A dark day for the peloton: Thoughts on Stage 12

Photo via Cycling News.
Photo via Cycling News.

Words by Chris.

Stage 12’s summit finish on Mont Ventoux sure enough proved to be a dramatic day of cycling, but it wasn’t the one anyone had expected, nor would have hoped for. The news, of course, was that Richie Porte collided into the rear of a camera-wielding moto within the last kilometres of the climb (which had been made 6km shorter due to dangerously high winds on the summit of Ventoux, a name which basically means ‘Mount Windy’). The moto was held up by spectators in the middle of the road, had to perform an emergency brake manoeuvre, and gave Porte no warning whatsoever. Porte hit his face on the rear of the bike and fell, and race leader Chris Froome in turn collided with Porte. Bauke Mollema, who had been on Froome’s wheel, came unclipped but managed to stay upright, and pedalled off. Froome’s bike broke, and he was left without a team car. With the neutral service vehicle unable to get through the masses of spectators lining the roads, Froome was isolated, and watched in panic as his rivals, including Nairo Quintana and Adam Yates, went past him on the road and headed towards the finish line. In blind panic and frustration, Froome then began to run in his cleated shoes up the road, a sad and farcical sight which has regrettably begun to trend on social media sites. Make no mistake, this is a bad moment for the sport of cycling, and a strangely humiliating one for its fans. Around 15 minutes after Adam Yates had been hailed as the leader on the general classification, the decision was made to retroactively neutralise the stage effectively from that point on — meaning the breakaway winners keep their stage placings, but that Froome and Porte have been awarded the same time as Mollema, and there is little change on the general classification. The decision was sure to be controversial either way, but below we offer some thoughts on the situation, its implications for the race at hand, and its significance for the sport in general.

To neutralize or not to neutralize? Before the decision was made, we were firmly convinced that anything other than a neutralisation would be cruel and unfair, and we maintain that conviction. The overwhelming crowds swamped the riders and the motos alike, and it was no rider’s fault that the crash occurred — they had done everything they could to plot a course through the crowds. Neutralization was the best decision to avoid protests from riders and teams, and we’re fairly certain Porte would not have signed on tomorrow if the race had not been neutralized.

Neutralization, too, is not without precedent in this race so far. Adam Yates, of course, suffered when the flamme rouge itself collapsed on him, and held on to a small amount of his advantage (which has seen him climb up the G.C.) thanks to a well-judged neutralisation. The officials today would have had in mind the precedent they themselves had already set.

Whose fault was the crash? We tend to agree with the pundits, notably including Chris Boardman, that it wasn’t the moto’s fault. The climb was just too packed with fans, and it’s very likely that the motos halted for good reason. We have already seen Froome punch an unruly spectator this tour, but today’s climb was absurd. With 6km skimmed off the top of Ventoux, the lower final kilometres were thick with fans, and there was little room to breathe, let alone ride a bike. We would expect an internal investigation on the A.S.O’s part into the security presence on the day, with questions asked about why the hoardings started so late on the climb.

Of course, this may have very real implications for all Grand Tour climbs in the future. The image of an uphill finish with fans leaning in from either side, running with riders up the sharper gradients, and cheering on their heroes is a famous one, and the close proximity spectators can get to the sport is one of its big draws, but was today an illustration that it’s all gone too far? Riders are now regularly being photographed pushing or punching these ‘fans’ who get in the way, grab riders, shove them uphill, let off flares as they ride by (!), or do everything but simply spectate. It is, perhaps, time for the UCI to sit down and consider this problem, and to ask if barriers up the key climbs might not be such a bad thing. But we are now well into the miserable territory of a good thing that is at risk of being ruined by some bad specimens.

Screen Shot 2016-07-14 at 19.00.12We also don’t want to let the moto off too lightly. We don’t think the crash was their fault, but, as this image shows, there were four motos ahead of the yellow jersey group at the time of the accident. Given that the officials hadn’t ensured a wide enough and clear enough road for the finish, allowing four motorbikes to hang metres ahead of the ascending riders seems a bit much, like an accident waiting to happen. It scarcely needs saying that incidents with motos are all too common at the moment — today’s stage winner Thomas de Gendt dedicated his win to teammate Stig Broeckx, who is still in an induced coma following an accident involving two colliding motorbikes. This is a terrible reminder that the organizers of the tours, including and perhaps especially the A.S.O, as well as the UCI need to take serious and decisive action about the role of motor vehicles in and around the sport.

We have nothing but sympathy for Chris Froome. Running up the road was a desperate effort, and the images of him doing so are going to haunt both rider and sport for a while now. But Froome is a committed winner. Today he was placed in a difficult, desperate situation with no real precedent, and he knew he couldn’t get a bike quickly or easily in the mess in which he was then embroiled. Was he trying to run to the finish? No, almost certainly he was trying to move up the road to minimise losses whilst the neutral service vehicle fought the crowds behind him. Was it worth it? Probably not, but try to imagine what was going through his mind. All day the riders have one goal, to push forward, to not stop moving till they hit the line. We saw a desperate rider drunk on adrenaline today. But we also saw a display of the attitude that has won Froome two Tours to date. Let’s let him have his dignity.

Let’s not forget, finally, that Porte, Froome, and Mollema had already taken 23 seconds lead ahead of the other G.C. men on the day. The act of neutralising the race means they won’t lose time, but remember that they were gaining time by the second. We will not find out, now, how much they could have gained, and we might have just witnessed Richie Porte’s last hopes at the overall podium — which was looking, against the odds, like a possibility. Porte now faces tomorrow’s time trial with guaranteed injuries, though we do not know how severe, and today will certainly have knocked the wind out of his sails. We said at the top of this that Porte may have exited the race had it not been neutralised, but let us acknowledge that he still might not want to continue.

Some thoughts after a sorry day in the world of cycling. The events have made a joke of the sport on what should have been one of its shining moments this year — the Bastille day ascent of Ventoux. It’s a bitter day to be a follower of the professional peloton.

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