Unanimous or unfair? Opinions divided on Sam Bennett’s Vuelta relegation

Irish rider appeared to win Stage 9 of the race but was later relegated after inspection

Irish rider Sam Bennett of Deceuninck-Quick Step team reacts after being relegated for irregular sprinting following the 9th stage of the Vuelta a Espanabetween Castrillo del Val and Aguilar de Campoo. Photo: Kiko Huesca/EPA

Irish rider Sam Bennett of Deceuninck-Quick Step team reacts after being relegated for irregular sprinting following the 9th stage of the Vuelta a Espanabetween Castrillo del Val and Aguilar de Campoo. Photo: Kiko Huesca/EPA

 

It’s a rare thing for any decision by UCI race commissaires to find harmony among the riders and teams it impacts on, and rarer still for any of them to change their minds about it.

Thursday’s Stage 9 finish of the Vuelta a España is offering further proof of exactly that – the UCI, the governing body of world cycling, stating their commissaires’ decision to relegate Sam Bennett after his initial victory was “unanimous”, while Bennett’s team manager Patrick Lefevere at Deceuninck-Quick-Step described it as “bullshit”.

Bennett himself had originally described the bunch sprint finish at Aguilar de Campoo as “a bit sketchy”, the Irish rider taking what appeared to be his second stage win of the race after finishing just under a bike length clear of former Bora-Hansgrohe team mate Pascal Ackermann.

After reviewing the overhead race replay, the UCI decided Bennett could be seen to make head and shoulder contact with the Latvian rider Emils Liepins from Trek-Segafredo, just under 1km from the line, not once but twice. Bennett was then relegated to the back of the main group of the stage, in this case 110th, docked five points from the points classification, and fined 500 Swiss francs - a little under €500.

Later on Thursday night, the UCI issued a short statement of their own about the relegation: “UCI Commissaires’ Panel relegated rider Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) for shouldering off another rider at 500m to go of the 9th stage of La Vuelta. The decision, taken unanimously, was based on television footage and taken as per article 2.12.007 of UCI Regulations sanctioning ‘deviation from the chosen line or irregular sprint’. Both the rider and the team’s Sports Director have been heard by the Panel.”

Only Lefevere, the 65-year-old from Belgium and currently considered the most successful general manager in cycling, still wasn’t buying it, producing a series of tweets on Thursday evening after initially celebrating what would have been Bennett’s 50th career win and a 100th Grand Tour stage win for Deceuninck-Quick-Step.

“What a bullshit,” he tweeted. “He (Bennett) was in his lead out and the @trek rider want to pull him out of it. But we know already a longtime the incompetence of the @Uci var (Video Assisted Referee) safety first”.

Lefevere, who himself won a stage of the Vuelta back in 1978, directed his displeasure at Luca Guercilena, the Italian general manager of Trek-Segafredo: “How many sprints [HAS LIEPENS]won @l_guercilena? [WHERE]was your lead-out?”

With that Guercilena responded in a Tweet of his own: “I reply as well as you mention Trek-Segafredo rider. To be clear first he was put off Ackerman[N’S] wheel by your lead out, then Bennett try to put him down two times in a totally incorrect and useless way. TV images are clear enough. No VAR needed at all.”

Already renowned for his often blunt remarks, Lefevere didn’t let the matter rest, later adding: “A lead out has to be respected and @Sammmy_Be (Bennett) defended his line.”

The issue appeared to be twofold: Liepins was indeed trying to ride onto what remained of Deceuninck-QuickStep’s lead out train, at the same time in danger of boxing Bennett into the race barrier to his right, just before another final gentle right turn before the final line. As it turned out Bora-Hansgrohe mostly controlled the final lead out train, and Liepins ended up 13th on the stage.

Still the outcome is a familiar scenario: on Stage 11 of the Tour de France, the commissaires similarly relegated Peter Sagan, also of Bora-Hansgrohe, to the rear of the peloton after a dangerous move in the sprint where he was seen to shoulder-barge into Wout van Aert of team Jumbo-Visma.

In addition, the UCI had promised to be extra vigilant towards overly aggressive sprinting after another of Bennett’s teammates at Deceuninck-Quick Step, Dutch cyclist Fabio Jakobsen, was involved in a horrific crash in a stage finish of the Tour of Poland in August, colliding with the barriers at high speed and ending up in a medically-induced coma.

Bennett was also shown on race TV having a discussion with the commissaires about the incident, but the decision stood. Second-placed Ackermann then offered his own opinion, saying the safety of the riders must come first, the German referring to his own relegation in the Scheldeprijs earlier this month after a major crash in the final sprint. Bennett himself stayed out of trouble on that occasion.

“I didn’t expect that because Sam was just in front, but when I saw the video behind, it wasn’t a fair action for him,” he said. “I think, after all the crashes in the last weeks, we have to take care about the other guys. If there is no hole, we have to stop. I feel sorry for Sam, but they took me out in Scheldeprijs and now we have to ride more fair.”

It’s easy to guess what will be on Bennett’s mind going into Friday’s Stage 10, the last properly flat stage before the finish in Madrid on Sunday week: the 185km takes in some bumpy roads close to the Bay of Biscay on the route from Castro Urdiales to Suances, but the last 10km is virtually pancake flat.

The last time the race finished here in 2008 the stage was won by Deceuninck-Quick Step’s Paolo Bettini, the Italian rider and two-time world champion, in what proved his final triumph as a professional rider. Shoulders may be contained this time but sparks may fly.

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