Shortly after the finish of the Omloop Het Nieuwsblad in Ghent, Belgium, several director sportifs were furious and hunting down the UCI commissaires on site. Before and during the race, the UCI commissaires reminded the riders about the rule that obliges riders to stay away from sidewalks and bike paths.
On Saturday, they specifically targeted the Mater pavé section in a decisive zone of the race. The message from the UCI-commissaires caused chaos. Some groups used the bike path and other riders were forced to get off and ride the cobbles for two kilometres.
The organisers had a dream podium featuring Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet (BMC Racing), world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) and popular Sep Vanmarcke (Cannondale-Drapac). Would they disqualify this trio and call Trek-Segafredo's Fabio Felline as winner?
A pavé section of two kilometres after 148 kilometres of racing was targeted. The zone featured after three key climbs in the race, the cobbled Taaienberg and Eikenberg and then the Wolvenberg. Then there’s a lot of pavé awaiting the riders with the Ruiterstraat first. At kilometre 148 come the Karel Martelstraat and Holleweg street, a section often referred to as the cobbles of Mater. A smoothly paved sidewalk flanks the section, 50 kilometres from the finish in Ghent.
The first groups rode on the sidewalk. A little later, the sidewalk was blocked by a motorbike from the UCI commissaires, as photographer Tim De Waele spotted.
“A group that included Jasper Stuyven, Gianni Moscon, Matteo Trentin and Ian Stannard was furious when a motorbike was standing still on the sidewalk,” De Waele told Cyclingnews.
At the finish line, Jasper Stuyven (Trek-Segafredo) was fuming. “I rode like an amateur in the sprint. Actually Felline wins because the others rode on the sidewalk while they were told not to use it,” Stuyven told Cyclingnews. Trek's Felline was the fourth to cross the line at the Emile Claus Boulevard.
“We don’t understand if the riders at the front were maybe be disqualified. Because everybody knows that it wasn’t possible to go on the bike path. Everybody, they see in front they go. It’s not me who decides this, it’s the judge, but if these are the rules then they are for everybody,” Felline said.
Team director Dirk Demol was furious. After parking his team car he walked off, trying to find the UCI commissaires. “For two kilometres they rode on the sidewalk. Two days ago, there was a meeting with the UCI and they explicitly said that from now on they would enforce the rule. Yesterday they repeated their message again, adding that they would act when checking the TV images after the race. During the race today Philippe Mariën said explicitly that at kilometre 148 it was forbidden to use the sidewalk, that it was obliged to ride on the cobbles. The first riders rode on the sidewalk and our riders rode on the cobbles,” Demol said.
Luke Rowe (Sky) stated that the riders were well aware that they were not allowed to use the bike path. On the particular section he rode in the main chase group behind the favourites group that included eventual podium finishers Greg Van Avermaet, Peter Sagan and Sep Vanmarcke. “All I know is that we got told this morning not to ride on any bike paths and if you ride on any bike paths then you get thrown out of the race. We rode onto the Karel Martelstraat section and rode on the cobbles all the way along. I’ve just finished the race so I haven’t seen what they did. It’s a grey area, and it’s up to the commissaires what they do but whether they rode on the cobbles or the pavement, they were the three strongest guys. I’ve just finished the race so I’m not in a position to comment, not having all the details I don’t want to give them a bad word if I don’t know the facts,” Rowe said.
Lotto-Soudal’s director sportif Marc Sergeant also approached the UCI commissaires after the race.
"The UCI told us that they wanted to try and polish up the image of cycling. So we should work together and no longer use sidewalks and bike paths. Today they marked out one section and warned that over there it really wasn’t allowed, the Karel Martelstraat and then the Holleweg. The lead group and the next group were on the bike path. The next group was taken off the bike path by a commissaires, shouting they had to get off. There was a lot of discussion because some were allowed and others weren’t. The UCI warned that would use TV-images too. I went to them to ask about it and they said, ‘no, no, on fait la course.’ Everybody went over there. If they warn then they have to do it. My message is that they should warn if they don’t enforce the rules,” Sergeant said.
At the post-race press conference, Cyclingnews asked winner Greg Van Avermaet about what he knew about the specific section. The Olympic champion had just joined Peter Sagan, Sep Vanmarcke, Andrei Grivko and Thomas Boudat in a move after the Wolvenberg when reaching three successive pavé sections, featuring in a group of six riders.
“Something was said about it. It’s easy to take such a decision but in races like this one it’s not possible," he said. "They tried the same thing four, five years ago in Kuurne at the Varentstraat [pavé section]. The lead group rode on the path and the peloton rode on the cobbles. In Flanders it’s just impossible to apply the rules. They have to do it like in the Ronde van Vlaanderen, then nobody is able to ride on it. This way ... Everybody is on their limit. Nobody would reach the finish in Ghent. You would have to take out everybody from the race.
"If you set a rule like this then you have to do it the right way. In Flanders it’s just impossible. Once the start is given half the peloton needs to be taken out of the race because to move up, you have to go on a bike path. If there’s a crash, you need to manoeuvre around it. You can’t keep it under control,” Van Avermaet said.