Stage five of the 2022 For de France Femmes avec Zwift saw the longest stage in modern women’s WorldTour racing: 175km long and without much apparent difficulty. Still, it proved to be a gutting stage for Human Powered Health.
With 60 kilometers to go, a small breakaway was riding out in front of the peloton and the favorites were happy to let them dangle there. The American team was represented in the break with Cyprus national champion Antri Christoforou.
In the peloton, the team's climber and leader for the mountain stages, Barbara Malcotti, got on the team radio informing the directors Andrew Bajadali and Jo Kiesanowski that her shifter had broken and she wanted a bike change.
In women’s cycling, however, teams are only allowed one team car in the peloton and so Bajadali had to leave his breakaway rider to drop back into the peloton in order to come to Malcotti's aide.
“I was like 'sweet, we need to come back anyways and service our rider so let’s pull off side the road, and we'll do it'. We did it really efficiently. Cyclocross-style: I take the bike, [the mechanic] gives her the new bike and we’re off and rolling,” Bajaldi told Cycling Weekly.
Minutes later, however, with Malcotti back in the peloton, the Commissaires came on the race radio informing the peloton that Malcotti was now disqualified from the race for 'an irregular assistance’.
It turned out that the team car had dropped back from the breakaway to the front of the peloton, and pulled off to the right side off the road as the bunch travelled on the left. Malcotti, riding in the front of the peloton, crossed to the other side of the road to complete her bike change and return back to the pack.
But the Technical Support section of the UCI Rule Book (2.3.030) states that a rider may receive assistance and mechanical checks "only to the rear of [the] bunch and when stationary.”
The UCI rulebook is equally specific about the penalty: a disqualification and a 500 CHF. The exception being in case of a fall or crash, in which case it's up to the Commissaires' discretion what penalty might be.
"I don't know what the deal is. Maybe they want to set an example but they could have given us a hefty fine and a big warning, and that would've been sufficient instead of killing some 21-year-old rider's hopes and dreams and making everyone distraught over it," argued Bajaldi in frustration. "I mean, what kind of precedence does that set?”
Sticky bottles, motor pacing, feeding all sorts of minor infractions are made in just about every stage. In fact, on this very stage AG Insurance–NXTG was fined 100 CHF for feeding, and half the Roland Cogeas team was fined 100 CHF each for missing a race number.
"I understand the safety aspect of it, where the rider at the front could cause his crash, but we were way off on the right side and it was a safe bike change," Bajaldi said.
"But the Comm just wouldn't hear any of it. A fine which would've been totally appropriate in the situation, but for them to do this, it's pretty extreme in my opinion. It's way out there."
Bajaldi said he was gutted for the young rider and took on all the blame.
"Poor girl. I have no words. This is a big mistake and I own it. We should be in the know. Part of this job is making mistakes, and this is a big one. It's a technical aspect and I'm telling [the other directors] just so it's fresh in everyone's mind," he said.
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