Our Daily Bleg: Will Olympic Cyclists Race Against Their Own Countrymen?

We’ve been quiet on the cycling front here for quite some time, although the topic has come up many times in the past.

Now a reader named Kevin O’Toole writes in with an interesting Olympics scenario, which I’ll post here in the form of a bleg. The primary question to answer is whether cycling may be the sole Olympic sport in which an athlete may have incentive to compete against his own teammates:

An interesting question is being raised on the cycling forums on the internet: What is the incentive for a mediocre cyclist, who probably won’t win the race, to “work” for his national teammate instead of his trade/ professional cycling teammate.

The national teams in the race can have 5 members per country. However, CSC — the trade team that won the yellow jersey and the team competition at the Tour de France this year — will have 14 riders in the race (representing about 7 different countries).

Teamwork is critical in the cycling road race.

Because cycling is an event where all the teams compete at once rather than one team versus another, there is some incentive to work for your trade/ professional team rather than your country. Why? If you’re from Denmark and on the CSC team, but Denmark doesn’t have any real contenders for Gold, then you’re better off helping your CSC teammate. If your CSC teammate wins, then the sponsors of your trade/ pro team are going to be happier; thus you benefit.

I think it would be at least an interesting question to ask your blog readers. I can think of no other event at the Olympics where an individual has a disincentive to work for the country he is representing.


Hello, in 2000 there was a clear example in the world championship 'cyclocross' in the Netherlands. Sven Nijs refused to help his countrymen De Clercq (both Belgians) because his teammate Groenendaal (Dutch, and like Sven Nijs also riding for the Rabobank team) was on the lead. Both Belgians were wining on the stage (2nd & 3rd place), and Nijs was spawned in his own country.

His answer back then: 'I make more money if my teammate wins, then when my countrymen wins.'

Even now as Nijs goes mountainbiking in the olympics, a lot of Belgians haven't forgotten him giving away the championship in 2000.


Peter O'Reilly

Yes, yes and absolutely yes! In the 2000 Sydney Olympics men's road race, gold/silver/bronze went to three Team Telkom/T-Mobile riders: Jan Ullrich (GER), Alexandre Vinokourov (KAZ), and Andreas Klöden (GER).

Guess who Vinokourov and Klöden road in support of during the Tour de France?

Post race comments by Jan Ulrich (whom expressed his revealed preference with his legs, heart and lungs):

On the cohesiveness of the German team, Ullrich had this to say: "There are no problems there. Klödi and Jens Voigt rode together for the national team as amateurs already. Jens Voigt and Erik Zabel were school mates even, and have family connections. We are all pros and we approach the Olympics in a different way from the usual cycling circuit. All five of us know that we are going to Athens to represent our country and we will do our best. In Sydney a lot of riders in the peloton speculated that we were working for a bunch sprint finish because Erik was in the bunch. So a lot of riders didn't watch us, and then the three of us were gone."

:; Umm, yeah, right. ;-)




Fer Servadu

The way the race unfolded, there were three CSC riders in the final group of six who sprinted for the finish: Fabian Cancellara (Switzerland), Andy Schleck (Luxembourg), and Alexandr Kolobnev (Russia). Cancellara took the bronze.

Reading the live report, it does not look like there was any kind of collusion.



I have "Overcoming" on dvd - it is a very good docu.




Overcoming is available at amazon on DVD. Although it's a bit pricey.


Again, don't look at the entire race. Think of breakaway scenarios (where it has already happened in the past).

If a certain rider gets into one of those situations, he might make a snap decision, if he knows he can't win.

I don't think they'll line up thinking, "I'm going to let so-and-so win." Then again, the typical pro cyclist (outsite of the top 20 or so) isn't raking in big time money. So, having a big time teammate (the winner of the Tour de France traditionally donates the winnings to the team) is significant.

The Time Trial is a completely different animal than the road race.

Also, you can't name the last 5 gold medal winners, because beyond 1992, pros didn't race (I think).

Different game now.


2000 was a good example. Who knows what really happened at the finish, but there is no doubt that three riders from the Telekom/T-Mobile squad finished together in a break.

Big one day races, even the hilly ones, still hinge on teamwork, at least early in the race. And breakaway riders will work with other teams if they can. Road cycling is unique (I think) in that aspect.

If the riders in the break are from the same trade team (or if 2 of four riders are, for example) but not the same country, wouldn't that have an impact?

The US national championship in the last couple of years has seen apparent collusion between riders who weren't on the same team (but would be in the coming year). The World championships are different - more riders per country.

In the olympics, it is only 5 riders per team.

That could change the dynamic.



Do you have the documentary "Overcoming"? I have tried to get my hands on a copy but to no avail. Could you point me in the right direction?

Colin Toal

This is really an insult to cyclists - why aren't you asking if Spanish basketball players will lie down to make sure their American teammates win in Beijing ? I mean - there is more money at stake in basketball.

So here's 4 reasons why there is no real incentive for a cyclist to sandbag his national team, and an example where it could have happened and didn't:

1. Trade team contracts expire all the time. The Olympics for most cyclists, is really only once in a lifetime. Alberto Contador might be on Astana (a Kazakh team) this year and who knows where next year, but he'll be Spanish for the rest of his life.

2. A lot of the AUS team train together in Europe, just like a lot of US team ride together in Girona - despite different the trade team affiliations - the guys on the national teams are quite often friends. The trade team is a contract job. You hope its more, since it needs to be a team, but its a contract job too.

3. The Olympics Road Race is not that important to a palmares compared to big one day races like the Paris-Roubaix, Milano San Remo or even the World Championship. Its a bit like an Olympic men's hockey gold medal - while nice - is not the same as a Stanley Cup ring. In short - there is no real money or fame or endorsement contract on a road race or time trial gold (name the last 5 road race gold medal winners ? I'm a huge fan and I don't think I can). Its just national pride and personal pride that is at stake really. Olympic gold for a Pro Tour cyclist is really about bragging rights.

4. The peloton has a long memory and a code of honor. Everyone expects the rider to leave everything they have on the road for the team who's kit they are wearing in that race. They don't respect you for sandbagging - and respect is important for the races in the rest of their career. This is uniformly the case in one day races where team collusion just doesn't make sense. The tactics get fuzzier in stage races, where directeurs sportif will play chess with each other over 3 weeks always hoping to better their rider's GC position. No one respects a sandbagger.

Exhibit :

A. Viatcheslav Ekimov beat Lance Armstrong for the Olympic gold time trial in 2000. Ekimov was one of Armstrong's loyal lieutenants and he didn't take a dive and Armstrong didn't ask him to.

What's with the "ethics" questions about cycling ? Are you going to ask Brock Lesnar if he doped ? Other sports HAVE MORE incentive to cheat, AND LESS inspection. Basketball surely should be suspect.



As an avid cyclist and cycling fan, I find this very interesting.

A similar phenomenon is true in soccer, basketball and hockey, as well. Some players may not want to even attend the Olympics, for fear of jeopardizing their professional careers through injury. Once their, how much effort should they put forth if it means aggravating that knee which could cost them millions?

The answer is that for soccer especially, nationalism has a value greater than money. The World Cup, Euro Cup, and even the Olympics (younger generation players) mean so much in the sport. This really cuts to question of the value of amateur athletics. Why would pros of any sport waste their time at an event like the Olympics for no money?

Now, cycling is different, because the team/individual dynamic is so ... well ... dynamic. The riders must always be in constant deliberation whether to be riding for themselves or for team. Often, supporting a teammate comes at great cost to oneself. And if you never ride for yourself, how will you ever get those results that keep you in the big races and on the team? The answer is, the team recognizes the work you do and pays you for it. They put you in the races for that reason.

The question about riding for country team vs. pro team is similar to the question of riding for team vs. self, only a little more touchy. If a rider is mediocre and probably won't win an Olympic medal, then why did his country put him in the race? It's because everybody in his country (and within the pro ranks) expects him to ride for his countrymen. Just as when the team puts him in a pro race he won't win, they expect him to ride for the team, not his countryman or his brother, or even himself.

If a rider switched allegiances in the Olympics and rode for a pro teammate, his reputation would suffer. He would be shown as a rider who doesn't know his role and live up to it. He would be shown to employ a "non-team-player" strategy. This would not be in his interests in that a pro team might not want this sort of non-team-player anyway and he would risk being sacked.

So the only incentive would be for a rider to ride for his pro teammate, but appear to be riding for his countrymen. Such a "cheater" strategy may materialize and be stable, but I doubt it. First, what does a cheater gain if nobody knows he's doing it? Sure, a teammate may win the race, but let's remember that cycling teams are about SPONSORSHIP. A CSC rider is not riding for their sponsor in the Olympics. The sponsor doesn't get the attention and airtime. The riders aren't even wearing the CSC jersey. Sure, the sponsor may get mentioned, and there will be a slight benefit in having a gold-metal-winning rider on the team, but this marginal benefit to the "cheater" rider would have to be very small. Would it be worth the risk of being found a "non-team-player"?

Who will the mediocre riders in the Olympics be riding for?

Conclusion: the riders in the same jerseys, of course! Same as every race.



god forbid anyone having national pride, or wanting fame for their country rather than a corporation- another intriguing scenario is from the WNBA- Becky Hamilton of San Antonio is going to play for the Russian team!? (no, her maiden name isn't shootovsky)- is this the only example of outsourcing players for olympic competition?!


The Olympics is unlike the Tour de France, because there is only one "stage". This is not to say that teamwork won't be present -- it most certainly will, but definitely not to the extent that it appears in the TdF. In the Olympics, you should expect everyone to hang together for the majority of the race, save for maybe a few who try to break away, but at the end, it's every man for himself. There will be no pacing of energy through three weeks of racing as there is in the TdF.


I think people forget that long before riders turn pro, they are usually riding for a juniors national team. Therefore, even if a country roster is submitted of individuals, they are still a team having likely ridden together before. (One of my friends was a Canadian jr. national and competed as a jr. against Armstrong. Another used to ride with UC-Boulder's team with folks like Tyler Hamilton. They all seem to know each other long before they go to the Olympics.)

#12, who says to focus on something like the US Cycling Pro Championships, is probably most correct. Unlike the longer spring road races (dang, what's the word for them in French?) which are points system series races (Pernod Super Prestige Points, IIRC), the pre-2006 US Cycling Pro Championship is a one day 150 mi race which is nice for the winner, whomever he is, but really serves to crown the best US rider with the aid of his team. Team tactics figure into this quite a lot. (In 2006 they moved the race to SC and made it US entrants only. The old Philly race is now called the Philadelphia International Championship.)

#13 has probably the best analysis. The peleton has omerta and respect issues just like the mafia. So anyone sandbagging his national team will likely be subtley punished by the pack in the next professional race. Nothing overt, but definitely snubbed. (Why do you think it took people so long to figure out how bad the doping is?)

Being the Olympic champion doesn't mean much. Riding all season in crap weather conditions and garnering points or winning the big stage races does. Even winning a small stage race in a challenging place like Switzerland doesn't mean as much as your King of the Mountains jersey (aka polka dot) in Le Tour. (And you're not even the winner then!)


Rich Wilson

It just occured to me that CSC rider Jens Voigt once dealt with this very same issue from the opposite side. When Jens's actions in support of team leader Ivan Basso hurt countryman Jan Ullrich, the German press chastized Voigt.

Nobody who knows anything about cycling took it seriously, but it annoyed Jens. He talked about it in the film "Overcoming"

Rich Wilson

#2 and #5 I think you're thinking about track events like the points race. Teamwork most certainly will be part of the road race. Depending on who is strong, and how the race is playing out, the big teams like Spain and Germany will ride for a particular rider. Sure, they all want to win, and sometimes the strongest team on paper loses because they have too many people who think they can win.

#6 it would be more likely to show up in a small breakway. In 2000, the winning break was made of 3 members of the same trade team (Telekom). It is widely speculated that the finish order was worked out. Ullrich was to take gold, Vinokurov silver, and was not happy about it, and Kloden took bronze.

I think any real effect is more likely to be due to friendship than sponsorship. If you have no chance of winning, but your effort may help someone you race and room with all year, why not? Better him than the guy who rides for a team that beat yours last month, if both are from different countries than you.



Olympic cycling differs from pro cycling in that the athletes aren't allowed to help each other. Effectively each country is submitting a group of individuals, not a cooperative team. I don't know how hard that is to police, but it implies that a cyclist who helps their pro teammate would have to be more blatant about it and there is then a counter-incentive of becoming a pariah in their own country. After all, what do you think would happen in France to a mediocre French rider who helped a Spanish pro teammate?

Jim Walsh

This is poorly thought out. First, it would be really difficult to help another team while not simply 'throwing' the race without it being obvious. Further, if your professional team's leader is seen to win without you (eventhough you actually helped him), your value to the team has actually decreased.


what Paul said above.

Olympic races aren't stage races like the Tour de France. It's like one stage of the TdF and everyone is out to win.

It's a non issue.


This discussion might influence the cyclists behaviour. Media talking about their 'incentives' to cheat will remind them of their moral responsibility.


Have a look at the race profile. After the initial warm-up tour of the monuments, the last part of the race turns into a war of attrition.

In the end, I think it will be every man for himself, likely with a handful of strongmen in a breakaway after 2 or 3 times up the hill.

Plus, it's an uphill finish, further degrading any benefit of draft assistance at the line.

What Fun!