There was rain. There was hail. There was a landslide. There was much confusion. And then, there was a change of the yellow jersey.
Friday’s 19th stage of the Tour de France produced a strange and chaotic scene, as organizers shortened the stage due to extreme hail and landslides, just as the GC battle had exploded on the slopes of the Col de l’Iseran. Did organizers make the right call to shorten the stage? Is this the weirdest thing we’ve seen at the Tour de France?
Did Tour organizers make the right decision to neutralize the race at the top of the Col de l’Iseran?
Fred Dreier @freddreier: You bet. From the overhead TV camera images, that stretch of road was so submerged with ice and water that you’d need a JetSki and a wetsuit to make it across. And the mudslide across the road would require the peloton to execute one of those trick mountain bike-ramp-jumps across the road. Since neither scenario is plausible, organizers were right to shorten the stage. Now, I’ve heard some chirping that they should have ended the official time at the base of the Col de l’Iseran. I’m going to chalk that up to French fans who really wish that Julian Alaphilippe wouldn’t have gotten dropped. Since the battle was already raging on the l’Iseran, to simply nullify all of that action would be really dumb. Anyway, chalk this whole episode up to the worst timing in cycling history for a hail storm. If it happened 15 minutes earlier, then perhaps organizers could radio the riders and tell them that, yes, the top of the l’Iseran is the finish line. And if it had been 15 minutes later, then perhaps the GC group passes through, scott-free.
Chris Case @chrisjustincase: There are so many factors involved in making a decision like this, I have to believe they made the best call they could make at the time. Since there was some amount of timing equipment at the top of the l’Iseran, that was a logical place to end the stage, rather than further down the road where they would need to use pen, paper, and a stop watch to figure things out. As far as conditions are concerned, it is now evident just how dangerous it would have been to have the riders push on.
Andrew Hood @eurohoody: There was no question on neutralizing the stage. They had no other choice. The road was clogged with water, slush, hail, ice and snow — it looked like a Biblical deluge. The peloton was lucky they didn’t get buried in it. How come they didn’t neutralize it earlier? The high-altitude storm unloaded in real time. Like anyone who’s spent time in the mountains knows, it can go from sunny, to building clouds, to something from a disaster film, all within a matter of minutes. A landslide lower on the descent revealed the true danger. Taking the times at the top of the l’Iseran? Well, that’s controversial no matter how you slice it. But to cancel the entire stage? That doesn’t seem fair, either. If you cancel the stage, do you allow Pinot to start again? The race was on — the conditions changed in a question of minutes — and the best possible decision was made at the time. It would have been worse to allow them to keep racing.
In your opinion, how do you think the GC battle would have played out without the neutralization?
Fred: Honestly, I believe Julian Alaphilippe would have hemorrhaged time on the climb to Tignes, and he may have fallen outside of the top five. Egan Bernal widens his margin to the group on that climb, and then perhaps there is a battle for scraps between Geraint Thomas, Steven Kruijswijk, and Emanuel Buchmann. But in my estimation, Alaphilippe loses tons of time, falls well out of contention, and stage 19 becomes the worst day in recent memory for French cycling.
Chris: It seems Bernal and Yates could have struck a deal to benefit each other: one would get the stage, one gains more time in the overall, if they formed an alliance on the road. However, with the other GC riders behind and some flatter roads before the finishing climb, who knows how much time they may have been able to pull back if they cooperated. Then again, Thomas wasn’t going to work, presumably. Kruijswijk had a teammate who was probably spent from pulling. Meanwhile, Alaphilippe was all alone and sure to lose more time the longer the stage went on. So, by that logic, the placings would have likely stayed roughly the same, however the times are a best guess. I think Alaphilippe actually benefitted from a shortened stage.
Andrew: Impossible to say. Bernal was flying, but Alaphilippe was chasing back. Thomas was marking, but looked to have more. Landa was pacing himself, Kruijswijk seemed to be waiting to pounce. The pack was clearly racing with the idea of finishing in Tignes. Did ASO know how bad things were when the pack hit the base of the l’Iseran? We don’t know. It appears the gravity of the situation was only fully realized near the top or on the descent. It was a very small window to react, and it was a question of luck. It clearly would have been better if everyone had known that the finish line was going to be moved. This is cycling. It’s not a stadium. The race is on open roads with weather being the ultimate factor no one can control. This is why we love it.
How did Thibaut Pinot’s abandonment impact the potential GC battle in these final two stages?
Fred: Pinot was the best climber in the race, and perhaps the only man with the explosive speed to gap Bernal and Geraint Thomas on a summit finish. I still think that his deficit was too great for him to win the race outright. But, barring the injury, I believe Pinot could have attacked his way onto the final podium. Here’s the thing: I think that Pinot’s attacks would have drawn out Bernal, and further distanced Alaphilippe. A Bernal/Pinot duo would have attacked over the Col de l’Iseran and then ridden all the way to Tignes together, with Bernal in yellow and Pinot in second.
Chris: It was a huge blow. Obviously, Pinot had incredible form just days ago. If he hadn’t been injured at all, he looked to be the most likely to pull off something special to leapfrog ahead of his rivals. Now we know that he didn’t try anything yesterday because he was already suffering the effects of his injury. Between his abandonment and Alaphilippe’s failure to defend yellow, it was a near-disaster day for the French.
Andrew: A few things: First off, it drains all chance of a French winner out of the Tour. In light of Alaphilippe’s inevitable collapse, Pinot was France’s best hope. Pinot was the strongest climber in the Pyrenees and seemed poised to move this weekend. France will have to wait another year for its first winner since the Badger. Second, it puts Ineos in the driver’s seat going into Saturday’s finale. With Bernal in yellow, it will take something spectacular to prevent Ineos/Sky from winning its seventh Tour in eight years. And finally, it opens up the podium. With Geraint Thomas looking solid, it’s going to be a big fight between Kruijswijk and Buchmann.
Which was weirder: The 2019 ice storm or Chris Froome’s jog up Mont Ventoux?
Fred: Froome on Ventoux is still weirder. Rain happens. Hail happens. Landslides, while rare, also happen. But motorcycle crashes caused by crazy fans that take out the yellow jersey? That NEVER happens. And, let’s not forget, that the Froome affair produced images that really pushed the whole thing over the top. The video of a skinny man in yellow awkwardly jogging up the road is far stranger than video footage of a bucket-loader sloshing Slurpee-like mush from a French road.
Chris: The jog. Nothing will ever beat the jog. A man dressed in tight yellow clothing runs in clickety shoes, eventually without his bike up a corridor of rabid fans? That was insane. Today was actually pretty normal compared to that.
Andrew: Without a doubt, Ventoux. Seeing the yellow jersey running up the side of cycling’s most famous mountain was something we’ll never witness again. We’ve seen some horrific racing conditions before, including the Milano-Sanremo from a few years ago and the famous race over the Gavia in the 1988 Giro d’Italia. The Tour got lucky today. Had the peloton raced into the deluge with mudslides and hailstones, it would have been much uglier.