Australian star Caleb Ewan has hit back at cycling legend Eddy Merckx and other critics who have criticised him for abandoning the Giro d'Italia after just a week.
The Sydneysider responded that he "was more disappointed than anyone" to have to pull out of the race after Merckx had earlier on Monday accused him of a lack of professionalism for his early abandonment.
Ewan withdrew from the three-week grand tour during Saturday's eighth stage, accompanied only by a brief statement from his Belgian team Lotto Soudal, who tweeted that he had suffered pain in his knee.
Less than 24 hours before, though, Ewan had produced another brilliant sprint to win his second stage of the tour in the space of three days.
The Sydneysider's withdrawal, while wearing the points leader's jersey, did not impress Belgian Merckx, the man widely thought of as the greatest professional cyclist of them all.
In the Het Nieuwsblad newspaper on Monday, the record 11-time grand tour winner Merckx wrote: "What Caleb Ewan did also bothers me enormously.
"I find his statement shows a total lack of professionalism and lack of respect for the Giro and the sport of cycling.
"He deserves a sanction: take away all his bonuses. Former Tour boss Felix Levitan would have said, 'you won't be at this race next year'."
Former rider Axel Merckx, Eddy's son, was also quoted in the article as saying: "Rules are rules - you can't take away bonuses. But to just leave, without any real proof of knee pain, that's a total lack of respect towards the organisation."
The criticism triggered a swift response from the 26-year-old Ewan later on Monday as he confirmed on Twitter that he did have an injury and said: "To the people who think I've disrespected the race, I'm sorry you feel that way.
"If you saw the hard work and dedication I've put into my preparation to honour this race and perform at my best, I'm sure you wouldn't think the same. I'm more disappointed than anyone.
"Honestly, it'll be hard to watch the sprint today at the Giro d'Italia and also on the 13th stage as I felt my form was coming into its best."
Ewan had said all along that he would not complete the whole race because he didn't want to exhaust himself in his bid to win three stages at all three grand tours in a single season - the Giro, Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana.
"Thanks to all the people sending nice 'get well soon' messages," Ewan also wrote.
"I've done some stuff with my positioning to help the knee pain I've felt since the start of stage 8. Once it's completely gone, I'll resume my training to prepare for the Tour."
The Tour de France begins in Brest on June 26.