Team Ineos sports director Servais Knaven has leapt to the defence of his rider Luke Rowe and Jumbo-Visma's Tony Martin after both riders were disqualified for clashing on stage 17 of the Tour de France on Wednesday.
Martin appeared to try to run Rowe off the road as they fought for position on the final climb of stage to Gap. Moments later, television images appear to show Rowe raising his hand to Martin's face. The pair later went shoulder-to-shoulder before calling off their argument. Both riders finished the stage safely in the peloton, but were later called to visit governing body the UCI's representatives at the race to explain their actions. Eventually, both riders were expelled from the race after being found guilty of assault according to Article 2.12.007/8.2.1 of the UCI code.
On Wednesday evening, the pair made a joint statement via a video message. They called the UCI's decision "harsh" while their squads also confirmed that they would look to challenge the UCI's decision on appeal.
Knaven spoke to Cyclingnews and suggested that while the riders had perhaps broken the letter of the law, the UCI had also perhaps not taken into account the entire situation. Both riders, Knaven explained, were fighting for position on the front of the peloton in extreme heat and in the final week of the Tour.
"The UCI made a decision and we have to live with it," Knaven told Cyclingnews outside the Team Ineos hotel on the outskirts of Gap.
"It's a race, and everyone's fighting for position. If someone like Tony Martin is making a decision like this, then I think that says a lot. He wouldn't hurt a fly. He's a nice guy, but this is the last week of the Tour de France and everyone is fighting. Sometimes these things happen. It's not allowed, you can't say that it's correct, but is it the right decision? It's quite a big punishment, but it's how it is and we have to move forward."
Knaven also stated that Rowe hadn't struck Martin in the face.
"No, he didn't. I wasn't there, but he didn't hit anyone. If someone almost crashed you and you were on your bike… I'm not saying the UCI made the wrong decision, but it's a hard decision, and with big consequences. The UCI made a decision, and we have to live with it," he said.
It seems unclear whether Jumbo-Visma or Team Ineos would be able to reverse the UCI's decision in time. A UCI spokesperson confirmed to Cyclingnews: "The UCI Commissaires' Panel has decided to disqualify Tony Martin (Jumbo-Visma) and Luke Rowe (Team Ineos) for their behaviour towards each other, at 186 km of stage 17 of the Tour de France between Nimes and Gap.
"Based on article 2.12.007/8.2.1 ["Failure to respect instructions, improper, dangerous or violent behaviour; damage to the environment or the image of the sport / Between riders"], the riders' attitude has been deemed unacceptable. Consequently, the offence has led the UCI commissaires to exclude the riders, accompanied by fines and points penalties, after hearing the teams' representatives."
According to reports in the Dutch media, any decision must be overturned by 11 am on Thursday, but that is just a few minutes before stage 18 starts. Cyclingnews has been informed by a source close to the situation that the chances of the disqualification being overturned are slim, but that the riders could see their fines reduced.
Cyclingnews will be at the start of stage 18.