Sprints, accidents, injuries and controversies, the Tour de France is accustomed to these words, and they usually occur in the same order. It took just four stages into this year’s race for these words to be the talk of cycling circles worldwide. However, the words are generally not followed by "disqualification", which was added this year. It is not a word the Tour organisers use lightly, because the last time they used it was almost 20 years ago, when they ended up disqualifying not just a rider, but the whole team (the Festina affair of 1998)
The incident in question in the 2017 edition was the collision between Mark Cavendish and Peter Sagan just metres from the finish, as both sprinted to the line. As in any sprint, riders were jostling with each other in a confined space and both Sagan and Cavendish were very close to the barriers going in excess of 50 kilometres per hour. Unfortunately, Sagan seemed to have elbowed Cavendish, which caused the Brit to hit the barriers hard and crash not just out of the stage, but out of the race altogether.
Cavendish suffered a fractured shoulder blade (apart from other injuries) and his participation in the Tour is over. There was some confusion as the event organisers initially relegated the Slovak to 115th place on the stage — last place in the lead bunch — and handed him a 30-second time penalty. However, later it emerged that Sagan had been disqualified from this year’s race. The head of the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale) commissaire and president of the jury, Philippe Marien, said the referees applied a sterner sanction because the world champion "had put several other riders involved in the crash in danger". The question is did Sagan’s actions really merit the disqualification?
Firstly, the videos and images of the accident tell a different story entirely.
The more I look at the images, the more I find myself convinced that Sagan is guilty beyond doubt. The videos, however, do not indict the young cyclist as much. The images show Sagan’s elbow protruding out towards Cavendish. In the videos, Sagan seems to lose balance and adjusts his elbows to keep him on the bike, hitting Cavendish in the process, who was approaching from behind.
Before we delve into the rules and other details, we need to understand that the job description of a road race sprinter comes with its caveats. Firstly, they always operate on the edge — the limit of what is defined as safe. All high-speed racers from Cavendish to Sebastian Vettel will always go for a gap if they see one. As a corollary, racers from Sagan to Lewis Hamilton will focus on their lines and not worry about providing space for a rival. Accidents then, will, and do happen. But again, the question is that did Sagan move his elbow in a malicious way?
Funnily, the rules under which Sagan has been disqualified are as vague as most regulations are. The Tour’s press release states that Sagan has been disqualified under Article 12.1.040/ 10.2.2 of UCI Cycling Regulations (Part 12: Discipline Procedures) for an "irregular sprint". However, according to the rule book, the penalty for the 1st offence is only a relegation to last place and CHF 200 fine (approx $207.25) — which is what Sagan initially seemed to have been given. However, the rule book also states “elimination” as punishment for the “3rd offence”.
Now, Sagan is bit of a maverick and is known to be non-conformist when it comes to racing. His bunny-hopping of Fabian Cancellara in 2016 is a simple proof of his quirky side. However, neither would anyone accuse him of being a repeat-offender who violates regulations, nor is he guilty of hazardous riding. In fact, the reason for his immense popularity (some name him as the most marketable cyclist in the world), is his surreal balance on a bike and his larger-than-life persona. And maybe, that had a role to play in the final decision by the jury. Maybe Sagan has been penalised for his maverick attitude that does not go well with the suits.
My biggest complaint with the jury is that it seems to have acted in haste. The jurors have seemingly dished out the verdict without consulting the affected parties — Cavendish and Sagan, in this case — or any of the other riders who could have provided an independent perspective. That seems a bit unfair to the guilty party. To Sagan’s credit, he immediately approached Cavendish’s team bus to apologise, and even the British rider is unsure if Sagan is completely to blame.
One of the first riders to react was Andre Greipel, who stormed off after the stage finish, disgusted by the antics of Sagan. Nevertheless, the German sprinter seemed to have changed his mind after going over the videos, and tweeted his apology to the Slovak immediately thereafter. So maybe the organisers should not have been as hasty as Greipel, considering they cannot redact their judgment as easily.
UCI’s haste in disqualifying Sagan could also be attributable to deflect public criticism over the placing of metal barriers. The race organisers had faced considerable flak over metal barriers when Alejandro Valverde skidded and collided into a barrier, while racing in treacherous conditions during the stage one individual time trial. The veteran Spanish rider suffered a broken kneecap as a result of the collision and had to withdraw from the Tour. The placement of metal barriers on narrow city roads without any padding was questioned by many former riders and fans. So maybe UCI did not want the issue to heat up again within a span of a couple of days and disqualifying Sagan has certainly buried the issue of barriers below the media radar.
On Wednesday, Sagan spoke to the media outside his team hotel and said, "I can accept the decision but for sure I do not agree with them, because I think I have done nothing wrong." I have to agree that while the young rider was a bit impetuous, he had no intent to cause injury. He was in a bunch sprint looking out for himself, lost balance, and maybe over-corrected.
So as they say, while the officials have made up their minds, the jury is still out among experts and fans alike. Whatever your outlook on the accident and disqualification, the Tour this year has lost two of its most talented cyclists. The most successful sprinter ever and the green jersey winner of the last five races will play no further part this year, and that is a major blow to all fans of cycling.
Updated Date: Jul 06, 2017 10:35 AM