Bad day at the office

They say bad things come in threes, and that was certainly the case in the Tour de France yesterday.

It was a bad day for the race itself: tragically, a woman was killed by a police motorcycle while attempting to cross the road. It was, twice over, a bad day for Team Columbia HTC, with George Hincapie just missing out on the yellow jersey, and Mark Cavendish conceding a near insurmountable advantage to Thor Hushovd in the points competition. And finally, it wasn’t a great day for the race commissaries, whose questionable decision to disqualify Cavendish from the stage suggested that, at best, they are making it all up as they go along and, at worst, smacked of political motivation.

Let’s start with the story of the stage. A 12-man breakaway, which included Hincapie, successfully slipped away from the main field, with Katusha’s Sergei Ivanov making a decisive solo break in the closing kilometres to claim the stage, 16 seconds ahead of the remains of the breakaway group and over five minutes ahead of the peloton.

Columbia attempted to control the peloton’s sprint to the finish, leaving the charge as late as possible, in part because the finish was slightly uphill, but also to maximize the gap between Hincapie and maillot jaune Rinaldo Nocentini in the hope of getting their man into yellow.

As they sped into the last 250 metres, and with green jersey Hushovd sitting on his wheel, Cavendish looked over his shoulder and appeared to squeeze out his Norwegian rival. Cavendish led across the line, but soon had his points taken away by the commissaries, who deemed that he had deliberately and dangerously obstructed Hushovd.

With only one sprint finish remaining – the finale in Paris – Cav’s disqualification increased Hushovd’s advantage from three to 18 points: not insurmountable, but it will require a crash or a major error on Hushovd’s part for the Manxman to overhaul the deficit.

Having now seen the sprint finish – including the more revealing overhead shots – maybe ten times, I have to agree with TV commentator Paul Sherwen’s view that Cavendish maintains a straight line in his sprint – he certainly does not deliberately chop across Hushovd – and it is in fact the barriers which encroach onto the road in the final hundred metres or so.

Essentially, it appears Cavendish did nothing more than check Hushovd’s position and maintain a straight line to the finish; the Norwegian simply ran out of space. The only racing reason I can see for the commissaires’ decision is the look over the shoulder, which suggests the possibility of a deliberate block. But, applying even the tiniest bit of common sense, it is difficult to see why Cavendish would choose to baulk an opponent he knows he can easily outsprint anyway, a fact Hushovd himself readily accepts.

But don’t just take my word for it, here’s what Robbie McEwen – who has more experience than most when it comes to the argy-bargy of sprint finishes – had to say on Twitter last night: “Cav didn’t really move much; the barrier did. Full disqualification is harsh. The most they should have done – if anything – was to reverse their placings. If Cav hadn’t had a look, he wouldn’t have been DQ’d. It’s a fine line, and a shame to ruin a good battle [for the green jersey].”

The commissaires’ decision was harsh, but perhaps understandable, particularly given how vague many of cycling’s rules are. What was more annoying was the attitude of the chief commissaire when interviewed later about it, during which he stated that his decision was final and that the appeals procedure was that there was no right of appeal. Because he said so. So there.

It was a bit like listening to motor racing’s FIA, another organisation frequently accused of applying its own rules with all the consistency of unstirred porridge. And it was also a prime case of selective amnesia, as it was only on Tuesday that the race referees decided that a split in the peloton had appeared at the finish at Issoudun – a decision which cost Bradley Wiggins (among others) 15 seconds – only to change their minds overnight.

So why the unequivocal statement that there was no possibility of a review yesterday? Could it possibly have anything to do with the article published by L’Équipe earlier this week in which some unnamed riders claimed Cavendish had uttered several anti-French comments while waiting to catch a transfer flight last Sunday?

Petty politics interfering in sport? Nah, it could never happen, could it?

I wonder what the commissaries would have decided if it had been Cavendish who had been supposedly blocked off by Hushovd. Hmm.

As it turned out, Columbia’s attempt to slow down the sprint to Hincapie’s benefit failed, as Nocentini retained the yellow jersey by five seconds. After the stage, Hincapie was livid, accusing both Astana and Garmin of conspiring with AG2R to help defend Mocentini’s maillot jaune by working with them to close the gap to the breakaway.

Hincapie had the wrong end of the stick. For sure, Astana took a number of turns on the front of the peloton, but it was clear they were tapping out a pretty easy tempo. If anything, they appeared to be controlling the pace of the main pack to ensure the breakaway continued to eke out their lead. That seems the more logical scenario to me, for the 36-year old Hincapie is a much-loved elder statesman within the peloton, and was also Lance Armstrong’s key lieutenant on each of his seven winning Tours, for whom the directeur sportif was Johan Bruyneel, who just happens to be in charge of Astana.

Armstrong’s post-race Twitter comments are certainly consistent with this view. “No one – and I mean no one – wanted George in yellow more than me. My vision was George would have the yellow jersey by two minutes. That’s why we were riding medium [tempo] to let the gap get as big as possible. When we started [the gap to Hincapie’s breakaway group] was 6:00; when we stopped it was 8:40. Until 10km to go he was solidly in yellow until Garmin put on the gas and made sure it didn’t happen.”

Garmin certainly worked extremely hard at the front of the peloton in the final 20 kilometres or so to help reel in the gap to the leaders, and it doesn’t take a genius to work out why, given their long-running feud with Hincapie’s Columbia team. It was, to be honest, poor form on the part of the Garmin management – there was no need for them to send their men to the front, other than as an act of spite to prevent one of their rival’s team members enjoying one final day in the sun.

Violating cycling’s unwritten code of honour often comes back to bite the offender. Mark Cavendish was arguably punished as much for his cockiness and perceived lack of humility as for his alleged anti-French comments, and it will be interesting to see if Garmin’s actions yesterday come home to roost them at some point. Cyclists – like elephants – have long memories.

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