Gilbert 'environmentally responsible', Froome and co. 'have form'
Venerable French sports newspaper l'Equipe reported this week that Belgian police are investigating around 20 riders who were caught on camera dropping waste and water bottles during Wednesday's Fleche Wallonne semi-classic.
Those allegedly under suspicion include the entire RadioShack-Leopard squad – for discarding an empty Andy Schleck 20 kilometres from the finish in Huy.
There is talk that all 20 riders in question may be banned from starting Sunday's Liege-Bastogne-Liege after protests from local ecological groups.
The news comes with Belgium one race away from having its worst Classics season since 1945 – with the proud cycling nation still yet to notch a win in any Monument or semi-Classic this season, despite the fact that most of the races take place on Belgian soil.
The two stories are not thought to be related – although other riders said to have incurred the ire of the Belgian environmental groups are rumoured to include Spaniards Joaquim Rodriguez, Daniel Moreno, Alberto Contador and Alejandro Valverde, Italians Vincenzo Nibali and Moreno Moser, Portuguese Riu Costa, Swiss Michael Albasini, Australian Simon Gerrans and France's Pierre Rolland.
According to a source, the entire Sky squad are also under severe scrutiny because Christopher Froome "has form".
Indeed, Froome was one of three riders who were the subject of a criminal complaint back in 2010 for discarding debris on the roads of Belgium during the Fleche Wallonne. Charges were even filed in court by 'La Coalition Nature' environmental group, who claimed Froome had violated Wallonnian law that makes littering an offence.
Incidentally, 2010 was another rubbish year for Belgium in the classics following wins for Spain's Oscar Freire in Milan-San Remo, Swiss Fabian Cancellara in both the Ronde and Roubaix, Australian Cadel Evans in the Fleche and Spaniard Alexandre Vinokourov in Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
Littering has long been a grey area for the professional peloton with bidons considered prized items for spectators along the side of the road. Even the most fervent of cycling fans, however, are not too enamoured by empty packets of energy gel, Mars bar wrappers and cans of Coke (except ones deposited by Tom Boonen during his party boy phase).
ASO, who run the Ardennes Classics as well as the Tour de France, have been experimenting with waste zones in a number of races and there are said to be new rules being implemented during the Grande Boucle – much to the chagrin of Euskaltel, for whom managing a musette is hard enough without having to factor in a time-consuming recycling process.
Some teams have a policy to target fans with their souvenir-standard empty water bottles while other green-minded teams even have special pockets for waste. In the case of gastro-hit riders Marcel Kittel and Brice Feillu these special 'pockets' are more commonly known as 'bib shorts'.
But the introduction of special zones for discarding rubbish could have more far-reaching effects than creating a pile of Cofidis cast-offs beside the road. It threatens to ruin the spontaneity of a sport which is already ordered by intermediate sprints, feeding zones and early attacks by Michael Morkov.
How long until riders can only make a mechanical change in a specially designated pit area? What if attacks could only be made in designated areas on country lanes or motorways for fear of infringing local traffic regulations? Just imagine the furore if Froome not only dropped his bidon but surged ahead during a 20mph area outside a local nursery or old people's home.
As it is, Belgian fans will hope that one of their riders can end the nation's rubbish run on Sunday with victory in La Doyenne. The rider most likely to do so is Philippe Gilbert, who became only the second rider in history (and probably the first unassisted, given Davide Rebellin was the other) to win all three of the Ardennes Classics back in 2011.
World champion Gilbert has not won a major Classic since that famous treble and so far has finished 5th and 15th in the Ardennes races this year, with just Liege-Bastogne-Liege remaining. Another slip-up and the Belgian might well be discarding his rainbow jersey on the side of the road given how much bad luck it's bringing him.
What a trophy that would be for the rubbish collectors.