Absent malicious intent, sending a rider home for aggressive sprinting sets a bad precedent. – By Joe Lindsey
I think of that maxim as I look at the aftermath of the wreckage of Stage 4 of the 2017 Tour de France, which transformed a sleepy and mostly boring ride into a mess of broken bodies and broken plans, and produced an awful, unsupportable ruling that may overshadow the race for days to come.
The reason I think that the race jury’s decision to disqualify Peter Sagan and throw him off the Tour is an awful one is not because Sagan is a hugely popular rider, and his expulsion hurts the marketability of cycling’s marquee event.
This is true, but Sagan’s popularity is not a reason to keep him in the race if he was truly at fault. There is another saying in legal circles that comes to mind: dura lex, sed lex, which translates roughly as “The law is hard, but it is the law.”
The reason I think the race jury’s decision sucks is that, well, it sucks. Like a lot of people, I’ve watched the replay of the final few kilometres of Stage 4 dozens of times, from all angles, at full speed and in slow motion. I’m sure the race jury did too. And nowhere in that footage can I find the kind of clear rationale for a disqualification that the jury did.
Sagan was DQ’d for an “irregular sprint” which can mean lots of things, but generally it’s defined as not sprinting in a straight line. In that, he was hardy alone; it was a messy sprint. The first crash, at just over a kilometre to go, chopped off Quick-Step’s train harshly and gapped Marcel Kittel along with much of the field. With 800 metres to go, only about 15 riders were left up front. Lotto still had Tiesj Benoot in the final 500 metres for Andre Greipel and he led up the left side of the road with Alexander Kristoff on his wheel.
Irregular move 1: just under 300 metres to go, Kristoff opens his sprint to the right, up the centre of the road. Nacer Bouhanni is on his wheel, with Sagan behind him and Démare fourth in that line. Démare and Bouhanni both swing out around 250 to go, again to the left, as Greipel attempts to take Kristoff’s wheel and bounces off Bouhanni (at 52 seconds).
Irregular move 2: as Démare tries to come around Bouhanni on the left, he swings out and around Sagan first, who tries to get on his wheel. Démare continues to drift left. Sagan also drifts left, into Cav, who’s trying to come up on Démare’s wheel next to the barriers (55 seconds).
Irregular move 3: Démare comes back left to Kristoff’s rear wheel even though he has a clear lane going straight, and clearly chops Bouhanni (57 seconds).
Note that all three of these moves happen within a span of eight seconds and 150 metres of road. It’s fast, chaotic and dangerous; it’s easy to pick out mistakes and assign fault afterward, especially with the benefit of multiple angles like overhead shots comparing Démare’s wandering line and Sagan and Cav’s violent collision. In the moment? Not so much.
Finally, a short loop posted on Twitter by Eurosport reporter Laura Meseguer shows that Cav makes contact with Sagan before Sagan shoves back with his elbow.
— Laura Meseguer (@Laura_Meseguer) July 4, 2017
In part because of the earlier crash, only one of these irregular moves resulted in riders going down. In both Greipel and Démare’s swerves, Greipel and Bouhanni had the fortune of correcting back to open roads to their left, not barriers or other riders. Only Cav, who got squeezed into the barriers, paid the price. Had the pack been together at this crucial eight-second snapshot of the race, dozens of riders might have gone down from any of these moments. Since there was no pack, we’re focused on the one move that did result in a crash. But there was plenty of “irregular sprinting” to be found.
Another factor to consider: history. Sagan is an aggressive bike racer, but does not have a reputation as a dirty rider or one who takes reckless chances. Just as a simple thought exercise, try a substitution scenario: of the top sprinters in cycling, how many do you DQ if you put them in Sagan’s place? I can think of only two whose past history might even come close to supporting a DQ: Bouhanni and…Cavendish.
Bouhanni’s pugilistic reputation is well-known (on and off the bike), and had this been him in Sagan’s place we might have seen less pushback from current and past riders. Fair or not, a rider’s reputation comes into play. Cavendish himself is no stranger to accusations of reckless riding, with incidents at last year’s Olympics and in the 2014 Tour where he caused crashes. In neither case was he penalised, although at the Tour he crashed himself out along with Australian Simon Gerrans. That said, even if you switch Cavendish and Sagan yesterday’s crash scenario, and it was Cav’s elbow shooting out, I don’t think Cavendish would merit disqualification.
Finally, there was no ill intent. The UCI’s rules are, as always, maddeningly vague. The normal penalty for an irregular sprint is relegation and loss of points and prize money. A full disqualification is warranted when it’s a “serious case.” So what’s serious? The rulebook is silent, but I’d argue the standard is ill intent. And it’s not here. Sagan went immediately to Cavendish’s team bus post-stage to express his sympathy. I don’t read that as an admission of guilt. When asked why he went to the bus, Sagan said, “Yeah sure, because it’s not nice to crash like that.”
I’m far from alone. A number of current and former riders spoke out about the incident on Twitter. Former green jersey winners Baden Cooke and Robbie McEwen both said they didn’t feel the episode warranted a full DQ. But to me the most important reaction came from Andre Greipel, a methodical, precise sprinter who is rarely given to hyperbole and tweeted that after watching the replay, he thought the judges’ decision was too harsh.
Sometimes I should watch images before I say something. Apologies to @petosagan as I think that decision of the judge is too hard.
— Andre Greipel (@AndreGreipel) July 4, 2017
Even Cav, who often shows his emotions openly, was equivocal, saying he was “massively grateful” that Sagan came to see him at the finish and that the pair have a good relationship, but that he was “not a fan of (Sagan) putting his elbow out like that.” Cavendish finished by saying he wanted to talk further with Sagan before saying more.
When you look at the video, when you consider the riders involved, and when you judge the reactions of decorated pros and ex-pros who know of what they speak, what you find is simply that there’s no clear evidence of ill intent. Sagan’s elbow—the only real justification for a full DQ—moves out only after Cavendish’s initial contact. It’s a reaction, not a provocation. From what the various video angles show, Sagan and Cavendish were simply two people trying to occupy the same space at the same time. Both made mistakes; neither was malicious but, at 70 kilometres an hour, things can go pear-shaped in a hurry.
And that, more than anything, is why the jury decision is the wrong one: it sets a bad precedent. I’ve been watching Tours and bike racing for 25 years, back to the days of Djamolidine Abujaparov, the king of sharp-elbowed sprinting and terrifying crashes. And in that time, I can readily think of only a few incidents where you can argue for a full DQ. One: Stage 11 of the 2010 Tour when Cav’s longtime leadout man, Mark Renshaw, repeatedly headbutted Julian Dean in a sprint. Renshaw was DQ’d and apologised afterward. (A non-TdF example: Michel Zanoli punching Davis Phinney in the face in the middle of a sprint at the 1992 Tour du Pont, for which Zanoli was DQ’d.)
Short of something egregious like that—a clear chop, or a rider taking a hand off the bars as Zanoli did (which you never, ever, ever do)—a DQ is simply too harsh. Sure: relegate Sagan and strip his points from the stage. Levy a fine. That would have dropped him from 95 to 15 points in the green jersey standings and sent a message. But to send him home over this sets up the precedent that every sprint from now on, every bump like Greipel’s, every wandering line in the final few hundred metres like Démare’s, will be scrutinised for evidence of foul play.
Some of the damage here is already done. Cavendish, for instance, is now out of the Tour with a broken scapula. And while Sagan’s Bora-Hansgrohe team protested the jury decision, it’s not clear whether the jury will or even officially can revisit its decision. But maybe it should.
Once you start throwing riders out of the race for just being aggressive bike racers, where do you stop? The Sagan and Cav dustup is a hard case, to be sure. But the way it’s been decided puts the rest of the Tour under a bad law.