Time and Money

Is the UCI declaring war on on-the-fly derailleur adjustments? Or should I say on-the-fly “derailleur adjustments”? Probably neither, really, but they do seem to be getting a bit slap-happy with the fines, time penalties, and relegations for riders hanging around the support cars a bit too long. Penalties doled out during races have a whiff of discipline to them, but usually amount to little more than a slap on the wrist and little, if any, consequence on the race results. In the past, officials were happy to let all but the most blatant infractions slide and rarely did a rider in contention for a win receive a significant penalty.

But over the past year or so, all of that seems to be changing. The commissaires fired the first notable shot back in July 2007. On the descent of the Cormet de Roseland during Stage 8 of the Tour de France, Levi Leipheimer (then Discovery, now Astana) dropped his chain, jamming his rear derailleur. He coasted to the bottom of the descent, where he changed bikes. In getting back up to speed, Leipheimer took a pretty standard bottle sling from his support car, then returned to dawdle alongside while the mechanic tinkered with his rear derailleur from the window. The sling and the mechanical assistance cost Leipheimer 50 Swiss francs (the official currency of the UCI) apiece. But more importantly, the bottle sling cost him 10 seconds on GC . It didn’t cost him a Tour GC win, but it did cost him a bit of elevation gain on the final podium – his gap to second-placed Cadel Evans (Predictor-Lotto) totaled just 8 seconds.

The penalty gremlin reared its ugly head again this season at the Tour of California, and this time it did cost a rider a win. On Stage 6 of this year’s Tour of California, High Road sprinter Mark Cavendish tangled with Mario Cipollini’s Rock Racing lead out formation in the waning kilometers, bringing himself down along with Cipollini and teammates Fred Rodriguez and Doug Ollerenshaw.

Cavendish grabbed a spare bike, which he claimed was tuned for a 12 cog on the high end, rather than the 11 he needed, and which was presumably mounted on the bike. The High Road mechanics performed an on-the-fly adjustment as the car headed back towards the tail end of the peloton, which was ramping up for the finish. That repair seemed successful, as Cavendish regained the field and sprinted to victory ahead of Luciano Pagliarini (Saunier Duval). Moments after the finish, however, word came down that the officials didn’t like the progress Cavendish made while hanging onto the car. The damage? 50 Swiss francs, 20 seconds of meaningless-to-Cavendish GC time, and most importantly, relegation on the stage. The latter cost the young Brit the win, and Pagliarini mounted the podium. Cipollini was relegated for getting too much of a boost from the cars as well, but his relegation wasn't nearly so costly.

If Cavendish was using mechanical assistance as a cover to regain the front group with a little fossil-fuel assistance, as the UCI seems to believe, it’s a pretty risky strategy. Those adjustments, with a mechanic hanging ¾ of the way out the window of a moving vehicle, trying to line up the tip of a #2 Phillips head screwdriver with the tiny screw on the back of the derailleur, while the DS does his best to warn of bad pavement and upcoming turns, make for great television. Speeding along at 50 kph, everyone, including the mechanic and the rider, I’d imagine, is waiting for what seems like the inevitable tangle, resulting in either a crash for the rider, a few missing digits for the mechanic, or both. I’ve been in a team car while one of those adjustments is going on, and it’s stressful for all involved – the driver, the rider, the mechanic, and any seemingly disinterested party who may also happen to be in the car at the time.

That leads me to believe that feigning that process in order to drag a rider back to the bunch doesn’t seem to be likely tactic in most situations, especially at a race like the Tour of California and so early in the season. From a risk management standpoint, it just doesn’t make sense. Drafting centimeters off of the bumper is downright tame by comparison.

The crackdown on caravan loitering continued at Paris-Nice on Wednesday, when Karsten Kroon (CSC) was docked 50 Swiss francs and 20 seconds for snuggling up to the caravan after being dropped from the front group. Had he not received the penalty, he would have been sitting a mere 2 seconds behind new GC leader Sylvain Chavanel (Cofidis). Many would have been upset by the fall from second overall to ninth as a result of the infraction, but Kroon kept things in perspective. With the heavy climbing stage to Mont Ventoux looming the following day, the classics specialist knew that his presumptive 2 second margin to the lead would only grow, so what’s 20 more seconds?

The Leipheimer, Cavendish, and Kroon situations show that the UCI is willing to levy the penalties for what it believes to be unsavory behavior, even if it affects the outcome of the races. That’s probably the most even-handed application of the rules we’ve seen from that organization in awhile, but it could also make crashes and mechanicals a bigger factor in results as the season goes on. After all, what’s the point of having a race caravan if you can’t hop from bumper to bumper until you’re sitting on Com 1?