Michael Schär's disqualification from the Tour of Flanders on Sunday has caused a stir surrounding littering but the first rider to be disqualified under the UCI's new rules was in fact Kyle Murphy at the GP Indurain on Saturday.
The Rally Cycling rider was pulled from the Spanish race with around 25 kilometres remaining when a commissaire saw him drop an empty energy gel wrapper outside of a designated waste zone.
Murphy, however, insists it was an accident, and that the wrapper fell when he was trying to put it into his jersey pocket.
"I don’t think what happened here was fair at all," Rally Director Patrick McCarty told Cyclingnews.
"My perspective on it is I think the intent behind the rule is very good - bike racing can do a lot more to be environmentally friendly - but the pragmatics of the rule are problematic."
McCarty was called up by the commissaire’s car to be given an explanation of what was happening, along with the order to remove his rider from the race.
His initial reaction was one of surprise: “Kyle is probably one of the most environmentally-friendly riders in the peloton,” he said.
When he finally got a perplexed Murphy - who had been thinking about positioning for the finale - back to the car, he heard the other side of the story.
“At that point, what can you do? You can’t go back to the commissaires. It was done. Even if I wanted to make an argument against it, it was done," McCarty said.
“Kyle apologised to me and he wanted to apologise to the race. He’s just one of those guys. Some guys might have been frustrated or angry but he felt bad - he felt bad that the team suffered.”
After the race, McCarty spoke again to the commissaire, who reiterated his belief that Murphy deliberately dropped the wrapper. However, McCarty had no reason to believe his own rider was lying to him, and was left with a sour taste and the suspicion that his team were an easy target.
“I was really, really disappointed at how basically we were served the first penalty for this. For an American ProConti team, we’re always kind of treated like the little guy. I hate to say it, but I just feel like this was an easy way for the UCI to enforce their new rule," he said.
“I’ve worked with this commissaire before and I have respect for him, and what I understood from what he said before the race was that there would be some fair discretion on the first day of the new rules. But when I think about it, it’s like ‘OK, it’s Rally, it’s not a big team, it’s not Valverde, it’s not someone who’s going to create a lot of issues in the press, here’s an easy way for me to enforce the rules and I’m going to make the call right now.'
“Kyle was maybe one of our better guys in the race, and it’s just frustrating. All the money we spend to get our guys over here, the COVID testing, following the rules and doing everything right. All the things smaller teams are trying to do to get better and prove ourselves… we’re fighting tooth and nail for any kind of result we can get and then we get yanked out of the race like this. It kind of leaves you wondering… the sport can be a little frustrating and backward at times."
After Schär's disqualification for dropping a bottle for a young fan at Flanders, the Murphy incident is bound to add to questions surrounding littering rules, which came into force on April 1 as part of a package of new measures.
Discarding bottles and rubbish outside of waste zones is now met with instant disqualification, which, for McCarty, is overly harsh when accidents can happen and many incidents can go unnoticed or outright ignored.
"The learning curve is going to be steep here. It'll make guys try harder to really make sure trash gets into their pockets, but accidents are always going to happen. You won't completely eliminate this situation," he said.
"It will happen again and maybe with a bigger rider on a bigger team, and maybe that will lead to a revolt as to how the rule is enacted."
As for what lessons can be learned in the meantime: "If you're going to be handing out food or messing with bottles, maybe don't do it in front of the commissaire car, just in case."
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