Good Sportsmanship and the Meaning of Competition: Why Following the Rules Matters

Riders and teams enter bike races because they want to see how they stack up against the competition. For that to make sense, riders must believe that the playing field is level. The competition must be fair to be meaningful. Sports only make sense if the best athletes win. A rider or team should be able to win by being the strongest, the fastest, the luckiest, the smartest, the best supported or some balance of these. When rule-following riders feel that they won’t have a fair shot, they will not enter. When spectators feel the results are rigged or based on cheating, they won’t watch (unless there’s a good story line like in WWF).

Good sportsmanship is everything that athletes do to give the sense that the best athletes will win, and that winning will be meaningful. Good sportsmanship includes following the rules, respecting one’s competitors, avoiding sandbagging, and remaining positive even in defeat, among other things.

Only when the majority of riders follow the principles of good sportsmanship does racing thrive, for the participants, spectators or fans. When any significant number of riders are even suspected of doping, cutting the course, hanging onto cars, or even disrespecting the other riders, the focus of the spectators and media inevitably shifts to the suspects and infractions, and away from the competition itself.

What is Winning?

What does it mean to “win” a race? Is it the same as crossing the line first? Rosie Ruiz crossed the line first, as did Marion Jones. (Note: Rosie Ruiz “won” the 1980 Boston Marathon by jumping into the race from the crowd near the finish. Marion Jones “won” five Olympic running medals in Sydney in 2000 after taking steroids). Once the methods by which they seemed to win were known, however, both were stripped of their awards. The arbiters of sport determined, rightly, that crossing the line first is not the same as winning.

Athletic competition theoretically identifies the best athlete among those competing. That, along with entertainment for spectators, is its purpose. Competition only fulfills that role if the competitors all follow the same rules. A rider who wins a bike race without cheating can legitimately say that he or she was the best rider in the race. All aspects of his or her behavior become admirable in some way.

A rider who cheats takes the meaning out of the race for him or herself as well as for the rest of the competitors. Riders who are beaten by a strong, clean rider who follows the course, doesn’t assault other riders, doesn’t have buddies scatter tacks and otherwise rides fairly, should admit defeat.

If the first rider across the line may have cheated however, have the others really been beaten? That question has been wrecking our sport since the late 1990s. If a rider cheats, gets caught and is relegated, someone else is designated the winner, but the win is tainted by doubts. What if the relegated rider could have won without cheating? What if the cheating rider had not been there to affect the outcome? There’s no way to know what might have happened without the cheating once the cheating has occurred. If people believe that riders can cheat and not get caught, there’s not much reason to compete or watch; winning and losing have no meaning.

The officials’ job is not just to enforce the rules but also to keep the meaning in the contest. The official who even appears to say, “what does it matter?” about an infraction of the rules is guilty of a crime against cycling.

Respect for Competitors

The meaning of the contest is in its ability to identify the “best” athlete(s), but being the best athlete is only meaningful if the others are at least decent and if they made a real effort. A rider who says that he won because the other riders where slow, demeans him- or herself and the win as well as the other riders. The superior rider who enters but does not contest the race also demeans the race. If the hero doesn’t ride to win, how important can the race be?

The rider who wins and then complements the competition is increasing the meaning of his or her own win. It’s a form of boasting. “The other guys were really good. We buried ourselves to beat them” implies that the speaker is better than the “really good” guys. The guy who puts down the competition is only better than the wankers he beats. Respect for the competition is an important part of good sportsmanship.

Spectators and fans talk a lot about riders’ talents. “Lemond is super talented”, “Cippolini was born to sprint” and so on. Oddly enough, the heroes themselves rarely mention talent. They see their wins in terms of the hard work they put into preparation and racing. They may have talent, but they don’t depend on it. Rather they respect the other racers enough to focus on what they need to do to hone that talent into a race winning competitive package.

Cycling heroes invest every moment of their lives in making themselves the best possible cyclists, and then race to test the job they’ve done. Can you imagine the frustration of doing all that preparation and then finding out that the other best riders are not showing up? Or not trying? How about the frustration of reading that your win was not real because the guy or gal who could have beat you was not there? Showing up to defend a title and trying to win any race one enters are parts of good sportsmanship.


Being the strongest in the race is only meaningful if a rider has to make an honest effort to win and the outcome is in question. That’s why sneaking into a lower category, or sandbagging (riding a lower category when one is eligible for a higher one) is frowned upon and any winning one does that way is shameful. The sandbagger tilts the playing field, stealing other riders’ opportunities to experience the thrill of winning to prove absolutely nothing that isn’t already known.

In fact, the whole categorized racing concept is somewhat goofy (not that I’m against it or even ready to change it). What does it mean to win the fives, fours, threes or even the 1/2/Pro race? Mostly it means that the stronger riders have already upgraded or are racing somewhere else. Lower category competition provides experience and the opportunity to learn so that one can compete in the higher categories. Winning in the lower categories is exciting and satisfying, but it’s meaning is categorically different than that of winning in the higher categories.

Picking Categories

When riders have a choice, I suggest that they enter the hardest category in which they have any chance to shine, or the easiest category in which a podium spot is not a forgone conclusion. That’s where the opportunity for learning is. Races are crucibles for testing theories about training and tactics. When a rider enters a race well above his or her level, the rider will be dropped and humiliated whether he or she makes the right tactical decisions or the wrong ones. The too-hard race doesn’t do the job of testing theories because the outcome is independent of the tactical decisions. The too easy race also fails as the rider wins with good tactics or bad.

Let’s Hear it for Sportsmanship

People don’t seem to talk much about “good sportsmanship” any more. There’s plenty of discussion of the rules, why they are good or bad and who may have broken them, but little discussion of what the rules are ultimately about: Ensuring a fair competition. There’s discussion of who may have doped, and about how much advantage they may have gained, but little about why it matters.

“Good sportsmanship” has a quaint ring to it, like amateur-only Olympic teams, but the things we’ve been discussing here give meaning to the competition and make the quest of the individual competitor meaningful. Good sportsmanship is a sort of compact that we necessarily enter into when we compete. Some riders need to be reminded of that occasionally.

This article started with a few examples of bad sportsmanship, but there are abundant examples of good sportsmanship as well: riders waiting for fallen competitors, saying positive things about the riders they’ve beaten, upgrading and soldiering on even though they’re not sure they’ll do well in the new category, and even sharing water or food with competitors who miss a feed so that beating them will be based on riding ability, not team support.

Good sportsmanship is about making sure the game is fair and the outcome just and meaningful, but it has some secondary benefits as well. Among them, racing is more fun and far less acrimonious when racers respect each other and themselves enough to do the right things.

Some fans like to blame the money in sports for the lack of sportsmanship. In the 1980s and early 1990s, my buddies and I complained about the lack of money in cycling. Then prizes and salaries increased tremendously and motivations other than the fun of racing took over. Now cycling has been in one continuous drug scandal for roughly two decades.

Our Role

A look back through cycling history though shows that cheating started long before prizes got larger than annual salaries for low level executives. From stolen bikes and sawed handlebars, to tacks on the road and hanging on cars, riders have cheated for almost as long as there have been bike races.

The problem is not fundamentally about money, though money may make it worse. The problem is that some riders have not figured out that crossing the line first and winning are not the same thing. The only thing I can see changing their minds is the certain knowledge that cheaters will be caught and punished, sandbaggers who “win” will be ridiculed and those who fail to respect competitors will be corrected.

The UCI and the cycling officials can do their part, but eventually it is up to racers and fans to let all riders know that good sportsmanship is the only acceptable behavior, and up to teams and sponsors to make sure that riders know that crossing the line first after cheating will be treated far worse than losing honorably. Those of us who love bike racing owe it to ourselves and the sport to make sure that the rules are obeyed, the competition is respected, and winning remains meaningful.

This article was originally published in ROAD Magazine in 2008.