One of the beauties of bike racing is that despite the often extremely frantic nature of the sport, commissaires are rarely called on to make controversial decisions.
There’s no stopping to see whether a try has been scored, a penalty has been awarded or a receiver had his foot out of bounds when he caught the ball.
For the most part, when it comes to rule-bending or rule-breaking, cycling’s commissaires are concerned with petty infringements – unfitting behaviour in public, sticky bottles and drafting behind team cars.
Occasionally, though, they’re called on to rule on far more serious misdemeanours, such as Peter Sagan’s interaction with Mark Cavendish during the final moments of the sprint that decided the Tour’s stage four sprint into Vittel.
We’ve all seen it by now and, no doubt, made up our mind on what penalty, if any, should have been handed out to world champion Sagan.
It’s to cycling’s and the UCI’s credit that the race jury president, Philippe Marien, that he spoke publicly about the reasons for their decision to eliminate Sagan from the Tour.
In making this judgement, Marien and his colleagues had referred to rule 12.1.040/10.2.2 Irregular Sprint in the discipline and procedures section of the rules.
The rule states that a rider committing a first offence of this kind should be relegated to last place in his group and fined 200 Swiss francs.
A second offence can result in relegation to last place on the stage, and a third to elimination. The next line states: “Moreover, the Commissaires Panel may, in particularly serious cases, eliminate and fine a rider with 200 [Swiss francs] on the first offence”.
Initial reports suggested first-time offender Sagan had been handed the lightest of these penalties and would be able to continue in the Tour.
However, Marien subsequently made clear that the Slovakian had been ejected from the race for appearing to put Cavendish into the barriers deliberately.
It is interesting to note Marien’s choice of words when speaking to the press. “In every sprint something happens, but what happens there, it looks like it was on purpose and it almost looks like hitting a person,” he said.
What stands out here is Marien’s lack of certainty. This undoubtedly stems from the inconclusive evidence served up by television images of the incident.
When seen from the front, the action is foreshortened and it is impossible to assess clearly the sequence of events that resulted in Cavendish’s awful crash. When seen from above, the key moments that led to the Briton’s fall are hidden by overhanging trees.
All that can be said with certainty is that Sagan moved off his line and into Cavendish’s path. It did “almost” look like Sagan hit out at Cavendish with his elbow, but it’s equally valid to suggest that he might have flicked his elbow out in an effort to maintain his balance and stay upright.
It could even be argued that Sagan’s manoeuvre was no worse than the one undertaken by Arnaud Démare a split second later that forced Nacer Bouhanni to stop sprinting in order to avoid a collision between the two Frenchmen.
My own feeling is that Sagan should have been relegated on the stage but allowed to continue.
I base this to a small extent on what I believe I saw, but primarily on the reaction of current and former sprinters such as Robbie McEwen, Baden Cooke and Andrei Greipel, who all felt that Sagan had erred, but not to the extent that he deserved to be eliminated from the race.
Perhaps the one certainty to emerge from the mayhem in Vittel is that there is a place for experienced former professionals to assist the sport’s commissaires in instances such as this.