VITTEL, France (VN) — On the eve of the first major mountain test in the 2017 Tour de France, no one was talking about the yellow jersey.
The buzz Wednesday morning was about what happened at the end of stage 4, less than 18 hours earlier. World champion Peter Sagan was out. Mark Cavendish walked around the start village with his arm in a sling. A fractured shoulder ending his Tour.
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Who’s to blame? That question went viral overnight, with nearly everyone outraged that Sagan’s expulsion was an over-reach. Videos were dissected, and Sagan’s elbow movement was run through a virtual forensics lab. But Twitter opinions have no bearing on what goes on inside the UCI race jury. Despite a formal protest overnight from Bora-Hansgrohe, Sagan was gone.
“I can only accept the decision of the jury, but I disagree,” Sagan told a phalanx of microphones outside his team hotel Wednesday morning. His Tour ended sooner than he could have imagined. “I don’t think I have done anything wrong in the sprint.”
Question about Sagan’s sprint bounced around the start paddock Wednesday. Some whispered that it was payback for Sagan, who some grumbled has been throwing his weight around of late, racing with little regard for his rivals. Others hinted that the race jury was sending a memorandum to all sprinters to cool their jets. Sagan was their messenger.
“It’s left its mark on the race,” said German sprinter Marcel Kittel (Quick-Step). “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.”
Understandably, there were sad, glum faces around the Bora-Hansgrohe team bus (no one wanted to speak publicly), and an equal sense of injustice at the Dimension Data bus. Both teams lost their franchise riders.
As controversial as the decision was, the race jury is saying that no one is above the rules, even if you’re Sagan.
“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.”
Surprisingly, quite a few riders and staff leaned in favor of the ruling. The interpretation of cycling’s rules can clearly spark controversy, but everyone inside the peloton accepts the jury’s decisions. They have no choice.
“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 really like the Belgian chief commissaire, Philippe Mariën, I have a lot of respect for him. I respect his decision. On the other hand, I know if I had been the sports director of Bora, I would have been mad, blowing smoke out of my ears from anger.”
Even Cavendish, who spoke to journalists with his arm in a sling, commended the race jury for sticking by what was a controversial and unpopular decision.
“If I am honest, it takes a lot of courage, a lot of balls to eliminate the world champion from the Tour de France,” Cavendish said. “I commend the jury on taking a decision that wasn’t based on influences from social media or outside.”
Cavendish said Sagan called him last night to apologize and discuss their crash. With three world titles between, they share that common bond of the rainbow jersey. They know the pressures and responsibilities that come with the jersey. Sagan tried to explain that his elbow shot up to help him keep his balance as Cavendish squeezed into a hole that wasn’t there.
“I don’t have hard feelings,” Cavendish said. “He said [the elbow] was keeping himself balanced, so it’s nice to know. He said he didn’t know it was me coming up, which I know nothing is malicious, that’s the thing.”
Cavendish also stopped short of criticizing the jury. Led by veteran UCI commissaire Mariën, a respected Belgian who’s worked for decades inside cycling, the race jury has come under fire in the wake of the unpopular decision. Some even suggested that race organizer ASO has undue sway on the race jury, that decisions are often made to favor French riders. Cavendish said that was bollocks.
“I know them all, and they’re fair,” Cavendish said of the commissaires. “Philippe Mariën, he’s relegated me before, whether I think I’m right or wrong, the rules were there, and if I break the rules, I get relegated.”
Just as it happens so often each July, be it from a crash or an expulsion, when someone exits the Tour, the race still goes on. By mid-afternoon, the peloton was charging toward the finish line at Belles Filles. A new drama would soon fill the headlines.