Eddy Merckx has criticised Caleb Ewan for a "lack of professionalism and lack of respect" after he withdrew from the Giro d’Italia midway through Stage 8.
The Lotto Soudal sprinter had won two stages and was leading the points classification when he opted to end his involvement in the Giro.
His team said he was suffering from knee pain, but Ewan had always planned to leave the race early as he bids to win stages in all three of the Grand Tours this year.
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He said after winning Stage 7: "My goal remains the same for this year, and I need to do what's best in preparation for the Tour.
"Unfortunately, sprinters' legs don't recover in the same way that any other riders do, and if I finished the Giro now I would be dying for the next few months."
Cycling legend Merckx, who won both the Giro and the Tour de France five times, criticised the move by Ewan and said he should be punished.
"What Caleb Ewan did bothers me a lot," he told Het Nieuwsblad.
I think his abandonment is a total lack of professionalism and a lack of respect for the Giro and cycling.
"He deserves a sanction, such as withdrawing all his bonuses.
"The former boss of the Tour de France, Felix Levitan, would have told him not to come next year after doing that."
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Merckx’s son, Axel, who works as a team manager for Hagens Berman Axeon, also believes Ewan was wrong to leave the race when he did.
"The simple fact of giving up without providing real evidence of knee pain is a complete lack of respect for the organisation," he said.
But Eurosport pundit Orla Chennaoui said she was "bewildered as to how this is even a discussion".
Writing on Twitter, she said: "Ewan stated he wasn’t going to ride the whole race, the team knew it, the race organisers will have known it, and [Eurosport pundit] Adam Blythe saw the size of his knee yesterday.
"Retiring earlier than planned, but the plan was always there."
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