Politics Everywhere: TdF Edition


So on Saturday nice George Hincapie—everybody loves George, one of the genuine good guys in professional cycling—is the maillot jaune virtuel (that is, he’s leading the whole race, timewise, but the stage isn’t over yet, so he could still fall short), but then Garmin (an American team) turns on the jets and pulls the peloton faster toward the finish line, in the process getting the current maillot jaune wearer, Rinaldo Nocentini, who rides for a different team altogether (Ag2r), closer and closer to the line and enabling him to make up time on nice George and dropping nice George back into second place rather than first. Too bad, as nice George is nearing the end of a fine career and it would have been so nice for nice George to get to wear yellow.

Well, it turns out that bad feelings have been simmering for months between Garmin and Hincapie’s team, Columbia (the other American team in Le Tour—no, Astana, the team Lance Armstrong rides for, is not American). Garmin did this deliberately, charges Columbia, to keep nice George out of yellow. I am insulted, pouts nice George. We were just riding our ride, protests Garmin. The Garmins are bad people who did my best buddy nice George dirty, proclaims Lance (who himself is considered bad people by lots of folks). Nice George, by the way, is also p.o.’ed at Lance’s Astana team, which used tactics during the race much like those employed by Garmin at the end. No, no, no, say the Astanas, we’re above that sort of thing. Columbia vows revenge, a frightening prospect when 150 or so highly caffeinated young men, all bursting with testosterone, some probably full of exotic drugs, any many of whom don’t seem to like each other very much, are riding bicycles very fast within just a few inches of one another.

You probably thought a bike race was an uncomplicated affair in which the competitors are just trying to ride as fast as they can for as long as they can. Silly you.

11 Responses to Politics Everywhere: TdF Edition

  1. Thomas July 19, 2009 at 9:35 pm #

    And yet if Columbia hadn’t been so darn focused on Cav’s winning the green jersey, Hincapie would have had the yellow. I don’t know why they blamed everyone else, when it seemed pretty clear to me that the five seconds that mattered most came off because of their own efforts.

  2. Dan Tarrant July 20, 2009 at 1:29 am #

    Run ’em in to the wall, trade a little paint…and remember, if you ain’t cheatin’, you ain’t tryin’

  3. Lee Sigelman July 20, 2009 at 7:47 am #

    Agreed. I don’t really understand _why_ Garmin went to the front, but I don’t care, either. If somebody wants to ride fast in a bike race, that’s an outrageous thing to do? And the notion that they deprived nice George of something that was rightfully his? It was rightfully his if he rode fast enough to make up the gap; he didn’t.

  4. Brian Arbour July 20, 2009 at 9:23 am #

    To move this back to political science, what has always struck me about Le Tour is its embodiment of the collective action problem. Cyclists have individual incentives (stage wins, the various jerseys), but their attempts to do so can by thwarted by the collective interests of the peleton (see Hincapie v. the world above).

    One solution to this problem is domestiques, essentially hiring cycling servants (see Hincapie’s career with Lance’s Postal Service/Discovery Channel teams). “Rabbits,” who set the pace in distance racing, work the same way. While rabbits are paid and allowed to enter exclusively as aides to the bigger stars, domestiques are full competitors in the race, who can achieve their own particular goals (see Hincapie and the yellow jersey).

    The dilemma for a star cyclist is how to keep his domestiques happy enough to keep being his cycling servant, usually by allowing them some glory at some point.

    That Lance’s Postal/Discovery teams were solely focused only on Lance winning yellow seems a less likely Nash equilibrium than the office politics/petty bickering modely that Lee identifies above.

  5. Lee Sigelman July 20, 2009 at 10:00 am #


    I wonder about the extent to which having all the riders on a team being able to communicate with the team manager has accentuated your point. My perception (perhaps inaccurate) is that in the “old days,” Merckx, Indurain, and others were riding more on their own than today’s riders do. Of course there were teams and teams had strategies and not all team members were created equal, but I think the coordination has gotten much tighter in recent years. Information and instructions were much harder to pass along then than they are now, so keeping all a team’s riders on the same page was a far greater challenge; it was a game of very imperfect information, so to speak.

  6. dr2chase July 20, 2009 at 3:10 pm #


    I don’t think this is a new thing. I am pretty sure I recall reading about this sort of team behavior back in the “old days”.

    As far as game theory goes, even amateur cycling can be plenty fun. One race I was in, a crash scattered the field, three of us ended up a dozen yards ahead. A quick look round to size each other up, and we set to work. I knew I could not outsprint the other two (I was 14, I think), but a certain 3rd beat my chances just seconds earlier. Head down, tight pace line, and go. Interesting exercise, choosing the optimum N for a breakaway, given the diminishing finish incentive and increasing paceline margin against the pack.

  7. Lee Sigelman July 20, 2009 at 3:18 pm #


    Yes, as long as there have been teams, I’m sure there have been team strategies and tactics. But it does seem to me to have mushroomed in recent years. (For example, I just don’t recall — maybe because I don’t want to — Indurain being escorted up climbs by legions of Banestos who would go ’til they dropped and then let Big Mig seal the deal.

  8. James Wimberley July 21, 2009 at 4:54 am #

    The whole point of the TdF is that the long time frame and complex structure generates conflicts of objectives and 24/7 politics. The underlying narrative is however Bonapartist: eventually a Strong Leader emerges – Alberto Contador has just done this – , stamps his authority on the race, the others accept it, and he is crowned in Paris after drinking bubbly on the road on the last day.

  9. ferd July 21, 2009 at 10:32 am #

    I just like watching the colorful peloton zooming through the beautiful French settings.

    The world’s rich are so heroic, sacrificing so much time and money flying to silly, dysfunctional Europe every few months to endure the privations, on our behalf.

  10. Smithers July 21, 2009 at 3:23 pm #

    If George wanted the jersey he should have been driving at the front the entire last 10km of the race instead of screwing around looking for a stage win. Can’t always have both and George has been around long enough to know better.

    The yellow jersey is for those who earn it, not those who “deserve” to wear it.

  11. andrew July 25, 2009 at 2:37 am #

    I remember Indurain being paced up hills by Banesto teammates. I don’t think they had as high a concentration of domestique climbers as some recent teams, so they didn’t stay at the front as long and there might have been only one guy instead of two or three, but it certainly happened. In a few of those tours Indurain built huge leads in the first time trial, which changes the strategy a bit, because he could afford to let climbers who were way behind get ahead on individual stages. So his teammates would help him for as long as they could, but it might not have been as obvious because they weren’t at the very front of the race before dropping back.

    Going back further, in 1985 Greg Lemond’s team told him to hold back in the mountains so that he could help Bernard Hinault win a fifth tour. Here’s the 1985 tv coverage. In addition to calling off Lemond, the team had another rider helping pace Hinault in a chase group.

    None of this means that coordination hasn’t increased in recent years, but that might have more to do with skillfully selecting a team with the right mix of non-contenders than with technology. In recent years, CSC had some issues with too many strong riders on the same team. (Just as in 1986, Lemond and Hinault, still on the same team, didn’t work together very well.)

    I actually think the support for sprinters seems more coordinated nowadays. Long breakaways of a few people on relatively flat stages seem much more rare than they used to be, and pack sprints more common, although I haven’t actually sat down and counted them.