It’s a relief that Tejay van Garderen didn’t win the 2019 Tour of California. This isn’t aimed at him, but at the fact that the UCI race commissaires issued a terrible decision on the fourth stage, which unfairly tipped the race in his favor.
Here’s a short recap. In the final seven kilometers of stage four, he crashed on his own in the pack. Nothing special to his crash. It was a wide, straight road. The pack didn’t seem to be going fast. It appears he overlapped wheels and went down on his own. Needing a new bike, he took a teammate’s and got going. Then he had several teammates on hand to pace him back, and they even took pace from a team car or multiple team cars for what seemed to be more than momentary. Then, they were stopped by a multi-rider crash in the road at about 3.2km remaining.
As a result, he lost 51 seconds at the finish line. Dropping him from first to 13th, and pretty much out of contention for the overall win. Gianni Moscon, a rival on the Ineos team, sitting a few seconds behind on general classification, was also held up by the same crash, and also dropped out of contention.
I agree that chances are van Garderen would have regained the pack if it weren’t for that second crash and that Moscon would have cruised in to the finish without losing any time. But the incident was outside the 3km mark, which is the UCI limit in stage races for awarding crashed riders the pack time rather than their own finishing time. I also think it’s fair to wonder if no one would have been awarded this break had there not been a camera-mounted motorcycle following the race leader and showing what the crash carnage looked like from the perspective of someone caught behind. Maybe they would have awarded the group time even if only those who weren’t in overall contention were stopped by the crash, but it seems unlikely.
The commissaires haven’t explained their reasoning, nor do I expect them to. It seems they did it without a protest from the EF Education First team. It seems that van Garderen had mixed feelings about it. And most racers and team directors seemed to think it was a bad decision.
It was. And for many reasons.
It’s bad for the race. Amgen is the primary sponsor, and while they may be sponsoring the race for valid marketing reasons, it’s a reminder that Amgen is also a major producer of EPO, the wonder drug that not only helped cancer patients, but took cheating in bike racing to new extremes.
It’s also bad because this is at least the second time in the history of the event that race commissaires bent the rules for an American favorite. Back in 2007, they turned the 3K rule into a 10k rule, called by some “The Levi Rule,” the result being local boy Levi Leipheimer could hold onto the leader’s jersey in his hometown of Santa Rosa.
No race should want a reputation of bending the rules for perceived favorites. At the same time, because the race is part of the WorldTour, and racers and teams appear to further the objectives of their team and sponsors, I don’t think the race will actually be penalized for these bad decisions.
It’s bad for racing. Sport is dependent on rules. And ignoring them like this is not only demoralizing for racers, but is also sending a bad sign to spectators and fans, that there are other values besides fair play which hold greater importance. Considering the ongoing battle against doping, times when the rule minders stick up for the rules is a good thing.
I can imagine the commissaires using a fair play argument to defend their reasoning. To me, I don’t see any extenuating circumstances that necessitate moving the 3km limit out a further 200 meters. Yes, bad luck, but that’s part of racing.
It’s bad for the EF Education First team. They’re generally an underdog team, with a smaller budget than many of their competitors. As with any racing team, they are out to win bike races. At the same time, with their heavily marketed “Gone Racing” videos and efforts to expand beyond traditional racing, they are making a statement about the journey being at least as important as the result. Further, their sponsor, EF, hangs their proverbial helmet on experiences and exploration, not results. Values matter to the sponsor, seemingly more than results.
I’m relieved that van Garderen didn’t win. At the same time, he clearly didn’t have the legs to do so when it mattered, which was going to be found out regardless. The final podium of the Tour of California appears not to have been impacted by the commissaire’s decision, though it’s hard not to wonder if the second place finisher, EF Education First’s Sergio Higuita, who wasn’t caught in the crash, might have benefited from having the whole team backing him for the final three stages. It appears that of the top ten riders in the race, only van Garderen, in ninth, had their place ‘saved’ by the decision. And while EF Education First won the Team Classification, it’s unclear if they would not have done so without the decision.
I guess it gives us something to talk about, to wonder ‘what if…’