Tour de France 2017: Should Peter Sagan have been given the elbow?
A frantic end to an otherwise drab day on the Tour de France saw Peter Sagan disqualified, Mark Cavendish floored and Arnaud Demare finally win a maiden stage. As the dust settles in Vittel, Felix Lowe asks whether the world champion deserved the chop.
“We have decided to disqualify Peter Sagan from the Tour de France 2017 because he endangered some of his colleagues seriously in the final metres of the sprint.”
So said Philippe Marien, president of the race jury, almost two hours after Sagan sent Cavendish sprawling into the barriers at the conclusion of Stage 4 of the Tour in Vittel.
The commissaires had initially docked the Bora-Hansgrohe rider 30 seconds and relegated him to 115th place on the stage, won – as a footnote – by the French national champion Demare.
“I’ve just heard the news that Sagan lost 80 points,” Demare said after picking up his green jersey on the podium. “The jury showed guts to sanction the world champion, today’s star of cycling. Now I’ve got a chance for green.”
Well, Arnaud, you’ve got an even bigger chance now that the jury showed enough guts to make even Macbeth go queasy – taking the unprecedented step of kicking out a world champion from the world’s biggest bike race.
Was the decision a bit harsh?
The Tour has been deprived of its biggest star – a rider who just 24 hours earlier managed to win an uphill sprint despite unclipping from his pedals, before turning up at his post-race interview with a pair of ski goggles around his neck.
Sagan, who faced an uphill task anyway in his battle for green because of an influx of stages suiting the pure sprinters, has been denied a chance of winning a sixth successive green jersey.
Fans have been denied the chance to see the Slovakian showman pull one of his trademark wheelies in the mountains; others the chance of winning their Fantasy Cycling mini league now that their main man has gone.
Eurosport, too, have been dealt an early blow just days into its #AskSagan series on social media.
Not to mention all of Sagan’s sponsors and marketing campaigns…
But try telling that to Cavendish, who battled back from glandular fever but looks all but certain to be ruled out of the Tour – denting his chances, perhaps irrevocably, of catching Eddy Merckx’s career Tour stage tally of 34.
Try telling that to Cavendish's Dimension Data team who now may be deprived of their star asset in the major race of the season.
Try telling that to John Degenkolb and Ben Swift, both of whom collided with Cavendish’s prone body en route to chomping the concrete after flying head first over the handlebars.
Try telling that to Andre Greipel, who hours before Sagan won Stage 3 in Longwy, found himself on the receiving end of a shoulder barge from the world champion during the intermediate sprint – a move which saw the German claim he was “no longer friends” with his rival.
Try telling that to Belgian rookie Maxime Vantomme, who was on the receiving end of a body check from Sagan on the Kemmelberg in this spring’s Gent Wevelgem…
For sure, Mark Cavendish’s history is hardly unblemished: at least once, the Manx sprinter has been caught shouldering opponents, once dishing out a headbutt. In 2013, Cavendish even knocked Dutchman Tom Veelers to the ground during a bunch sprint – and was never shown a DQ from the jury.
Heck, Cavendish even won a silver medal in the omnium at the Rio Olympics – despite blatantly and deliberately cutting across the South Korean Sanghoon Park, ending his opponent’s own dream of an Olympic medal.
But all that is neither here, nor there.
Sagan was kicked off the Tour because what he did was dangerous and reckless. It would have been wrong for the race jury to give out a confused message by implying that the rainbow stripes and a reputation for being quirky was enough to make you untouchable in the eyes of the law.
After all, Javi Moreno of Bahrain Merida was kicked off the Giro d’Italia for far less.
Sagan may have apologised. His flick of the elbow may well have been more of a reflex than anything genuinely malicious. But you must live with the consequences of your actions – and his actions put the wellbeing of his opponents in jeopardy.
For years, ASO have tried to tweak the green jersey competition to make things harder for Sagan. This year’s decision to increase the number of bunch sprints was supposed to make things harder for the five-time winner; instead it took a DQ for Sagan’s reign to end.
Erik Zabel’s record of six consecutive green jerseys between 1996 and 2001 will no longer be levelled or beaten; at least, not by Sagan.
Meanwhile, the headlines may be about Mark Cavendish’s shoulder and Peter Sagan’s elbow, but Demare is in dreamland after a belated maiden Tour win in Vittel.
Victory saw the Frenchman take the green jersey regardless of the Sagan disqualification; now the world champion is no longer there, Demare will battle it out with Marcel Kittel in what should be a more enthralling battle than any of the previous five involving Sagan.
So, there’s at least one positive. And look, Marc Madiot, Demare’s manager of FDJ, clearly agrees.
On reflection: Sagan will feel aggrieved
Tuesday's incident was all about perspective and context. In the heat of the moment, Sagan was very much cast as the villain. But seen from different angles, the dynamic of crash that ended Cavendish's Tour and brought the axe down on Sagan looks far from clear cut.
Even Greipel, initially so critical of Sagan, admitted that, on closer inspection, his early scorn may have been unfair.
Indeed, replays show that Cavendish was already on the way down by the time Sagan flicked the elbow. As for the previously incriminating elbow movement - well, it looks more like a natural reflex for Sagan to regain balance at top speed. It also, perhaps, stemmed from his right forearm being nudged by the hoods of Cavendish's bars as the Manxman rode perilously close to both Sagan and the barriers.
Cavendish had no business aiming for a space so small - but he had no other option after Sagan veered across the road. And yet Sagan himself was reacting to movement in front of him: particularly by the man who went on to win the stage, Demare.
Bunch sprints are highly irregular at the best of times. The rules stipulate that riders must stick to their lines - but that is impossible when trying to pass slower riders in front. Sprinting needs the weaving, darting and sudden bursts of speed that make such stages so exciting - but when at fault, riders must put their hands up and admit their errors.
The only reason why there wasn't more carnage as a result of this incident was that the peloton had already been split following the earlier crash involving the yellow jersey, Geraint Thomas, one kilometre earlier; a crash which, many claim, was also caused by Sagan - this time when barging through a non-existent gap between Demare's Italian team-mates Jacobo Guarnieri and Davide Cimolai.
Meanwhile, moments after Cavendish hit the barriers, Nacer Bouhanni - so often the portrayed as the culprit in this kind of scenario - was forced to slam on the breaks when Demare - that man, again - cut right across him in the final hundred metres.
No stranger himself to controversy - remember his Milan-Sanremo win in 2016? - Demare also pulled off a similar dubious manoeuvre to beat compatriot Bouhanni in the French national championships weeks earlier. Where's the consistency?
As a result of Sagan's expulsion, the new green jersey - and chief benefactor from this kerfuffle - hardly emerges smelling of roses.
All in all, the irregularities seen in the sprint were matched by the irregularities of the UCI and race jury, who first of all relegated Sagan and docked him points, before changing their mind when put under pressure from Cavendish's Dimension Data team.
But at no point did the jury consult riders involved in the crash - nor do they ever, it seems, seek out the opinions of former sprinters who appreciate the intricacies of such a high-octane and perilous activity as bunch sprinting at 70kmph.
In short, it seems mighty harsh to dismiss Sagan with one hand while applauding Demare on the podium with the other. A time and points penalty would have sufficed.
But perhaps Sagan's apparent role in two major incidents in the same stage - plus some of those aforementioned precedents - swayed the jury to make such a knee-jerk reaction?
There is certainly a swagger about Sagan that has been snowballing in recent weeks, months and years: an aura of invincibility that suggests he can do no wrong, that he can swear during media interviews and it's funny, that he can pedal his sponsors' wares willy-nilly, that he can refuse to give a proper answer to his #AskSagan questions, that he can do as he likes because of his reputation for zaniness.
The jury's decision may well have been harsh, but perhaps it was a their way of saying that no one rider - not even a double world champion - is bigger than the Tour and the sport. Even if some may feel that it's a case of biting off one's nose to spite one's face.
Despite talks of a protest, Sagan appeared outside the Bora-Hansgrohe hotel on Wednesday morning and made the following statement: "I can only accept the decision of the jury, but I disagree. I don’t think I’ve done anything wrong in the sprint."
This is a case that's going to rumble on and on; and with as many as six bunch sprints remaining in this year's Tour, Sagan's disqualification may not be the only one we see. That's if the jury deals with others in the same way that they dealt with the world champion.