The Unwritten Rule – Why cheating must be punished

Professional bike racing is a big business where money considerations often trump athletic ones, but we fans maintain the fiction of the purity of sport. We get to believe that bike racing identifies riders who are somehow superior. A race is supposed to be a crucible in which riders are tested, with the “best” riders ending up on the podium. Different races test different things. One race rewards the rider who “wants it more” or the rider with the better training methods. Another might reward the guy who dials in diet and recovery, or picks teammates, pays attention to details or executes tactics better than others. We like to believe that only these sorts of admirable qualities, and a bit of luck, lead to victory.

Bike races aren’t supposed to identify riders who are altruistic, good at languages, kind to animals or anything else we might think of as making them “good” people. The written rules help identify the racer who can get to the line fastest. The unwritten rule says that races proceed in such a way that the winner can be admired for his or her superiority.

Fans make an implicit deal with organizers and riders: “Give us racers we can admire for winning your races, and we’ll watch and cheer (and notice your sponsors).” In order for our admiration to make sense, the winning racer has to have obeyed the same rules as everyone else in the race. Only if all the riders are playing the same game does the outcome indicate superiority and worthiness for admiration.

Most of the many rules of bike racing are designed to ensure a fair, safe race. Races must be fair if they are to select superior riders. Some of the rules set arbitrary limits on things that clearly need to be limited somewhere for safety. Others are more absolute. Either way, breaking rules can give a racer or racers advantages over others, so there are enforcement mechanisms to discourage rule breaking and punish rule breakers. In most cases, the most severe punishment is disqualification. Disqualification means that a rider’s finish in the race doesn’t count.
Without rules and mechanisms for enforcement, bike races can’t be trusted to identify superior riders for us to admire. A race in which riders cheat may provide an entertaining, moneymaking spectacle, but if the winners may be the ones who are best at cheating rather than the ones who are superior in an admirable way, we might as well watch professional wrestling.

The Very Annoying Junior “Gear Limit”

Over the years, USA Cycling has enforced a variety of “gear limits” on bikes ridden by juniors (riders younger than 19). Actually, the rules limit the “development” (the distance moved during one pedal rotation) rather than the gear. Limiting gears would allow a kid to gain an advantage by using a bigger rear tire. The existence of this rule has been explained variously as a way to protect tender, young knees or as a way to grow the sport by allowing less physically mature young riders to compete with more muscular ones.

The value and effectiveness of gear limits are controversial. Riders who think their knee cartilage is tough, whether or not it really is, say they should be allowed to push bigger gears and win, that it’s not fair to hold them back just because other riders are weaker. Juniors who ride with the “elite” (19 years and up) riders complain they are at an unfair disadvantage not having access to bigger gears.

The specific development limit is arbitrary and has changed several times. In order to enforce the rule, every junior bike has to be rolled backward for one pedal rotation on a measured patch of pavement before every race. In some years, the development limit has been picked in such a way that with certain tires, gear combinations using a large chain ring other than the common 50, 52 or 53 allow a rider to get closer to the limit without going over, causing kids and their parents to search for odd rings, like a 51 or 49. In short, junior gear limits are onerous and annoying.
Riders under 18 have to abide by the rules, annoying or not. A rider who brings a too-big gear will fail roll out. He or she can make a correction by tightening a derailleur screw or changing gears before starting the race. A rider who is discovered after the race to have changed equipment is such a way as to violate the gear limit is retroactively disqualified. Their placing in the race doesn’t count and everyone behind them is moved up a spot.

Some people believe that gear limits encourage more juniors to race (by giving the undeveloped string-bean riders a chance) or save knees. Others think that gear limits discourage juniors by making racing slower, or more confusing or by making it harder to get the equipment needed to be competitive.

To have a fair race, the gear rule, like all rules, has to be enforced equally for all riders, no matter what they think of the rule. If one or two riders use a bigger gear than the rest and they finish first, does that mean they are better riders? Even if the apparent winners are strong, using bigger gears to pull ahead of riders who are not allowed to use those gears puts their superiority in question.

The winner of the bike race is supposed to be the superior rider. A rider who cheats and wins has not been proven superior. Luckily, gear limit violators are easy to catch and can be punished harshly enough and easily enough that there is little temptation to cheat. Usually we can feel safe in admiring the winners of junior races.

The #$@&*! Centerline Rule

Often promoters of smaller races can get a permit to close only one lane of a two-lane road. The opposite lane will carry traffic. To keep such courses safe, USA Cycling has the needed but much-hated “Centerline Rule”, which says that a racer can be relegated or disqualified from a race for advancing position while on the wrong side of the centerline.

Being closer to the front means getting into breaks or being in position for the final sprint. If there were no centerline rule, riders could choose to dodge opposing traffic or not. Riders willing to cut it closer, going elbow-to-mirror with opposing cars, would have a distinct advantage over more timid riders. Inevitably some would cut it too close and end up injured. To prevent those injuries, USA Cycling provides the centerline rule and the referees enforce it.

Obeying the centerline rule can make for very frustrating racing. Some say the centerline rule even adds danger to races. When the peloton is lined out, going at warp speed, the centerline rule makes little difference. The speed is so high that few riders are trying to pass, and there is plenty of room for those who want to do so. When the race slows down though, racers will be packed in a tight group from the centerline to the shoulder. Then lots of riders would like to advance their position, but there is no path to do so legally. Riders may tangle as they try to sneak up the centerline or the gutter where there really isn’t room.

The temptation to move across the centerline and make a quick sprint for the front in a tightly packed field is intense. From time to time some riders do so. The referee’s responses are vital not only to the safety of the racers but also to the validity of the race outcome. If one or two riders sneak across the line and the referee guides them to the back of the pack, the winner of the race is likely to be a superior rider. If one of the offenders isn’t caught and finishes in the prize places, the validity of the race is damaged.

A Lousy Course

Picture this: A large field of over 100 USAC Category III riders on a point-to-point road course 40 miles long with no turns. The road starts wide in rolling terrain, but the final 15 miles are gradually down hill on a straight, narrow, two-lane road with the centerline enforced except in the final 200 meters. Riders can see the finish line from several miles out, at least if they aren’t buried deep in the pack. What will happen on such a course? The outcome is almost inevitable. Most of the riders will arrive on the final long downhill together. On the descent, the big field will vacuum up any breakaways. Unlike the riders at the front of the bunch, those in the back don’t feel any wind, so they roll up on the leaders and the field stays bunched up. Riders see the finish line approaching. They get antsy. Riders in the front couple or rows are pretty happy. Maybe they studied the course or just got lucky. In any case, they’ve taken the appropriate actions to be near the front when it counted, 15 miles before the finish.
On this course the foresight demonstrated by those in the front rows with 15 miles to go is the sort “superiority” that should be reflected in the finish order. All they need to do is wait and sprint. Riders in the third or maybe fourth row back might reasonably hope that when the road opens up at 200 meters they’ll be able to pass a few riders and get a decent finish.

This situation actually occurred at a race I attended in the mid-1990s. For riders in the back half of the pack, the race was over with 15 miles to go, even though they were within a few bike lengths of the leaders. The smart ones watched for opportunities to move up, but none came. At five miles to go, we’d had the same neighbors for ten miles. A few miles later and still no opportunities had presented. Now we can see the spectators at the finish line and it’s becoming obvious that continuing to obey the centerline rule is going to mean losing. What would you do? As I watched from about halfway back, integrity was overcome by the will to cross the line first at about 500 meters. Suddenly a few, then a few dozen riders were in the wrong lane, hammering to get to the front in time to join the sprint. Well before 200 meters, perhaps one third of the field was in the wrong lane. On this course, a full road closure would have yielded a different winner than the course that was actually offered. One third of the riders rode as if they had the full road, while the remaining two-thirds rode the official course.

This whole fiasco unfolded in plain view of the finish line judges. The finish camera caught the order of riders coming across the line, but not how they had gotten there. Riders mobbed the officials. Rider A said riders B and C moved up before the road widened at 200 meters. Rider B said he was pushed. Rider C said everyone was going so he had to go too. Dozens of riders accused and made excuses. There was pandemonium. The officials huddled.

The time to post results came and passed. The officials were still deep in discussion.

The Decision Comes Down

The officials faced a challenge. According to the rules, they were supposed to relegate centerline violators, but the violators had mixed in with the honest riders. The judges knew who had crossed the line first, and second and third and so on, but there was no way they could tell who in that group should be relegated or who had won.

The lead riders considered two possibilities: The judges could do their best to untangle the finish, interviewing as many riders as it took to figure out who had really cheated and who really deserved to get a prize, and post results that were almost certainly wrong, or they could post the order in which riders crossed the line, ignoring the fact that several riders who should have been relegated would get prizes and upgrade points.

After a few minutes, the result sheet was posted. It was blank except for the category, date and name of the race, and the world “CANCELLED” in big, red letters. The judges had done their job to the best of their capacity. The cheating riders had made it impossible to determine a valid finish order and the officials had recognized that. To state any finish order would have potentially anointed a cheater as a superior rider, violating the unwritten rule that fans get to adore the winner for his or her racing superiority.

The Course and Rules Make the Race

Different courses reward different forms of superiority. Hilly courses reward riders who put in their miles and are very careful about their eating. Flat courses reward aerobic power or brave riders with a powerful kick and supportive teams. Courses with single lane closures for many miles leading to the finish, like cobbled courses, reward those who know to get to the front early and how to protect that position. Races with long descents or gear limits reward those who can spin like crazy.

We expect races to identify riders that are superior in certain specific ways. We don’t expect races to select for math ability or generosity, and we don’t expect them to select for dishonesty or the ability to cover one’s tracks. Because there is always a chance that a rider who is especially capable of hiding evidence of dishonesty will go undetected and be anointed as superior, the punishment when a rider who has won is later found to have cheated must be extreme enough to ensure that not only does the rider not benefit by cheating, but that he or she clearly falls from the exalted position achieved by cheating.

When a world famous pro cheats, the choice of punishment is like the choice of sentence for a murderer. No sentence will ever give us back what we have lost. Cheating among pros breaks the contract with fans. When pros cheat and cover it up, or when we sense that they might, we can’t adore our winners because we don’t know if they are superior in ways that we want to admire, or not. That’s why punishment for cheaters who cover up their wrongdoing must be far harsher and longer lasting than for those who come clean quickly.

Scott Saifer, M.S. and the coaches of Wenzel Coaching have many years experience participating in bicycle races. We help our clients to prepare for competitive and recreational cycling success within the rules of the races they enter. To inquire about working with Scott or one of the other Wenzel Coaches, please call 503-233-4346, write to or visit us on the web at

This article first appeared in the April 2013 issue of ROAD Magazine.