Cycling is a sport full of unwritten rules. Within the intricacies of the peloton are a number of grey areas. This makes the job of commissaires and race judges tricky – it’s hard to enforce regulations in a sport which is filled with nuance. What looks like a dangerous manoeuvre to some might not to others, what might look like a safe move on TV, could cause far worse repercussions for those actually in the peloton. In stage racing especially, it’s a sort of unwritten rule that once a dominant team – be that a sprint squad or a general classification outfit – begin to block the road with all of their riders in a line creating a barrage, the breakaway has gone and there are no more chances to for riders to attack. If you’ve missed it at that point, tough luck.
This is exactly what the team of six-time Tour de France stage winner, Alpecin-Deceunick, tried to do in stage 18 of this year’s Tour to set up a sprint finish for Jasper Philipsen. There was a three-rider breakaway up the road and the Belgian team wanted things to settle down fully. They wanted to allow this break to establish a proper gap that they could control – three riders against a peloton is easily managed, but if the breakaway was to get any bigger, things could become difficult for the sprint teams.
Included in the trio up the road was Victor Campenaerts of Lotto Dstny, a rider who had been brought to the Tour with the job of being a lead-out man for Caleb Ewan. The Aussie sprinter abandoned the race in the mountains, however, so the likes of Campenaerts now have a free role to try and do something themselves. The Belgian is a strong time trialist and a breakaway specialist – you could call him a master tactician, he knows how to read a race and when it’s time to commit fully to a move. It’s why, when he noticed that he and his two breakaway companions weren’t getting a gap of more than a minute on the bunch, he needed to do something about it.
Image by Charly Lopez/ASO
Enter Pascal Eenkhoorn. Campenaerts’ fellow Lotto teammate was sitting in the bunch behind, but was given the instruction to try and attack to bridge across to the front move and create a stronger group of four. The only obstacle was that Alpecin-Deceuninck had barricaded the road – there was no way for Eenkhoorn to attack, unless he was prepared to be very brave indeed. And, all credit to the former Dutch champion, he was. Through a small gap on the right hand side of the road, he nudged the Alpecin-Deceunick line and squeezed through, attacking into the empty road ahead, his eyes set on reaching his teammate in the break.
Where the controversy arises is from the response of Jasper Philipsen to Eenkhoorn’s attack. Wearing the green jersey, Philipsen jumped straight out of the peloton onto the Lotto-Dstny rider’s wheel. At first, it seemed valid. It looked like Philipsen might just sit on Eenkhoorn’s wheel and refuse to pull a turn. It would have been fair; Philipsen wanted another stage win and he knew he would have the best chance of getting that in a bunch sprint. Discouraging Eenkhoorn’s attack would have been well within the rules.
However, today, Philipsen took things too far. He swerved across Eenkhoorn’s front wheel, forcing him to put the brakes on so that he didn’t hit the rows of fans to his left, all while looking to be shouting aggressively at the Lotto-Dstny rider too. It was uncomfortable to watch, and a step away from bike racing closer to intimidation and bullying. Why Philipsen felt the need to respond to Eenkhoorn’s attack in the way he did is anyone’s guess: does he feel like he should have the power to dictate the race after his recent run of stage wins? Was it a macho show of strength? Speaking afterwards to Belgian media, Philipsen told Sporza that the move was not meant to be aggressive. “I wanted to sprint and I was fine with three leaders,” was his explanation. “It was certainly not meant to be bad or arrogant. But I didn't want more riders in the front.”
Image by James Startt
Regardless of his intentions, Philipsen's actions shouldn’t have been made, and he deserves some sort of punishment from the judges for his behaviour. Even if this punishment doesn’t impact the stage result at all, it is necessary to set a precedent that this sort of behaviour is not welcome in professional bike racing. It’s understandable that Philipsen wanted to control the race, but this was more than that. Every rider who rolls off the start line deserves a fair opportunity to race, regardless of if you're a stage winner or not.
Perhaps his punishment came, in the end, when Eenkhoorn still managed to attack off the front of the peloton a couple of kilometres later and was, thanks to the help of Campenaerts, able to join the breakaway trio up the road. The group of four worked well together to the finish line and the peloton wasn’t able to catch them in the approach to the line. It was eventually Kasper Asgreen of Soudal–Quick-Step who took a well-needed victory for his team. Eenkhoorn finished second on the stage, but Philipsen had to settle for fifth after clearing up the bunch sprint from behind.
Ahead of today’s stage, I would have been as happy as anyone to see Philipsen take his seventh Tour de France stage win – he’s a breathtakingly good sprinter, and it’s amazing to watch someone with his sort of talent win a bunch kick. Today, however, I don’t believe he deserved the victory after a show of poor sportsmanship. When the breakaway held off the peloton – a feat which seemed almost impossible as the gap teetered to less than 10 seconds – it seemed like somewhere, the stars aligned and agreed with me too. The breakaway stealing the win from Philipsen felt like some sort of justice was served. Here’s hoping that today was a one-off and a lesson learnt for the Alpecin-Deceuninck rider.
*Cover image by James Startt