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How the tangle-up at the 2017 Tour changed cycling

By Andrew Hood • Published
Mark Cavendish and Peter Sagan get tangled up in the finale of stage 4 at the 2017 Tour de France. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

IT WAS THE ELBOW SEEN ‘ROUND THE WORLD.

In one of the most significant controversies of 2017, Peter Sagan and Mark Cavendish came together in the same place at the wrong time in the Tour’s wild stage 4 sprint into Vittel. The two men banged together in the final meters, and Cavendish went down. When the dust had settled, both were headed home for all the wrong reasons.

Arnaud Démare might have won the stage last summer, but all eyes were on what happened with about 100 meters to go between the peloton’s two biggest stars.

The finish-line footage of Sagan’s thrusting right elbow and Cavendish’s flailing body turned into the cycling equivalent of the Zapruder film — no cycling video clip has ever been so scrutinized.

Two particular angles were repeatedly dissected. From the front, it appeared that Sagan brutishly elbowed Cavendish into the fences as the Manxman tried to squeeze through on his right side. If you only saw this piece of evidence, the race jury’s decision to disqualify Sagan made perfect sense.

Aerial footage changed the narrative, however. From that angle, it appeared that Sagan’s right elbow shot out after Cavendish bumped into the Slovakian’s right hip and thigh. In fact, it appeared as if Sagan’s elbow never actually made contact with Cavendish. Instead, Cavendish bounced off Sagan and then ricocheted off rubber padding jutting out from the Tour’s finish-line fencing. Suddenly, the race jury’s decision seemed hasty, extreme, and arbitrary.

His crash in the fourth stage of the Tour de France ultimately left Cavendish with a broken shoulder blade. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

The Sagan-Cavendish crash had instant and lasting consequences. Two of the Tour’s biggest draws were out of the race. With their departures, two longstanding and historic records were safe for another year. Cavendish’s quest to inch closer to Merckx’s record of 34 stage wins was put on hold. Sagan’s chance to tie Erik Zabel’s six green jersey competition victories would have to wait another year.

It also brought unseen scrutiny to the UCI jury.

Over the past several decades, the UCI commissaires have evolved into a professional, well-trained, astute group of in-race referees that serve as both judge and jury. In bigger races, up to a dozen commissaires work to assure a safe race and divvy out fines, bans, penalties, and otherwise implement the UCI’s lengthy and sometimes arcane rule book. Their decisions were sacrosanct and immune to criticism. All that changed last summer in Vittel.

On that hot afternoon, the race jury took two hours to make the controversial decision to exclude Sagan. During that time, in the parallel world of social media, thousands of fans had scrutinized the crash video in real-time and made up their minds. The Twitterati ruled that Sagan was innocent. When the race jury kicked him out, there was outrage among some fans.

Dimension Data defended Cavendish and the jury’s decision, but almost everyone else seemed to think the jury had made the wrong choice.

Mark Cavendish talks to Dimension Data brass after his crash in the fourth stage of the 2017 Tour de France. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

The case also reflected a growing trend about the race jury, which travels inside the peloton in a fleet of motorcycles and cars to watch the race and issue its brand of two-wheeled justice. Many concluded the commissaires were out of touch because they did not take advantage of the presence of images and videos beyond the official race footage. It’s true that fans watching on TV and tracking the race online often see more than the jury does inside the race.

Weeks later, Bora-Hansgrohe decided to appeal the ruling to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in what was an unprecedented attempt to overturn a race jury’s ruling. A deal was hashed out before the case ever reached CAS, but the Sagan-Cavendish collision saw the UCI institute new rules.

“In the end, we got the right answer,” says Bora-Hansgrohe manager Rolf Denk. “It was a hard moment for us, and together with Peter, we made this case to CAS. Peter always races in a fair way. We now have new tools to make for fair sport at the highest level.”

In 2018, at major races like the one-day monuments and the grand tours, a video commissaire will monitor TV feeds as well as social media streams to complement the work of the in-race jury. For the first time, cycling has the equivalent of instant replay.

LOOKING BACK, THAT TRAGIC point of impact seems to have sent each star on a dramatically different trajectory.

Already struggling coming into the 2017 Tour with glandular fever, Cavendish has yet to find his footing after that traumatic day. The once prolific sprinter has suffered from one setback after another. In fact, Cavendish has only won once since that crash — a stage at the 2018 Dubai Tour — and has struggled with form, injuries, and results ever since.

Mark Cavendish left the 2017 Tour de France with a broken shoulder blade, and has struggled to find results since. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

For Sagan, it’s been quite the opposite. After shrugging off his Tour expulsion, he’s gone from strength to strength. He won his third straight world title last fall, and then barnstormed through the 2018 spring classics, winning Gent-Wevelgem and Paris-Roubaix.

The controversy surrounding the two men gained new steam in the leadup to the 2018 Tour. Journalists wanted to know if there were any lingering bad feelings. Did Cavendish resent Sagan for the crash? Did Sagan blame Cavendish for his expulsion? Both men ducked questions about the incident at the Amgen Tour of California. When one fan was allowed to ask a question at the race’s launch party, he asked Cavendish about the incident. Both men scowled.

Throughout the week in California, Cavendish repeated a familiar line: “I’m just here to race.”

Sagan echoed the sentiment, dodging questions about Cavendish as if they were themselves metal barriers.

“I don’t think about that much now,” Sagan says. “At the time I was very upset, but that seems like a long time ago. These are things that can happen in sprints.”

Sagan’s coach, Patxi Vila, says the incident has no impact on Sagan’s motivations at the 2018 Tour de France. Revenge? Redemption? Not the case.

“This was a big story at the time,” Vila says. “I think that is the consequence of having it involve such a big rider like Sagan is, and like Cavendish was. It’s in the past and now it’s fine.”

Are the two men telling the truth? Did the Sagan versus Cavendish kerfuffle really blow over like clouds on a wind-whipped day? It is yet another storyline to watch during this year’s Tour de France. Both men will battle each other in the sprints, as Cavendish looks to salvage his season and Sagan attempts to win his sixth green jersey.

Will memories of the crash derail either man’s ambitions? Probably not.

“Something like that is not easy to get over, but Peter is a master of this,” Vila says. “Once it was done, it was done.”

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