‘It is sad for the Tour de France’ – Riders and managers react to Peter Sagan’s expulsion

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VITTEL, France (CT) – Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) is out of the Tour de France for what the race jury deemed an “irregular sprint” on stage 4. His team lodged an appeal overnight but that was unsuccessful and the world champion will sit out the rest of the race.

Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) is out of the race too, scans showing last night that the Manxman had fractured his shoulder blade in the crash that resulted when he and Sagan collided. As a result, the Tour continues today without two of its biggest stars.

In the hour immediately after the crash, social media was abuzz with discussion about the incident. Some said the crash had just been the result of a messy sprint and that Sagan wasn’t to blame. Other called for Sagan’s disqualification, claiming the Slovakian had acted recklessly, dangerously, in forcing Cavendish into the barriers.

But in the hours after Sagan’s expulsion was confirmed, the mood appeared to shift. Riders, fans and the media expressed their shock at the decision. The concensus seemed to be that a relegation from second place and loss of points was a fair result but expulsion from the race was not.

Part of the reason for that shift in opinion was the availability of slow-motion video such as the one below, which enabled a much closer look at the timing of the crash. As can be seen on close watching, Sagan’s elbow appears not to have made contact with Cavendish. Furthermore, the movement may have been a reaction to the Briton’s brake hood snagging under Sagan’s forearm.

Current and former riders gave their reactions, likely based on this or similar clips.

The overhead video suggests that Sagan’s move to the right was in reaction to a swerve in that direction by Démare, who had come around him from behind and on that side. In seeking to track the Frenchman as he launched his sprint, Sagan encroached into the gap that Cavendish had been aiming for, thus closing the door.

That too added a different element, raising questions about whether Sagan had been trying to deliberately block the Manxman or simply following Démare. While deviation from a sprinter’s line is a sanctionable offence, it very seldom results in a disqualification from the race.

In addition, stage winner Démare suffered no consequences of his own, bigger changes in direction.

Furthermore, if no malice was intended in Sagan’s move to the right, and if his elbow movement wasn’t intended to try to bring Cavendish down, the incident takes on a different light.

These considerations added to the questions about whether or not the jury had been too harsh.

Sagan heads home, debate continues

On Wednesday morning, just over two hours before the start of stage 5, Peter Sagan spoke outside his team hotel. He offered a short statement, essentially confirming that he would not be able to continue in the race. A protest against the jury’s decision by his Bora-hansgrohe team had gone unanswered and, without a volte-face, there was no way for him to start the stage.

“I can just accept the decision but for sure I do not agree with it – I don’t think I did something wrong in the sprint,” he said. “It is very bad that Mark fell down. It is important that he can recover well. I am sorry for that. It was – how you see already on the internet – it was a crazy sprint. It was not the first one like that and it is not the last one like that.

“I wish Mark to recover well and that is it.”

Speaking to riders and team managers at the start of stage 5 in Vittel, there was a feeling that Sagan’s punishment was perhaps stronger than was warranted by the incident. Orica-Scott sports director Matt White was one person taking that line.

“Obviously the decision’s what it is. I personally think it was a little too harsh a decision,” he said. “I think the first communique that came out with relegation, docking of points — I think that was fair. But I think he didn’t need to be kicked off the race.”

Over at the Bora-Hansgrohe team bus, the team’s general manager Ralph Denk was clearly frustrated, not just at the decision but at the process as well.

“We made an official protest by the UCI; we did this yesterday evening. Still there is silence and we have no answer,” Denk said. “They took the decision without our mind [ed. without consulting us] and without any mind of the involved riders. I think that is not fair.

“In this case, our sport directors Enrico Poitschke and Patxi Vila were called by the commissaires and they submitted to them just the result. The result was Peter is not more [sic.] in the race. There was no discussion together. We tried to open a discussion but they said the result is already done.”

The original complaint to the race jury had been made by Cavendish’s team, but there was little celebrating at the Dimension Data bus this morning. Doug Ryder, the team’s general manager, spoke to the media about Cavendish’s exit and Sagan’s expulsion.

“It is sad for Mark, it is sad for Peter, it is sad for the Tour de France,” said a clearly frustrated Ryder. “Are we happy? No. Of course not. We have a rider with a broken shoulder. Are we happy that Peter’s out of the race? No, of course not.

“If you take Mark and Peter out of the equation and you put two other riders in, would the result have been any different? I doubt it. I don’t know. But the jury needs to make that call.

“Sprinting has become dangerous and in fact the jury had a meeting and the commissaires had a meeting with all the teams before the race and said ‘We want clean sprints, we are going to look at this seriously and it’s going to be a focus of ours.’”

While Ryder was speaking to the media, Mark Cavendish emerged from the team bus, his injured arm in a sling. Speaking in a deliberate, measured way, Cavendish gave his perspective on Sagan’s expulsion.

“I think what you have to do here is take away the riders involved, take away the jerseys involved and look at what happened,” he said. “And that’s why we have a jury, to make those decisions. If I’m honest it takes a lot of courage, a lot of balls, to eliminate the world champion from the Tour de France. I commend the jury on taking the decision that wasn’t based on uninformed sources [and] social media.”

Cavendish spoke to Sagan last night after returning from hospital.

“We spoke fine, I don’t have any hard feelings towards him. In fact, I think I’m the one guy that stands up for Peter,” Cavendish said, adding that they’d discussed the issue of Sagan’s raised elbow — an issue that left Cavendish “confused” immediately after the crash.

“He said it was keeping himself balanced, so that was nice to know,” Cavendish explained. “He said he didn’t know it was me coming over. I know none of it was malicious — that’s the thing, I knew that straight away which is why I said I was confused yesterday.

“Like I said I have a great relationship with Peter and I think he’s incredible for the sport, an incredible bike rider. He’s always got positive thoughts and he’s good to go talk to.”

Walking around the team buses at the stage start, other riders took the time to offer their perspective on Sagan’s disqualification.

What now?

Although Sagan is not the first and will be far from the last rider to be disqualified from a major race, his expulsion has put a spotlight on how the race jury makes its decisions and the lack of an appeals process.

Sagan’s team manager Ralph Denk raised questions about both. He suggested that there is a fairer process outside cycling.

“I know some similar cases in motor sport and it is always the commissaires and the drivers [who meet] and then the form together a decision.”

His point is an interesting one: as things stand right now, jury decisions are taken without the input of the riders who are directly affected by such incidents, and who are far closer to the action.

What is clear is that opinions are very divided about what happened and what penalty was suitable. The absence of rider interviews by the jury in making such decisions has added to the discussion, and so too the absence of an appeals process. Whether or not these two elements should be modified will be part of the broader debate.

Right now, though, two of the sport’s biggest stars are on their way home. Sagan, who is immensely popular with fans, had been vying for a sixth consecutive green jersey and appeared to be on track for that after his stage win on day three.

As for Cavendish, he had worked very hard to get to the race after a bout of Epstein-Barr virus in the months beforehand. His team said after yesterday’s crash that they believe he could have won the stage.

If so, that would have raised his career stage wins to 31, bringing him ever-closer to Eddy Merckx’s record of 34.

Now neither of them will be able to chase those goals.

Opinions may be divided, but one thing seems certain: the Tour de France will be poorer for the loss of Peter Sagan and Mark Cavendish. That’s certainly the perspective of GC contender Richie Porte.

“It’s a shame for the race that it’s happened,” Porte said. “No one wants to see Peter Sagan and Mark Cavendish go home but that’s sprinters — they’re absolutely mad.”

Shane Stokes, Matt de Neef and Dave Everett contributed to this report.

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