BASTIA, France (VN) — It could only happen at the Tour de France.
What other sport would start on a rugged island, host a fast-moving event on open roads, and have a bus stuck under the finish-line scaffolding as a pack of the world’s elite cyclists barreled toward it at 65kph?
There were two races going on Saturday. The first, to win the stage and the yellow jersey. The second, to extract Orica-GreenEdge’s team bus, which was horribly stuck in a tangle of metal and rubber.
It was down to the wire. Officials made the call to end the stage at 3km, then Orica was freed, then the race was back to the line. It all happened in a very compressed amount of time.
Chaos ensued, riders fell, hopes dashed. The call came late, too late for some teams, such as Lotto-Belisol, which had already opened up its sprint with 4km to go. Marcel Kittel (Argos-Shimano) got his win. Others were left licking their wounds.
“I’ve never seen something like that before. I think there would have been a bigger chance of a meteor hitting us than to see that,” said Omega Pharma-Quick Step sport director Brian Holm, shaking his head. “I’ve seen a lot of shit in my years in the sport, but nothing like that.”
The opening stage opened with heart palpitations for Team Sky. Pre-race favorite Chris Froome hit the deck in the neutral zone, tripping up on a traffic island as the pack rolled out of Porto-Vecchio. Things could have ended right then and there for Froome, but he wasn’t seriously injured. Compared to what happened at the other end of the stage, Sky seemed blessed.
“On these stages on Corsica, we knew there would be crashes. We don’t know where … but we know there will be,” said Team Sky principal Dave Brailsford. “The goal for us is to get off this island in one piece, having lost no time.”
The opening 200km of the 213km opening stage along Corsica’s west coast unfolded like a pleasant group ride under a warm summer sun.
The peloton was buzzing along on wide roads. The sun was shining. Riders were chatting. A breakaway was kept on a short leash. All that remained was the tidy business of a finish line sprint, and the 100th Tour de France would be under way.
Easy, right? Yeah, right.
Nothing ever goes to script in the Tour. No one could have predicted that the final 20 minutes of an otherwise pleasant jaunt would turn into unfettered chaos.
Orica-GreenEdge’s bus stuck under the finish-line scaffolding would have been comical, were it not for the fact that 200 of the world’s fastest bike racers were barreling at breakneck speed toward that very spot. The yellow was in play; riders were risking their lives.
There was some post-stage finger pointing as angry team directors and athletes blamed race officials for botching the race, officials blamed Orica for arriving too late, after the team — which was staying in a hotel 2km from the finish — decided, last-minute to send its bus to the finish area.
And fair enough. Someone messed up, and it could have ended the Tour for some of the marquee names. It may have done just that for Tony Martin, the reigning world time-trial champion, who crashed hard and is likely out of the Tour.
But that kind of fluidity, chaos, and bedlam is just what the Tour is. It’s unpredictable, it’s shifting, sometimes dangerous, often ridiculous, but always engaging, always dazzling.
“Whether it’s a dog on the road, or a bus under the gantry, who would have guessed that?” Brailsford continued. “You don’t know what’s going to happen, but you know it’s going to happen. The goal posts will move, and life’s not fair, but you have to be ready to adapt.”
For many inside the guts of the peloton, Saturday’s pandemonium only reaffirmed the need to have race radio in modern, elite cycling. There is a movement among some quarters, backed by some within the UCI, that suggest cycling has seen the element of surprise choked out by race radios.
Current rules allow race radio in WorldTour events, such as the Tour, but the UCI wants to ban them in all professional events, arguing that race radios remove the element of surprise.
That argument seemed to deflate the longer the Orica bus remained stuck under the finish-line scaffolding.
According to an official communiqué, here’s how it went down: The race director was informed with 15km to go that the Orica bus was stuck. Teams were informed of the situation with 10km to go. Then the call was made to end the stage at 3km to go.
Between 5km to 6km to go — that is to say, around five minutes from the new finish line at 3km to go — Radio Tour informed teams that the original finish line was now clear and would be used to play out the stage.
The jury also ruled that with 6km to go, with the peloton still together, any ensuing crashes would be neutralized.
Make sense? Sure, if you read it twice, very slowly. Imagine racing at 60kph, cross-eyed at the end of a five-hour stage, with 200 riders desperately fighting for position.
“Today just showed why we need race radios,” Saxo-Tinkoff’s Nicholas Roche told VeloNews. “We need to know what’s happening in the race. It’s modern cycling. There’s a lot going on. Race radio is essential.”
Even when the riders heard what was going on, it was too late.
Lotto-Belisol was riding to set up André Greipel. When they heard the call that the line was 3km to go, they opened up their sprint. Then the radios crackled with the news that it was now at the original finish.
“We already started our sprint. We spent three guys, then they told us it was changed again, and we couldn’t start over,” Lotto’s Greg Henderson told VeloNews. “Imagine flying into the finish and seeing Orica’s bus sitting there? We could have ridden straight onto the bus for our showers. It was a real mess.”
Saturday’s finale was a real mess, especially for a handful of riders who crashed. Was it fair? No. Did someone mess up? Yes.
But as Brailsford said, life is unfair. The Tour, in its essence, is unfair, brutal, and unrelenting. Yet that’s the foundation of its allure. That’s why we’re all going to tune in tomorrow. That’s why the race has been around for a century and counting.
It could only happen in the Tour. And thank goodness for that.