CHAMBÉRY, France — The Tour de France is often compared to a multi-dimensional chess match on two wheels. Much of cycling is trying to outsmart and corner your opponents, yet that description is too sanitized. It ignores the raw emotions and brutal honesty that professional cycling evokes.
Sunday’ 181.5km stage 9 from Nantua to Chambéry stripped every cyclist bare to their core. There was no place to hide.
“Today’s stage was brutal,” said race leader Chris Froome (Sky). “I expected the GC to get blown right up. It has in a lot of ways.”
Every one of the 181 finishers in Chambéry had a story to tell. Some were tales of unexpected joy, like Rigoberto Urán, the journeyman Colombian who won in a photo finish for his first career Tour stage-win despite breaking his rear derailleur in the final descent.
“It’s unbelievable,” Urán (Cannondale-Drapac) said. “I didn’t think it was true.”
Exultation for Urán was heartbreak for second-place man Warren Barguil (Sunweb). Photo finishes are common in bunch sprints, but to have it that close in a mountain stage where time gaps are measured in minutes, it’s almost too cruel in a sport renowned for its harshness.
For many, their faces were etched with emotion. Their disappointment hung from their bodies as riders trundled into Chambéry.
French rider Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Soudal) was ashen, and unable to even raise his hands to acknowledge fans cheering him at the bus. Polish climber Rafal Majka, whose Bora-Hansgrohe teammate Peter Sagan was kicked out last week, shuffled across the line with his jersey tattered and flayed into strips from two hard crashes. Spanish star Alberto Contador, the proud former champion, crossed the line at 4:19 back, his head slung low over his handlebars, and his hopes of winning again all but shattered.
“I crashed twice. We’ll have to see how I feel,” Contador said. “More than a few favorites left the Tour today. There won’t be a harder stage.”
Twelve riders’ Tour dreams ended in Chambéry. Their suffering is over, at least for this year. Five abandoned due to crashes and injuries. Seven more finished “hors délai” — they missed time cut.
Richie Porte, the plucky Tasmanian climber who dreamed of dethroning Froome, was worse off. He crashed horribly on the narrow, sinuous descent off Mont du Chat late in the race. He left the race in an ambulance. Doctors later confirmed fractures to his pelvis and clavicle.
“As we saw today, half the battle of the Tour de France is to survive the first half of the race,” said Matt White, sport director at Orica-Scott, reminding everyone we’re not even halfway through this year’s edition. “There are a few guys packing their bags, and going home already.”
No one was immune to troubles Sunday, not even Team Sky. Froome’s squad looked impregnable, but teammate Geraint Thomas, who won the yellow jersey on the opening day, crashed on the day’s first major descent. He started the day second overall, but left the Tour with his shoulder wrapped in gauze.
“It’s a massive disappointment,” Thomas said. “Just like at the Giro. It was stage 9 as well. I was sitting second overall as well, don’t know what it is for this year, it’s just not happening.”
Just 48 hours ago, pundits complained that the Tour was stuck in a doldrums of a boring course and the dominance of Team Sky. By Sunday, there was so much going on fans were getting whiplash trying to keep up with the unfolding developments.
The seven-climb route along the edge of the Alps made riders nervous even before the start. The climbs were not very high by Tour standards, especially compared to the giants of the Alps and Pyrénées looming in the second half of the Tour. Yet the stage featured more than 4,500 meters of vertical climbing, among the most of any stage in this year’s Tour. Stage 9 was also the first time since 2011 that three hors categorie climbs were featured in one stage.
However, the descents truly put everyone on edge. Light rain, narrow roads, and rough pavement ratcheted up the nerves.
Crashes took a brutal toll. The daily injury report filled a full page, with cut knees and elbows, a dislocated shoulder, a dislocated knee, and cracked bones. Tour de France chief race doctor Florence Pommery said she attended at least 10 crashes, a high number for any stage. NBC Sports tweeted a photo of blood on the side of her medical car.
Crashing is part of racing, but more than a few grumbled about how race organizers took the race down such narrow and steep roads.
“Richie [Porte] just lost it on one corner. It was so slippery. I guess the organizers got what they wanted,” said Dan Martin (Quick-Step). “Richie locked up his back wheel, went straight into the grass, wiped out, and his bike just collected me. I had nowhere to go. I was very, very lucky to come off as lightly as I did.”
Martin pedaled away from what was the day’s worst crash when Porte slammed into him after missing his line on the sinuous descent off Mont du Chat. A handful of the top yellow jersey challengers had summited the day’s final climb, and were slicing their way down narrow corners. Porte appeared to miss his line, his wheel dipping off the road. His inertia carried him across the pavement, clipping Martin as he swept into a road-cut.
“I’m still happy to be in yellow, but after seeing the images of Richie’s crash. That was horrific and left me with a horrible feeling.”
The Tour held its collective breath, fearing the worst. Porte was lucky. His Tour was over, but he escaped without more serious injury. The Tour sped on. It doesn’t wait for anyone.
A select group rushed toward the finish line over flat roads. The peloton lay decimated in its wake. Only 11 riders finished within 65 seconds of Urán. The remainder was minutes behind. The gruppetto finished more than 37 minutes slower. A few still had pluck to attack, including Romain Bardet and Jakob Fuglsang. On a day when many fortunes fell, theirs rose, with Bardet now third, and Fulgsang jumping from 15th to fifth.
Froome was largely immune to the stage’s perils. Confirming yet again his cycling chops and icy focus, Froome escaped the stage relatively unscathed. His grip on what could be a fourth yellow jersey is a bit tighter, expanding what still is a very slender lead to 18 seconds to Fabio Aru.
With other rivals such as Nairo Quintana, twice a Tour runner-up, languishing at 2:13 back, there is a double sense of Froome’s growing aura of invincibility, but also that the race is far from over.
“I’ve really mixed feelings today,” Froome said. “I’m still happy to be in yellow, but after seeing the images of Richie’s crash. That was horrific and left me with a horrible feeling.”
Sunday humbled even Froome. At its core, bike racing is about suffering, and overcoming the odds for fleeting moments of ecstasy. No one left Chambéry without reeling from the effects of stage 9.