By Rupert Guinness
The anticipated carnage began as soon as the stage 15 rolled out from Bagnères-de-Bigorre, just as the race rose up steeply for 1.5km to the aptly named Haute de la Côte.
Virtually the first thing we heard in our car on Radio Tour — besides “top, départ donné,” to signal the official start — were the numbers of three riders “en difficulté” and that the speeding peloton was in one long line, indicating a very fast start to the day.
The stage was barely a little over an hour old — 1:13 p.m. to be precise — when the first abandon was announced. That was number 52, Italian Leonardo Bertagnolli (Saeco). And Colombian Santiago Botero (Telekom) and Sylvain Chavanel (Brioche La Boulangère) had not even launched their daylong two-up attack.
Not that their move wasn’t long from being unleashed. By the time the pair rode off to their fate with a tail wind pushing them toward the Pyrénées, the names of many more riders being dropped from the pack became commonplace.
The dropped riders became more regular as the day wore on and as many of them chased to get back on to groups, were dropped, chased again, dropped, chased, dropped and chased — until finally they reached the mist-covered high-altitude finish line in Luz-Ardiden, hoping that somehow they had made it within the time limit.
A look at who finished in the laughing group at 34 minutes and 44 seconds will tell you who many of the stragglers were. A few surprises too: one of the biggest being Sunday’s stage 14 winner and Giro d’Italia champion Gilberto Simoni (Saeco).
As attention turned toward what was happening up front, there was little wonder that the struggles and personal battles being fought behind were allowed to slip through unpublicized. A dramatic finale like we saw Monday between Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich is one we may never again.
Tuesday’s rest day couldn’t come sooner for the 151 riders who have survived the Tour de France so far. Although in the back of their minds they will know that come Wednesday one more day in the Pyrénées awaits them.
For the four riders who left the Tour today, with them will be the lingering doubt that if they had have just held on for one more day maybe, just maybe, they could have recovered and hung on until Sunday’s finish.
Joining Bertagnolli as a non-finisher Monday from the initial 198-strong field that left from the start in Paris on July 5 were Italy’s Marco Milesi (Vini Caldirola, did not start), American Fred Rodriguez (Vini Caldirola, abandon) and Belgian Axel Merckx (Lotto-Domo, eliminated).
From the positive side of things, the number of withdrawals has been less than what was initially feared by Tour medico Dr Gérard Porte. With the searing heat and humidity following the Tour, he warned that unless it abated, the Pyrenees could be the scene of a mass exit of riders like never seen before.
He had reason to fear: In the three days of the Alps, 33 riders left the Tour. And as the Tour headed across Provence and toward the Pyrenees with the overall race on a knife-edge, and the promise of a lightning-fast race looking certain, it was suspected that many riders would find themselves eliminated.
But so far, after three of the four stages in the Pyrénées, rider withdrawals have been fewer than predicted. And that is due to the cooler mid-70-degree weather that has prevailed. In total, 14 riders have quit the Tour during the last three days: three on stage 13, seven on stage 14 and four on stage 15. No doubt, there would have been more were tomorrow not a rest day.
But as we reach the pointy end of the Tour — the last six days — and as the peloton continues to dwindle in size, it is worth recalling a few facts that may help us to judge how hard this year’s centennial Tour has been for the riders.
In the most unlikely scenario that the 151 survivors from 198 starters reach Paris on Sunday, the Tour will end with an equal eighth highest percentage of finishers — 76.26 percent. That will go alongside the 1988 edition when 151 riders from 198 starters made it to the French capital to see Spaniard Pedro Delgado claim his winner’s yellow jersey.
Last year, when Armstrong claimed his fourth title, the Tour recorded the highest-ever percentage of finishers: 153 riders from 189 placing at a rate of 80.95 percent.
It would take a natural disaster, an unforeseen incident or a ridiculously hard course for the record of lowest finishing percentages to be challenged. The 12 lowest all came in Tours before and up to 1928. The lowest of the lows was in 1919 when only 11 riders from 69 starters finished — 15.94 percent — whereas the best of them was in 1926 when 41 riders from 126 survived at a then good rate of 32.54 percent.
Then again, the way things have been going in this year’s Tour, anything can happen.