At the Giro d’Italia on Tuesday, the UCI penalized Team Sky’s Richie Porte for receiving a wheel from Orica-GreenEdge’s Simon Clarke. Porte got a flat tire near the end of the stage and was desperate to limit his time loss. Despite having teammates nearby, Porte accepted Clarke’s wheel. Both later claimed they were unaware of the rule that prohibits such exchanges across teams. There would have been no violation if Porte had taken a wheel from one of his own teammates.
Porte began Stage 10 in 3rd place, just 22 seconds behind race leader Alberto Contador. The 2-minute penalty on top of the time lost to the flat tire has seriously damaged Porte’s chances of winning the Giro, dropping him into 12th place, 3:09 behind Contador. The impact of the penalty on the general classification contributed mightily to the outrage than has come from Porte’s fans. It’s hard to imagine that the incident would have attracted any attention if the wheel exchange had occurred between riders with no GC ambitions.
Yesterday’s enforcement of a little-used rule was not unique: Romain Sicard was punished for the same violation at the 2009 Tour de l’Avenir. Sicard won the race anyway, and the Tour de l’Avenir doesn’t have the status of the Giro d’Italia, so few people took notice. But no one now should say that he is unaware of the rule. It’s nothing new.
Some of Porte’s supporters argue that the rule should not have been enforced because of its effect on GC. Other fans argue that the rule should not have been enforced because it negated a gesture of sportsmanship by Clarke. I disagree. To me, rule enforcement needs to be impartial and applicable to all riders in all situations. I applaud Clarke for wanting to help his friend, but he might have rendered assistance in another way. Had Porte accepted a teammate’s wheel, Clarke could have contributed to the pacemaking that brought Porte back up to speed. One of the reasons we appreciate sportsmanship is that it cannot be assumed, and gestures like Clarke’s are sweeter by their rarity. Somewhat lost in the uproar is the fact that Clarke was assessed the same 2-minute penalty. Fans who are outraged on Porte’s behalf seem to have little to say about justice for Clarke. The difference, of course, is that Clarke occupies a lowly spot in the overall standings and his time loss means nothing to his Giro objectives.
But the different objectives of the two riders are independent of the rule in question. Justice was served. The UCI does bear some responsibility for the controversy though, because it has been inconsistent in other matters. With every “sticky bottle” and “magic spanner,” the UCI fosters an expectation that rules won’t be enforced when the outcome would be unpopular. It’s the inconsistency that needs to change. The impartial and universal enforcement of well-crafted rules is the answer.