The big story from the first half of the men’s Tour of Flanders this weekend was the disqualification of Swiss rider Michael Schär, for throwing one of his empty water bottles to a young fan at the roadside, but – crucially – doing so outside of the newly-mandated litter zones.
In a long and impassioned post on his Instagram afterwards, Schär explained the personal significance of giving out bottles to young fans at the roadside.
“During calm moments of the race I always keep my empty bottle until I see some kids next to the road. Then I throw them gently right where they can catch it safely. Two years ago I gave a bottle to a girl next to the road. Her parents told me the girl wasn’t only happy about this bottle for a day. No, she still talks about this bottle. And maybe one day she becomes a cyclist as well.
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“These are moments why I love our sport. Nobody ever can take that away from us. We are the most approachable sport who gives bottles along the way. Simple as that. Simple is Cycling.”
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Later on Sunday in the women’s Ronde, Letizia Borghesi, an Italian rider for Aromitalia Basso Bikes Vaiano was also disqualified, although she threw a bottle away in the heat of the race not at the start. And she did so simply to discard it, rather than to give to a fan.
She said on her Instagram: “I was wrong and I'm very sorry for what happened, but in the end of a tough race like this one (I was around 30th position), when you are at 110% and you are pulling out all the energy left you don't think so clearly anymore. The new rules had been well explained to me, but the gesture I made, since until March 31st for us cyclists was the norm, came to me automatically.”
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In both riders’ cases, they were found to have breached the new rule introduced on April 1 that rubbish and bidons must be disposed of only within litter zones placed every 30-40km in all UCI races. Outside of these areas, riders are only permitted to dispose of rubbish by passing it to a team or neutral service car.
The punishment for breaking this rule is an instant disqualification from any one-day race, while the penalties for doing so in stage races are a 30-second time penalty, followed by two-minute time penalty for a second offence, then disqualification for a third offence.
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While they are sound in their intention, the UCI’s new rules lead easily to the absurd.
Both these instances of the littering rule being enforced are difficult to make sense of. Two quality riders were kicked out of two of the biggest races of their respective seasons. Two teams lost members of their roster who might’ve influenced the eventual outcome of the race. In this respect, the new rules seem needlessly draconian, at risk of crushing the joy out of cycling spectatorship, and pointlessly punitive in the face of positive motivations or moments of inattention.
That being said, littering is certainly an issue for cycling, both for the professional sport and at the amateur level. The environmental impact of elite bike racing is enormous, with all its attendant air travel and the gallons-upon-gallons of fuel that are burned by the assorted support vehicles and aircraft required to put on and broadcast a single day of competition. Whether stopping riders from tossing away their bottles will actually make a dent on this much bigger problem is unclear.
It feels as though the disqualifications of Borghesi and Schär were more about the ‘message’ than they were about penalising the actual impact of the actions. In Schär’s case, we even know that the ‘litter’ was collected by the fan and so no refuse was left on the roadside.
Perhaps the UCI really will commit to this incredibly stringent approach to enforcement long-term, but if they do then we might enter into a strange world of snitching and social media vigilantism.
How many riders might win bike races before being DQed on the strength of hitherto unseen social media footage of them dropping a gel wrapper by mistake at kilometre zero? Could we see the general classification of the Tour de France decided not by who has the best time trial, or the strongest climbing legs, but rather by who managed to avoid incurring a 30-second time penalty across the whole three weeks?
And what will the statute of limitations be on these offences? Must the rider be caught in flagrante, or can fines, penalties and disqualifications be post-dated, so that a rider who stands on the top step of the podium in Paris on Sunday July 18 finds himself bumped down to fourth by the end of the following week after footage emerges of him chucking a bidon to a fan three weeks previous in Brittany?
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