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VITTEL, France (VN) — UCI jury president Philippe Mariën marched into the Tour de France press room with a trail of journalists following his step. You could tell by the sternness of his face his had something important to say.
A phalanx of TV cameras and microphones squeezed in around him. No one could believe the words that came out of his mouth.
“We’ve decided to disqualify Peter Sagan from the Tour de France 2017 as he endangered some of his colleagues seriously in the final meters of the sprint,” Mariën announced.
The room gasped. Everyone posted the news on Twitter. People scrambled for their phones.
It was immediately a controversial decision. Initially, Sagan was relegated from his second-place finish, penalized points and time for what was a heavy crash with Mark Cavendish. That seemed fair enough. It was an ugly crash, and it’s open to debate at who might be at fault.
As he walked out of the building, journalists queried Mariën about the rational behind the decision.
“The jury decided to disqualify Peter Sagan because of a very serious maneuver in the sprint,” he told Sporza TV. He also confirmed Sagan’s expulsion was based solely on the crash with Cavendish, not an earlier spill in the sprint that some suggested Sagan might also have provoked.
The decision seemed excessive by many, and it’s rare for riders to get expelled from a race. Normally, riders would be relegated, and only eliminated after a third major offense during a stage race.
Mariën cited a UCI rule — 12.104 — that allows the jury to expel a rider for very serious violations. There is a clause that allows the jury “in particularly serious cases to eliminate and fine a rider on the first offense.” Sagan was gone, and fined 200 Swiss francs.
“Because of the fact that we decided to apply this article is because it’s a very severe violation,” Mariën said. “This disqualification is qualified and justified.”
The controversial ejection comes as the UCI and race organizers have made a push to create safer race conditions. A new rule that widens gaps to three seconds was introduced for this Tour in part to alleviate the pressure during the sprints.
Mariën said the UCI race jury met with riders and teams before the start of the Tour to caution them not to take unnecessary risks in the bunch sprints, and that the race jury would be taking a heavy hand on what they deemed as dangerous sprinting.
“Before the Tour de France, we warned the sprinters that we would look very close to every sprint. And that is what we did today,” he said. “It was not an easy decision, but it’s the beginning of the Tour and this is now the moment to set our boundaries. And that is what we have done today.”
[pullquote align=“left” attrib=”Philippe Mariën”]”Before the Tour de France, we warned the sprinters that we would look very close to every sprint. And that is what we did today”[/pullquote]
Who’s behind the decision? The UCI jury panel consists of several commissaires that travel inside the caravan during each stage and later huddle to mete out fines and penalties. Mariën, a longtime UCI veteran, is president of the race jury during this Tour.
When the official communiqué was delayed, many guessed something big was brewing. TV crews and journalists were hanging around in case there was a big announcement. Their instinct proved correct.
Mariën explained that the jury held a “very long discussion,” and insisted it was “not about Sagan, but it’s about the act that the rider made.”
“In every sprint something happens, but what happens here, it looks like it was on purpose and it almost looks like hitting a person,” Mariën said. “It’s not about Sagan or Cavendish. It could be anybody. The names don’t matter. What others did in the sprint today was very much less severe than the Sagan and Cavendish incident.”
One rider that was quick to point to a conclusion was German sprinter André Greipel, who claimed he too was elbowed on the previous stage. Greipel even went so far as to de-friend Sagan following the stage 4 incident before recanting on Twitter after viewing the crash more thoroughly.
“Sometimes I should watch images before I say something. Apologies to @petosagan as I think that decision of the judge is too hard,” Greipel tweeted.
Sagan is gone. There is no appeal to the UCI jury’s ruling. With fans studying the video images of the impact between Sagan and Cavendish, it’s clear not everyone agrees with the decision.