Nick Butler ©ITG

There was a great story told at the Giro d'Italia last week involving Australian and Belgian cyclists Adam Hansen and Tim Wellens.

The Lotto FixAll team-mates broke clear from the peloton during stage eight and valiantly attempted to catch the breakaway three minutes up the road. Other teams were worried about the prospect of three Lotto riders being in the lead group, so immediately gave chase, prompting the stage to suddenly burst into life.

Mitchelton-Scott, the team of British race leader Simon Yates, rode hard in apparent pursuit but the two riders in front did not appear.

It eventually transpired that the reason for this was that they were not actually in front at all.

"We tried to jump across, we got a really good gap, we could almost not see the peloton behind but we heard that it was still 2min 40sec to the first group," Hansen explained, according to Cycling Weekly. "We thought, we are not going to make it.

"We had such a big gap on the group, we thought, let's go hide and see what happens'. We took a sharp left into a caravan parking lot and hid around the corner, then the peloton passed. As soon as it did, we jumped on the back of the line of cars and rejoined the group. Everyone was laughing.

"I said, 'Tim, let's go to the front and see their faces when they see us'. We got up there, Mitchelton-Scott was pulling.

"They looked forward, looked to us, looked forward and looked to us. They said, 'Where did you guys come from?'"

The peloton were forced to chase in vain during the Giro d'Italia last week ©Getty Images
The peloton were forced to chase in vain during the Giro d'Italia last week ©Getty Images

I imagine these sorts of tricks are played the whole time in amateur cycling races, but in a Grand Tour, when riders are averaging speeds of 40 kilometres per hour?

It got me thinking about how often practical jokes are still played in the deadly serious world of professional sport today. They certainly occur often on the training pitch or in hotels as a means to relieve boredom and tension before and after competitions. There are also more organised attempts, such as a footballer wearing a disguise while playing with locals, which will invariably form part of a marketing stunt by a sponsor.

But to muck around during competition-time itself, as Wellens and Hansen essentially did? I cannot think of too many examples.

There are certainly some great stories from back in the day.

At the 1971 US Open, the beginning of an 18-hole play-off between American rivals Lee Trevino and Jack Nicklaus at Merion began in dramatic circumstances when Trevino pulled a fake rubber snake out of his bag and threw it in the direction of Nicklaus.

Trevino went on to win the play-off by three shots and some claimed the stunt was gamesmanship designed to get a mental edge over his rival. This was denied by both players.

In 1990, in the very early days of mobile phones, England batsman Allan Lamb came out to bat in the Test Match against New Zealand at Trent Bridge. 

Instead of walking to the crease, he made a beeline for the square leg umpire, Dickie Bird, and handed him his phone that he had mistakenly kept in his pocket.

"Put it in your pocket and keep it safe for me," Lamb said, according to Bird. 

"Oh, and if it rings, answer it."

Sure enough, the phone eventually started ringing and Bird, not really knowing how to use a mobile phone, gingerly answered: "Hello, this is Dickie Bird speaking on Allan Lamb’s phone. Who's there?"

"This is Ian Botham speaking from the dressing room," was the response from England's best-known player of the time. 

"Tell that fellow Lamb to play a few shots or get out."

Ian Botham, front centre, and Allan Lamb, top centre, were partners in crime in terms of practical jokes as well as cricketers for England ©Getty Images
Ian Botham, front centre, and Allan Lamb, top centre, were partners in crime in terms of practical jokes as well as cricketers for England ©Getty Images

The weirdest story I could find comes in the book The Miracle Of Castel Di Sangro by American author Joe McGinniss. 

He spent a year in Italy in the mid-1990s documenting the team from a tiny town of 5,000 people after their miraculous promotion to Serie B and found as much drama off the field as on it. Two of their star players died in a car crash mid-season while another was arrested and detained for 22 weeks in a drug-smuggling operation. 

Early in 1997, the team announced the arrival of Nigerian Robert Raku Ponnick from English Premier League team Leicester City. He was due to be the first Premier League player to ever play in Serie B and the first in Italy at all since Paul Gascoigne joined Lazio in 1992. 

The Italian media arrived in force for an unveiling press conference in which he supposedly promised to score the "most goals ever seen" before warning the town's inhabitants: "If you value your women, keep them inside." When he made his debut in an exhibition match he fought one of his own team-mates and stole the referee's book of yellow and red cards.

It eventually transpired that the whole affair was staged as a publicity scam on the alleged orders of the team's owner Gabriele Gravina. Ponnick was an actor and most of the players - but none of the fans or journalists - were in on the "joke", which would clearly be impossible today in the Google-age.

Gravina, incidentally, was an unsuccessful candidate to lead the Italian Football Federation earlier this year.

It is not uncommon for such jokes to backfire.

Recently departed Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was said to have decided to sign Latvian defender Igors Stepanovs in 2000 after being swayed by the constant praise he was receiving during his trial from senior team members including star striker Dennis Bergkamp.

However, the players, according to a story told by midfielder Ray Parlour, were joking to wind-up central defender Martin Keown, who was worried about being challenged for his position. Stepanovs arrived and, after an injury crisis, was thrown into the team against Manchester United and was shown to be hopelessly out of his depth as Arsenal were thrashed 6-1. He barely played again that season.

Igors Stepanovs was supposedly signed by Arsenal following a practical joke gone wrong ©Getty Images
Igors Stepanovs was supposedly signed by Arsenal following a practical joke gone wrong ©Getty Images

Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban staged a fight with what transpired to be a fake referee during a National Basketball Association encounter with the then-New Orleans Hornets on April Fool's Day in 2003. Trouble was, Cuban had such a reputation for controversy that many spectators believed the spat to be genuine.

In 2007 another Trent Bridge Test Match, between England and India this time, was overshadowed by a confectionery-related row after an unidentified home player sprinkled jelly beans on the pitch in an apparent attempt to bamboozle Indian tail-end batsman Zaheer Khan. 

He took it badly and accused players of throwing sweets at him, with England captain Michael Vaughan eventually forced to issue an apology.

I am sure there are other good stories out there but it is clear that practical jokes do not sit especially comfortably in professional sport today. 

It is simply too serious and too cutthroat to afford to mess around. That said, the Hansen and Wellens' "breakaway" was a refreshing dose of good humour and let's hope that, from time to time, sport can still throw-up similar moments.