This fantastic piece by American professional cyclist Larry Warbasse raises some interesting issues that make it good fodder for our firm’s labor/employment law blog.
To briefly recap the bike race situation: the La Vuelta a España’s is a revered 21-stage “grand tour” professional cycling event held annually in Spain. This year, during Stage 15, a group of 94 of the 165 starting riders, including Warbasse, finished outside of the required time limits. As a result, a group of benevolent race commissaires had to rescue them from disqualification by a ruling that the 94 could stay in the race for its final week.
It bears noting, firstly, that our firm’s members are passionate cyclists, who follow Warbasse’s exploits on the UCI World Cycling Tour. We know him as a loyal domestique, whose role is to help his IAM team to accomplish objectives such as assisting teammates to win grand tour stages and rise in the race standings, or “general classification.” We rejoice when he gets into the breakaway, something he has an uncanny knack for. So, we were happy to see Warbasse (and the other 93) remain in the Vuelta, partly because from our cycling perspective it would not seem like a proper grand tour if more than half of the field was disqualified and only 71 riders remained in the “peloton” (rider group) for the final week.
More importantly, Warbases’s commentary hits certain themes that resonate with the core principles and values of our firm. While presently, people might view road cycling as elitist, it was not long ago that the riders in the professional cycling peloton came primarily from poor and working-class backgrounds. Indeed, like most other professional athletes of their time, many of them worked in mills, mines, factories, or on farms during the offseason. Being raised in a no-frills, hard-work environment helps to create the successful pro cyclist’s work ethic, temperament and tenacity.
Additionally, the riders’ ability to work and act together is what makes professional cycling even more interesting from a labor law perspective.
The pro peloton itself is a unique workplace. Professional cycling is very hard and dangerous. The riders typically are viciously competitive. They often exert themselves to their very physical and psychological limits. The riders accept that success in cycling necessarily involves physical suffering and often injuries caused by crashing. They make extreme sacrifices for teammates and team.
Nonetheless, these stoic and competitive individuals work together during races as a single peloton organism. The physics of the peloton encourages this: riders in a group can go faster than they can individually, sucked along in the group’s slipstream with less wind resistance. Conversely, riding outside of the peloton requires much greater physical effort.
In addition to the obvious physical advantages, the riders have demonstrated solidarity with one another for other reasons. There are many examples of the entire group acting together to confront extraordinary circumstances or threats – to act collectively for the common good. In protest of certain unsafe road or weather conditions, the tragic death of one of its own, or perceived unfairness, pelotons have refused to start riding a stage of a race or have deliberately slowed down. There are other examples of peloton behavior that seem to defy explanation. Indeed, nearly every grand tour has a stage that moves much more slowly than expected. Whatever the reason, the peloton recognizes its power to protect its members. And historically, the sport of cycling has implicitly accepted the collective power of the peloton by working with the riders to resolve safety and other issues, including declining to disqualify big groups of riders who miss stage time limits.
In Warbasse’s recent Vuelta Stage 15 example, the domestiques accomplished their “work” for the stage. At that point, the breakaway had gone, a significant chasing group had formed after a very fast start, a crash separated the main peloton and all of the leaders of the general classification had joined the chasing group up ahead of the peloton. Once the groups separated, there was no tactical reason for any of the riders to chase their own team leaders. Other than to try to avoid the time limit, which history and tradition dictate is ignored in circumstances of such a large group, the peloton had little reason to make a Herculean effort.
Some believe that “the rules are the rules” and that bike racers should always compete and never “soft pedal” in races. Aside from Warbasse’s point that the rules are not broken where they have accounted for the missed-time-limit issue by expressly affording race commissaries the discretion to give second chances in “exceptional” cases, that view, however, also undervalues the magic and mystery of the peloton. Odd alliances (and betrayals) are part of the fun of the sport. So is the collective action and will of the peloton. When the sense of the group of 94 (including Warbasse) in Stage 15 of the Vuelta was that they ought to sit up and quit chasing the race leaders, they acted rationally and collectively for the benefit of the group.
Kudos to the peloton for sticking together and also to the commissaries for getting it right in Stage 15 of a wonderful Vuelta.