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TROYES, France — Marcel Kittel’s high-wattage smile turned ice cold as soon as the TV reporter asked him the question everyone wanted to ask: did Peter Sagan’s absence somehow undervalue of your victory?
Thursday’s long, hot 216km stage 6 was the first bunch kick without Sagan and Mark Cavendish. Kittel was in no mood to talk about what everyone is still talking about in the Tour de France.
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“No,” he said before pausing. “No, there is no difference. There are now two sprinters less.”
The big German star had just dashed to his 11th career victory — one short of compatriot Erik Zabel’s record German haul of 12 stage wins — yet Sagan’s controversial expulsion Tuesday, coupled with Cavendish’s subsequent exit with a fractured shoulder blade, was still the buzz around the race paddock.
Dubbed “SaganGate” among the Tour’s press corps (what else?!) the departure of two of the peloton’s biggest stars following the horrific finish-line crash in stage 4 left a gaping void in the Tour de France. It overshadowed Wednesday’s first showdown between the yellow jersey favorites, and it continued to churn into Thursday’s flat stage.
“It’s a shame for everybody,” Scott Thwaites, one of Cavendish’s teammates, told CyclingTips. “No one is really a winner, and you’ve got two of the best guys fighting for sprint victories going home.”
Forty-eight hours after the controversial DSQ, no one was happy. Sagan’s Bora-Hansgrohe team had his bike lined up outside the team bus Thursday morning in Vittel, a sign of protest. An unconventional petition to overturn Sagan’s expulsion to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, a sort of Supreme Court for sporting disputes, was shot down Thursday afternoon in Europe. The verdict stood: Sagan was out, and Cavendish was home.
‘A no-win situation’
This year’s Tour — with only three summit finales and at least eight flat stages — was supposed to be a year for the sprinters. And Thursday, when the Tour returned to the sprints following Wednesday’s mountaintop punch in the Vosges, the two biggest sprinters weren’t even at the start line.
Let’s go back to what happened: At the sharp end of a frenetic sprint Tuesday in stage 4, budding star Arnaud Démare swept right across the road en route to France’s first Tour bunch sprint win since 2006. Behind him, Sagan and Cavendish fought for his wheel. So far, so good. But in a flash, Cavendish tried to squeeze into a gap between Sagan and the barriers. Then Sagan’s elbow shot out, and then Cavendish was on the ground. Or so it seemed. At first, it appeared that Sagan had elbowed Cavendish violently into the fences in an unsportsmanlike gesture atypical of the affable and popular Slovakian star. The British former world champion crashed horribly into the barriers, and Sagan dashed to second behind Démare.
What happened next kicked off the biggest furor at the Tour in years. Sagan was ejected, and Cavendish was out with injuries. The Tour de France was making headlines again for all the wrong reasons.
“That was a tough one, wasn’t it?” said Quick-Step sport director Brian Holm. “If he wouldn’t have been [expelled], people would have complained. Now they complain when he’s out. For the jury, it was a no-win situation. I know if I had been the sports director of Bora, I would have been mad, blowing smoke out of my ears from anger.”
So what happened? The decision by the UCI race jury seemed extreme, but so was the crash. Riders are occasionally kicked out of the Tour for breaking the rules, for throwing water bottles in a sprint or catching a lift up the side of a mountain, so that’s nothing new. But kicking out cycling’s biggest star?
What got everyone so fired up was that Sagan was ejected for an offense that typically sees an offending rider relegated to last place. Sprints are always a rough-and-tumble dogfight as riders jostle for a clean shot to the line, so relegations are par for the course.
In fact, the Tour’s race jury initially relegated Sagan after Tuesday’s stage. Sagan was bumped from second place to last in the bunch, a ruling that might have cost Sagan a shot at winning a sixth-straight points jersey.
‘A wake-up call’
Coming into this year’s Tour, however, race officials warned teams that the race jury would take a heavy hand in admonishing what was considered dangerous sprinting. So the dramatic images of Sagan’s elbow and Cavendish’s crash urged something more decisive. When chief UCI commissaire Philippe Mariën sternly marched into the pressroom Tuesday evening, everyone knew something was cooking. Citing a rule that allowed the jury to kick out riders for dangerous sprinting, Sagan was out.
If race officials wanted to send a message, it seems to have gotten across.
“They want to show that they are willing to take riders out of the race, no matter who you are,” said Sunweb’s Michael Matthews. “If you have 1,000 wins, or you have one win, they’re not favoring anyone. They’re willing to take out guys if they think it is necessary.”
An uproar kicked off on social media. Incriminations flew on all sides. One Dimension Data sport director accused Sagan on Twitter of “violence,” while some piled on Cavendish, even making veiled threats to his family for forcing the popular Sagan out of the race.
Fans, racers and pundits scrutinized finish-line race video in real time as if it were a crime investigation. By the time the jury revealed its decision to kick out Sagan a few hours later, many had already come to the conclusion that Sagan’s elbow never even touched Cavendish. Instead, it appeared that Cavendish had collided with Sagan, who then shot out his elbow in a defensive move to try to retain his balance at 60kph. Some even laid the blame on Cavendish for trying to squeeze into a small gap between Sagan and the barriers. Others pointed a finger at Démare, who drove the action across the road and toward the barriers. The Twitterati verdict was unanimous: Sagan shouldn’t be kicked out.
“It’s left its mark on the race,” Kittel said. “It’s also a wake-up call for everyone that they jury can take a harsh and tough decision to make sure that the safety is there for everyone else.”
Coming into the Tour, the stakes couldn’t have been higher for both riders. Cavendish was just four stage victories short of Eddy Merckx’s all-time record of 34. Sagan was all but assured of tying Erik Zabel’s mark of six green points jerseys. Those records are safe for another year at least.
And with a sport short on superstars, losing two of its marquee names in one shot doesn’t bode well for the next two weeks. With Sky’s Chris Froome looking firmly in control in yellow, it could be a long way to Paris.
On Wednesday, the Tour rolled on without them, and by Thursday, Cavendish and Sagan were both back home. Cooler heads seemed to have prevailed, and the cycling bromance between the current and world champions was rekindled thanks to messages to one another on social media.
Unfortunately for fans, the Peter Sagan Show was cancelled after just a few episodes in 2017. Cavendish won’t be chasing Merckx’s record, and Sagan won’t be popping wheelies or dancing the hula after winning stages.
The Tour comes out the loser, and it’s poor Marcel Kittel who has to face those awkward questions.