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Neutral service cars take out two riders at Tour of Flanders

OUDENAARDE, Belgium (VN) — Half a dozen men in blue shirts, “Shimano” emblazoned across their backs, stood in abject silence in Oudenaarde’s main square as the sport director at Trek Factory Racing laid into them, waving an angry finger into each speechless face in turn.

Walking away from the group, back toward the Trek team bus, the director explained the source of his anger to VeloNews.

“Jesse [Sergent’s] collarbone is broken. Tomorrow morning we are going to operate on him, because of a stupid f—ker who cannot drive a car,” he said.

It was a bad day for the neutral service team.

Sunday’s damage totaled two ruined race days, one broken collarbone, a destroyed tailgate, and a hood in the shape of a taco.

The blue Skoda neutral service cars, covered in bikes and wheels and normally a welcome presence within the pro peloton, took out two riders in separate incidents in Sunday’s Ronde van Vlaanderen, leaving one with a broken collarbone and another out of the race.

Sergent (Trek Factory Racing) was the first rider down, taken out as a neutral car attempted to pass on the inside of a corner.

“It was evident that the trajectory of the turn was on the left side, so it’s normal that the riders are moving on the left side,” said Luca Guercilena, Trek Factory Racing’s general manager. “It’s difficult to understand why a driver was just accelerating instead of [braking].

“It’s true that something like this can happen in a race but still, it’s a surprise, because these things, they should not happen.”

Sergent was pulling off the front of the day’s long breakaway group, and as he rounded a gentle left-hand corner a Shimano car, attempting to come through a narrowing gap on his left side, bounced off the inside curb and into his hip. His bike, shoved violently to the right, disappeared from beneath him as his shoulder augured into the pavement, breaking his collarbone.

The crash was not the rider’s fault, according to Guercilena.

“He is obviously quite disappointed, because he said that he was just taking his trajectory as it has to be in a WorldTour race, and so without thinking it was any risk. But he was hit by a car,” he said.

It was a frightening replay of the crash that took out Johnny Hoogerland and Juan Antonio Flecha at the Tour de France in 2011, which saw both riders knocked into a field, and Hoogerland into a barbed-wire fence, their bikes swept from beneath them by a French television car.

Guercilena, speaking just minutes after the race ended, said that the team was not considering any action against the car’s driver or the organization behind him.

In a second, unrelated incident, another neutral service car slammed into an abruptly slowing FDJ team car, which was pulling over to provide FDJ rider Sebastien Chavanel with a new wheel. The FDJ car was pushed into Chavanel, sending him sprawling to the sidewalk.

The incident was part of a string of misfortune for FDJ, according to team manager Marc Madiot.

“Today the [clover] on our jersey only had three leaves,” he said.

“So first we puncture. We stop 500 meters down the road, go to get out the spare wheel … and we realize we don’t have a wrench. Lotto-Soudal have to lend us a wrench! We change the wheel, finally get back into the race, then Chavanel calls with a puncture. I pull over by Chavanel, then, pang! Shimano whack us up the backside & push the car 15, 20 meters,” he said.

“But, anyway, we pull off the back bumper, get back in the race again. I’m thinking, ‘Okay, we can ride our race now.’ We’ve got five riders at the bottom of the Koppenberg. Then I hear, ‘Démare, bike change needed.’ And then we’re f*cked. Up the arse! Ladagnous crashes, Delage is caught up with him, Démare’s gone, and we’re finished.”

The rear end of the FDJ car, which contained Madiot, sustained a damaged bumper and tailgate. The hood of the Shimano car folded like a pancake, and the vehicle had to be towed away.

“We crashed into the back of Francais de Jeux. It was in the race. Chavanel, he had to change the wheel or something. He pulled over to the right,” explained a Shimano staff member, who would not provide his name.

VeloNews attempted to gain further comment from the Shimano team in Oudenaarde, but none would agree to speak.

Shimano did provide the following statement on its website:

“At Shimano we apologize for both incidents the Shimano sponsored neutral caused today at the Tour of Flanders.

“We especially apologize to the riders and teams involved, Jesse Sergent of Trek Factory Racing and Sébastien Chavanel of Française des Jeux. We wish them a speedy recovery.

“The drivers of the neutral cars are professionals with many years of experience in professional cycling races. We will investigate both incidents deeply and take appropriate action.”

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