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Bouhanni’s ‘sanction light’ raises questions of fairness

PAU, France (VN) — Is it fair that Nacer Bouhanni remains in the Tour de France, and Peter Sagan is sitting at home?

On Tuesday, Cofidis sprinter was handed a light sanction after TV captured him taking a swing at Jack Bauer (Quick-Step) with about 7km to go.

A week ago, the UCI jury controversially kicked Sagan out in the wake of a horrible crash involving Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) in the final sprint in stage 4.

Two high-profile incidents. Two dramatically different rulings. Some think the UCI race jury got it wrong in both instances.

“What Bouhanni did was intentional. There is no question that Bouhanni should be ejected from the race,” Dimension Data sport director Rolf Aldag told German reporters. “I still believe Sagan should have been ejected, but there is some debate about whether or not he threw his elbow at Cav on purpose. With Bouhanni, it was clear what he did.”

That question of intention is central to dissecting each incident and coming to terms with the race jury’s decision.

Sagan’s right elbow was the subject of much debate, but even a week later, it remains unclear if the two-time world champion intentionally forced Cavendish into the barriers. Once could argue Sagan shot out his elbow to try to maintain his balance and protect his space as Cavendish came up alongside.

Intentional? Maybe, maybe not. For some, the fact that Sagan’s intentions were imprecise meant that the UCI’s severe punishment was an over-reach. Relegate him and take away green jersey points? Yes, that’s fair. Send him home? That seemed excessive.

On Tuesday, there was little ambiguity. When Bouhanni raised his right hand from the handlebars and took a swipe at the big Kiwi lead-out man with 7km to go, there was no question about what the 26-year-old Frenchman was doing.

The UCI sent Sagan packing home, and gave Bouhanni a light slap on the wrist. Why?

When VeloNews approached UCI chief commissaire Philippe Mariën on Wednesday morning for clarification, he wagged his finger and said, “No comment!”

For many, Bouhanni deserved more than the 200 CHF fine and the one-minute time penalty the jury handed down Tuesday evening.

Astana rider Michael Valgren, writing in a blog for Danish TV2, said Bouhanni should have been handed a stiffer sanction to “teach him a lesson.”

“Bouhanni should be thrown out of the race,” Valgren wrote. “This is not cycling. As soon as you move your hands off the handlebars, he should be ejected. And a 200 Swiss franc fine? That’s peanuts.”

The difference in the severity of the sanctions came down to optics.

The dramatic images of Cavendish’s crash right at the finish line begged for action. Even more so after the UCI jury had warned riders before the 2017 Tour that it was going to impose a heavy hand during bunch sprints.

On Tuesday, Bauer and Bouhanni were jostling each other for the wheels far from the finish line. No one crashed, and Bouhanni’s arm-throw went largely unnoticed until well after the stage when TV images captured by helicopter were posted on social media.

“You cannot compare what happened with Bouhanni to what happened with Sagan,” said Katusha-Alpecin sprinter Alexander Kristoff. “I didn’t see what happened, but it didn’t endanger Bauer’s health. It was different with Sagan in the last kilometer.”

Others simply shrugged and said that’s the nature of sprinting. Every sprint and every stage sees riders bumping shoulders and knocking elbows to fight for position and set up their captains.

Even Bauer stopped short of putting all the blame on Bouhanni when he spoke to reporters at Wednesday’s start.

“I’m not saying taking your hands off the bars and making direct physical contact with a rider is normal, but things like that happen in a race,” Bauer said. “We both wanted the same space of road. When people push and shove, it’s important that you defend your space in the road. That’s all I was doing. I think Nacer saw it differently, and took a bit of offense to it. It’s not a gran fondo or charity bunch ride. It’s the Tour de France.”

There was a big press gaggle around the Cofidis bus Wednesday morning as well. Bouhanni stayed hidden inside the bus, but team manager Yvon Sanquer took the queries.

“We have accepted the jury’s decision,” Sanquer said. “If you watch the video only for two seconds, you do not see the full story. There is always jostling for position in a sprint. This happens 40 times every stage.”

Tuesday’s incident was not the first involving the fiery Bouhanni. In stage 7, the race jury cited him for tangling with Arnaud Démare (FDJ). After stage 4, Démare’s lead-out man Jacobo Guarnieri called Bouhanni an “idiot. He’s always making people crash. We know he’s like that. He’s probably upset with us because he always loses.” Guarnieri later apologized for those comments.

Bouhanni certainly has a reputation of being a daring and sometimes dodgy sprinter. Last year, he was relegated from a stage win at Paris-Nice, and again at the Cyclassics Hamburg. He missed a start in the 2016 Tour after a late-night fight with revelers ahead of the French national championship that required hand surgery.

Bouhanni, who also trained as a boxer, has a reputation that precedes him.

“Because of his reputation, we won Hamburg last year,” said Orica-Scott sport director Matt White. “They made an example then, and he’s been pretty quiet since then.”

Bouhanni is certainly under pressure to win. Although he’s won stages at the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España, he’s yet to win a Tour stage in three starts. On Wednesday, he was eighth, and the chances are running out.

Many think that the UCI sent Sagan packing home last week to send a message to the sprinters that no one is above the rules. More than a few think they might have singled out the wrong man.

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