On this eve of the 2008 Milan-San Remo, the official start of the classics season, it seems appropriate to have a look at that reliable bookend of nearly every professional cycling race, the victory salute. Though it can look casual, even spontaneous, the salute is actually governed by a set of rules, passed down through generations of riders to ensure some semblance of professionalism. Or at least it should be.
Victory Salute Rule #1: Never Do it Too Early
Like Paris-Roubaix’s Arenberg Forest, the victory salute won’t win a rider the race, but it can lose it for them. It seems elementary, but this rule is forgotten surprisingly often, and by people who should know better: never, ever celebrate until you’re positive you’ve won. For instance, four short years ago, Erik Zabel (the T-Mobile, now Milram) thought he had a fifth Milan-San Remo victory sewn up and threw his arms in the air, only to see Oscar Freire (Rabobank) squirt under his right elbow on his way to a second win. That little mistake not only cost Zabel the win, but also resulted in an embarrassing finish line shot that made Zabel’s non-win look like one of Chris Horner’s actual wins.
Of course, if an experienced pro like Zabel could do it, anyone could. And they do, despite being professionals and having ridden hundreds and hundreds of races to get to even the neo-pro phase of their careers. One can only imagine what the chat with the team and the director sportif is like afterwards.
Victory Salute Rule #2: Remember the Reason
To the casual observer, the victory salute appears to be the rider’s physical manifestation of joy at adding another line to his palmares and a little bonus check to his bank account. And that’s surely true.
But the salute is also a valuable commercial commodity. The image of the rider sitting upright, arms outstretched to nicely frame the sponsor logo as he crosses the line will be the image most often used in television, web, and magazine coverage, and in the bevy of ads equipment sponsors will run in the wake of a victory. Which is odd, because the finish straight is the one part of every race that pretty much looks exactly the same no matter which race it is – some road, a white line, some barriers, a few trailers, electrical cables, and a banner. But that’s a different story.
If sponsors didn’t want that shot, they wouldn’t pay to plaster their names across the chests of jerseys in a sport where the participants spend all day hunched over (look for a future piece, "The Origins of Assvertising"). Riders who know which side their bread is buttered on always remember to give their all for this critical juncture of the race, including donning a well-rehearsed pain face if necessary.
Victory Salute Rule #3: Remember the Procedure
A proper salute doesn’t just happen, but the procedure for attaining one is fairly simple if a rider remembers all of the steps in sequence.
- 10k or so prior to the finish, depending on the state of the race, remove any extra clothing obscuring the jersey (e.g., rain jacket, vest, ascot).
- If riding solo or if victory has been pre-arranged with breakaway companions, zip jersey several hundred meters from the line. This ensures that text and logos will be unbroken and visible so that the sponsor gets the publicity, not the rider’s sweaty gold chain.
- Double check that nobody is about to pip you for the win. I can’t stress enough how important this is.
- Straighten jersey, adjust or remove sunglasses.
- No more than 25 meters from the line, raise arms overhead, or extend straight out to the sides. Timing is critical -- nobody wants to watch the winner wobble around at 16kph with his arms in the air for 3 kilometers.
The unwritten exception to Rule 3 is that the rider must know when to abandon the procedure in order to preserve the win. Sponsors, in a pinch, can make due with podium shots, which have the offsetting advantages of a clean jersey and kissing girls in petrochemical knitwear. If the rider is engaged in a tight, non-arranged sprint to the finish, obviously, zipping up is secondary. If it is snowing, keeping the vest on to the finish may be a good idea. While the proliferation of radios in professional cycling is an indication that as few decisions as possible should be left to the riders, this one, due to timing, is unavoidable. Only the rider can decide when all his attention must be focused on actually winning. That’s where things tend to go bad.
Victory Salute Rule #4: Keep it Simple
There are some riders who, in the excitement of those waning kilometers, manage to remember most of Rule #3, but get a bit carried away when it’s time to execute the final step. If a victory salute has an elaborate backstory or requires props or any sort of pre-planning, it’s way too complicated. And somehow, intricate celebrations are a bit unsavory. After all, cycling, even in the 21st century, is not the NFL of the 1980s. Ickey Shuffle, anyone?
Nonetheless, cycling has had its share of infractions. Witness Juan Antonio Flecha’s (then iBanesto.com, now Rabobank) archer routine when he won Stage 11 of the 2003 Tour de France, from Narbonne to Toulouse, a play on his last name, which means "arrow" in Spanish. It’s never a good trend when people start acting out their names. Who wants to see David Millar (or Robert Miller, for that matter) making wheat-grinding gestures or Maarten Den Bakker kneading dough at a finish? What about the Italians, who are naturally expressive? I’m not sure of the direct translation of his name, but what, by god, would Crescenzo D'Amore do when crossing the finish line? I’m pretty sure I don’t want to see it. And thank heavens Mariano Friedick is retired from the U.S. domestic circuit.
Apparently, 2003 was a breakout year for the rehearsed but obtuse victory salute. Maybe it was just the intoxication of the Tour, maybe it was just Spanish riders, or maybe it had something to do with Toulouse, but a mere two days after Flecha’s Saturday Night Fever act, Carlos Sastre (CSC) one-upped his compatriot with a bizarre pacifier-nursing salute on Stage 13, from Toulouse to Plateau de Bonascre. A touching tribute to a man’s love for his daughter, sure, but fairly unsuitable for sponsor ads, since it takes a paragraph of disclaimer text to explain why your all-conquering destroyer-of-worlds is suckling a binky.
Perhaps recalling those heady days of 2003, Paolo Bettini (Quick.Step) brought it all back home last year with his own bizarre salute at the finish of the 2007 road World Championship in Stuttgart, Germany. In taking his second consecutive win, Bettini fired an invisible machine gun, explaining later that his intended victims were not the crowd, but all the folks who tried to exclude him from the race for not signing one of cycling’s increasing number of blood oaths about doping. That’s all well and good, but since he had to explain just what the hell he was doing at the press conference anyway, he might as well have just made a statement there. Then, he would have had a victory photo for his wall where you could see his face.
There are riders who can get away with a bit of improv -- Mario Cipollini's taunting look over the shoulder look during his Saeco days, or Robbie McEwen's running man at the 2006 Tour. But those were just small variations on the norm, not sweaty, rolling games of charades.
Victory Salute Rule #5: One Winner, One Salute
This is a recent addition to the list, and an unfortunate byproduct of the times. Cycling has long been an individual sport practiced by teams. The winner gets the flowers, of course, but those savvy to the sport always knew what the domestiques contributed, and we loved them for it. But now, in this feel-good era where everyone is a winner and trying hard is what counts, the workers are starting to get a little fed up with their lack of recognition, and have started distinguishing themselves by raising their arms in celebration of a teammate’s win while they roll in mid-pack. This of course, is done under the guise of, “my team has won, how super!” But it’s really just to show that that they, too, played a role in the victory of that puffed-up glory hound son-of-a-bitch who just happened to be the one who crossed the line first.
One particularly grievous incident is found here, with Tom Boonen, of all people, “celebrating” behind teammate Nick Nuyens, who has already won the 2005 Het Volk, while some other Quick.Step joker raises his arms in the foggy distance. For some reason, Quick.Step seems to be a prime offender for this sort of thing, despite being primarily Belgian, which usually quashes any sort of flamboyance from birth. CSC is another frequent violator of this rule, but for them, it seems more natural given all their touchy-feely teambuilding exercises and whatnot.
So, those are the rules.
I didn’t make them.
Obviously, nobody enforces them.
But they’re there for the benefit of everyone. Just ask Zabel, the poor bastards looking for a sponsor for High Road, or any professional rider whose teammates are committing assorted jackassery in the background of their finish shots.
Thanks for your compliance.