Tour de France, Grand Tour
France, July 3-25, 1999
Stage 6 Results
Stage 6, Amiens - Maubeuge, 169 kms:Mario Cipollini won his third consecutive stage victory on Friday and went into the history books. But he had to wait 20 minutes for the jury to decide on the outcome. They eventually declassified Belgian Tom Steels and awarded the Stage 6 sprint to Super Mario. This sprint was not as clean as those into Blois and Amiens. Cipollini had to fight to get close at Maubeuge and he crossed the line in second position in front of German Erik Zabel and Estonien Jaan Kirsipuu (still in yellow).
The jury though had the last word. The three jury members chaired by the Frenchman Jacques Sabathier returned a decision which received divided support from those who had observed the outcome. The issue was whether the error by Steels in the finale had deserved the ultimate sanction of disqualification - which also meant that he lost the green point's shirt and went down the GC.
In 1997, Steels had been thrown out of the Tour for bad conduct when he clearly threw a bidon at Moncassin in a sprint. No-one doubted the action was worthy of the penalty. This time Steels did not clearly offend. It could have been interpreted as a usual action of a sprinter aiming to keep Cipollini at bay, especially as the sprint was into a stiff headwind. Steels touched the Czech rider Jan Svorada, who was himself being checked in the sprint by Gian Matteo Fagnini. Fagnini had peeled off after leading Cipollini out and was decelerating quickly. The TV replay on which the decision by the jury was based was open to a number of interpretations.
The jury viewed the TV shots and the images taken from the helicopter and decided Steels had ridden dangerously. This was the first contested sprint in the Tour with the previous 4 mass sprints being very straightforward. There was no doubt that Steels deviated. But was it intentional? Observers said that Steels could sue if someone said that he would do this intentionally, given that he is probably the fastest sprinter anyway. The 27-year old Belgian is close to his peak and he certainly wanted to win the stage on the Avenue Jean Jaurès de Maubeuge, which was close to Belgium. It would have been his third victory and would have given him the green shirt. There were protests from Mapei following the jury decision but to no avail. Erik Zabel will wear the green shirt on Saturday.
As to the sprint, Svorada said that he did not try to overrun Steels: "I sought to get on the wheel of Cipollini. Steels and I ran into each other but I do not think there was anything malicious in it. I do not think that its disqualification is justified".
But Mario Cipollini, the victor as a result of the decision, did not agree. He had seen nothing of the sprint behind him but studied the TV footage and concluded that "the sprints must be correct." In the last 50 years, no-one has won 3 stages in consecutive days. The last person to do this was the Italian Gino Bartali, also a rider from Tuscany. It was in 1948 when the rider they called the "man of iron" won the Tour by more than 26 minutes and triumphed at stages into Briançon, Aix-the-Baths and Lausanne.
Cipollini said afterwards: "I can't compare myself with Bartali. He was a climber and I'm a sprinter."
Stage 6 was another mass sprint. The early attacking move failed as on other days this year. There was a move by 23 riders including some of the favourites like Lance Armstrong and Alexandre Vinokourov, which achieved a 0.40 gap. Then three French riders - national champion François Simon, the former winner of Paris-Roubaix Frederic Guesdon and Gilles Maignan (riding to protect the yellow jersey of Kirsipuu), accompanied by the Spaniard Francisco Cerezo, were away for around 90 kms. But they were caught by the peloton with 8.5 kms to go.
A special place in the Tour history for Jaan Kirsipuu: he is the first sprinter since Freddy Maertens in 1976, to wear the yellow jersey for 5 days. Francois Simon didn't get a special place in history. Up until 8 kms before the finish he had chances to win. If he had have won he would have been the fourth 'Simon' with a Tour victory after Pascal (Pau in 1982), Regis (Pau in 1985) and Jerome (Straatsburg in 1988).
Some more reactions:
Tom Steels: "I fought for this sprint. It's always the same with a long straight line to the finish. Chapeau for the jury. For me they can go and score in fishing now."
Jan Svorada: "There was contact between Steels and me. He turned aside and touched me. It was a dangerous move."
Mario Cipollini: "I don't like to win by a decision of the jury. But I agree with them. Steels was wrong. He always profits from the work of others. This was the third time I had to bring him to the finish line. It's time he takes some more responsibility."
Eddy Merckx (Bel): "The declassification was completely incorrect."