Today at the Tour: Team Sky’s Moscon problem

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When you think about it, given Team Sky’s image problems, it’s remarkable that they’ve stood by Gianni Moscon as long as they have.

Yes, the 24-year-old Italian is talented. He finished fifth in his second attempt at Paris-Roubaix and third on his first attempt at Il Lombardia. He’s Italy’s national time-trial champion, and he played a significant role in helping Chris Froome win the 2017 Vuelta a España.

But, as Sunday’s incident at the Tour de France confirmed, Moscon also has deep character issues.

The Team Sky rider was ejected from the Tour for punching French rider Elie Gesbert (Fortuneo-Samsic) just 800m into Stage 15. Video shows both Gesbert and Moscon moving from the left side of the road to the right, near the front of the bunch, with Moscon punching Gesbert, who looked to be blocking to to protect the breakaway escape attempt by his teammate Warren Barguil. The incident was described as “particularly serious aggression” by the UCI jury of race commissaires.

If this incident had occurred in isolation, there might be room for tolerance — Moscon is still young, there’s a lot of pressure riding in support of the yellow jersey at the Tour de France, there are two sides to every story, etc.

But this incident did not occur in isolation. Since May 2017, this at least the fourth controversy involving Moscon’s poor, and sometimes violent, behavior.

It began at the 2017 Tour de Romandie, where Moscon allegedly used a racial slur towards Groupama-FDJ rider Kevin Reza.

Reza’s teammate Sebastian Reichenbach tweeted about the incident, writing, “Shocked to hear fools still use racial slurs in the pro peloton. You are a shame for our sport,” though he didn’t directly identify Moscon.

At the time, Team Sky issued a statement claiming that Moscon had apologized to Reza, had been given a formal written warning, and had been suspended from racing for six weeks. He was also required to attend a diversity awareness course and warned that, “Any repeat will result in termination of his contract.”

Upon his return to racing, Moscon told La Gazzetta dello Sport this his conscience was clear.

“I don’t have much to say. My conscience is clear, I accepted the punishment, I took my break,” he said. “I didn’t kill anyone and the accusations are not completely founded. But I’d prefer to not talk about it anymore.”

The Romandie incident led to another incident, this time in October 2017, between Moscon and Reichenbach at Tre Valli Varesine, where Reichenbach claimed that Moscon deliberately caused the Swiss rider to crash. Reichenbach suffered a broken elbow and hip, requiring surgery.

“Several riders saw the action and are ready to provide testimony on my behalf,” Reichenbach said at the time. “He deliberately threw himself against me.”

Moscon denied any wrongdoing, telling La Gazzetta dello Sport, “It’s not true. It’s nothing to do with me. We were on a section of rough road and Reichenbach’s hands slipped from his handlebars. I’ve never spoken to him in my life.”

Moscon faced a UCI suspension between six and 12 months for causing Reichenbach’s crash, however after hearing conflicting testimony, and without any video or photographic evidence, in June the UCI disciplinary commission ended proceedings without a verdict  — though it fell short of clearing Moscon of responsibility, stating only that there wasn’t enough evidence against the Italian rider.

And while he wasn’t wearing a Team Sky jersey at the time, Moscon was disqualified from the 2017 world road championship in September for taking an illegal tow from the Italian team car following a crash. Italian team director Davide Cassani later took the blame for the incident, saying, “What happened is all my fault. I gave him the bottle and told him to hold it.”

In May 2017, following the Reza incident at Romandie, Team Sky stated that, “Any repeat will result in termination of his contract.” But that was perhaps intentionally vague, and it’s likely that, if pressed, the team will say that one case was racially charged, while the other was about physical abuse.

Either way, Sunday’s incident was certainly an example that Moscon’s temperament has not improved. Using racial slurs, allegedly causing another rider to crash intentionally, hanging on to the team car, and punching a rider on another team — all in the span of 14 months — all point to an athlete who shows no respect for both his competitors and the standards of fair play.

Team Sky manager Dave Brailsford issued a statement a few hours after Stage 15, saying that the team supports and accepts the decision by race organizers to exclude Moscon from the Tour, and that any decision on further action would be taken after the Tour is over.

“Gianni is desperately disappointed in his behavior and knows that he has let himself, the Team and the race down,” Brailsford said. “We will address this incident with Gianni once the Tour is complete and decide then if any further action should be taken. “I would like to offer my sincere apologies to both Elie Gesbert and Team Fortuneo-Samsic for this unacceptable incident.”

An hour later, Team Sky posted a 50-second video from Moscon, who apologized for his behavior.

“I’m sorry for today’s incident,” Moscon said. “I totally regret my actions. I would like to personally apologize to Elie Gesbert for the incident on today’s stage. What happened was wrong and was a bad example coming from me to everyone. I want to publicly apologize for what happened to my teammates, everyone involved in Team Sky, and everyone involved in the Tour de France. I make no excuse for it, I accept the decision of the race organizers. I let myself down really badly, as well as my teammates, and I’m really sorry for that.”

The short-term effect of the disqualification for Team Sky is that they’re down a rider for the final week of the race. Given that Grand Tour teams were reduced from nine riders to eight in 2018, and that Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome are both protected GC riders, that leaves just five men to ride at the front of the peloton and chase down attacks across four stages in the Pyrenees. Those riders are named Rowe, Castroviejo, Poels, Kwiatkowski, and Bernal, so they’re in good hands, but Moscon’s exclusion can only be viewed as a blow to the team’s GC ambitions, and rest assured Tom Dumoulin will look to exploit that next week.

It’s also worth keeping in mind that a Sky rider punching a French rider on a French team will only add fuel to the fire on the roads of France, where Team Sky has been booed, assaulted, and had urine thrown at them. It’s unacceptable behavior, and it’s about to get worse.

The long-term effect of Moscon’s action is harder to predict. When a team is already being targeted by the public and struggling with its PR, while simultaneously dominating Grand Tours with the biggest budget in the sport, what is the motivation to eject a talented young rider with a behavior problem?

In March 2017, a report by Britain’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee found that that Team Sky had “crossed an ethical line” by administering triamcinolone to Bradley Wiggins in 2011-2013 under a Therapeutic Use Exemption. Would standing by Moscon after a fourth behavior incident in 14 months also constitute crossing an ethical line? Where is that line drawn, and what price, if any, would a team pay for crossing it?

After Moscon was cleared in the Reichenbach incident, Team Sky issued a statement that said, in part, “We back Gianni and he has our full support. We are pleased he can now get on with racing with a line now drawn under this episode. He is a very talented young bike rider who will have much to contribute to the Team over the coming months and years.”

Time will tell, though it sounds as though we may already have our answer.

CyclingTips editor Neal Rogers is writing a daily column during the 2018 Tour de France, focused on analysis, commentary, and opinion.

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