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Bumping Elbows in a Bunch Sprint

By Sadhbh O'Shea | Images by Chris Auld

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A day is a long time at the Tour de France but cast your mind back, if you can, to the distant plains of yesterday and the stage 11 finish into Poitiers. Caleb Ewan pulled off another superb move to fend off Sam Bennett and take his second win of the race. 

By Sadhbh O’Shea | Images by Chris Auld

Bennett extended his lead in the green jersey competition but not before Peter Sagan was relegated from second after he took the phrase use your head a little too seriously. While others charged down the center of the road, Sagan had seen a gap by the barriers and went for it. As the space disappeared, the Slovakian lent into Wout van Aert to make some room.

Van Aert made his opinions of the move immediately apparent as he gave Sagan the one-fingered salute and the pair got into a short swearing competition. The commissaires were hot on the matter, too, deeming that Sagan had made a “deviation from the chosen line that obstructs or endangers another rider or irregular sprint.” Van Aert was also punished with a 200CHF fine for his gesture, but I’m sure he thinks it was worth the cash.

Peter Sagan (far left) was relegated from the sprint finish on stage 11 fo the Tour de France for leaning into Wout van Aert. Image: Chris Auld

As is to be expected, the commissaires’ decision has ignited debate about whether the move was a simple part of a chaotic sprint or if Sagan deserved to be relegated. In another year, without Fabio Jakobsen’s horrific crash still fresh in the mind for many, I believe Sagan may have stood a better chance of escaping punishment for his move. In a case such as this, there is never going to be a consensus between people as the discussions on social media has shown.

There has also been plenty of debate as to why Sagan made his move. Was he just making space, was it a narrowing in the barriers or was it down to a fan’s selfie stick jutting out into the road? Selfie sticks, camera and phones are a nightmare at bike races and do pose a genuine danger to riders. Let us not forget Daniele Colli’s horrible crash in the finish of stage 6 at the 2015 Giro d’Italia, which was caused by a fan with a camera and would subsequently cause Alberto Contador to fall and dislocate his collarbone.

I have watched the sprint finish in Poitiers multiple times, and I don’t believe Sagan was on course to collide with the selfie stick with less than 50 meters to go. If it truly had posed a danger, they would have put this forward as a mitigating factor to avoid relegation; indeed, Sagan said at the start that the selfie stick had nothing to do with his move. In any case, the fans should not be able to lean so far over into the road. On the Champs-Élysées, the road is protected by two sets of barriers and it should be no different in other stage finishes. The organizers need to step up their game in this regard.

Looking at the footage, it appears that Sagan saw his gap disappear when Van Aert drifted slightly towards the barriers as the road curved. About to see another stage win slip through his fingers, the Slovakian took the decision to forcibly move Van Aert out of the way and take a clean run to the line. There was no malice in the move, it was a rider doing what he could to contest the win.

I am on the side of those that believe that the race jury made the right decision. Sprinting is chaotic and bumping shoulders and elbows is inevitable, especially when you have so many riders looking for the same patch of tarmac. It’s akin to the start of a Formula One grand prix where the entire pack is charging towards the first corner and some incidents that would ordinarily be punished elsewhere in a race are forgiven by the stewards.

In Wednesday’s sprint finish at Tirreno-Adriatico, Fernando Gaviria made contact with Davide Ballerini, just enough to tell the Italian he intended on coming through the gap. I think that these nudges do have a place in sprinting and riders shouldn’t be afraid to go for those small gaps and even impose themselves on their rivals, but there is a line.

Personally, I think that Sagan’s body check on Van Aert stepped just over that line. Van Aert is a good bike handler and easily stayed up but there could have been a different outcome with a different rider in a different position. You must punish the move and not the outcome.

I know that there will be plenty of people that agree with me and an equal number that disagree, even some of my colleagues at La Course en Tête. These debates are what make cycling such a fascinating sport. It wouldn’t be fun if we all agreed on everything.

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