(CNN) — A cycling sprint finish is mesmerizing to watch. Riders traveling at high speed — like a swarm of bees — jostle for position in pursuit of glory before a winner finally emerges from the bedlam.
But it’s also a place of danger. And it took just a flick of an elbow for chaos to engulf Tuesday’s stage of the Tour de France — arguably the world’s toughest professional bike race.
Arnaud Démare won the stage which ended in Vittel — becoming the first Frenchman to win a bunch sprint at the Tour for over a decade — but it was the horror crash behind him that has dominated the headlines.
With 200 meters to go of stage four, Peter Sagan veered to his right and appeared to elbow Mark Cavendish — nicknamed the “Manx Missile” — forcing him into the barrier at speeds of 60 kilometers per hour (37mph) and leaving the Briton with a fractured right shoulder blade.
Compatriot Ben Swift and Germany’s John Degenkolb were also thrown from their bikes, with Sagan escaping the melee to seize second place.
“I’m obviously massively disappointed to get this news about the fracture,” said Cavendish, having crossed the line several minutes after Démare and later confirmed his withdrawal from this year’s event.
“I feel I was in a good position to win [the stage] and to lose that and have to leave the Tour — a race I have built my whole career around — is really sad.
“I get on well with Peter and a crash is a crash but I’m not a fan of him putting his elbow in like that.”
Cavendish’s withdrawal and the resultant expulsion of Slovak sprint king Sagan has also thrown the race for this year’s Tour de France green jersey wide open.
The 32-year-old Cavendish, who rides for the Dimension Data team, has 30 stage wins to his name, and had been bidding to reach Belgian Eddy Merckx’s all-time record number of 34.
That wait must now go on, prompting Roger Hammond, Cavendish’s sporting director, to describe Sagan’s actions as “completely outrageous.”
“Elbows fellow competitor in the head … can only result in one decision,” posted Hammond, in a tweet that would later prove prophetic.
Sagan himself appealed against the extremity of the measure, having initially been docked 30 seconds, 80 points and relegated to 115th place on the stage before the full extent of his punishment was revealed.
“Mark was coming really fast from the back and I just didn’t have time to react and to go left,” the Bora-Hansgrohe rider explained. “He came into me and he went into the fence.
“When I was told after the finish that Mark had crashed, I went straight away to find out how he was doing.
“We are friends and colleagues in the peloton and crashes like that are never nice. I hope Mark recovers soon.”
Bora-Hansgrohe officials similarly rejected the claim the rider had “caused, or in any way intended to cause, the crash.”
But the head UCI comissaire, Philippe Marien, stated the far sterner sanction was applied because the offender “had put several other riders involved in the crash in danger” and he had sensed a moment to “set boundaries.”
“Before the Tour de France we warned the sprinters that we would look very closely at every sprint,” said Marien. “That is what we did today.”
“It was not about Sagan, but about the act the rider made. What happens here, it looks like it was on purpose and it almost looks like hitting a person.
“It’s not about Cavendish and Sagan; it could be anybody, the names won’t matter.”
The verdict has split opinion among commentators, fans and fellow riders.
Retired Australian cyclist Baden Cooke, winner of the 2003 green jersey, expressed his opinion that it was “unintentional.”
“Sending Sagan home was a bad decision,” he tweeted. “You often use your elbows to give yourself space to avoid crashing yourself.”
Former Vuelta a España champion Chris Horner, meanwhile, said he “totally disagreed” with the decision, urging organizers to reinstate the five-time green jersey winner.
It was a sentiment shared by former rider Jens Voigt, who contended the disqualification was “too much.”
But Dimension Data performance director Ralf Adag said: “If it’s in rule book that you can elbow someone with 200m to go, we need to rewrite the rules.”
Team Sky’s Geraint Thomas, holder of the yellow jersey, also fell on stage four but reassured fans he was fit to continue, urging Cavendish to “heal up quick.”
As it stands, Sagan is the first world champion to be thrown off the race since 1998, when Frenchman Laurent Brochard was disqualified for his role in the Festina drug scandal.
He is also the first rider of any standing to be removed from the competition since 2010, when Australia’s Mark Renshaw — then leading out Cavendish for Team HTC-Columbia — appeared to headbutt rival Julian Dean during a comparable sprint finish.