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Cycling never fails to deliver excitement and controversy, but Friday’s wild stage turned the dial to 11.
Just as the best Tour de France in a generation was building toward its final decisive climax, cycling’s greatest race added a few chapter to its glorious history with another completely unexpected turn of fortunes. The race was turned upside down in a matter of minutes, but not in ways that anyone could have ever imagined.
Friday reminded everyone that no sport delivers such human drama as the Tour. One man’s misery is another’s joy. A victory for one is a career-changing defeat for another. The weather is often uninvited guest, and it certainly was on Friday. Rain, hail, mud and ice barged in on the party, and turned everything upside down.
Friday’s rarely seen spectacle dramatically altered the outcome in permanent ways.
In little more than two hours, the collective dreams and passion of two cycling-crazed nations went from high to low and vice-versa in a compressed window of time. The long-simmering dreams of redemption for France were doused as Thibaut Pinot and Julian Alaphilippe both flamed out high in the Alps. Just as quickly, the pent-up aspirations of Colombia, whose gangly “escarabajos” have been chasing the yellow tunic since the 1980s, likely found deliverance not with Nairo Quintana, but the 22-year-old Egan Bernal.
Is cycling fair and just? Hell no. The unlikely mid-stage neutralization Friday reaffirmed that the only place to be in the Tour de France is at the front. Ineos played the tactic of sending Bernal up the road. A year after seeing his dreams come true, Geraint Thomas was yet again playing the role of the ever-loyal lieutenant. No one knows how the stage could have played out, but a mudslide all but washed out any hope of Thomas of defending his title. Only a full-on collapse by Bernal, or a betrayal by Thomas, will allow him to have a chance to defend his title.
How often is a stage altered mid-race? Not frequently. There was the snow-bound Milan-San Remo in 2013, when the peloton was racing in a blizzard, only to be stopped and restarted down on the coast. Stages have been shortened and courses altered, but it’s rare that the decision isn’t made hours before the start of the race.
Remember the 2016 Tour de France and the spectacle of Chris Froome crashing and then running up the side of cycling’s most famous mountain without his bike? High winds had lowered the finish line, but everyone knew it before the start. Froome’s predisposition as a competitor meant only one thing: keep moving forward.
That same instinct kicked in Friday as the call was made out on the descent of the 2751m Col de l’Iseran. The skies had opened high in the French Alps and it caught the race by surprise. Riders wanted to keep going. Rigoberto Urán was spotted in a heated exchange with Vincenzo Nibali as the two pedaled down the descent. Urán was probably having unpleasant memories of the 2014 Giro, when he decided to wait when race officials waved a red flag to neutralize a descent off the snow-board Stelvio, only to lose the pink jersey to Quintana who just kept on trucking.
Many asked why didn’t the Tour neutralize the finish hours before the race had started. Anyone who spends time in the mountains knows that it turn from sunny skies, to building clouds, to Biblical-like deluge in a question of hours. That’s what happened Friday. There was a forecasted chance of thunderstorms, but no one expected the cloudburst that opened up on the Tour. Within minutes, the race course was engulfed by the tempest.
Just as riders were topping out over the Iseran, road crews were frantically trying to clear six inches of hail and pools of mud and water from the roadway when a mudslide swept down onto the Iseran descent.
Stopping the race was the only option. ASO deserves credit for quickly taking a controversial decision that ultimately protected the health of the riders. There was nothing else the Tour organization to do. Official times were taken over the top, but there was no stage winner declared. Perhaps it was unfair to take the time at the top of the Iseran just as the real race drama was kicking into gear. The race dynamics were taking shape and there’s no way of knowing how far Bernal could have gone or how much Alaphilippe could have hung on. But it would be equally unfair to cancel the entire stage and erase the attacks and efforts of all the riders.
If ASO was as truly devious as some seem to believe, they could have canceled the stage outright, and even allowed Pinot to restart the race again on Saturday. That would have kept Alaphilippe in yellow, and given Pinot a chance to pull off a miracle. Et voila — France still has a chance to win! Imagine the uproar.
Weather happens. It’s as simple as that. And when cycling’s stadium is the highest mountains of Europe, this is inevitable. Unfortunately, there’s no rain delay or postponement. For better or not, Friday messy affair will permanently mark the outcome of this year’s race. Confirmation that Saturday’s final mountain stage to Val Thorens will be truncated to only include the final run to Val Thorens will further tarnish the conclusion to what’s otherwise been a thrilling and unpredictable race.
The Tour always wins. It doesn’t matter which country the victor comes from. The race is larger than any single rider. It’s why we love the Tour. It’s why we watch every day.