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VAISON LA ROMAINE, France (VN) — On France’s Bastille day — a day when the Tour seemed destined to return to normal — all hell broke loose.
Chris Froome, Richie Porte, and Bauke Mollema collided into a motorbike just over 1km to go in the wind-shortened stage when they were clear of the chasing group featuring Nairo Quintana. In the ensuing chaos, Froome took to foot, Porte struggled with his bike, and Mollema got up and made the most of it. Eventually, the UCI jury gave Froome the same time as Mollema, allowing the Sky rider to keep his yellow jersey. But not without controversy. More than a few riders complained about the decision, and the Tour’s image suffered.
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Why did the crash happen? What confluence of events created the chaotic scenario on the slopes of Ventoux? And what are the possible ramifications of the crash?
Too much wind, too many fans
The Tour is built on its closeness to fans, but a string of circumstances added up to disaster Thursday. Winds of up to 145kph on the Ventoux summit forced race organizers to relocate the finish line at the Chalet Reynard, some 6km lower. More importantly, fencing along the road that typically lines the final 2km or more of major climbs wasn’t there. On Thursday, fencing only went down to about 600m to go, because organizers said there wasn’t enough time to move the fencing lower on the course.
Stage winner Thomas de Gendt said the fans were far too numerous in the final kilometer, and that there was barely enough space for his bike to pass.
“I didn’t realize I was at the finish because there was barely even fencing,” De Gendt said.
And because the upper part of the climb was neutralized, fans that might have been spread along the entire 22km Ventoux climb were packed into the final stretch around the Chalet. That meant that fans were pressing down on the riders more than ever. Add France’s Bastille Day, the national holiday, and the anticipation was erupting by the time riders arrived.
“The crowd was just all over the road,” said BMC Racing’s Richie Porte. “If they can’t control the crowds, then what can you control?”
With the fans pressing down on the riders, and not enough fencing to hold them back, something was bound to happen.
[pullquote align=”right” attrib=”Thomas de Gendt”]“I didn’t realize I was at the finish because there was barely even fencing.”[/pullquote]
Too many motorbikes, not enough room
It happened in an instant. At about 1.2km to go, a TV motorbike braked suddenly to avoid striking a fan, and the attacking Porte went flying face first into the camera. Froome and Mollema were close behind, and all three collapsed into a pile of Lycra and carbon fiber. A motorcycle behind crashed into Froome’s bike, destroying it.
The topic of motorcycle safety is already a simmering issue within the peloton. During the stage, you could see motorbikes squeezing up the road to capture the action, hauling TV crews, photographers, and officials. The UCI is still trying to determine how to proceed with motorbike safety, and this event could influence that outcome.
Froome referenced the motorcycles both ahead and behind for destroying his bike.
“The three of us just ran into the motorbike and another motorbike plowed into me, breaking my frame,” Froome said “I knew the car stuck behind was five minutes behind. I just started running.”
Nairo Quintana said the congestion impacted all of the riders, even those in the chase.
“I thought it was from bad organization, between the motorbikes and the others that are in the race, but they were the circumstances and situations that all of us suffered the same,” he said.
The mixture of fans, bikes, and riders kept Sky’s team car from reaching its downed captain. As Froome jogged along the road, Sky sports director Nicolas Portal was helpless. “The Sky car was blocked, and we couldn’t get through,” he said. “Then we heard Chris was running. It was just insanity.”
Time differences at the line
Preliminary results gave Yates the yellow jersey, and put Froome more than a minute and a half back. Then word filtered out; Froome was back in yellow, and Yates was second at 47 seconds back.
[pullquote align=”left” attrib=”Chris Froome”]“I knew the car stuck behind was five minutes behind. I just started running.”[/pullquote]
And then came the controversy. The jury ruled that the times that would count were those taken at the line, not at the point of the accident. Mollema crossed at 5:05 behind winner Thomas de Gendt, and the jury gave Froome and Porte the same time, even though they finished much further back. The jury also ruled that Quintana, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), and Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) would receive the same time as Yates and others chasers who had crossed the line 19 seconds behind Mollema. That saved Quintana about 20 seconds.
“What’s going on?” Mollema wrote on Twitter. “Seems like everybody gets time bonuses. I wonder what would have happened if I would have been the only one to go down.”
Mollema was wondering out loud why the real differences didn’t stand over the chasing riders. The jury cited “exceptional” circumstances of the race in their decision.
Sky’s Brailsford insisted the race jury made the right call.
“I think the jury and the organization made the right decision. It was fair play,” Brailsford said. “It’s fair that Richie, Chris, and Mollema were the best riders today, and they shouldn’t pay the price for an accident. These were exceptional circumstances.”
Indeed they were. No one left the Giant of Provence satisfied. The sport had another black eye, and the riders were the ones paying the price. What will happen next in this Tour of surprises, both good and bad?