Yesterday I was listening to a bike racing podcast that discussed, among other things, what they called "breakaway politics" (which, thankfully, has nothing to do with real politics). The discussion was about how riders make deals in breaks to decide the finishing order of the race.
It can be a touchy subject, because to an outside observer, it can look like cheating or race-fixing. And in some instances it is-there are some famous examples of obvious cheating, like Alexander Vinokourov paying Alexandre Kolobnev $100,000 Euros not to contest the sprint at the one-day classic Liege-Bastogne-Liege. Or Lance Armstrong paying other riders, notably Roberto Gaggioli, to let him win the third leg of the Thrift Drug Triple Crown(there was a million dollar prize for winning all three races, and Armstrong had won the first two). Any time money changes hands, sports fans get edgy, and for good reason. It seems shady-those two examples are definitely shady. But there are instances where the line is blurred, even in a case of professionals paying other professionals to do something in a race. For instance, there are situations in stage races where one team has a rider in contention for the overall, but the team is too tired to ride the front and control the race. Another team might have no contender for the overall win. It's not unheard of for the team with the contender to offer the latter team money to ride the front for them. That way the team without a contender gets some TV time for their sponsor, and the riders get some extra income. If you're ever watching a stage race and you can't figure out why a particular team is chasing a break, odds are that a deal has been made.
Deals happen all the time in amateur races as well, but usually the motivation is completely different. In most cases, a deal is struck so that all riders involved assure themselves of the best result possible. For example, this year at one of the Music City Crits I made a massive error in judgment and got myself into a two man break with Brendan Housler. Brendan is incredibly strong; it was all I could do at the beginning to pull through and get back on his wheel after my turn in the wind. After our break was established, Brendan was pulling for two and three laps at a time. I'd come through when I could, but I was at my limit and wasn't helping much.
After a while, I could tell that Brendan had figured out that I was of no use and had started to think about getting rid of me. He'd come through just a bit harder and jump out of the corners much faster than before. If he kept it up, I'd be dropped. So I made a deal. I told him that he didn't need to drop me-that I wouldn't contest the sprint at the end of the race. It was the best outcome for both of us: Brendan was going to win either way, and I got to hang around for second. This is the most common type of agreement that's made-the rider that can't pull through or do his or her fair share agrees not to contest the finish. There are many variations on the theme but the basics are the same.
Deals come in all shapes and sizes, and they depend on the circumstances of the race, the composition of the break, and the relative strength of the riders in it. In 2005 or 2006I got up the road in a crit in Brentwood with two other guys-Steve from Chattanooga and my teammate Jason Tatum. Initially, Steve was willing to help out because he wanted the break to succeed. After it was established, though, he didn't like his chances against two teammates(which is pretty common-he figured that we'd take turns attacking him at the end and he'd finish third). He offered to keep working in the break, but only if we agreed to let him finish second. I would have been fine with that, but Tatum didn't like it-he went to the front and pulled so hard that Steve was just hanging on and realized he didn't have a lot of leverage. Finally, we came to an agreement: Tatum would ease up a bit and Steve would finish third but would get to win all the primes.
Deals don't have to be for the win. In 2008 or 2009 I was in McMinnville, Tn racing the old Highland Rim road race course. It was a hard 110 mile race, and after about 85 miles the break had long since gone and everybody was tired. We were just cruising along until someone pointed out that there were two money spots left: the money was fifteen deep and there were 13 in the break. As you might expect, suddenly everybody wasn't so tired. The attacks started and went on for another few miles. I got lucky and followed Jon Hart on the last one, and we got clear. I was tired and Jon and I are friends, so a few miles from the finish, I asked him if he was in contention for the omnium(the overall weekend competition). He said yes, so I suggested that we just ride steady all the way in and he could finish before me. That way we didn't have to risk getting caught from behind by slowing down and playing cat and mouse at the end, he'd get the extra few omnium points, and I didn't have to sprint. The difference in prize money was maybe five bucks between 14th and 15th place, anyway.
Some guys are more creative than others when it some to making deals. I lived in Austin for a while and had a teammate, Cord Offerman, who was exceptional. One weekend there was a stage race in New Braunfels-two road races and an afternoon time trial. We won the first stage, which was great, but our teammate that won wasn't a great time triallist. We were concerned that we wouldn't be able to defend his lead if he lost time in the second stage tt. He did, but Cord was great against the watch and he won the tt. We had won two stages, but with two different guys, so going unto the second road race there were several racers and teams that were in contention for the overall win.
Cord figured it out before we even left the parking lot. He found a guy that he knew-Wally Groda-who was super strong but who wasn't in contention for the overall win. He talked to Wally before the race, and then told the rest of the guys on our team to just keep things together for the first half of the race.
It wasn't easy; most of the other teams knew that if they got up the road early they could pick up enough time to win the weekend, so there were plenty of determined attacks by strong guys. We managed to keep things under wraps for a while, but after an hour or so of chasing or pulling back attacks, I was done. I was drifting back towards the back on the side of the bunch, totally spent, when Wally came flying by. Cord was on his wheel, screaming at him to go. They'd been sitting at the back, conserving energy, while everyone else was wearing themselves(and me) out. Once they got a gap, they worked together better than they would have otherwise. They didn't need to save any energy for the end; they just needed to get to the finish line as quickly as possible. They stayed away and picked up a couple of minutes. Wally won the stage and Cord won the stage race. Perfect deal.
It probably seems odd looking in from the outside, but the intra-race mental maneuvering is one of the things that I love about the sport. I like that you don't just have to be fast-or even just fast and smart. You need to be able to think and make good decisions when you're absolutely redlined. It's one of the things that make our sport unique.