The UCI’s decision to penalise Richie Porte and Simon Clarke two minutes, punishment for Clarke’s sporting decision to give Porte his front wheel after the Sky leader had punctured, is a disgrace.
The penalty has effectively ended Porte’s chances of winning the Giro.
It has probably wrecked this Giro: for the second year in a row the winner will be decided by incompetent officialdom amidst confusion and controversy.
Yet it is no exaggeration to say that acts like Clarke’s are the embodiment of how Australians are raised to understand sportsmanship. It is part of our national sporting folklore that helping a rival who has suffered bad luck is one of the most noble things you can do on a sporting arena.
Events like John Landy’s 1956 decision to stop to help a fallen Ron Clarke in the Australian mile championships are iconic in our sporting culture. It is literally cast in bronze near the site of Melbourne’s former Olympic Park athletics track, a couple of drop punts from the MCG.
Australian sportsmanship can be problematic: witness the reaction to our cricketers and sledging. Yet acts like Landy’s represent us as we would like to be, more than perhaps we truly are. We are taught from a young age to aspire to respect our rivals and mates.
Many Australians will see Simon Clarke’s act of kindness to his friend as fitting squarely within the best of sportsmanship, as we understand it, having been raised to view these kinds of selfless acts as defining marks of character and sporting goodwill.
Many cycling fans will agree. The Giro d’Italia’s official Twitter account posted photos of the event with the admiring caption, in English, “This is cycling. This is the best sport in the world.”
Hours later the same account was announcing the penalties with a terse press release.
It is yet another baffling decision from professional cycling’s idiot bureaucracy.
Let’s be clear: low-level cheating is endemic in professional cycling. Watch a race for five minutes and you will see riders hanging onto team cars, being dragged along by a ‘sticky bottle’. You’ll see riders drafting off team cars to get back to the peloton; riders drafting camera motorbikes as they attack; teams routinely offer bottles and food to riders from other teams.
The UCI ignores all of this unless riders blatantly (and you have to be more blatant than Rafal Majka winking at the camera as he drafted a moto in last year’s Tour de France) abuse the rules.
At Paris-Roubaix recently, a big group of riders charged under a closing railway barrier, desperate to save a few seconds but putting their lives at risk. The UCI refused to act on its own rules, bleating about not being able to identify all the riders and mumbling that it wouldn’t be fair to punish only the ones it could identify.
It’s quite clear that the UCI frequently excuses and endorses low-level cheating, bending its own rules.
That’s long before we get to the more ‘serious’ cheating: doping, rumours of motorised bikes, race-fixing, which the UCI has a long and shameful history, perhaps now ending, of ignoring and shovelling under the carpet.
And yet it chooses to throw the rule book at two riders who have done something that the entire sporting world, including the race’s own PR team, agrees demonstrates great sportsmanship and admirable character.
A fine, perhaps, if it is determined to actually start enforcing its own rules right now, but a two-minute penalty?
The penalties show that the UCI remains determined in its officious, tone-deaf administration, completely isolated from the values it should be encouraging, from the wishes of its fans, and from the deeper sporting tradition it inhabits.
The decision is a disgrace to the UCI. Long live cycling.