Sprinters are a rare breed. Off the bike some can be brash and overconfident, but the majority tend to be softly spoken and gentle creatures. However, when you put either kind on a bicycle within sight of a finish line they become ferocious raging animals, gladiators fighting as if their lives depended upon crossing that thin white line first no matter how small the margin. They want to win, they need to win, they must win, just as much as normal people must breathe oxygen to stay alive. Winning is all that matters once a sprinter enters the final 500 meters of any race. When that race is the Tour de France that need to win is intensified massively.
When you see a sprinter cross the line first, the look on their face as they throw their arms aloft is not just joy or elation. It is largely relief. The pressure they put themselves under and the external pressure to win from teams, fans and the media is beyond comprehension for most normal people, but it is part of everyday life for a sprinter.
Training for a sprinter involves pushing their body to a point where they end up vomiting on the side of the road, not infrequently. It involves psyching their minds up to a degree that makes them very difficult to live with. It involves huge sacrifice and it is anything but easy.
Spectators both on the roadside and on the couch watching TV, wait for hours on end to see a dramatic sprint finish. Just watching it is heart pumping, adrenaline fuelled pure excitement, so imagine what it must be like for the sprinters themselves out there in the heat of battle. Travelling at speeds of over 60kph, millimetres from the wheel in front or beside, as the arrowhead of the peleton snakes its way to the finish line takes nerves of steel. There has always been and will always be pushing and shoving. Sprinting is brutally physical, and so it should be. There are rules and most will go right up to the line on them. Sometimes they cross over. Sometimes they get away with it, and sometimes they don’t.
Yesterday the World Champion Peter Sagan was thrown off the Tour de France after a dramatic sprint finish where Mark Cavendish crashed after coming into contact with Sagan.
Did he deserve it ?
Did he go right up to the line of the rulebook?
No, only about 3/4’s of the way there.
Did he take his hand off the bars?
Did he headbutt another rider?
Did he intentionally cause another rider to crash?
No, not intentionally, but he would have been aware of the danger. Essentially, in a split second, they both played a game of chicken.
Did he close the door and drift off his line?
Did the stage winner do the same thing?
Did he elbow Cav?
Did it look bad?
Should that be enough to get any rider thrown off the biggest race in the World ?
Was it enough to warrant a relegation or similar penalty?
Sagan is the best bike handler in the professional peleton. If that was any other rider who Cav came into contact with they would probably have also crashed and fallen and would not have been disqualified.
When you look at him pulling wheelies or doing any other tricks he is very much knees and elbows. He uses them to balance his centre of gravity.
Yesterday when Cav saw a small gap that had the possibility of leading to a record breaking 31st stage win of the Tour de France, as a true sprinting Gladiator he went for it. The chances of making it were probably less then 50/50 but as a man who needs victory just as much as mere mortals need air and water to live, he went for it. He didn’t make it.
When Cav’s bars came into contact with Sagans leg Cav was a gonner. Sagan, just like he always does when pulling wheelies or doing anything that requires his supernatural bike control to escape from, instinctively put out right elbow to steady himself and to avoid falling and actually got hooked slightly in Cavs brake lever hood. Head on camera angles make it look like he elbowed Cav but that was definitely not the case.
Stage winner, French man Arnaud Demare did a bigger switch than Sagan but the organisers saw no problem with that. He is now a strong favourite to win the Green points jersey with Sagan out of the race.
By throwing the World Champion and cyclings’ biggest star from the race the organisers have sent out a strong message to the other sprinters, but is it the correct one?
Will the Finish line now be erected at Zebra crossings and will lanes be painted down along the final 200 meters with riders not being allowed to stray outside them? Will the greatest sporting spectacle of the modern era where the gladiators of the toughest sport in the World put everything on the line for the sheer chance of victory be reduced to the excitement of a game of Tiddleywinks?
Only time will tell.