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Commentary: It’s time to boot Bouhanni from the Tour

PAU, France (VN) — By now you probably know that French sprinter Nacer Bouhanni reached over and punched — or at the very least attempted to punch — Kiwi Jack Bauer in the nervous final kilometers of Tuesday’s stage into Bergerac. Bauer never confirmed that the blow did or did not land, and the video footage of “punchgate” is somewhat inconclusive on the matter.

Of course you’re aware of all this unless you are a member of the UCI’s race jury, which for some reason dealt Bouhanni a wrist-slap that hurt far less than the punch that Bouhanni allegedly did or did not land on Bauer. According to the UCI, the penalty for throwing a haymaker at a fellow human being while racing along at 30 miles per hour alongside 100 others clad in paper-thin Lycra is quite small. How small? Try a nice dinner and movie for two (200 Swiss Francs) and one fifty-five hundredth of the Tour de France’s overall time (one minute).

The 200 CHF and one-minute penalty is not enough, not by a long shot. I think Bouhanni should be back home watching the remainder of this Tour on TV. It doesn’t matter whether or not he connected with Bauer’s face. He should be kicked out.

It’s not an original take, of course. Amid Wednesday’s chaotic start in the small town of Eymet, riders, pundits, and team directors weighed in on the mess, with more than one saying that Bouhanni should get the boot. I recommend reading Andrew Hood’s story that covers some of the peloton’s more fiery takes.

Patrick Lefevere, general manager for Bauer’s Quick-Step team, had a surprising perspective. He called the penalty “ridiculous.” Lefevere then suggested a more fitting punishment in an interview with CyclingWeekly.com.

“They don’t have to put them out of the race, but at least give him a 10,000 euro [fine] and say, ‘Listen, you pay all of that to a charity and if we see it again, it’s over’. But not 200 Swiss francs, which could pay for the Champagne for the evening,” he said.

Bouhanni earns a reported 1.5 million Euro a year, so 10,000 Euro is drinking money for him. Would that amount prevent him from whacking another rider at next year’s race? It’s doubtful.

Prevention is perhaps the best strategy for dealing with Bouhanni going forward. While we’ve heard murmurs that the Frenchman has calmed his infamous temper this season, he still has a list of violent and ugly scraps in his recent past. In 2016 he was relegated during stage 3 of Paris-Nice for steering Australian sprinter Michael Matthews into the barriers. Later that year he lost another victory at the Cyclassics Hamburg after veering into Australian sprinter Caleb Ewan. In both cases Bouhanni lost victories, cash, and prestige. And as Tuesday showed, those punishments did not change his behavior.

So what if Bouhanni swung at Bauer and missed? What if he intentionally pulled back from the Kiwi’s head just before contact? It does not change his clear intent, or the danger he caused. Bouhanni took his hands off of the handlebar while the group was jostling through the final 10km and then used his free hand to swing at a fellow rider. He placed himself and those around him in an unnecessarily dangerous situation for entirely stupid and callous reasons. He needed to release some anger, or intimidate a foe, or pay back a nudge that he found upsetting. Taking a hand off the bars is one of bike racing’s cardinal sins and is free of ambiguity.

What if his wild swing had sent his balance off-kilter, and he rubbed wheels with his teammate? What if he hit a pothole during the moment in which his free hand — and his attention — was on Bauer’s face? There is an alternate ending to Bouhanni’s punch that includes half the peloton lying on the tarmac nursing road rash.

The Bouhanni punch is somewhat reminiscent of stage 18 of the 2014 Vuelta a España, when Ivan Rovny and Gianluca Brambila took turns whacking each other before officials kicked them both out.

Imagine, for a second, that both Rovny and Brambila never make contact, and instead stopped their fists just inches from each other’s faces. Sure, the image is preposterous, yet the picture of two guys swinging their gangly arms at each other in rage is still a bad look for cycling, even if they do not land their punches. Would it be worth kicking these men out, had they swung and missed? Absolutely. The UCI has rules against tarnishing cycling’s image, with disqualification and even suspension as potential penalties.

Perhaps the biggest surprise of the Bouhanni affair came from Bauer, who voiced a muted opinion of the matter on Tuesday morning. Bauer called the altercation “no incident” and insisted that contact like that occurs regularly. Of course Bauer was also guilty of somewhat rough riding in the moment. As he drove his Quick-Step team through the group he nudged Bouhanni. The contact immediately proceeded Bouhanni’s punch.

A nudge is not a punch. Not by a long shot. And even Bauer seemed to agree on that.

“The commissaires are there to do their job,” Bauer said. “All I’m there to do is ride my bike and keep my hands on the bars.”

Listen to our discussion about this issue on the VeloNews podcast:

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