Commentary: The UCI’s terrible rulebook strikes again

Nils Eekhoff was world champion for less than 20 minutes before the race jury ripped the title out of his hands.

The charge: Riding in his team car’s slipstream for too long while returning from a crash.

It was heartbreaking, as we watched Eekhoff receive the news, break down into tears, and walk away from the podium he should have stood on. His teammates fumed, banging on an elevator wall at the team hotel. His trade team, Sunweb, threatened legal action. But Eekhoff, he mostly just cried.

That it was heartbreaking does not in and of itself make the jury’s ruling bad. What makes it both bad and inconsistent is the fact that instances similar to what Eekhoff is accused of doing — drafting off a car to return to the peloton with some 125 kilometers remaining after a crash in which he was apparently forced to pop his own dislocated shoulder back into place – have occurred in every single race this week. It will happen Saturday, and Sunday. The charge itself is so poorly defined by the UCI’s rulebook that a rider truly has no idea whether they’ve stepped over the line, and if so, by how far.

“I had no idea I was taking a risk,” Eekhoff said. And that is precisely the problem.

The possible penalties for drafting. Circled section relates to major one day races like the world championships.

Is 15 seconds of drafting too long? UCI communications officer Louis Chenaille, who was given the unfortunate duty of having to defend this whole thing, said Eekhoff drafted for 15-30 seconds. Elsewhere, the UCI said Eekhoff stayed in the draft for between 30 seconds and a minute. Eekhoff’s own coach said it was more like two.

How long is too long?

Great question. The UCI’s rulebook doesn’t say. The UCI won’t say. Disqualification, the rulebook notes, is a penalty made available to the jury for “serious” cases, in which a rider gains “significant” advantage. Less serious offences are penalized with fines.

How long is serious? How much is significant? Is this a 1-10 scale thing, or a time thing, or are we just going on feeling here? Why are world championships being revoked over nebulous terms?

The UCI’s commissars get things wrong with such frequency — think Tejay van Garderen at the Tour of California this year, or Peter Sagan at the Tour de France in 2017 — that one can’t help but blame the UCI’s rulebook, a collection of suggestions so vague that they’re often simply ignored. Until, unpredictably, they’re not.

That vaguely written rulebook is combined with the autocratic powers of the race jury into a perfect sauce of incontestable and inscrutable decision making. Their word is final; there is no appeal. There is no requirement that they explain themselves. And even if there was, how does any rider or team make a winning argument against the definition of “serious”?

It’s plausible that both the rulebook and jury are designed this way on purpose. Cycling is a complex sport, full of odd, impossible-to-predict circumstances. A little leeway for the body charged with policing races can be handy when strange things happen.

Chasing back on after a crash isn’t strange, though. It’s normal. It’s so normal that pro cyclists from all over, not just Eekhoff’s Dutch teammates, sent out notes of encouragement, and outrage at the decision. They know — as the UCI should know — that outside of the neutral zone, there is little hope of getting back on a peloton after any significant delay without the help of a vehicle’s draft. It’s the closest thing cycling has to a time-out, a tradition older than the UCI itself.

The jury made its call. It found Eekhoff’s slipstreaming egregious, and serious. It did its job, interpreting the rules before it and handing out its version of justice.

That doesn’t mean it was just.

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