Cycling can and must do more to protect riders involved in bunch sprint collisions, like Jake Stewart. And, yes, like Nacer Bouhanni too.
Unless you have raced at the very top level it’s impossible to know what it’s like in the cut and thrust of a final bunch kick. The speeds seem ‘normal’ when we watch on the TV in that long, front-on shot that is preferred for sprint finishes. Because everyone is going more or less the same speed it looks slower, more human, than it truly is.
Witnessing a stage finish in person goes some way to making the speeds seem real, but even so there are all the intricacies and split-second calculations being made to which we’ll never be privy.
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From the overhead imagery of the Nacer Bouhanni-Jake Stewart incident at Cholet this weekend, many were quick to condemn Bouhanni. It is not in dispute that Bouhanni moved into Stewart and blocked the Brit’s path forward, but whether he did so intentionally is essentially unknowable.
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Stewart has made his thoughts on the situation abundantly clear.
Bouhanni has since come out and said there was nothing intentional about his coming together with Stewart. He claims he simply tried to get on Elia Viviani’s wheel and did not see Stewart coming up rapidly on the left of the road.
Whether you find this explanation convincing or not, it’s not possible to know what is or was going on in Bouhanni’s head.
However, we do have both racers’ past history to draw upon – and it should be this that determines Bouhanni’s punishment, not gut reaction.
Whether a career-long aggregative system is introduced, where a rider who is repeatedly involved in sprinting incidents receives tougher sanctions than those who are on a ‘first offence’, or straight fixed-term bans for any sort of dangerous collision instigated by a change of line – the sport’s governors can and must do more to protect sprinters.
Right now, we have no real idea of how the UCI makes some of these big decisions, and it’s one of the more baffling elements of the sport’s governance.
On Monday, the UCI said via a statement: “The UCI has decided to refer the incident to its Disciplinary Commission and demand the imposition of sanctions that are appropriate to the seriousness of this action.”
But what those sanctions might be and how ‘seriousness’ is defined are, like the contents of Bouhanni’s head, currently unknown.
The sort of changes mentioned above would fundamentally alter the way sprint finishes are raced, and fans of sprinting with all its hurly-burly will probably object. But sport should not be afraid to change. We are comfortable with the introductions of concussion protocols – so why not a safer way of sprinting?
It is pointless and unfair to try and mete out justice based on something as ineffable as rider intention. It is too open to prejudicial judgements based on the perceptions of a rider’s personality, rather than their behaviours. There must be a more clearly defined and consistently enforced rubric for deciding which movements in the bunch are deemed dangerous, and punishable.
The Cholet sprint had some unwanted similarities to perhaps the defining incident - at least, in safety terms - of last season.
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Many were quick to draw comparisons between Bouhanni’s move and Dylan Groenewegen's change of racing line that saw Fabio Jakobsen crash into the barriers at the Tour of Poland. The repercussions of that crash were far, far greater than the incident at Cholet, mercifully, and thanks in large part to the bike handling skills of Stewart himself. There was also a suggestion that different barriers used in the finish straight at Cholet, also contributed.
Nobody, least of all Groenewegen, would wish the injuries that Fabio Jakobsen sustained. But nor would anyone wish the subsequent vitriolic and febrile response that Groenewegen received – including death threats deemed credible enough to warrant police protection – on a fellow human being. A clearer, more consistently delivered system by which riders are penalised would surely do a lot to blunt some of this inane fury in the immediate aftermath and protect both sides of the equation.
No explanation of the UCI’s decision to ban Groenewegen for nine months was ever published. We do not know if they made the call on ‘intention’, ‘effect’, or the actions in and of themselves. Until we have greater clarity on that, and sprint collisions are policed in a more consistent way, there will always be a huge and hugely unnecessary element of risk to sprint finishes.
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