Dylan Groenewegen has been banned for 9 months after he caused Fabio Jakobsen to crash in the opening stage of the Tour de Pologne. This is a record ban for an in-race incident and we actually don’t know why he’s got such a long ban. You might have a view but that’s not the point.
We do know nine months is long. The UCI has its Disciplinary Commission with about 30 members, most of them appear sports lawyers and there are commissaires on there too. How many were involved the decision here and whether the verdict was unanimous isn’t clear. They’ve ruled before, incidents that come to mind include Gianni Moscon striking Elie Gesbert in the 2018 Tour de France and getting a five week ban, Theo Boss copping a month for dunking Daryl Impey in the 2009 Tour of Turkey. The previous “record” was six months when Wang Xin started a fight with two members of the Swiss team during the Tour of Hainan in 2017 and got a six month ban, which the Chinese federation upped to two years.
In Groenewegen’s case he broke the rule about deviating from the line in a sprint, this much we know. Here’s the rulebook:
2.3.036: Riders shall be strictly forbidden to deviate from the lane they selected when launching into the sprint and, in so doing, endangering others
Note the dual conditionality: deviating and endangering. The standard punishment for this is relegation, a rider is reclassified to last place in the group and if it’s a stage race can get a penalty on the points competition. There’s a grey area here though, it’s right to review incidents on their merits so that a dumb move is treated differently from a dangerous one but subjectivity is awkward for black-and-white rulebooks.
Groenewegen’s penalty is back-dated to the time of the incident. He has been injured, plus there’s the off-season so in theory he’ll miss February, March and April which is like a de facto three month ban, right? Actually no, because if Groenewegen wanted to help his injury rehab with a village cyclo-cross race or a track meet this winter he can’t. It is a de jure nine month ban and this matters. First because it’s a record length ban, no other sprinter has come close. Second, it sets a precedent, if the same scenario is repeated in an early season race for another sprinter in 2021 then their whole season is compromised.
There’s just one big problem here. We don’t know why Groenewegen got the nine month ban. Yes he pulled a very dangerous move on Fabio Jakobsen. But this doesn’t explain the nine month duration. Now you might have your view why he got the ban, that it was an exemplary punishment, that it was prompted by the gravity of Jakobsen’s injuries, the horrible images on television, that because the verdict’s fallen in winter it’s longer so as to cover more in-season racing, or some other version… perhaps even a pet conspiracy theory. But that’s precisely the problem: everyone is left with their “take”, a snap reaction rather than the actual verdict. It’s one of those Rohrschach Test moments where what people see in the decision probably might tell us more about them rather than the verdict. Only here we need to know the reasons behind the decision, instead of what our impulses tell us. Sprints happen all the time and riders must know the rules, how they are interpreted and whether this has changed. We’ve got the verdict but we need the reasoned decision.
One thing to note is that we’re all outsiders here. Those in on the case accept the ban as both Groenewegen and his Jumbo-Visma team are not appealing. What do they know that we do not? Or do they just want to move on and not reheat the matter out of respect for Jakobsen?
The other thing missing is an exploration of the circumstances in Katowice on the day, namely the downhill finish and the barriers in use. However this is harder to rule on. Search the UCI rulebook and you won’t find downhill finishes are prohibited, nor are there rules on barriers. On the barriers there is a new Annex in the rulebook where issues like “specific failings in the final kilometre” when it comes to course safety can be reported and barriers are cited as an example. There are also guidelines – not rules – about barriers in another document which say World Tour races should avoid having the ones with feet that stick out for the final 500 metres, and those with hoardings or banners attached should be weighed down so they don’t blow over in the wind but that’s it. In short there’s nothing to nail on the race organisers in terms of a rule breach. But just as air accident investigators “never waste a crash” there ought to be lessons to be learned from Katowice on the organisational side too when it comes to race safety, just because the barriers didn’t breach any guidelines then doesn’t mean the rules can’t be improved for next year. Only neither the UCI or the Tour of Poland has said anything here.
Dylan Groenewegen has got a nine month ban, a record for an in-race disciplinary matter. Why is it so long? That’s the point, you might have a view but until we get to read the reasoned decision everyone is left offering their cent’s, penny’s, centime’s and centavo‘s view which is noise. The sprinters need to know the signal.