. However, Ruth Winder had gained some late momentum and after a great bike throw she had stolen the race from Vollering. On first viewing, it looked like Vollering had edged it, but the photo revealed that the American Champion had in-fact won.

Ruth WinderRuth Winder (Image credit: Zac Williams/SWpix)

So, is there a problem and how do we resolve it?

Photo finishes are not uncommon in sport. In horse racing, for example, photo finishes take place regularly and are displayed and dissected quickly to announce the rightful winner, meaning both competitors and fans can find out the outcome swiftly. The delay at the 2021 Amstel Gold Race meant that some broadcasts ended without an official result. Of course, it is better to take the time required to ensure the correct conclusion is made, but what happens when riders simply cannot be split at the end of a race, even after a photo?

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When riders finish at the same time to the nearest thousandths of a second, should the race be called a draw? It happens in other sports regularly, but has occurred in cycling before too.

Back in 2010 at the U23 Men’s World Championships, Michael Matthews was the clear, convincing winner, sitting up well before the line to celebrate. However, things were much closer behind, so much so that Taylor Phinney and Guillaume Boivin were both awarded third-place.

Taylor PhinneyTaylor Phinney (Image credit: Offside / LEquipe)

This decision may hold less magnitude, both because it was an U23 race and because it was for third-place, not first. But this case proves there should be a standardised system in place when a close finish occurs, whether at the Tour de France or a lower profile race. On that occasion, the jury decided it was the correct decision — would it be wrong to award the race as a draw if two or more riders cannot be split after a photo finish?

The biggest issue here is consistency. When a clear and decisive result cannot be formed following a photo finish, what is the best action to take? This will not be the final time a top-tier race ends this way, and hopefully some lessons have been learned from the Amstel Gold Race.

Cover Image: Davy Rietbergen/Cor Vos

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