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Should Sagan Have Been Disqualified?

Stage Four of the 2017 Tour de France is not going to be forgotten in a hurry, so rather than post a quick reaction to the events, Andrew and I have taken a while to have a calm discussion of the controversy.

Le Tour de France 2017 - Stage Four Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Conor: What’s your opinion on Sagan's disqualification?

Andrew: I think it is a fair interpretation of the rules. Except it isn't commensurate with letting Demare keep the stage. Or with historic treatment of similar events, as far as I can recall (imperfectly). As ever, the lack of consistency bothers me.
On the other hand... it is Sagan. Tee hee.

Conor: I’m not sure that it is a fair interpretation, purely because while yes, Sagan was sprinting dangerously, it’s not completely clear that he caused the crash and in any case, people just as culpable for crashes have gotten off scot-free in the past. Relegate Sagan to last place? Sure. Take some green jersey points off him? That’s fine too, but kicking him out of the Tour for a crash for which he wasn’t one hundred per cent to blame is an overreaction which will likely disimprove the Tour.

The lack of punishment for anybody else involved is a complete scandal, in what may have been the dirtiest sprint I’ve ever seen live. Sagan deserved to be relegated. Démare deserves to be relegated. If Cavendish had miraculously avoided crashing, I’d have relegated him as well. Remember the final stage of the Giro last year, where Nizzolo won and got relegated? Practically everyone fighting for the stage sprinted more egregiously than Nizzolo did that day, and I’d have given the win to Kristoff based on nothing but precedent. Bouhanni must be feeling a little hard done by.

Le Tour de France 2017 - Stage Four Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Andrew: Oh, no, there's nothing fair whatsoever about the tee hee comment. It is purely a subjective comment based on me not liking him very much. He's absolutely no more guilty than many previous offenders - I wish I was better at remembering what I knew, and knowing more, but I've seen this movie before and it normally ends differently.

As to the rest of that sprint, I agree. Kristoff may or may not have been involved but plenty were, beginning with Demare and Cav. Bou Bou is someone else I feel sorry for - ultimately there is a prior misdeeds element to all of this. There shouldn't be, but there definitely is. He's been too naughty too often to get leeway and that does mean the commissaires go looking for it.

The "he knocked down a Brit" argument seems to me idiotic, but am I just being patriotic? If I can't rely on an Irishman to point that out to me, I don't know anything.

Conor: As one of the disappointingly few people who dislikes Sagan, Sagan’s hair, Sagan’s style of racing, Sagan’s popularity and everything Sagan does, I’m pretty certain that I’m being unbiased when I say that disqualifying him from the race is an absolutely ridiculous move. Not only is he one of the sport’s biggest draws, as much as that may annoy me, but he genuinely has not done anything worthy of expulsion. I think the elbow is a statement, in the language of sprinters, of “Cav, don’t you dare go by me,” and the fact that Cavendish didn’t submit to the demand caused the crash. Both of those approaches are outside of the rules, and more so than, say but no more outside of the rules than warrants a relegation. Sagan has been treated unjustly, but the fact that it’s an almost universally unpopular decision proves to me that it’s not trying to favouritise anyone.

The four most recent sprint relegations I remember are:

Bouhanni at the Cyclassics Hamburg last year
Bouhanni again, at Paris-Nice (this is actually very similar to the crash yesterday, the main difference being that Matthews stayed on his bike.
Zakarin, on the top of a mountain in the Tour de Romandie
And Nizzolo, in the Giro, as I mentioned earlier.

Bouhanni Matthews Near Crash Stage 2 Paris Nice KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP/Getty Images

All of them involve deviating lines, all of them involve elbows, and all of them got relegated and not disqualified. What happens in none of them is a crash, and the fact that Cavendish tried to squeeze through that tiniest of gaps, resulting in catastrophe, is the direct reason for Sagan’s disqualification rather than any great crusade for justice, favouritism for Brits, dislike of Sagan, trying to spice up the green jersey classification or any other idea that’s been mentioned.

Andrew: You're right, of course. Not to get philosophical, but there's a question in justice about whether actions count, or it is purely consequences - that is, most places have stricter sentences for "death by dangerous driving" (whatever the name given) than for merely "dangerous driving". Often, the sole factor is luck - if you go round a bend too fast on the wrong side of the road, you're making bikes play Russian Roulette, effectively, but most people get away with it. Whether you do or not makes no difference to the action, but a massive one to the consequences.

This is obviously not a legal case, nor is it something that's resulted in death. Still, you're right to say that Cav falling, and hurting himself badly, is obviously a factor. Each of those examples you give were "dangerous" they just didn't have the same result. Except! Sagan knew there was a barrier. He wasn't just leaning on Cav, he was pinning him. Does that make a big difference? I don't know. I suspect it might have been part of the assessment.

The other interesting counter-factual, as you suggest, is the question of what would have happened if Cav had backed off - squeezed out, nowhere to go, he sits up. My suspicion is that Sagz would have got away with it. Cav does have a history of sitting up in sprints when he can't see a win (a rare moment of good sense among sprinters, incidentally, and something I don't hate as much as others seem to) and also has a well-publicised lack of form. I can see, if he finished 11th, say, the judges having a look and effectively saying "a plague on all your houses. That was a dirty sprint and don't do it again, but we're taking no specific action".

The popularity/bias thing. I've seen so many versions of this, especially on twitter. I thank my lucky stars that I long ago swore off any forums apart form ours, as I dread to think what lunacy lurks around the bottom half of the internet. I agree with you - I don't think there's any favouritism. I don't see the percentage in it. Yes, I'm sure Dimension Data are pissed off, and they're a major part of ASO's plans - but Cav's out whatever they do - why would anyone say, or imply, "let's make it fairer by throwing out the rainbow jersey - we've lost Cav (and Piti, etc) so let's take another headliner away." It just makes no sense.

The more I think about it, the more I think they took a decision which they felt they had to take, knowing it would be unpopular, and (maybe) knowing that it went against established norms. They did it because they saw a serious crash and it worried them. The question is, will we see safer sprints as a result? I doubt you can achieve that by making an example of someone - even Sagan, even in the Tour. This will need to be the new normal to get safe sprints. Reducing sprint trains, clearing street furniture and putting finishes in sensible places would all be less contentious ways to achieve that, no?

Conor: I couldn’t agree with you more in anything you say there. If we’re going to get into the topic of making sprints safer, I don’t know if there’s really any way to prevent the occasional crash in an activity which involves a lot of men riding bikes at seventy kilometres per hour, each with the express priority of going faster than everybody else. I don’t agree, particularly, with the three-second rule brought in for this race because while it may, very minimally, affect the composition of the front forty riders in the last three kilometres of a stage, it doesn’t take away the same incentive for GC teams to get to the front which persists throughout any stage – it’s where Chris Froome goes to avoid crashes, and it’s where he’ll stay to do that until the last possible moment in any race. Nor do I agree with freezing times at the three km banner, the flamme rouge, the nearest Carrefour to the finish or anywhere but the finish line. That won’t stop crashes either, rather causing two sprints – one to the line and the other to the designated line for freezing time. Throwing people out of races for dangerous sprinting won’t help anything either. Then again, neither will relegating – do you think Nacer Bouhanni won’t risk being relegated from first if the only alternative is to ease up and finish eighth? There’ll always be someone willing to take risks, someone willing to stick out an elbow, someone willing to squeeze through gaps, and thus occasional crashes in sprints are completely unavoidable whatever remedy for them you may think of.

Andrew: So, where does all this leave us? We basically agree that it was (a) unbiased, (b) within the letter of the law but harsh relative to others, and (c) pointless. I imagine all this will simmer down soon, but I don't know what the long-term consequences will be.

Conor: I think it leaves us with some nervous sprinters, who now don’t know how far they can go in sprints without the harshest of penalties, some confused commissaires who don’t know what precedents under which they’re working, and some casual fans who don’t have Sagan and Cav to entertain them and are thus that bit more likely to switch off their television sets. It’ll simmer down, crashes happen and Sagan didn’t really need more green in his wardrobe anyway, but it’s really an important moment for future events like this. We might begin to see more expulsions for tame moves, especially with less famous riders involved, perhaps.

Andrew: Yeah, I think that's probably right. There might be an unintended consequence in that uncertainty among sprinters won't help.
I leave you with this thought - how many more have to be thrown out before my McLay hype starts looking sensible?

Conor: Well let me see. There’s 193 riders left in the race, so if you leave Quintana, Contador and all of his team...182 disqualifications today seem likely?

Andrew: That's suitably mean.