Commentary: Rationalizing the Van Garderen ruling
MORRO BAY, California (VN) — The UCI jury made the wrong call on Wednesday.
Tejay van Garderen should have lost one minute to the lead group after his crash.
The 2019 Amgen Tour of California should now be a three-man race between the peloton’s most popular rider Gianni Moscon, Kasper Asgreen, and this 21-year-old Slovenian wunderkind whose name I still struggle to pronounce (sorry, Tadej Pogačar).
Here’s the thing: As many times as I repeat these three above statements—statements that I believe are probably true—I still cannot convince my inner cycling fan to accept them. I think them but I don’t actually feel them. Sorry, folks, I am a bad cycling fan and I have controversial takes.
You see, I’m (not-so secretly) glad the UCI jury ruled in favor of Tejay van Garderen and his pink popsicle EF Education First teammates. I’m content that the Amgen Tour of California was not decided by some ticky-tack crash that was within spitting distance of the magical 3km-to-go banner.
And, most importantly, I’m happy that we will still get to see a slugfest for seconds on the slopes of Mt. Baldy on Friday afternoon. I want to see George Bennett, Max Schachman, and, yes, Tah-day Po-ga-chur throw haymakers at van Garderen to see if the American really has the grinta to win this race and erase 13 years of close calls for his American team. Had van Garderen lost a minute due to some dumb goof on a four-lane highway near the offramp to Morro Bay, we wouldn’t get to see any of that.
Plus, I believe that there is a shard of rationale behind the UCI jury’s decision to let van Garderen keep the lead. And right now, that sliver of reasoning is good enough for this potentially delusional cycling journalist whose Twitter mentions are about to become a dumpster fire.
Come, let us analyze NBC Sports’s highlight video:
3:32: The crash happens at 8.4km to go. Van Garderen said he touched wheels and went over the handlebars—likely his fault. Lachlan Morton surrenders his bicycle, and Van Garderen gives chase on Morton’s rig. Four teammates wait for him, and the five EF riders surf the bumpers of team cars as they make their way back.
At this point, I actually give van Garderen a pretty good chance of getting back to the peloton, because he has four teammates, and all five riders are riding behind team cars. When the cameras show the peloton turning off the freeway, the EF train is just a few hundred meters behind. There is still more than 7km to go. Let’s call it 60/40 he gets back in.
4:08: Van Garderen realizes too late that Morton’s bicycle had a reverse brake setup (right hand controls the front brake) and skitters off the road, blowing the sharp right-hand turn. He loses perhaps 10 valuable seconds, and the EF riders must slow down and wait for him again.
This is a pretty big blunder, and definitely shrinks his chances of returning to the group. It occurs just as Deceuninck-Quick Step and Sunweb surge on the front of the peloton too. So at this point, let’s say the goof bumps van Garderen’s chances down to 35/65.
4:32: A big crash in the main field splits it in two at a point where the road narrows. The field had passed the 4km to go banner and was past halfway to 3km; call it 3.4km to go. The crash sends riders sprawling across the narrow road. When van Garderen and company come up to the crash, they must come to a near stop. Moscon love taps Taylor Phinney for some mysterious reason.
Could van Garderen have made it back on, had it not been for the crash? It’s unlikely, but not impossible. The crash, however, drops his chances down to 0/100.
So, what did we learn?
In my opinion, the controversy really does center around that second crash, and whether van Garderen had a realistic chance to regain contact with the peloton before he was slowed. Call me crazy: I believe he could have made it, even if it the chance was slim.
The Twitterati have correctly pointed out that the crash did, indeed, occur slightly outside of the 3km mark, the magic barrier after which all riders who suffer a crash or mechanical on a flat stage receive the same time as the finisher, per the UCI rulebook. But, as the UCI race jury showed, commissaires also have the power to override this rule and make decisions themselves. Longtime fans of the race may remember the botts dost crash in 2007 that saw the UCI jury make an even more controversial decision.
And there is some logic behind Wednesday’s decision. Throughout the week I have spoken to riders about the various differences between the Tour of California and WorldTour races in Europe. One of the major points of difference is the ebb and flow of the sprint stages, due to the wide, straight American roads. Riders have told me that the absence of the traditional positioning battle on the broad highways allows more riders to chill in the peloton and rest their legs for the final push to the line.
What does this mean? The final kilometers of racing are actually faster and more treacherous than you might see at a European race. Legs are fresh, and more riders are convinced they can win.
So, when a supercharged 100-rider peloton sped through that pinch point—a pinch point that, yes, was just outside the 3km to go mark—strong legs and ambitious attitudes collided and caused a pileup. The spirit of the rule is to prevent a dumb crash in the sprint ruin the GC battle. So, what if the crash occurred 400 meters from the line? What if it was 400 centimeters from the line?
At the finish line on Wednesday I heard grumbles from riders about the course’s design, and how the twists inside the final 5km created a minefield for the peloton, given its size and speed.
Call me crazy. Call my logic flimsy.
But don’t call me this Friday. You see, I’ll be standing along Mt. Baldy road watching an epic battle for the overall.