LA-ROCHE-SUR-FORON, France (VN) — Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo) couldn’t believe his ears. After riding through his smoothest Tour de France in years, a rather innocuous 2km sector of gravel had finally taken him out.
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Pfffft — a front puncture saw him forced out of the front GC selection and put his possibly career-best Tour result at risk.
Isolated without teammates, Porte had to wait until the team car could come up to replace his bike. By then, he was in the chase of his life to not lose grip on fourth place.
“It was a nice chase back, and I really didn’t think I was going to make it,” Porte said at the line after a frantic chase back to the GC group. “I think I’ve already done my time trial, as it was that hard to come back.”
In the end, Porte made it back, but some in the peloton were wondering why the gravel sector was even in the race so late in such a decisive moment of the race.
“The gravel section was a bit dangerous,” said Astana’s Miguel Ángel López, winner of Wednesday’s summit. “I managed to get through it, and I’m happy that I didn’t lose my podium position.”
The peloton braced for the gravel sector that faced the stretched-out bunch after coming over the Tour’s last hors categorie climb during Thursday’s stage 18 to La Roche-sur-Foron. Instead of riding defensively down to the finish line, the peloton had to pick their way through a landmine filled with potential punctures, mechanical problems, or crashes.
A breakaway that included the two Ineos Grenadiers leaders and then the select GC group rumbled across with everything in play.
It made for dramatic TV viewing, but not everyone thought a gravel sector should be featured so late in the Tour.
“It could have made it a lottery,” said stage-winner Michał Kwiatkowski. “It was rough gravel. It’s not the same kind of gravel as Strade Bianche.”
Kwiatkowski should know. He is a two-time Strade Bianche winner.
Kwiatkowski said it would have been bitterly disappointing if he had lost his chance to win the stage due to a puncture, or if a GC rider lost a podium spot after surviving nearly three weeks of racing.
“It looks good in the images,” Kwiatkowski said. “It is hard to judge. It is not a moment to attack. It would be a shame if one of us, Richard or me, would have any problems because of that. We were racing hard all day. We just wanted to get through that section.”
Races have started to incorporate more and more gravel sectors into their race designs over the past few years. The Giro d’Italia started the trend more than a decade ago with the inclusion of the Colle della Finestre in the Italian Alps. Other races have followed suit, including the Tour.
Last year, the Vuelta a España was engulfed in controversy when a sector of gravel in Andorra became swamped with mud and water. Riders crashed, including Astana’s López and eventual winner Primož Roglič.
The UCI has since changed the rules to say that a gravel section if it’s included in a grand tour cannot feature too much climbing or descending.
Thursday’s sector came at a critical part of the final decisive stage of the Tour, but it was largely level. Even a small bulge in the middle made for treacherous riding after months of summer heat had baked the surfaces to leave the gravel dry, dusty and loose.
Riders were glad it was only 2km long.
“The gravel section was really brutal,” said Sepp Kuss (Jumbo-Visma). “Your legs are already dead, and you have to work your way over the really rough gravel. It was a tough moment. It’s a shame if you have a problem there, especially so late in the Tour.”
Porte was the only major GC rider to suffer any mishap or mechanical, but the lead group was on edge as they barreled onto the dusty gravel sector after climbing the Tour’s last hors categorie summit in the 2020 route.
Everyone knew one slip of the wheel or a puncture could see them fall out of the lead group. Porte luckily had the pure power to chase back on — with some help from Jumbo-Visma’s Tom Dumoulin and Wout van Aert — but others knew they could have lost minutes.
Race leader Primož Roglič even took it easy, pacing himself cautiously over the short, but potentially explosive gravel sector.
Roglič had an important ally in the front group in Sepp Kuss, who could pass up a wheel in case something happened.
“The gravel was a lot chunkier than when we checked it out in recon,” Kuss said. “I heard that tire pop. I thought it was my rear tire. That’s another reason why you want to have a second guy in that group like me. I was going to give my wheel to Primož if something happened.”
Sport directors aren’t thrilled about the gravel tendency either, but admitted it’s all part of the show.
“Gravel, it’s all part of the entertainment of the sport,” said Mitchelton-Scott sport director Matt White. “It’s like cobbles. It’s part of our sport, I think in small doses, it has its place.”
The peloton can rest easy. There’s no more gravel until at least next year. There are some cobbles on the Champs-Élysées, but everyone knows how to handle those.