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Tour de France

‘Active’ race jury shaped outcome of Tour de France

What was behind the race jury's strong hand at the Tour de France?

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Julian Alaphilippe lost his yellow jersey. Peter Sagan saw his hopes of a green jersey all but eliminated. Primož Roglič saw his lead sport director kicked out of the race.

What did these big moments of the 2020 Tour de France have in common?

They were all a result of a very active race jury that put the hammer down from start to finish in rulings that had a major impact throughout the 107th edition of the Tour.

The race jury in any race has the important role of enforcing the UCI rulebook on a sometimes unruly peloton. This year’s Tour de France saw the race jury step up in its enforcement of several decisive moments of the French grand tour.

Many of the peloton’s insiders were surprised to see the race jury come down so heavily in rulings on certain infractions against big stars that sometimes have been overlooked or shrugged off in the past.

What was behind it? Insiders told me throughout the Tour de France that the race jury was sending a strong signal to the peloton that a new sheriff was in town, and that the rules need to be respected by everyone.

The first hint that the jury was going to be taking a strong line during the 2020 Tour came when it slapped Alaphilippe with a 20-second time penalty for an illegal feed in stage 4. Many were shocked because it cost the French superstar the yellow jersey for taking a bottle within the 20km limit.

Rules are rules, and the 20km bottle prohibition is a long-standing rule that everyone inside the peloton is well aware of. The 20km limit is rather arbitrary, but it’s a safety measure designed to prevent too much argy-bargy in the closing kilometers of a stage. Throughout the race, the jury was loosening that limit, reducing it to the final 15km or even the final 10km, depending on weather conditions. That decision, however, is usually made the night before a stage, or is called out on race radio well ahead of the final hour of racing.

There was no excuse for Deceuninck-Quick-Step to botch the feed, but the COVID-affected Tour was unfolding in a different way. Feed zone rules were slackened throughout the Tour to avoid a conglomeration of soigneurs and staffers packed into a compact area to limit the spread of COVID-19. Team officials later said they handed out the final bottles at that spot — about 17km from the finish — because it was on a flat, open stretch of road that was safer than the previous kilometers in the hilly finale.

For insiders, the penalty was a bit of a surprise because the infraction was largely inconsequential to the outcome of the stage, but even more so because it came against a French rider wearing the yellow jersey in the Tour de France. As one person said, “That would have never happened in the old days.”

Alaphilippe just shrugged it off, and said he never expected to wear yellow all the way to Paris anyway. Instead, unburdened earlier than expected of the yellow jersey, he turned the Tour into a three-week training camp for the world championships. No one will be able to take away his rainbow jersey for a similar infraction for the upcoming 12 months.

Peter Sagan’s shoulder bump

Peter Sagan forfeited points in the green jersey competition when he shoulder-bumped Wout van Aert on stage 11. Photo: Stephane Mahe – Pool/Getty Images

The other big decision came with the relegation of Sagan in stage 11, in Poitiers.

Sagan’s shoulder bump against Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma) along the fences might have looked bad on TV, but a few of the sprinters I spoke with about it said what the Slovakian superstar was fair game in a sprint. Sagan was making space for himself along the fences, an important distinction than if he were pushing or forcing Van Aert into the barriers.

The controversy brought back memories of Sagan’s infamous elbow throw with Mark Cavendish in stage 4 in the 2017 Tour. That incident was very different, and Sagan was kicked out of the race after Cavendish crashed into the barriers.

Sagan’s relegation had a decisive impact on the Tour, and all but torpedoed his hopes of winning the green jersey. Instead of remaining close to eventual winner Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-Quick-Step), Sagan tumbled well out of contention at nearly 70 points back. That ruling played out across the remainder of the Tour.  On several occasions, Bora-Hansgrohe was trying to put pressure on Bennett by making transition stages harder than they normally would be. The most obvious example came in stage 14 to Lyon. Bora-Hansgrohe poured on the gas to gap Bennett and reel in the breakaway in what might have stayed clear if Sagan had been in his familiar spot in green.

Insiders were also saying that the race jury was telegraphing a signal to the sprinters that dangerous moves will not be tolerated in the mass gallops.

In the wake of the horrific and life-threatening consequences of the opening day sprint at the Tour de Pologne in August, when Dylan Groenewegen closed down Fabio Jakobsen and sent him flying into the barriers, the race jury was using its yellow card in a very high-profile infraction.

The message was loud and clear, and fair or not, Sagan paid the price.

For insiders at the Tour, one of the most anticipated moments of each stage comes when the race jury report is released every evening. Usually it’s full of relatively benign infractions, such as a sticky bottle or a taking a whee out in public. Occasionally, there is a bombshell.

One of those was the ejection of Jumbo-Visma sport director Merijn Zeeman following a verbal altercation with UCI technicians doing bike inspections at the top of the Col de la Loze in stage 17.

The usually calm and collected Zeeman blew a gasket when UCI technicians checking bikes for mechanized assistance or “motor-doping” decided to disassemble the climbing bike of Primož Roglič. Bikes are regularly X-rayed at finish lines in the UCI’s effort to catch any would-be cheaters, and throughout the Tour, five to eight bikes per stage were being run through the UCI’s mobile X-ray machine.

Zeeman reportedly insulted the UCI technicians in such a harsh manner that the UCI kicked him out of the race. It is extremely rare for the UCI to disassemble a bike. In fact, this might have been the first instance at the Tour that a major contender’s bike was taken apart. VeloNews later confirmed that bikes from the top-5 on GC that day had their hubs and cranksets disassembled. No evidence of cheating was found.

Roglič on stage 17 of the 2020 Tour de France. Photo: James Startt

Zeeman later apologized, but he was out of the race, meaning he was not in the team car for the remainder of the Tour for Jumbo-Visma. It’s hard to say how much of a factor that might have had in the closing days of the Tour, and Roglič’s subsequent collapse in the final-day time trial.

Riders have their favored sport directors, and Zeeman has been at Roglič’s side since the former ski jumper joined the team. Just as Nicolas Portal was an essential part of Sky/Ineos’s success at the Tour, Zeeman is a key member inside the Jumbo-Visma team. Sure, it was his legs that failed him, but Roglič was missing a key ally in the most critical part of the race.

In the past, the race jury had come under criticism for turning a blind eye on infractions against the favorites or top stars. It was akin to the referees in the NBA almost never calling a foul against Michael Jordan. Those days are long gone, and this year’s Tour only confirmed it.

How the race jury operates is also changing in today’s ever-present media microscope. In the past, if the race jury didn’t see it, they wouldn’t act on an apparent infraction. Yet today, very little happens in a race that isn’t captured on live TV or picked up by a fan with an iPhone on the side of the road. In fact, the UCI recently introduced an “instant replay” procedure as part of its toolbox to enforce the rulebook.

Even if they won’t admit it, the race jury can be influenced by social media. An uproar on Twitter over an apparent infraction mid-race can often end up in the race jury’s daily stage report a few hours later.

From the outside, the UCI race jury can confound many in how it applies the rules, or which rules it decides to enforce. One big one this year was littering, and dozens of riders and teams were slapped with fines for not tossing out trash in designated areas.

And another ruling that seemed to annoy many was the penultimate-stage fines against former time trial world champions Tom Dumoulin and Tony Martin, who were brandishing the UCI’s trademarked rainbow stripes on their jerseys in inappropriate ways that rubbed up against the rules.

Rules are rules, and like it or not, the UCI race jury is judge and jury in any race. And throughout the 2020 Tour de France, the jury was selective and decisive in its rulings.