When a bike race begins with so many riders, whittling them down to one winner can often seem like a ruthless affair, with anything other than the top step of the podium viewed as failure by many. Yet nothing is quite as cruel as the winner who is denied his or her victory at the hands of the dreaded photo finish. Especially when they have initially been declared the winner.
While not a regular occurrence in cycling, the phenomenon isn’t as rare as one might imagine, and what is even more surprising is that such narrow margins aren’t limited to sprint finishes. While hillier races usually winnow the competitors into smaller groups, there are still occasions when two or more riders have been so evenly matched that they have finished the race surging head-to-head for the line, despite having ridden sometimes in excess of 200km.
There has been light-hearted mirth on social media in recent months over riders celebrating too soon, only to find they have been passed on the line – Alberto Bettiol, Wout van Aert, Jasper Philipsen, and Ilan van Wilder have all suffered the fate, not to mention Caleb Ewan who has seemingly been picked out for special treatment in this regard, losing twice on the line this year alone.
Yet in these cases, the decision has been made quickly, if it has needed to be made at all. In more unusual cases, the riders face an anxious wait to find out their final placement.
2022 saw one such finish, when AG2R Citroën’s Benoît Cosnefroy crossed the line at the Amstel Gold Race and raised his arms in victory, only to be later denied after the commissaires ruled he had come second, to Ineos Grenadiers’ Michał Kwiatkowski. The resulting scenes were enough to damage the hardest of hearts, as the French rider was forced to concede the precious victory, one that would have been only the second WorldTour victory of his career.
Cosnefroy just misses out to Kwiatkowski on the line (Zac Williams/SWPix)
Cosnefroy was magnanimous however, winning fans around the world by accepting a badly handled situation with grace. “It was almost perfect,” he said post-race, acknowledging that, while he exceeded his own expectations, hoping to achieve a top ten placement, to miss out on the win in such a way was disappointing.
It was a bitter irony that the outcome mirrored the previous year almost exactly. In 2021, Wout van Aert and Tom Pidcock crossed the line together, the decision going in favour of the Belgian that year, despite certain angles that seemed to suggest otherwise.
Cosnefroy’s defeat hit differently though, given the victory was initially awarded to him, a regrettable error that the organisers later apologised for. Just this week, race director Leo van Vliet confirmed in Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf that the race’s finish line technology has been improved to avoid another such occurrence. Though for lightning to strike three times would be unprecedented, the fact it happened two years in a row is remarkable in itself. “It's Murphy's Law that hit our event,” said van Vliet. “But now it's over.”
Last year's on the line finish at Amstel Gold was agonising for the Frenchman (Eurosport/GCN)
It may be of little consolation for Cosnefroy, but with a fresh chance in 2023 he’s channelling his energies into this year’s race, planning “a little revenge” for his second place mishap.
‘Moment of Truth’
The 27-year-old from Cherbourg-en-Contentin in Normandy spoke to the press two days before the race, and two days after a team victory at De Brabantse Pijl which saw him storm through from a chasing peloton to snatch third spot on the podium, and wrap up a great day for AG2R, who won through Dorian Godon.
“Of course, I’d have preferred to win,” said Cosnefroy. “I'd love to have this race on my palmares.”
Despite the controversy, though Cosnefroy insists the race holds positive associations for him.
“It remains a very good memory,” he said. “I really enjoyed this race. It's something that I'd love everyone to be able to experience, to come first at the end of that fantastic stretch of road. Finishing second by a few centimetres is still pretty good.”
Pragmatism comes easier after a year to process, perhaps, but it doesn’t prevent Cosnefroy acknowledging the significance of the emotions of the day.
“That was an emotional race for me. I lived a full race and I think that's why I train; it's to live these emotions, that I ride a bike.”
Cosnefroy’s season objectives centre around the Ardennes Classics, and he is honest in his assessment of his capabilities, stating unequivocally that the “shorter and more intense” efforts of Amstel are the best fit for him as a rider. Though going one better to take the win is the goal for 2023, Cosnefroy is under no illusion that it will come easily.
“Of course I think I can do it,” he said, before adding, “I know how tough it's going to be. For example you've got Tadej [Pogačar], he's the number one favourite. But I think it is a race which is quite open. Last year Mathieu van der Poel was in the group that went to the finish and he didn't manage to win.”
“If there's a race where I think he’s more easily beaten, it may be a race like Amstel,” he suggested. “I know the difficulty of the task, but I sincerely think it is possible. Even if a monster like Pogačar is at the start, we don’t go for second place.”
Cosnefroy's victory in Québec last year gave him some needed self-belief (James Startt)
Given the form of the Slovenian this year such self-belief may seem far-fetched, but Cosnefroy has proven he can win against top opposition, taking the win at the GP Québec in September amongst a stellar line-up, the two-time Tour de France winner included. He agrees the win endowed him with much-needed self-belief. “The level is so high that it's not always easy to be confident in yourself. It's so high nowadays that it's hard to stay positive. What I did in Québec helps me keep that. I know the difficulty of winning a WorldTour race and there, I managed to do it for the second time.”
It’s safe to say if the stars align for Cosnefroy come Sunday, he’ll take extra satisfaction at putting the past behind him. For now though, he is not concerned with what has gone before. “I'm quite relaxed and at ease about it,” he said of his mood going into the race. “Sunday is the moment of truth. The race will tell us whether I'm in good form or not. But mentally, and physically, I feel good.”