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The unwritten rules of the Tour de France - what are they and how are they enforced

You've got your rules, and then you've got your unofficial rules that actually determine how the race plays out...
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There's a whole book of regulations that govern the Tour de France, but a set of unwritten rules also determine how the race develops. We’ll forgive you for being confused by these. They are incredibly open to interpretation and often create more problems than they solve, but we thought that we’d take a look at some that you might find mentioned during the Tour de France.

You can’t attack the maillot jaune when the following happens…

Chris Froome Crash (CREDIT Alex Broadway:ASO:SWpix.com)

They crash - If the leader of the race goes down in a crash then don’t you be thinking about attacking until they are safely back in the bunch. But that’s only if the racing hasn’t really kicked off yet. If the peloton is lined out with riders fighting to stay in contact, then it’s fair game.

How does this get decided? The riders at the front usually decide, following a lot of conversation and hand waving.

They stop for a nature break - If the start of a stage has been fast and a small group has gained a small advantage over the peloton, the yellow jersey stopping for a piddle is the sign that the peloton will now relax and let the breakaway take a few minutes' lead. A collective sigh of relief will be released. Riders of a team that has failed to make the breakaway may now quietly remove their radio earpieces as the team manager won’t be best pleased.

They suffer a mechanical problem - Like a crash, this one is subject to the race situation at the time of the incident. If the racing is on, with the pace high and attacks already flying off the front, then the yellow jersey just has to get on with it and get back to the front of the race.

Andy Schleck drops his chain Stage 15 2010 TdF

In fact, mechanicals are considered by many to be simple bad luck. Alberto Contador attacking Andy Schleck in what became known as ‘chaingate’ is the perfect example of this. One side says that Contador showed the ruthless instinct of a winner while others said that it was bad form. You shouldn’t have dropped that chain, Andy!

Drafting is ok(ish)

drafting SWpix.com

Coming back from a crash, mechanical or nature break will require a racer to ride at a speed faster than the peloton. That’s difficult, so the rider will take a draft in the convoy of team cars to make things easier. This is actually not allowed, but the race jury generally turns a blind eye as otherwise, they’d have half of the peloton disqualified for being outside of the time limit every day.

Nils Eekhoff (picture credit Simon Wilkinson, SWPix.com).JPG

But sometimes the race jury notice and then drafting a car is suddenly not ok. This is usually when the racing is at a critical stage or if a rider is taking an unfair amount of time behind their team car. Sound woolly at best? It is.

Poor old Nils Eekhoff was disqualified from the U23 World Championships after he had crossed the line first. The jury decided that his drafting of a car with 125km left to race – after he had crashed and waited to be examined by the race doctor – constituted a breach of the rules.

The whole situation made many question the jury’s decision, though others were simply frustrated by the lack of consistency around the enforcement of this rule.

You scratch my back…

Pierre Rolland in polka dots and then some (licensed under CC-BY-SA 3.0 by Marianne Casamance)

If you’ve ever looked at a bike race and wondered why certain riders are working in the breakaway and others aren't, the answer is often that they're trying to achieve different things. 

One rider might be chasing the mountain points on offer at the top of climbs, while another needs the points from the intermediate sprint. These riders won’t contest the other rider’s competition, though all are expected to shoulder an equal workload in the effort to keep the breakaway ahead of the peloton.

Once a rider has collected all of their points available for that day, they may well give their breakaway companions some extra help on the front of the bunch, especially if those riders have allowed them to take points uncontested.

This unwritten rule is highly nuanced and full of sub-plots and mini rivalries.

The peloton will decide when to race

Tour de France 2020 Stage 1 hairpin - picture credit A.S.O. Alex Broadway

As demonstrated on the first stage of this year’s Tour de France, the peloton will decide to neutralise the race if they feel that it is too dangerous to race. This can be because of poor road conditions, extreme weather or because of too many crashes.

Stage 1 this year saw a downpour on roads that hadn’t seen rain in several weeks. The result was a number of crashes and the decision was taken to neutralise a descent to the finish before the race started again on the flat run to the line.

In situations like this, the peloton will turn to its 'patrons'. In years gone by, this would have been one dominant rider – Merckx, Hinault, Cancellara – but today there isn’t one voice that controls proceedings. Instead, riders like Tony Martin and Luke Rowe would collectively agree to take that decision and the peloton follows their lead.

When Astana’s Fraile decided to ignore this and push the pace on the descent, he received quite a bit of abuse as he was absorbed by the peloton.

The final stage is a procession... until it isn't

Geraint Thomas and Luke Rowe with the Welsh flag.JPG

There is absolutely no written rule that states that the final stage of the Tour de France should have no outcome on the overall race, but this is the way it has been for years. The final day is reserved for sipping champagne, taking team pictures, and generally rolling along at a speed that makes half the peloton nervous about missing their flight home.

Sunset Champs Elyesse TdF Image via Cycling Wallpapers HD

Generally, the race starts just outside of Paris and rolls at this leisurely speed until the riders hit the Champs Elysees. The team of the yellow jersey usually leads the race across the finish line on the first lap, though a rider that is retiring may be allowed to roll off the front for the honour.

After that, the eight laps up and down the famous boulevard are suddenly a proper race again with attacks that are almost certain to fail, heading up the road before the sprint is won and the race is finished.

So there you have some of the unwritten rules of the Tour de France. Clear as mud, isn't it?

Son of a Marathon runner, Nephew of a National 24hr Champion, the racing genetics have completely passed him by. After joining the road.cc staff in 2016 as a reviewer, Liam quickly started writing feature articles and news pieces. After a little time living in Canada, where he spent most of his time eating poutine, Liam returned with the launch of DealClincher, taking over the Editor role at the start of 2018. At the weekend, Liam can be found racing on the road both in the UK and abroad, though he prefers the muddy fields of cyclocross. To date, his biggest race win is to the front of the cafe queue.

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