The largely celebratory procession to the finish line on the Champs-Élysées on the last day of the Tour de France has always been a favorite of mine. Sure, except for maybe the last 10 minutes of racing, the stage can be a boring one to watch. The general classification tends be determined by then and riders are enjoying glasses of champagne even before reaching the finish line. But it’s the moment when the winning team crosses the finish that always gets me. The yellow jersey in the middle, everyone else side-by-side sporting yellow accents of their own as they celebrate the team effort it took to win the most iconic jersey in cycling. Because cycling is a team effort, isn’t it? Eight riders, each with a role to play, turned themselves inside out over the course of 21 stages so that one of them might end up on the podium.
And it’s in that moment as the team spans the width of the road, side by side as equals, that the sport recognizes the team and not the individual. But it’s a fleeting and rare moment. At the podium ceremony, the attention shifts back to the individual. There is just one winner of the stage, a podium of mere three individuals, one yellow jersey winner, one name in the history books.
It’s odd though because the Tour, like the majority of top tier events, is contested in teams. No individuals are allowed to enter. The racers are part of an eight-rider team. They arrive and travel in team buses, are supported by team staff and make use of gear provided by team sponsors.
And yes, team rankings and awards do celebrate the team component of the sport and the race winner is usually quick to credit the team for their efforts (Australian sprinter Chloe Hosking even had her teammates names’ engraved on her Commonwealth medal after winning the gold in the road race in 2018), but in the end, cycling history books recognize only the individual.
Could you imagine if we applied this same recognition model to other sports? Take soccer for example. Eleven players run around for 90 minutes, each with a job to do. The keeper’s role equally as important as that of a forward. Yet, when the final whistle blows only the player who scored the winning goal gets the medal or trophy. That doesn’t seem right, does it?
Yet while an entire soccer roster (even the benched players) will walk away from any big competition with a medal, in road cycling, there’s only a medal for the individual riders.
So why is that?
Simply put, the Olympic Committee, the UCI and national federations do not recognize road racing as a team sport. For most races, riders are not required to be part of a team to play the game. Any one person could theoretically hop on a bike, line up for a race and make it to the finish line first, without having a team to help them in any way.
Still, while individual riders certainly can win a race, I’d argue that odds favor those with a team backing them. In recent years especially, it seems that equipment, technology, financial investments, and the depth of talent in the peloton has made the playing ground increasingly competitive and thereby, even. Which means that a team and team efforts are playing an increasingly big part. Peter Sagan, prolific as his wins are, still relies on his team to get him to the sprint final. Anna van der Breggen likewise takes comfort in knowing that if her long solo effort doesn’t pan out, she has a number of other potential race winners in her team behind her ready to counter.
Futhermore, the sport’s most elite circuit, the World Tour, is a team-only competition in which one has to be part of a UCI-recognized team.
Yet at the same time, it’s not uncommon to see solo or self-supported riders at national and world championships or even the Olympics, where the number of riders allotted to each country are based on convoluted individual selection criteria. And so road cycling lives in this grey area where it is both a team sport and an individual one.
That grey area exists even in the rules. I read the UCI and USA Cycling rulebooks cover to cover and there is no paragraph that defines road racing as an individual or team sport.
“There’s nothing really set in stone in our books,” confirmed UCI’s Press Officer Louis Chenaille. “But what can be said is that historically, cycling is primarily an individual sport, although it also has a collective side to it. The team ranking is in recognition of this collective dimension. Moreover, when the performance of the team is regarded as the leading factor, for example in the team time trial, all members of the formation are rewarded, as is the case for team sports.”
Aside from the team time trial, these team sports mostly exist in the mountain bike and track disciplines like the Team Relay in cross-country mountain biking and the team sprint or team pursuit on the track. In these disciplines, there are medals and jersey for each team member.
And because this is the way that the UCI does things, the International Olympic Commitee and national federations follow suit.
“I’d agree that winning is definitely a team effort, but traditionally there has never been a team medal outside a team time trial. You’re right in that there is no documented rule stating how it should be, it’s more of a cultural thing I guess,” said Guillermo Rojas Jr., USA Cycling’s Director of Marketing & Communications.
So let me then propose a culture change: The first rider who crosses the line is still crowned as the champion and awarded a jersey, but the entire team — whether it’s a team of two or eight — is brought up on the podium to receive a medal and recognition for their efforts.
Are we likely to see this change? Well, that depends on you — the fans of partakers of the sport.
Should the membership demand a culture change, Rojas said, then practices could potentially change in the future.
So what say you? Isn’t it time we start recognizing road cycling as a team sport?