Bad timing or bad manners: Did Annemiek van Vleuten flaunt cycling’s unwritten rules?

An incident during the recent La Vuelta Femenina puts cycling's unwritten rules governing bathroom breaks back into the spotlight.

Photo: Dario Belingheri/Getty Images

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

This story originally appeared on Outside Online.

Back when I was a cycling journalist, I was asked a familiar question at dinner parties, on airplanes, or in any other social situations with normies (not hardcore bike racing fans).

Do the cyclists really stop during the race to pee?

I’d nod yes, anticipating the next inquiry.

But, like, the race is technically still going on, right?

I’d nod again and smile, and then wait for the familiar reactions. How bizarre! How gross! What if the Green Bay Packers dropped trou and pissed on the field during the Super Bowl? I’d nod a final time and then change the subject. How gross indeed.

My brevity was calculated, because the last thing I wanted was to spend the next few hours explaining the nuances of the pro cycling pee break. During the middle of a race, the athletes will casually pull over to the side of the road and go to the bathroom, and wait for everyone to finish the deed before returning to the action, with nobody zipping ahead to gain an advantage.

This activity is governed by little more than the sport’s mysterious collection of unwritten rules of decorum and propriety.

Memories of these awkward social encounters popped into my brain this weekend as I read about a brewing controversy at Spain’s weeklong La Vuelta Femenina race involving a pee stop—or, more accurately, a pee non-stop.

Van Vleuten won, but barely. (Photo: MIGUEL RIOPA/AFP via Getty Images)

Dutch cyclist Demi Vollering accused her rival Annemiek van Vleuten (also Dutch) of disregarding the sacrosanct call for a bathroom break on stage 6.

Vollering had been leading the race when she and her SD Worx teammates pulled over to pee, assuming that everyone else would stop, too.

But they didn’t. Vleuten and her teammates zipped ahead, and dozens of other riders followed, and the group left those who had stopped in the dust.

Vollering gave chase but never caught the leaders. Van Vleuten won the stage and snatched the red leader’s jersey. After the stage, Vollering was furious.

“They did everything they could to ride me out of the red jersey. This is top sport. I don’t expect any gifts, but if you want to do it this way … a shame,” she told reporters at the finish line.

Why had Van Vleuten seemingly tossed out cycling’s unwritten rulebook?

She told reporters that her team had always planned to attack along that stretch of road—pee stop or not.

“We already made the plan, and for them it’s not the best moment,” she said.

Was this just a case of bad timing? Perhaps.

It’s hardly the first cycling controversy to involve urine. The journalist in me thinks this was something other than coincidence.

My take: this urinary kerfuffle—and the rules governing it—is a window into the simmering rivalry between the sport’s two juggernauts, and a referendum on which rider holds the respect of the peloton at this very moment.

Van Vleuten, 40, is the established champion, and the reigning winner of the women’s Tour de France, Giro d’Italia, and UCI world championships.

Vollering, 26, is the up-and-coming challenger, who in 2023 has repeatedly beaten Van Vleuten at every race that truly matters. This is your textbook generational battle: Jordan vs. Magic, Serena vs. Steffi, Zoolander vs. Hansel.

How does peeing fit into this rivalry?

No hard feelings, at least until the next race. (Photo: Dario Belingheri/Getty Images)

Under pro cycling’s unwritten rulebook, a pee break helps clarify the pecking order of the peloton. Traditionally, the person to call truce is the rider leading the race. But sometimes, this power rests with a rider who has the most wins, and who garners the most respect, or fear, from the others.

Lance Armstrong could call or call off a pee break at the Tour de France, no matter if he was in the yellow jersey or not. Swiss rider Fabian Cancellara, an Olympic and multi-time world champion, also wielded this power during his era.

So, who had the real power at the Vuelta Femenina?

On stage 6 Vollering stopped but Van Vleuten kept going. The 158 other riders in the race had a split second to decide which woman to follow: the challenger or the champion.

For whatever reason, enough of them chose Van Vleuten for her actions to withstand the scrutiny of cycling’s laws of decorum. If the entire peloton had stopped, I am absolutely sure that Van Vleuten would have pulled over and waited, too.

Every sport has its bizarre social norms.

In the NBA, a player will abstain from a showboating slam dunk if his team is ahead and the game is winding down. A hockey fight ends once one guy hits the ice. In Major League Baseball, a player who hits a home run cannot celebrate or flip a bat or make eye contact with anyone—or risk getting beaned.

Bike racing is no different. But in this sport, following the unwritten rules involves knowing when to pee, and when to hold it.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.