Sometimes the talking points from a race aren’t even the race itself.
That was certainly true over the weekend when Swiss veteran Michael Schär was ejected from the men’s Tour of Flanders for breaking a new rule designating where riders can toss bottles. That the veteran was tossing his bottle toward a group of the few fans that were watching the COVID edition of Flanders “behind closed doors” only fueled the virtual flames.
The UCI jury’s decision to eject Schär shows how serious the cycling governing body is taking its new rules which came into effect on April 1, and reflected how long it might take the peloton to change old habits.
That move was a red card for in-race commissaires. As soon as Schär chased back to the bunch, officials notified the key helper to Greg Van Avermaet, who later finished third, he was out of the race.
During stage races, a similar first-time violation would trigger time penalties. Officials said before the race that infractions in one-day races could result in disqualification.
Was the race jury too harsh? And does limiting where and how riders unload their bottles really matter? We debate the issue.
Jim Cotton: Tough love sends the message
I think that the UCI is right to bring in the new measures, and to enforce them rigorously.
Schär’s ejection for a bottle toss at Flanders was definitely harsh given he looked to be aiming the bidon at a crowd of fans, but the UCI has introduced the measures for both environmental and safety issues, and it needs to make a statement that they’re serious in enforcing them. Littering isn’t only a blight on the sport’s green credentials, but loose bottles bouncing around the bunch is a common cause of crashes – just ask Geraint Thomas why he didn’t battle for the Giro d’Italia last fall.
Schär was undoubtedly the unlucky scapegoat of the UCI’s new clampdown on the offense, particularly as it has become a more or less a day-to-day habit for those in the pro peloton. But the governing body now most definitely has riders’ attention. The message is clear: Litter outside of a designated zone, and there will be consequences.
The difficulty is that there cannot really be any grey areas over throwing musettes, bottles etc. Schär and Alex Dowsett have both made statements on social media since Flanders about how getting gifts from riders has transformed fans’ experiences of bike races, and I agree. I still remember dashing after a Mapei-Quick-Step bottle when I was a young whipper-snapper. But if the UCI starts making allowance for riders supposedly aiming a bottle at fans, then there’s too much room for rider protest and the rule becomes a nonsense.
Hopefully in a post-COVID era, young fans can start getting access to riders at start and finish zones and get souvenirs there.
If the strictness the UCI has applied here also applies to the other measures it has imposed this winter, for example around regular sprint-area barriers, it can only lead to a safer sport.
About bottlegate yesterday. Just a thought. What about the publicity caravan in the grandtours. Are they still allowed to throw things to the spectators?
— Thomas De Gendt (@DeGendtThomas) April 5, 2021
Andrew Hood: Gimme a break
OK, I get it about creating the right optics of not littering. After all, cycling is the ultimate green sport, at least if you don’t count the hundreds of fumes-belching vehicles that follow around most bike races, right?
Poor Micky Schär. He knew he messed up just as soon as he tossed the bottle. Doesn’t that expression of remorse deserve a break from the race jury?
“Tough love” works, but why not create a yellow card? Or at least give the riders a grace period to get the message. Disqualification seems like a rather harsh sentence for a first offense. After all, old habits die hard.
Confusion about where the approved “litter zones” are, and how the rules would be applied added another layer of consternation over the weekend.
It seems that the race jury is sometimes operating on the premise of how to avoid a Twitter storm rather than equitably applying the rules. Anyone who’s been in the eye of a Twitter hate storm knows how unpleasant it can be. Yet even the advent of VAR hasn’t helped out that much, but since Schär was caught red-handed by a following TV motorcycle, well, there wasn’t much the jury could do.
As Thomas De Gendt pointed out, the Tour publicity race caravan produces more trash than a peloton whipping around France. Is littering by pros during a bike race really contributing to the world’s trash problem? Of course it doesn’t, but the sport is trying to sell itself as a “green sport” to local governments and sponsorship dollars, so something’s gotta give.
The other rational behind the rule — that tossing bidons into designated areas will create safer conditions for the peloton — is one I can fully embrace. Anyone who’s hit a stray water bottle knows how treacherous they can be. Geraint Thomas (below) saw his 2020 Giro d’Italia end before it even started due to a bouncing bottle.
What about the fans on the side of the road? One of the things that is part of the fabric of the sport is the strong and usually close link between the riders and the fans. And the bidons are a symbol of that relationship. How many kids (and parents) spend most of their day alongside the Tour route trying to scoop up bidons?
If it’s on an open road with fans lining the way, why not let the riders toss their bottles? Cycling has much trickier challenges facing it than this one.