Crashes, Day 1, Cyclocross National Championships, Singlespeed race. © Janet Hill

Not much waiting around, fair play or gentlemen's rules in cyclocross. © Janet Hill

by Robbie Carver

Whether you’re a fan of road racing or not, you’ve probably heard about the controversy surrounding Stage 15 of the Tour de France, where Contador took the yellow jersey after accelerating when Andy Schleck dropped his chain in the midst of his own attack.  The press and forums have been ablaze since then, some defending Contador’s move, others attacking him for disregarding cycling’s “Gentleman’s Rules,” in which a rider should not take advantage of an opponent’s mechanical mishaps. “This is fair play,” said commentator Paul Sherwen as it happened, “thrown out of the window.” Many fans agreed, jeering and booing Contador as he pulled on the yellow jersey for the first time in this tour. It was hotly debated on our Facebook Fan Page (see “Wait? Why Wait?…”), while over on the road-oriented site VeloNews, 71% thought Contador was wrong to actually keep racing, in well, a bike race. Contador even issued a YouTube apology after the stage, perhaps to address the early backlash shortly after the stage.

And while the final outcome of Contador’s move is neither here nor there for us at Cyclocross Magazine (well, maybe we do have an opinion, but it’s really just a road race we’re talking about), we do feel the debate has raised an interesting point about the difference in mentality between road racing and cyclocross. In ‘cross, mechanicals and crashes and all-around bad luck are just part of the game; a racer plans for them, prepares as best he or she can with gear selection, and if lucky, pit bikes and a good crew, and then what happens, happens. Just last December, Jeremy Powers looked very strong early on in the 2009 Cyclocross National Championships in Bend, but crashed in a greasy corner. Maybe someone else made that corner extra slick in a previous race.  Maybe his tire gauge wasn’t perfectly accurate when choosing his pressure. Maybe, like Bob Roll has theorized with Schleck, a small pebble amazingly got in the wrong place at the wrong time and caused the misfortune. But racing continued and nobody called foul play. (At least for J-Pow there was a bitter sweet ending, as his Cannondale – CyclocrossWorld teammate Tim Johnson won. )

In fact, mechanicals and crashes are so ubiquitous in ‘cross, we asked each of the winners from the National Championships about theirs in our Issue 6 interviews. Here’s 2007-2009 Masters Women 65+ Champion Julie Lockhart’s answer: “I almost crashed at the corner after the muddy descent, but dabbed a foot and survived. Then, after the barriers, trying to remove mud, banged my chain off…was passed by many, took a while to get my chain past the chainguard and back on.” While her misfortune was surely a bummer, you can bet no one jeered those racers who passed her as she re-aligned her chain.

And here’s Barbara Howe, 2009 Masters Women 30-34 National Champion, being interviewed about her win in Issue 9: “Kari and Andrea Smith were off the the front…Andrea had a mechanical when she was way out in front. I don’t know when she fixed it and got back on, but that’s when you take advantage, that’s racing. You take advantage of anything that you can.” No one booed her, perhaps because Kari and Andrea didn’t bother sitting up for Howe, either, when Howe crashed twice on the stairs.

Perhaps in cyclocross there’s just no such thing as hitting a man when he’s down, because in ‘cross, every man goes down. Tires roll, chains jam, brakes clog – and that’s on a good day. Whether it’s the riders fault, or out of his control, doesn’t matter. There’s no gentleman’s rules because ‘cross, like the jungle, is no place for a gentleman. It’s survival, pure and simple.

What do you think? Drop a comment below.