In defence of Mark Renshaw

16 July 2010

This finish on Stage 11 – from the Tour de France on Thursday – will become famous. Mark Cavendish’s lead-out man Mark Renshaw, on the HTC Columbia team, tussles with Julian Dean, performing the same role for Tyler Farrar on the Garmin team, either ‘head-butting’ him, as much of the press coverage preferred, or pushing him back onto his line with his head. The Tour Commissaires (referees) decided that for this, and for going off line in front of Farrar, he should be excluded from the race.

This is quite a rare sanction – the last time it was used was 13 years ago, when the Belgian cyclist Tom Steels hurled a water bottle at another sprinter in a bunch sprint – reckless behaviour, at the least.

And it seems to me both that Renshaw was dealt with harshly – and that sooner or later cycling won’t get away with this sort of arbitrary decision-making.

For the non-enthusiasts, some basics. Cycling is a team sport, in which riders work together using their slipstreams to help their leaders or their sprinters to win. The physics are explained well in Matt Rendell’s book A Significant Other, but essentially a rider close behind another one can gain 30% in terms of speed for a given amount of effort. Hence the so-called ‘trains’ you see as teams close in on the finish of a race and try to set up their sprinter for the win. Each cyclist in the train cranks up their effort to the max for a period, before swinging off and letting the next rider take it on.

Renshaw, probably the best ‘lead-out’ man in the world at the moment, is the final link in the chain, and has the job of taking Mark Cavendish towards the line at speeds of around 70 kph, riding among dozens of others, before leaving Cavendish to accelerate away for the last 200-250 metres. When Cavendish is on form, which is most of the time, the combination is unbeatable, as we saw in the final stage to Paris last year, when Renshaw finished second to Cavendish, lengths ahead of their rivals.

Breaking up the train

Because the Columbia team is so good at this, the other teams have decided that the only way they can win is by breaking up the Columbia train in the last kilometre. And that’s what happened yesterday. On the video – there’s a slow-motion sequence filmed from above at 1.38 – we clearly see Dean move quite sharply across Renshaw’s line from the side, pushing Renshaw to the left, trying to close him in to the barriers so Cavendish can’t come past. Thor Hushovd had tried something similar – but much less contentious – a few days ago. If this were football, it would be the equivalent of holding a striker to stop them attacking a cross.

Renshaw uses his head to push Dean back onto his line – taking even one hand off the handlebars at 70kph is suicidally dangerous, for you and others, as the bike could well start weaving.

Then, as Cavendish goes past, Renshaw moves off his own line a little, to the left, and impedes Dean’s Garmin team-mate, Tyler Farrar. Forcing a rider into the barriers is highly dangerous, and can put cyclists into hospital for weeks, or months. But Renshaw stops quite a long way from the barriers (it may even just be a reaction to the way he’s had to hold Dean off); Farrar, who’s probably beaten anyway, checks slightly and then moves on through the gap. In football terms, whether intentional or not, it is the equivalent of the tap tackle rather than the studs down the calf. And it’s worth adding that Renshaw himself is generally regarded as a ‘fair’ rider (not all of them are), and that he said afterwards that he didn’t see Farrar to his left.

So, although the Commissaires’ decision was said to be unanimous, there is huge room to doubt its appropriateness. There are other penalties they could have imposed, ranging from a fine to relegating Renshaw to the bottom of the day’s standings. (Two riders who started a stand-up fight after crossing the line earlier in the Tour were merely fined, for example.) And why Dean wasn’t penalised is a mystery. They seem to have punished the reaction and not the original foul, as football used to do in the days when the best players didn’t get as much protection from defenders who were trying to kick them out of the game.

It’s also worth making a point about process. The Commissaires made their decision on the basis of the broadcast footage, and without hearing submissions from the team (team officials were called in to be told of the decision). The rules about what is or isn’t allowed in a sprint are unclear, and inconsistently interpreted. There’s no appeal. The Tour organisation, ASO, can get away with this because it is a private organisation, and because teams want to be invited back in the future. But the losses for the team are potentially considerable; Renshaw loses earnings and reputation; Cavendish may win fewer stages (although one wouldn’t bet on it); Columbia may have issues with its sponsors or its Tour earnings. Decisions need to be made quickly on the Tour because every day is another stage, and so every day counts. But we’re no longer in a world where judges can routinely make arbitrary decisions without appropriate process or representation and expect to get away with it. It’s only a matter of time before the ASO finds itself in a legal dispute with a team because a Commissaires’ decision breaches the rules of natural justice.

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