Deceuninck-QuickStep team boss Patrick Lefevere's Tweeted delight at Sam Bennett’s second sprint victory in the Vuelta a España rapidly morphed into a war of words with Trek-Segafredo boss Luca Guercilena after the Irishman was relegated for a double shoulder barge on Emils Liepins and the stage awarded to Bora-Hansgrohe's Pascal Ackermann.
The outspoken Belgian manager clashed with Guercilena on the Twitter social media site after the Italian defended his own rider, with Lefevere asking - presumably with a large slab of Flemish-flavoured sarcasm [grammar corrected - ed] - "How many sprints [has Liepens] won @l_guercilena? [Where] was your lead-out?"
Initially declared the stage 9 winner and even interviewed by the race organisers as such, immediately afterwards commissaires reviewed footage of Bennett’s actions in the closing kilometres of the finish in Aguilar del Campoo and came to a different verdict.
They took half an hour to deliberate, then ruled that Bennett's double shoulder barge on Liepins, who clashed against the Deceuninck-QuickStep lead-out train with around a kilometre to go, was overly aggressive.
Lefevere, however, strongly disagreed, stating on Twitter: "What bullshit, He was in [his] lead-out and the Trek rider want[ed] to pull him out of it. But we know already a longtime the incompetence of the UCI [Video Assisted Referee - VAR] - safety first."
He later added: "A lead out has to be respected and @Sammmy_Be defended his line."
His furious response was later met with a caustic defence from Trek-Segafredo boss Guercilena, who stated on the same thread: "I reply as well as you mention Trek-Segafredo rider. To be clear first he was put off Ackerman[n's] wheel by your lead out, then Bennett try to put him down two times in a totally incorrect and useless way. TV images are clear enough. No VAR needed at all."
Lefevere then riposted: “How many sprints [has] he won @l_guercilena? [Where] was your lead out?"
What a bullshit😡. He was in he’s lead out and the @trek rider want to pull him out of it. But we know already a longtime the incompetence of the @Uci var safety firstOctober 29, 2020
How many sprints he won @l_guercilena ???? We’re was your lead out ??? https://t.co/yZRRxcChwHOctober 29, 2020
The clear winner of stage 4 - the only previous sprint stage in the Vuelta following the scrapping of the Dutch opening segment of racing - Bennett was the top favourite for the stage win five days later.
In the short but intense sprint battle against Pascal Ackermann (Bora-Hansgrohe), the Irishman swiftly drew ahead, winning by over half a wheel.
With sprint opportunities a real rarity in this year’s Vuelta, Bennett explained his delight was compounded by pride at the win being his 50th own career victory - and his fourth in the Spanish race over two years - as well as being the 100th Grand Tour stage triumph for his team.
But Bennett presumably referred to the incident before the sprint by saying: "I had to come from behind at speed. It was a big fight, we had some guys nearly put us in the barriers trying to take the wheel which was a bit sketchy but we stayed upright."
A determined-looking Bennett himself was shown on TV having an apparently calm but clear discussion with the commissaires about the incident.
A similar action by Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) in the Tour de France’s stage 11, when he shoulder-barged Wout Van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), cost the Slovakian a second place behind Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal) and ahead of Bennett. Sagan’s move, however, was in a very different context - the final metres of an all out, high-speed, bunch sprint and with riders spread across the road.
Although the incident sparked a social media debate - Lefevere later posted an acerbic observation that he was "so happy with all these connaisseurs [sic] on Twitter" - Ackermann expressed his agreement with the judge’s decision.
"I saw the video afterwards, it was too much, after all the crashes in the last few weeks we have to take care of the other riders," Ackermann argued. He also referred to his own disqualification in the Scheldeprijs, when his dive through the pack caused a major crash in the final sprint, as an example of what he believed was the correct action by the commissaires under such circumstances.
With flat stages virtually non-existent in this year’s Vuelta, Bennett will now have to wait until the final day into Madrid for the race’s third and last bunch sprint. As well as being an opportunity to win in two European capitals in one season following his victory on the Champs Elysées, after Thursday's turbulent finish it will be the Irishman’s only opportunity to set the record straight on the bike.
The UCI issued a belated statement about the relegation: "UCI Commissaires’ Panel relegated rider Sam Bennett (Deceuninck–Quick-Step) for shouldering off another rider at 500m to go of the 9th stage of La Vuelta. The decision, taken unanimously, was based on television footage and taken as per article 2.12.007 of UCI Regulations sanctioning 'deviation from the chosen line or irregular sprint'. Both the rider and the team’s Sports Director have been heard by the Panel."
Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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