It is unclear who is at fault for Mark Cavendish’s crash, and this lack of clarity is precisely what makes Peter Sagan’s disqualification absurd.
In disqualifying Sagan, the race jury cited a stipulation in the UCI rulebook that allows the jury to extend the normal penalty associated with “endangering other riders” to a full disqualification in a “serious case.”
Did it meet the “serious case” standard? Such a designation assumes a certain a level of intent and aggression. Assigning motive based solely on an action is always tricky, and even more so at 70 kilometers per hour.
Let’s take a look.
We have two video angles of the incident. One from the front and one from above. The frontal shot compresses the image, just as it does in a sprint finish, so it’s difficult to discern whether two body parts in the same plane are touching. The helicopter shot misses a key moment, when the two riders first come together, because a tree gets in the way. The riders are only visible after they’ve begun to fall apart. Neither angle is perfect.
It’s clear from both angles that Sagan deviated from his line, at first in response to the riders in front of him. The entire group moved consistently to the right as the sprint progressed. But then Sagan made another shift to the right as Cavendish tried to sneak past. There are rules against changing lines in a sprint, but generally only egregious infractions are enforced.
What’s less obvious is what caused the crash, and, more specifically, what Sagan’s elbow was doing.
From above, without the benefit of seeing the first contact between the two riders, it appears that Sagan flicks his right elbow out just as Cav is falling to his right. Anyone who watches this video by itself, and can put two and two together, will draw a simple conclusion: Sagan elbowed Cavendish into the barrier. The elbow flick appears aggressive. It’s timed with Cav’s fall. It’s damning.
But the other angle tells a different story. The initial contact is shown from the front. Sagan is in front of Cavendish, and Cavendish ends up with his shoulder in Sagan’s side and his head on Sagan’s shoulder. Sagan is moving to the right as the riders in front of him do the same, and Cavendish tries to sneak by between the barriers. Their bikes come together, and Cavendish leans right and begins to unclip his right foot from his pedal, indicating an imminent crash. All this before Sagan’s elbow is out.
Sagan’s elbow moves out as Cavendish falls. From the front video, it’s unclear whether the elbow actually touches Cavendish.
Regardless of whether the Sagan’s elbow made contact, it moved quickly. The disqualification was based on this perceived aggression, a “very serious maneuver,” according to the jury’s Philippe Mariën. The question, then, is whether this movement was actually aggressive — intended to push Cavendish — or merely reactive.
How could it be reactive? If a rider is pushed on their right side, the right elbow or arm (or head or foot) will come out to the right. It’s Isaac Newton’s third law of not falling off your bike. The key piece of evidence here is that Sagan’s bike moves left. He clearly slightly off balance. The elbow is just as likely to be a reaction to that as it is an aggressive swipe.
The primary question is not whether Sagan’s elbow made contact, though, but how purposeful his movements were. The mere act of closing the door on a rival, even if that caused a crash, is not the type of “serious” act that would normally lead a jury to a disqualification. A penalty, yes. There is plenty of precedent for that. And if Sagan’s elbow was thrown aggressively, as a means to push Cavendish in the barriers, then one can argue that the disqualification is warranted regardless of the movement’s efficacy. (If he took a swing at Cav mid-stage, for example, it would likely land him in hot water whether the punch landed or not.)
The problem with all of this is that the jury is assigning a motive based on actions that are not clear. There is reasonable doubt that Sagan’s action was purposeful. This is a long way from the American judicial system, but that lack of clarity should make a jury think twice about applying its most severe penalty.
Listen to our discussion of the disqualification on the VeloNews podcast.