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Trading Races is Fine, Actually

79th Paris - Nice 2021 - Stage 7 Photo by Bas Czerwinski/Getty Images

A brief commotion was raised on Saturday as race leader Primoz Roglic powered past Gino Mäder to win stage seven of Paris-Nice, his third victory of the week. Some voices in the sport, among them ex-pro and Eurosport commentator Brian Smith, agreed with Roglic’s no-gifts mentality, giving him credit for being the best man on the mountain and - not entirely unreasonably - expressing that Mäder had been beaten fairly and could not expect any favours.

Mäder did expect a favour. His disappointed expression and flapped hand was reminiscent of me as I cycle to work and get overtaken unsafely by an overeager Land Rover Discovery, rather than a professional who has lost fair-and-square, but I don’t think we can blame him for that. Chris Horner, winner of the 2013 Vuelta and YouTube race analyst, apparently, gave us the veteran’s point of view: no gifts, but loans.

“I felt confident that I was on course to win the Tour of Lombardy for the third time in four years. Del Tongo were desperate to win. Baronchelli dropped back alongside his team car to talk to his directeur sportif and there were some discussions began [sic] between our team and his. Then I had a long chat with De Gribaldy. I wanted to win the race but it was clear that Del Tongo were prepared to pay for some co-operation. The talks went on for about ten or 15 kilometres…I would have liked to win the Tour of Lombardy – and I felt that Da Silva and I were strong enough to get the job done – but the price kept going up and in the end De Gribaldy made the call…A week later, Da Silva collected the cash and we shared it amongst the team…you’d be mistaken to think the result of the race was fixed. It wasn’t. The latter part of any big bike race, when everyone is tired or desperate, is like a game of poker. Everyone does whatever they can to make the best of the hand they have.”

- Sean Kelly, Hunger

I think Kelly’s example is so interesting. Way more so than the more recent Vinokourov-Kolobnev debacle, if it went down as alleged. That one is way less grey.

Flatly, Kelly and De Gribaldy sold a race. There were protracted negotiations, the result of which was that a race was sold. This isn’t directly applicable to Roglic and Mäder – the agreement would have been completely unspoken and I think we can all agree that wins-for-favours is more acceptable than wins-for-euros. The Kelly example serves to show that this sport is a little more complicated than the two hundred idiots trying to cross a white line we’d like to pretend it is, and Horner’s testimony is enough to show that not everything has changed since Kelly’s day.

What’s a stage at Paris-Nice to Primoz Roglic? Well, it’s ten bonus seconds, plus the two he gained on Mäder at the top of the climb, maybe that’s the most relevant thing. It’s a few quid for his team mates and soigneurs, that’s nothing to turn up your nose at, those guys have bills to pay. It’s fuel for the competitive spirit that has driven Roglic to the pinnacle of the sport. All of those things are worth something, so what could Mäder or his team give Roglic? Help in the hills the next day? He rides for Bahrain and Roglic rides for Jumbo, so it’s unlikely to be an immediate need. A wheel at an opportune time? Maybe. He could find something to offer. There’s a reason this is being talked about.

So where do I stand, you may ask? Well, I don’t, not on this. I think to tell Roglic what he should or shouldn’t have done in that situation is rather to miss the point, which is that he could have given that stage to Mäder. He knew that, and he chose not to. He knows the consequences for that decision, and in contemplation of them he chose to stand on the podium at Valdeblore La Colmiane yesterday. If, in July, he has a puncture and Damiano Caruso sits on his wheel as he winches his way back into the peloton, he’ll know why.

Obviously, the more interesting issue is whether it’s okay that when we see a rider do what Roglic did, we think about all the little deals that have been made in situations like that one and wonder if he should have eased off in the name of friendship, as Horner might euphemistically put it. I do have a stance on this one. You can’t eliminate that type of thing from this sport, so why waste time trying? That stage win was worth so much more to Mäder than it was Roglic, and neither side is exploited if Roglic chooses to use that fact to get something in the future. Mäder gets his win, Roglic makes some friends and everyone moves on. The idea that this is all anti-competitive and that the best man should win all the time is a reasonable one, but where the situation isn’t as unfair as an experienced millionaire rider paying a neo-pro not to sprint, I think it all comes down to intrigue. You may fairly say that the most entertaining product is one where everyone is trying their hardest to win, all the time. I have to admit that I prefer the product we currently have.