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When I was a cycling journalist, I was asked a familiar question at dinner parties, on airplanes, or in other social settings with normies (not die-hard cycling fans).

Do the cyclists really stop to pee during the race?

I would nod yes, in anticipation of the next investigation.

But the race is technically still going, right?

I would nod and smile again, then wait for the familiar responses. How bizarre! How awesome! What if the Green Bay Packers pissed and drank on the field during the Super Bowl? I nodded one last time and then changed the subject. How awesome indeed.

My brevity was calculated because the last thing I wanted was to spend the next few hours explaining the nuances of the pro cycling pee stop. During the middle of a race, athletes will casually stop at the curb and go to the bathroom, waiting for everyone to finish the act before returning to the action with no one rushing ahead to gain an advantage. This activity is governed by little more than the sport’s mysterious collection of unwritten etiquette and propriety.

Memories of those awkward social encounters surfaced in my brain this weekend as I read about a looming controversy at Spain’s week-long La Vuelta Femenina race that involved a pee stop — or, more accurately, a pee stop. A Dutch cyclist named Demi Vollering accused her rival Annemiek van Vleuten (also Dutch) of disregarding the sacrosanct request for a toilet break on stage six. Vollering had been leading the race when she and her SD Worx teammates stopped to pee, assuming everyone else would stop too. But they didn’t. Vleuten and her teammates sped ahead and dozens of other riders followed, leaving those who were stuck in the dust behind in the pack.

Vollering took up the pursuit but was never able to catch up with the leaders. Van Vleuten won the stage and snagged the leader’s red jersey. After the stage, Vollering was furious. “They did everything they could to ride me out of the red jersey. This is top sport. I’m not expecting gifts, but if that’s what you want to do… too bad,” she told reporters at the finish.

Annemiek van Vleuten and Demi Vollering.
Van Vleuten (right) snatched the red jersey from Vollering (left) on stage 6. (Photo: Dario Belingheri/Getty Images)

Why did van Vleuten seem to have thrown away the unwritten rules of cycling? She told reporters that her team had always planned to attack along this stretch of road, pee stop or not. “We’ve already made the plan, and it’s not the best moment for them,” she said.

Was this just a case of bad timing? Possibly. The cycling journalist in me sees it differently. My Opinion: This urine kerfuffle – and the rules that govern it – is a window into the smoldering rivalry between the two juggernauts of the sport and a referendum on which rider commands the peloton’s respect at this moment.

Van Vleuten, 40, is the established champion and reigning winner of the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and UCI Women’s World Championships. Vollering, 26, is the rising challenger who has repeatedly beaten van Vleuten in every race that matters in 2023. This is your textbook generational battle: Jordan vs. Magic, Serena vs. Steffi, Zoolander vs. Hansel.

How does peeing fit into this rivalry? According to the unwritten rulebook of pro cycling, a pee break helps clarify the peloton’s pecking order. Traditionally, the person who announces the armistice is the driver who leads the race. But sometimes that power rests with a rider who has the most wins and commands the most respect or fear from the rest. Lance Armstrong could cancel or call off a pee break at the Tour de France whether he was in the yellow jersey or not. The Swiss driver Fabian Cancellara also exercised this power in his time.

Vollering stopped at the Vuelta Femenina, but van Vleuten continued. The 158 other riders in the race had a split second to decide which woman to follow: the challenger or the winner. For whatever reason, many of them chose van Vleuten so that their actions would stand up to the scrutiny of cycling’s decency laws. If the entire peloton had stopped, I’m absolutely certain van Vleuten would have stopped and waited.

Every sport has its bizarre social norms. In the NBA, a player waives a showboating slam dunk if their team is ahead and the game comes to an end. A hockey match ends when a player touches the ice. In Major League Baseball, a player who hits a home run can’t celebrate or throw a bat or make eye contact with someone — or risk being banned.

Bike racing is no different. But in this sport, following the unwritten rules includes knowing when to pee and when to hold it.


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