Geraint Thomas’ hopes of defending his Tour de France title suffered a blow on Wednesday as his road captain Luke Rowe was thrown out of the race ahead of three decisive mountain stages to come.
Rowe was expelled along with Jumbo-Visma’s Tony Martin after the pair clashed during stage 17 from Pont du Gard to Gap.
Video footage showed Martin almost riding Rowe off the road with Rowe appearing to grab the German, though the exact order of events was unclear.
Either way, it was enough for UCI commissaires to send both riders home and fine them 1000 Swiss francs (£812) each.
The decision could have huge ramifications in the battle for the yellow jersey, with Rowe a key rider for defending champion Thomas and Martin a big part of Steven Kruijswijk’s team.
Thomas sits second overall, 95 seconds behind Julian Alaphilippe, with Kruijswijk in third, a further 12 seconds back.
After the stage, both Rowe and Thomas had sought to play down the incident but to no avail.
“To come here with this team, a bunch of good mates, I feel like I’ve let them down and of course let myself down,” an emotional Rowe said after the verdict was handed down.
“We were both trying to do a job. Maybe we both overstepped the mark slightly, but it feels harsh to be thrown off the race, both of us. Neither of us deserve that.”
Both teams stated their intention to appeal against the decision – but it was unclear whether they would be able to do so in time to keep their riders in the race.
In a joint statement released on Wednesday evening, the teams stated their belief that the expulsions were unfair.
The statement read: “There was no ill will and they clearly still have a lot of respect for one another. We believe it is unjust that their Tour could come to an end over something like this at this point in the race.”
Ineos team principal Sir Dave Brailsford called the decision “severe”.
“It’s nothing more than you see most days of the race,” he said. “It’s a pretty harsh decision.
“I think a yellow card would have been merited but a red card, for both riders, in fact, feels a bit severe to me.”
Twelve months ago, what was Team Sky saw Gianni Moscon kicked off the Tour for punching rival rider Elie Gesbert on stage 15, but it did little to dent their dominance of the race.
Thomas is likely to feel the absence of his fellow Welshman more given their close friendship, although Rowe is not a climber and was expected to play a less pronounced role on the road in the decisive mountain stages to come.
But with the battle for yellow so close, this is still a significant setback for both Thomas and Kruijswijk, who were hoping to capitalise if Alaphilippe fades in the Alps, as is expected.
Alaphilippe had himself tried to calm the tensions on the road after the clash.
“I have seen something I don’t like to see, riders too nervous and touching each other,” the Frenchman said.
“Maybe they were scared that I would attack so I just tried to calm them down.”
The incident illuminated an otherwise predictably undramatic transition stage as the overall contenders eyed three huge days to come.
A 33-man breakaway – including Irishman Nicolas Roche of Team Sunweb – was left to contest stage honours, with Trentin attacking ahead of the final climb to solo to victory.
“This win has a special taste after two that I got through bunch sprints,” he said.
“I was making top 10 in all kinds of stages. Finally I won, it’s a great moment.”
Rowe’s exclusion is another setback for Team Ineos, who have not been able to dominate this year’s Tour as they did as Team Sky in winning six of the past seven editions.
Head of performance Tim Kerrison admitted he had eyed the days to come as “good stages to defend on” but they must yet dislodge Alaphilippe, who has doggedly defended the yellow jersey for far longer than anyone expected.
Thomas is now hoping that three big days at altitude, starting with Thursday’s brutal stage 18 which includes climbs of the Col de Vars, Col d’Izoard and the Galibier, all above 2,000 metres, is finally enough to shake Alaphilippe off after he showed his first signs of weakness in the Pyrenees.
“Obviously he wasn’t great a couple of days ago,” Thomas said.
“He’s been racing well all race but you would think he’d be starting to get tired now. I guess teams will be thinking to try to make it hard all day. It’ll be interesting, three big days.”