A brief history of Grand Tour sprint relegations

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Another Tour de France, another sprint relegation. Sprinting is a discipline that tends to favor adrenaline over caution, aggression over wariness, so it’s no great surprise that many of the Tour de France rule violations that result in relegation or disqualification come from the last few hundred meters of flat stages.

The rule governing sprint finishes is short. It bans: “Deviation from the chosen line that obstructs or endangers another rider or irregular sprint (including pulling the jersey or saddle of another rider, intimidation or threat, blow from the head, knee, elbow, shoulder, hand, etc.).”

This is relatively clear, on its face, and it’s been on the books without modification since the current rulebook came out of the Lugano Charter in 1997. The problem, as with many of the UCI’s current rules, is that if it was fully enforced, most of the Tour’s sprinters would end up relegated in most sprint stages.

Sprints are about speed and power, of course, but the real key is positioning. In big sprints, particularly those without multiple, strong leadout trains, everyone wants the same wheel. They all want to be in the same place. This leads to more than a bit of pushing and shoving. The natural conditions of a raging bunch sprint necessitate that the jury provides some leeway. Contact is inevitable, but there is the right sort of contact and the wrong sort. It is up to the race jury to decide where that line is drawn.

Reprimands can come in the form of small fines, but the most common method is to give a rider who has broken the rules the time of the last rider in their group. That’s what happened to Peter Sagan on Wednesday.

Sprinting has changed dramatically over the years. Mario Cipollini’s Saeco squad of the late ’90s and early 2000s brought about a level of organization and fluidity previously unheard of. Leadouts got longer, more controlled, and faster – in no small part due to the turbocharged era in which it existed. More recently, the drop to eight-man teams in grand tours has decreased the power and strength of leadouts, as teams juggle GC and sprint ambitions and tend to leave some of the big, powerful leadout men at home. Sprints are getting scrappier, with more success from riders with minimal leadouts. Caleb Ewan, who is down to just 5 Lotto-Soudal teammates in this Tour, is a perfect example.

The one thing that hasn’t changed is sprinters themselves. The discipline, even at its most controlled, requires a level of risk-taking not found elsewhere in the sport. It rewards those able to put themselves in the right place at the right time, and those willing to fight for that position. When a rider is in the wrong place, and tries to correct that with a bit too much argy bargy, the jury often has to step in.

Pro cycling has seen plentiful relegations and disqualifications for maneuvers that go a step too far. Here are a few of the highlights:

2019: Elia Viviani’s line deviation

Though it gets a mention in the rule itself, line deviation is rarely cause for relegation on its own, unless it causes an incident or contact with another rider. It has to be particularly egregious to merit relegation. This is simply because some line deviation is expected when riders are sprinting head-down at 60+ kph, throwing every ounce of energy into the pedals. Steering becomes a bit of an afterthought.

In last year’s Giro, Viviani was egregious. He swung across most of the road, from right to left, and hit Trek-Segafredo’s Matteo Moschetti.

2018: Double headbutt relegation at the Tour

In recent years, headbutting has become a primary focus of the jury’s ire. Unlike line deviation and the like, which can be accidental, a headbutt is obvious and easily punishable.

On stage 8 of the 2018 Tour, both Andre Greipel and Fernando Gaviria were relegated for separate incidents. Greipel headbutted Nikias Arndt, and then Gaviria headbutted Greipel. The two finished second and third, but both were relegated to the back of their group, losing valuable green jersey points.

2017: Sagan’s elbow

This one still stings a bit. The initial video footage, from the front, seemed to show Sagan throw a vicious elbow in Cavendish’s direction, causing him to crash hard into the barriers and break his collarbone. In the hours after the race, the jury decided to not just relegate but disqualify Sagan, removing him from the race.

Many now consider that the wrong call. Cavendish, coming up from behind Sagan, starting crashing before the elbow came out and appears to have pushed into Sagan’s side and arm, forcing his elbow forward as Sagan tried to stay upright. It looked bad on the head-on shot, which squashes perspective, but the timing is visible from above.

Ironically, this crash has quite a lot in common with Sagan’s relegation this year. Cavendish tried to squeeze into a questionable gap and caused a crash as result.

2017: Nacer Bouhanni punches Jack Bauer

This one didn’t come from a sprint, though it was inside the last 10 km. It was stage 10 of the 2017 Tour, just days after Sagan had been ejected, and Bouhanni was tacked on the back of his leadout train. Precisely what was said remains unknown, but it led to Bouhanni taking his hands off the bars and taking a swing at Bauer.

The move didn’t lead to disqualification or relegation, surprisingly. Bouhanni was fined 200chf and hit with a 1-minute GC penalty, which of course didn’t bother him one bit. He kept his 6th place on the stage.

He may have been saved by Bauer’s relaxed attitude regarding the whole affair. “I wouldn’t say I was involved in an incident,” he said after the stage. “I think he was trying to defend his space behind his leadout, his rider. Which any rider is going to do. I wouldn’t call it an incident. It’s a heat of the moment. You have to create space, position… I have no problem with what happened.”

2010: Mark Renshaw’s headbutt leadout

This was a peak Mark Renshaw/Mark Cavendish indomitable duo season, just one year after Cavendish won six stages of the Tour de France. Renshaw was the best last-man in the business.

Inside the last 400m of stage 11, Renshaw was once again Cav’s last man. HTC had the front, but Garmin-Transitions was coming around, led by Julian Dean. Renshaw collided with Dean and chucked a headbutt not once or twice, but three times in quick succession.

He was relegated first, and then disqualified from the race.

2005: Robbie McEwan’s green dreams dashed

This incident has quite a few similarities to Wednesday’s Sagan relegation. Robbie McEwan, resplendent in the Australian national champion’s jersey and fighting for the green jersey, threw a quick headbutt toward fellow Aussie Stewart O’Grady as both tried to get out from behind Tom Boonen.

McEwan denied that it was a headbutt at all, much like Sagan has claimed that the was simply avoiding a barrier.

“I didn’t butt him,” McEwan said. “If you look at the video very closely you can see that my arm was trapped under O’Grady’s elbow. That twisted my body and pulled my head towards him. The race judges have made a mistake.”

McEwan was relegated to the back of the group, and the loss of green jersey points ended his attempt to win the classification for the second straight year.

1997: Tom Steels, water chucker

Near the end of a chaotic, bumper-car sprint, Tom Steels had the confidence to take a hand off his bars, pull out his water bottle, and chuck it with laser-guided precision at Frederic Moncassin. The sprint was won by Erik Zabel, but he, too, was relegated for irregular sprinting.

You think Sagan’s sprint was dangerous? Check this one out:

1985: Sean Kelly vs Eric Vanderaerden

A classic. At the finish of stage six of the 1985 Tour, Kelly and Vanderaerden came to literal blows as they approached the line. The rivarly had been stewing for some time, as Vanderaerden roared out of the espoir ranks and immediately made waves through the classics and sprints. In stage six, the two slammed into each other repeatedly over the final meters. Vanderaerden crossed first and Kelly third, but both were relegated.

“I absolutely wanted to win. I won. It’s not the first time that sprinters have had to take risks,” Vanderaerden said at the time.

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