If you haven’t heard yet — and if you’re a typical American, you probably haven’t — there’s an uproar in the world of professional cycling right now. On Tuesday’s fourth stage at the Tour de France, Mark Cavendish and Peter Sagan, two of the world’s best, collided near the finish line, with Cavendish ending up on the ground with a broken shoulder (having also been run over by two trailing riders). Sagan was later disqualified from the rest of the 21-stage Tour, apparently for throwing an elbow that the judges believe caused Cavendish to crash.
This disqualification is a big deal because the Tour is a really big deal, at least for the rest of the world: 10 to 12 million people will watch it live from the roadside, crowding onto narrow shoulders or grassy embankments for the chance to see a pack of riders zoom by in about 15 seconds. More significantly, over a billion fans will watch it on television worldwide — meaning it gets about 800 million more viewers than the Super Bowl. It’s a branding bonanza for the race sponsors, and losing a superstar rider like Sagan is a huge blow to their marketing plans.
Sagan, 27, is one of the biggest stars in cycling right now because he’s incredibly talented, not to mention affable and fun. He rides wheelies over the finish line after he’s been dropped by the pack. His surfer persona makes him sound a bit like Sean Penn as Jeff Spicoli in “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” only with a Slovakian accent. If you were having a party, you would want him there because he would sing karaoke. While doing a one-handed wheelie. On a picnic table. He’s also gotten into hot water for pinching the backside of a podium presenter at the Tour of Flanders. He’s matured since then, for instance by asking fellow racers to not litter during races.
At 32, Cavendish has been one of cycling’s most prolific winners: He has 30 stage victories at the Tour alone. He’s known for being combative in races and with the media, but is generally well liked by his peers, even if he does knock some of them down sometimes. He’s also probably on the downside of his career, losing the dominance he once enjoyed even as he has gained an aura of domesticity with his wife, a former model, and their three children.
It’s uncertain whether Sagan’s antics or Cavendish’s past played into the decision of the Union Cycliste Internationale jury to disqualify Sagan. The U.C.I., based in Aigle, Switzerland, is world cycling’s governing body — equivalent to the commissioner’s office for the N.F.L. or Major League Baseball. Another organization, the Amaury Sport Organisation, runs (and makes most of the money from) the Tour de France. They are the Simon and Garfunkel of bike racing. And like Paul and Art, the A.S.O. doesn’t really need the U.C.I. and could easily run the Tour by itself. Many fans wish it did this year, because when the U.C.I. stepped in to suspend one of the most popular racers in the sport, it was a terrible call.
Just a few hundred yards from the finish, Cavendish had essentially tried to squeeze between Sagan and the metal roadside barriers separating the riders from the fans. This entailed riding through Sagan’s armpit. When contact was inevitably made, Sagan brushed him off and Cavendish got caught up in the barriers and went down, with two trailing racers riding over him. The videotape of the incident makes it pretty clear that there doesn’t seem to be any malicious wrongdoing on Sagan’s part. Which makes his disqualification by the U.C.I. perplexing.
You see, to be a fan of cycling is to be an inadvertent aficionado of international intrigue. A Slovakian rider took down a British rider and then a Swiss organization suspended him from a French race. The incident between Sagan and Cavendish did not seem like an offense that warranted disqualification. They were two racers trying to be in the same place simultaneously, and Sagan managed to stay upright. Had the incident taken place in the middle of the road instead of up against the barriers, Cavendish probably would’ve stayed upright. But Cavendish hit the dirt, and then the U.C.I. judges got involved.
And just like that, they drained the biggest race of the year of its most interesting, audacious and entertaining rider. But let’s face it, I’ll still watch the rest of the Tour. Because I am an amateur racer, and like many amateurs, I get a weird satisfaction out of watching the pros do all the things I do, just much better in a mind-blowing sort of way. It’s a quirky sport, full of physical suffering, arcane tactics and strange apparel. It’s a sport for gear heads and masochists. I get that it’s not for everyone. But to its truest fans, it remains a beautiful and thrilling thing. And even without Sagan and Cavendish, there will be plenty of daring breakaways, gritty climbs, breathtakingly fast descents and, yes, rollicking pack sprints.
We cyclists have endured neon Lycra, euro mullets, doping scandals and black socks. We’ll get past this.
Dan Schmalz lives and rides in Ridgewood, New Jersey.