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Inside the Tour with John Wilcockson: Calm before the Alpine storm

Cold, wet weather can transform the Tour

1998 Tour de France, Marco Pantani
Marco Pantani won the the 1998 Tour after Jan Ullrich faded in the cold. File photo

St. PAUL-TROIS-CHATEAUX, France (VN) — A bunch sprint was the predictable end of a fast, nervous stage 15 to Montpellier on Sunday. And the 170 weary survivors of this 98th Tour de France are spending a sun-filled second rest day among the Rhône valley vineyards. They’d better enjoy it because no one can predict what will happen on Tuesday — when they face predicted torrential rainstorms laced with strong winds and temperatures in the 50s or low 60s (low-teens Celsius) during stage 16. Up to an inch of rain is forecast for Tuesday’s finish in Gap.

This would normally be a transitional stage dominated by a non-threatening breakaway group, but horrible weather conditions can completely change the expected results. This Tour has already seen more rainfall, wind and cool weather than most editions since the exceptionally wet 1997 race; and the slick roads definitely contributed to the bad crash on stage 9 when a broken leg put an end to the racing career of Kazakh hero Alexander Vinokourov and a fractured clavicle ended the podium hopes of Belgian climber Jurgen Van den Broeck.

But the powerful storms expected on Tuesday are of a different magnitude than the weather the peloton experienced in Brittany and the Massif Central earlier this month. Whenever bike racers have to endure such conditions — especially in the latter stages of a grand tour — their resilience is stretched to the very limit.

The most infamous examples of bad weather and accumulated rider fatigue having a dramatic effect on the race came in the final week of the 1998, 1971 and 1958 Tours, when the yellow jersey changed hands each time. So current race leader Thomas Voeckler and his Europcar teammates must be leery of their rivals making some key moves, especially on the challenging 23.5km (almost 15-mile) loop at Gap, where fog and temperatures as low as 50 degrees (10 Celsius) are expected.

2011 Tour de France stage 16 profile
2011 Tour de France stage 16 profile

Here is a look at the three times when a Tour leader’s worst fears came to pass:

1998: Ullrich destroyed by the cold

Before the penultimate mountain stage of the 1998 Tour, the defending champion Jan Ullrich held a comfortable six-minute lead over Italian climber Marco Pantani. It was raining at the start of the 189km stage in Grenoble and the temperatures steadily dropped as the peloton headed over the Croix-de-Fer and Télégraphe passes until just the leaders were left together on the upper slopes of the Galibier, a couple of minutes behind an early breakaway.

The summit of the Tour’s highest peak at 8,677 feet (2645 meters) was just visible through the lifting clouds and mist to his left when Pantani, seeing signs of weakness in yellow jersey Ullrich 5km from that summit, bolted away in his trademark climbing style: hands on the drops, standing on the pedals and turning a bigger gear than the others.

Pantani caught and passed the breakaways to reach the top two minutes ahead of a struggling Ullrich and runner-up Bobby Julich. The leader stopped on the first part of the long downhill to don a rain jacket and was re-joined by a couple of the earlier breakaways. One of these, fellow Italian Rodolfo Massi, helped Pantani slowly increase their advantage on the 35km of descending roads to the base of the finishing climb to Les Deux-Alpes — where Pantani dashed clear again to win the stage

Just before starting the uphill finale, Ullrich suffering from the glacial conditions, stopped for a wheel change after flatting. It took him a while to get under way and his teammates Bjarne Riis and Udo Bölts joined him on the climb. They helped as much as they could but almost nine minutes had ticked by before Ullrich struggled across the finish line, where Pantani claimed the yellow jersey he’d keep all the way to Paris.

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