Jake Stewart has had one of the most impressive season openings of any rider. At only 21 years old and in his first full year as part of the World Tour, now with Groupama-FDJ, he has exceeded expectations by finishing 2nd in Omloop het Nieuwsblad, 6th in Nokere Koerse and winning the young rider's jersey in Etoile De Besseges.
If he wasn't already well-known from his impressive results, his altercation with Nacer Bouhanni in Cholet-Pays de la Loire last Sunday has made him one of the most talked about riders in the cycling world.
The video of Bouhanni forcing Stewart into the fence during the sprint finish took Twitter by storm, with many people condemning Bouhanni's actions and demanding that the UCI take action.
“Bouhanni thought he wanted the same wheel as me and just stuck me in the fence," Stewart says.
Bouhanni’s deviation from his line struck an uncanny resemblance with the manoeuvre of Dylan Groenewegen which caused the harrowing crash of Fabio Jakobsen in the Tour of Poland last year. Groenewegen faced a 9 month ban for his actions whilst Bouhanni, for now, has only suffered a regulation to the back of the bunch.
“I was lucky enough to hold it up but really what Bouhanni did is no different to what Groenewegen did last year to Fabio, if anything it's a bit worse than that,” Stewart explains.
A testament to his impressive bike handling, Stewart managed to stay upright as he collided with the barriers. Had these been the same as those used at the Tour of Poland, Bouhanni’s actions may have caused the same catastrophic consequences as we saw in that fateful sprint in Poland last year.
Groenewegen's crash at the Tour of Poland last year sparked controversy over UCI sanctions (Photo credit: Szymon Gruchalsk)
“Once I hit the barriers, I just saw my life flash before my eyes,” he says. "I was surfing them and I was just waiting for them to give way and for me to go straight over. Thankfully the barriers were decent enough and there were no feet protruding into the road, so that made it easier to hold it. I've watched the video back several times and I still don't know how I managed it though.”
However, Stewart did not come away from the incident completely unscathed. “I had an X-ray this morning [30th March] on my hand. It turns out that I've fractured my third metacarpal. I don't know how, I must have hit that barrier with some force,” he says. Stewart doesn’t expect to be able to race for at least the next six weeks.
Before the incident, Stewart was feeling strong in Cholet-Pays de la Loire, having been well positioned all day by his Groupama-FDJ teammates. “The legs were feeling really good and Lewis [Askey] did some really good turns for me all day. I don't know if I would have been able to get round Viviani who is obviously really quick anyway but I certainly would have been able to compete and push him for the line. It could have been a podium so it's a kick in the teeth.”
After the race, Stewart took to Twitter, stating that he didn’t know what Bouhanni was thinking during the sprint, linking a replay of the incident which he described ‘an educational video of what ‘no respect’ looks like.’
Stewart explains he was careful with his tweet. “I'm not here to pick a fight or anything,” he says.
This incident is not the first that Bouhanni has been involved in, perhaps adding fuel to the Twitter backlash that followed his behaviour in Sunday’s race. He has been sanctioned for deviating from his sprint both in Paris-Nice and Hamburg Classic in the past. In 2017, he was punished for hitting Jack Bauer in the Tour de France and had a violent altercation with his own Sports Director, Roberto Damiani, in 2018.
“I think the amount of comments and the amount of likes that tweet got it kind of speaks for itself about the public opinion of him,” Stewart says.
Perhaps thanks to the pressure and commentary from the wider cycling community, the UCI have now opened an investigation into Nacer Bouhanni and this incident. They published a statement on Monday which read: “The UCI firmly condemns the dangerous conduct of the rider Nacer Bouhanni.” They confirmed that the UCI will demand the imposition of sanctions that are appropriate to the seriousness of this action.
Stewart explains that he now wants to leave the UCI disciplinary commission to make decisions. “Everyone's allowed a fair trial,” he says. “At the end of the day, the UCI do need to punish the action, not the consequences.”
Bouhanni published a statement on his team's website following the incident where he apologised to Stewart, took responsibility for deviating from his line, but argued it was not intentional.
“In his statement he's saying that he's apologised to me, I wouldn't really say it is an apology. He can easily drop me a personal message on social media,” Stewart says.
Nacer Bouhanni has previously been sanctioned for his sprinting (Photo credit: Nico Vereecken/CorVos/SWpix.com)
“I'd say it's a pretty half-hearted apology if anything. He needs to accept that he was riding dangerously whether it was intentional or not. The video footage speaks for itself in that sense," he explains.
Stewart understands that close-contact sprinting is an important part of the sport and he doesn’t shy away from the inevitable risks that come with being a professional cyclist. However, he argues that respect between riders is key and there is a line between touching shoulders with other riders and deliberately causing them to crash or pull the brakes.
“That is sprinting to an extent,” he says. “You're always going to have some contact, just because everyone is fighting for the best wheel.”
He suggests that more could be done by the UCI to implement safer sprinting. “Maybe they could have a points system on riders’ licenses, where you're given points for unfair conduct in racing. It's always hard to judge and there isn't going to be a solution that pleases everyone, [but] there are certainly ways around it in the future,” he explains.
He’d planned to compete in the Tour of Flanders this Sunday. “I'd done well at Omloop and for Flanders we had a couple of options with myself and then Stefan [Kung] as well, if it was a harder race. It was a target and I wanted to see if I could last the distance if it came down to a sprint.”
Instead, Stewart will now travel back to the UK to recover from his broken hand and then build up to begin racing again.
"I think we've just got to let the UCI commission run its course and we'll see the outcome. The UCI's heart lies with rider safety and improving cycling, I think, so it will be interesting to see what happens," he says.
Cover image: Pauline Ballet/SWpix.com