February 20, 2007
The neutral that wasn't
So race officials at the Tour of California made a decision yesterday to neutralize the finishing circuits of Santa Rosa after a big crash caused a massive pileup, isolating a number of highly placed riders, including race leader Levi Leipheimer of Discovery Channel, and 2nd-placed Jason Donald of Team Slipstream. Ken Conley at Spare Cycles found himself right on top of the crash, and got some great pictures of the pileup and the finish.
Over the last decade or so, the UCI has established a neutral zone at the end of races. Initially, this was set at 1 kilometer to ride, specifically targeting the sport's fairly common final-sprint crashes. Each time a big crash has affected a race a little bit outside the current neutral zone distance, the sport has expanded it, first to 2 kilometers, then to 3 km, where it stands now. But yesterday's crash didn't happen at 3.2 kilometers to ride -- it was at nearly 10 kilometers, when some Bott's dots relocated a rider's wheel, causing a chain reaction in the field.
Chris at Podium Cafe offered up a satirical news story, calling it a “military-style assault” by Discovery Channel and adding by way of commentary:
Seriously. Neutralizing the race from 9km. It's just February, but this is not cool.
CyclingNews talked to the Chief Commissaire, Fabrizio Darnellio, who Kirsten Robbins reports initiated discussion of extending the neutral zone:
"Due to the size of the crash and the large number of riders that went down in the crash, our panel of commissaries made a decision to award all the riders with the time of the winner," Jim Birrell, race director said. "I think it was a fair decision and the right decision."
PodiumCafe reports that Allan Davis, Leipheimer's Discovery Channel teammate, would have assumed the race lead, barring the judge's decision, but at least one story at VeloNews suggested that Ben Jacques-Maynes had made the break and would have assumed race leadership, and the CyclingNews story confirms that. Jacques-Maynes and his DS at Priority Health took a fairly high road. Here's the rider:
"Thinking that I was going to be in the leader's jersey is an honour and a dream but that is counting chickens before the eggs hatch," Jacques Maynes said. "The commissaries ruling is sticking and we just have to live with that. We have a lot more racing and my team is motivated to keep going and to race our hearts out. I'm trying not to pay attention to all these details and get on with the job at hand."
Jacques Maynes adds, "I'm not in a position to question the commissaries and I just gave to live with it keep racing my bike. I'm paid to pedal and they are paid to make those decisions. It is hard to swallow that but that is what we have to do."
CN also reports that no protest was lodged. David Zabriskie's crash was apparently out on the road, before the race entered Santa Rosa. Head and wrist injuries forced him out of the race, but X-rays came up clear.
For me, I think the decision is counter to the traditions of bike racing. I've always been a fan of Leipheimer's, but it rubbed me the wrong way to hear him, in a post-race interview, talking about how he had come out and “defended the leader's jersey” in his hometown. I hope Discovery Channel didn't pull any strings to manipulate the finish.
Update: The New York Times weighs in, with quotes from Erik Breukink and Bjarne Riis. Also Leipheimer, who “said he did not hear complaints from fellow riders.”
I'm with you, when Levi said that bit about "defending the jersey" yesterday, I really raised an eyebrow. His comments to the press in Cyclingnews and VeloNews aren't that flattering, either. I can see both sides of the neutralization argument (if it had been anyone else leading in Santa Rosa instead of the hometown boy, would there be such an uproar, I wonder?), though I think they either should have made that decision while the race was still going or not at all.
Posted by: Jessica at Feb 20, 2007 4:29:44 PM