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Is a nine-month suspension for Dylan Groenewegen too harsh?

Is the UCI's punishment of the Jumbo-Visma sprinter too harsh or insufficient? We assess either side of the argument.

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Dylan Groenewegen was handed a nine-month suspension from competition by the UCI on Wednesday.

The Dutchman was hit with the sanction following his part in the mass pileup at the Tour of Poland that left Fabio Jakobsen in a coma and in need of multiple surgeries on a range of injuries to his face and head. With the peloton barreling down a high-speed, downhill-tilting final straight into Katowice, Groenewegen was seen veering from his line as the young Deceuninck-Quick-Step sprinter came inside him against the barriers. With Jakobsen forced out of room, the youngester was sent flying into the barriers before catapulting back onto the racecourse, bringing dozens more riders down with him.

Elsewhere, this season has seen sprinters relegated from a race’s results for dangerous sprint maneuvers, for example, Peter Sagan being pushed to last-place having bumped Wout van Aert in the Poitiers sprint at this year’s Tour de France. Sam Bennett received a similar penalty for roughing up to Emīls Liepiņš in the stage 9 gallop of last month’s Vuelta a España

But is the UCI’s punishment of Groenewegen appropriate? There’s a delicate path to tread between applying rigorous sanctions for such perilous moves and making an example of one rider for an action that occurs all-too-often in the clamor of a bunch sprint.

Andrew Hood and Jim Cotton look at both sides of the argument.

Jim Cotton – A nine-month suspension is too harsh

2020 tirreno adriatico stage1 pascal ackermann
Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

I cannot help but think that this is a case of the result of an action being penalized rather than the actual action that caused it. Wayward, meandering sprints occur all-too-often in bunch sprints, and more often than not, they go unsanctioned.

Heck, sometimes sprinters are sometimes praised for madcap moves when they pay off.

Remember Pascal Ackermann squirreling down an unfathomably tight gap against the barriers at Tirreno-Adriatico? That could be judged just as dangerous as Groenewegen’s move given how close the Bora sprinter was to the riders he squeezed up against. Similarly, Arnaud Démare made a near-diagonal acceleration at this year’s Giro d’Italia that could have caused all sorts of carnage.

Was Ackermann slapped with a punishment at Tirreno? No. Was Démare relegated, fined, or suspended? No.

There’s an elephant lurking in the room of the Poland pileup. Would Groenewegen have been treated so harshly had everyone stayed upright?

Possibly not.

The huge crash and horrific injuries sustained by Jakobsen highlighted and magnified the Dutchman’s maneuver, with some claiming it was a malicious act. The UCI was left in the difficult situation of needing to illustrate that such a sprint is unacceptable in pro cycling, and a lesser punishment may have left them open to calls of not taking a career-threatening crash seriously. However, the governing body’s inconsistent application of penalties, with some going scot-free and some being vilified, suggests they have some work to do in determining how to officiate on the carnage of a high-speed sprint.

I cannot help but feel that Groenewegen is being hung out to dry here as the UCI is forced into an extreme judgment.

Andrew Hood – A nine-month suspension is insufficient

Photo: Thibault Camus – Pool/Getty Images

Sure, Groenewegen certainly deserves his share of the blame. No one will argue that his sprint wasn’t dangerous. Closing down the lane is one thing, forcing someone into the fences is another. Banning a rider so severely for a dangerous sprint is unprecedented, and on the face of how bad Jakobsen was injured, a nine-month ban seems about right.

What’s missing is the other half of the equation.

There’s always argy-bargy in a sprint, and it’s a thin line between protecting your line and putting rivals in danger. Groenewegen crossed that line and deserves a severe penalty.

Groenewegen has accepted responsibility for what happened, and he’s been apologetic since the beginning. Few of us mere mortals really know what it’s like to be barreling down the finishing straight at 60kph. What the sport cannot do is demonize Groenewegen to the degree that it permanently marks as some sort of dirty rider for the rest of his career.

What is wholly insufficient is the second half of the equation that resulted in the horrific aftermath of the crash.

Crashes happen for two reasons; first, for risks being taken by riders themselves. Yet the second reason — dangerous race conditions — is not being addressed.

Riders have been complaining for years about that approach to the finish line at the Tour de Pologne. The end of the stage came off a big hill that was not steep enough to split up the bunch, so that meant the entire peloton would come barreling down to the straight carrying big-ring speed.

And the layout of the finishing straight was equally abysmal, with a tram line running down the right side of the road that served to create a pinch point near the end of the stage. It was also embarrassingly obvious that the quality of fencing and barriers along the approach was also sub-par. Jakobsen should not have smashed through the barriers and struck the finish-line archway like he did.

It’s easy for the jury to blame Groenewegen, but without addressing the issue of how dangerous that finish was leaves the larger problem unanswered.

Course safety needs to be front and center going into 2021, and though promises are being made to take on the issue more aggressively, the key stakeholders missed a chance here to send a signal to race organizers here as well.