The 2021 Tour of Flanders left us with plenty of highlights and talking points, from Kasper Asgreen’s unexpected victory to Annemiek van Vleuten’s resurgence in the race.
But one of the hottest topics to emerge from the Belgian Monument happened at the tail end of the peloton, as Michael Schär was disqualified from the race for littering.
The jury’s decision to kick Schär off the race proved controversial, as the Ag2r-Citroën rider threw his bottle to the side of the road towards some grateful fans.
Schär was disqualified from the race under new littering rules introduced on April 1, aimed at reducing cycling’s environmental impact, but the decision has sparked a debate amongst both cycling fans and professional riders, as many fear the tradition of handing bottles to expectant fans may become extinct.
Chris Froome is among those who has weighed in the topic, as the four-time Tour de France winner asked on social media “What is our sport coming to?”
In response to being disqualified from Flanders, Schär shared a story on his Instagram account of how he visited the 1997 Tour de France as a child, explaining how receiving a bidon from a rider at the side of the road helped inspire him to become a professional.
Schär said: “These are moments why I love our sport. Nobody ever can take that away from us. We are the most approachable sport who gives bottles along the way. Simple as that. Simple is cycling.”
Schär’s post has received a lot of attention from professional riders, including former world time trial champion Rohan Dennis.
The Ineos Grenadiers rider said: “Couldn’t agree more mate! I’ll happily get DQ’D for giving a bottle to a young fan on the side of the road. Shows how much of a joke the UCI rule is. Trying to disengage spectators from the sport will only end one way.”
Speaking after the finish of the Tour of Flanders, Schär’s team-mate Greg Van Avermaet said: “We are all for the environment.
“And a lot has already changed. But I think punishing the disposal of a water bottle – I used to go to the Tour especially to collect water bottles. Those were trophies. I am sure that a day like today not a single water bottle will not be picked up.
“Keeping our wrappers in our pockets makes sense to me and we do that.”
Cycling Weekly columnist Dr Hutch however sees why the UCI has made the decision: “Twitter seems awfully full of bike racers, fans and journalists complaining that banning littering is entirely unreasonable because cyclists chucking plastic crap into the landscape is an inalienable tradition of cycling.”
Schär’s disqualification also raises questions about fairness in the enforcement of the littering rules.
The winner of the women’s Tour of Flanders, Annemiek van Vleuten was caught on camera discarding a bidon outside one of the designated litter areas just after the Kanarieberg, with around 43km left to race.
But the jury opted not to disqualify Movistar rider Van Vleuten from the race, allowing her to ride to her second career win in Flanders.
Speaking after the stage, Van Vleuten told Belgian newspaper Het Nieuwsblad: “I thought I had done everything in accordance with the regulations.
“I saw someone with a blue jacket and assumed it was someone from the team. And so I threw my water bottle away, assuming I didn’t make a mistake.
“I was mistaken.”
But the jury later ruled that Van Vleuten was allowed to keep her title.
Meanwhile Italian rider Letizia Borghesi (Aromitalia – Basso Bikes – Vaiano) was disqualified from the same race for throwing a bidon just outside one of the littering areas.
In a statement posted on Facebook, Borghesi said she was also fined for the offence, adding that the cost of the fine was greater than the prize money taken home by Van Vleuten for winning the race.
Borghesi said: “I also think that disqualification is an excessive punishment and the fine I was given even more because I wouldn’t even earn that money from winning Flanders… For this unconscious gesture they really made me feel like a criminal and I think there are far more serious things happening than this to be punished.
“Bottles also don’t pollute because they’re collected by the children or fans who collect them, I think seeing a child’s smile when he takes a bottle on the side of the road is priceless.
“With this new rule, we’ll see a lot of smiles less and this is certainly not good for cycling.”