Analysis: Movistar push the ‘wait or race’ debate to a new level

The UCI took the extraordinary step to allow chasing riders to pace back to the front group, adding a twist to the 'race-or-wait' debate

Photo: Getty Images

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The Vuelta a España descended into a familiar debate Friday with a very unconventional twist.

Movistar found itself in the middle of the age-old “race-or-wait” debate when GC leader Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) was among dozens of riders caught up in a nasty pileup with about 65km to go. The crash, chaos and subsequent crosswinds blew apart the peloton, with Movistar pouring on the pressure at the front of a select group.

Was it fair? Or, as many inside and out of the peloton suggested, simply bad form?

The day’s controversy on an already tension-filled stage went to 11. Most of the finish-line indignation was directed toward Movistar.

“This is the kind of world champion we have,” said an angry Miguel Ángel López (Astana). “It’s always the same stupid ones doing these things. They are not capable of winning the race at the front, attacking; they have to take advantage in these types of situations.”

There’s always a very thin line between sport and what’s considered sporting. And what’s easily seen on TV isn’t always so clear in the heat of the action of a race. Emotions were raw at the finish line.

“That wasn’t right,” said Sam Bennett (Bora-Hansgrohe), second in the stage, of Movistar’s accelerations. “That wasn’t nice.”

Friday’s storm pushed the “race-or-wait” debate to a new level.

The general rule is: When the race is on, no one waits. A puncture, a crash, or a mechanical? Well, bad luck. But there are other factors to consider — distance, the severity of a crash and its causes — and on Friday, Movistar walked the tightrope.

Riders disagreed with Movistar’s decision to push the pace after the crash. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Though there was a break up the road, it was almost caught at that point, down to about 1 minute. One could argue that the pack could wait, resume the chase, and no one would suffer the consequences.

Like in any crash, there was confusion in wake of the chaos, but it was obvious that several riders fell heavily. As everyone took stock, it was quickly very evident that some key riders were down.

“Riders fell like dominos,” said Astana’s Luis León Sánchez. “There must have been oil on the road, and there were some riders pretty beat up. And then there was a team attacking up the road …”

Lopez was one of the riders caught out by the crash. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images:

Through Movistar didn’t immediately accelerate in the aftermath of the crash, the Spanish team actively pushed the pace as riders who did not crash regrouped at the front. The course hit open, hilly country with blasting crosswinds. Movistar had numbers, and in most race instances, that’s when you press the accelerator. This time was different.

And to add a twist to the day’s drama, the UCI race jury dived directly into the fray.

In what is a rarely seen move, the race jury allowed the gapped riders to be paced by team cars back toward the leaders. Typically that would see riders and teams fined. On Friday, the UCI jury saw it differently. Rather than impose a barrage — which is typically what happens to prevent team cars from pacing back gapped riders — the cycling governing body opened up the road.

Just as the gap grew to more than one minute to Roglic and others, second-place rider Alejandro Valverde suddenly sat up. Once word went out on race radio there would be no barrage, the implications were clear, and Movistar ordered its riders to ease up on the pace. Riders fell in behind team cars and paced back toward the lead group. Roglic, López and others were soon back at the fold.

Fair or not, the UCI took an extraordinary step to impose itself into the middle of the race. There was no explanation in the post-stage jury report.

Movistar sport director José Luís Arrieta spoke to UCI jury members after the stage, both to hear clarification about the decision, and for him to express Movistar’s movements.

“We were pulling because we were planning to attack in the wind at this point of the race since the start,” Arrieta told COPE. “The UCI explained that it appeared to be a bad crash, and they decided to allow them to come back to the race, and that it was for sporting reasons. I am the last one who would want to win a race unfairly, but my only doubt was why haven’t they applied the same rule in other circumstances and in this one, yes.”

Arrieta pointed out that Movistar has often been the victim of crashes, and that no one waited for them.

Others seemed to think the UCI jury made the right call.

“I don’t know exactly what happened. If they decided that, well, that’s a good thing,” López said. “In a situation like this, you have to show solidarity with the leaders and other riders who have the bad luck. It was a good decision then.”

“Personally I agree,” said Bora-Hansgrohe sport director Patxi Vila. “When there is a crash like this, and it’s still very far from the finish line, and there are some important riders involved, for me, there’s nothing wrong with letting everyone come back together and restart the race.”

The crash and the race jury’s subsequent decision would have consequences. First off, it allowed Roglic, López and others to safely return to the main bunch. At the end of the day, the gaps between the GC favorites remained the same going into Saturday’s penultimate and decisive stage. Had the race unfolded differently, Roglic might have lost the jersey, or seen his lead severely trimmed.

Yet the decision had a major factor in the outcome of the stage. Remi Cavagna (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) was victorious out of a breakaway that he very likely would not have won if the peloton had not waited in the wake of the crash.

The break was about one minute off the front when bodies went down. In the ensuing chaos and the stop-and-start of the chasing groups, the gap widened again to nearly two minutes. And the Frenchman, who had been sitting in on most of the break because he was on orders to ride for teammate Philippe Gilbert, soloed home just five seconds ahead of the chasing GC group.

What’s fair for one isn’t always fair for another. That’s the nature of bike racing, and that’s why in almost every instance, it’s better to err on the side of “racing” instead of “waiting.”

There are exceptions, and Friday’s exceptional ruling by the race jury to allow the trailing riders to pace back on, will only fuel the never-ending “race-or-wait” debate.

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