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George Hincapie must have crossed the path of a few black cats this season to judge by the way bad luck has been heading in his direction this season. Having already lost his chance of winning Paris-Roubaix in April when his steerer broke and sent him crashing into a roadside ditch, the New Yorker was denied what would have been the biggest stage race win of his career when he crashed 100 metres from the line at Wednesday's conclusion of the ENECO Tour in Ans.
By a twist of fate, the rider whose sudden swerve sent the American down to the ground, Stefan Schumacher, stayed upright and took third place in the sprint won by Franaise des Jeux's Philippe Gilbert, and in the process earned enough bonus seconds to overhaul Hincapie for the race's red leader's jersey. Although Hincapie appealed against the result, the race commissaires decided to let the result stand, judging that there was nothing else Schumacher could have done to avoid an arm-waving spectator on the roadside barrier.
Discovery Channel, needless to say, were not happy with the result being allowed to stand. "Without the swerve provoked by Schumacher, George would not have fallen. He would have finished second or third and would have won the Tour. The jury's decision is hard to accept. It's not fair," said Discovery Channel sporting director Dirk Demol.
Schumacher, though, defended himself by saying there was nothing else he could have done. "If I swerved - which I admit - it was only because I was hit by a spectator who appeared in front of me during the final sprint. I got a fright, I changed by direction but I never had any intention of bothering George or making him fall," said the Gerolsteiner rider. "This should have been one of my greatest victories, the best moment of my career. But winning in this confusion ruins my pleasure. I don't know what else to say."
Demol had hardly calmed when he spoke to ThePaceLine's Chris Brewer later in the evening. "Of all the scenarios I could think of, there was nothing in my mind like this. After he won the time trial he came to me and said: 'If the team works for me, I can win - just control the race and I'll win.' And the team did a great job," said the Belgian team manager.
"To lose today in this manner was very, very hard. It was clear that a spectator touched Schumacher, you could see that. And then you saw George's front wheel touched Schumacher's rear wheel as he came across and George went down. Prior to that George was going to try and pass him and go for second place to further distance himself from Schumacher and we expected he'd get third.
"It was clear that Schumacher was touched and we know that he did not do that on purpose. But he stayed on his bike and 'won' the race. I think they should either have disqualified him or nullified the time bonuses. The bottom line is that it was clear he crashed George out, if he had not, George wins the race. And so we will protest to the UCI but we'll have to wait and see what happens. George feels like they stole the race from him and he feels really terrible for the team since they worked so hard for him. Another second place - it's really hard."
Demol explained that part of the problem in making a ruling on the incident was that there appears to be no specific rule covering incidents like this. "We were all speaking with the UCI commissaires after the race and I think the most fair thing to have done would have been to say 'no time bonuses'. Regardless of his intent, he did crash George out. It was a tough decision for the judges to make, and we'll just have to see how our protest plays out."
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