Monday, July 18, 2016

Chaos on Mont Ventoux

By Brad Oremland

The Tour de France is normally contested on bikes. For about 100 meters on Thursday, that wasn't the case.

Stage 12 was among the most anticipated in this year's Tour de France. The stage featured three categorized climbs, including a finish atop the Giant of Provence, the legendary Mont Ventoux. Stage 12 will probably be the most talked-about stage of this year's Tour, but not for the reasons organizers hoped or anticipated.

The stage got off to a rocky start before it even began. Winds in excess of 50 mph made a summit finish unsafe, so organizers moved the finish line 6 km down the mountain. The entire stage was affected by wind, with the peloton splintering and tensions running high. A 13-rider breakaway wouldn't wait for the 5-man chase group, and the breakaway splintered at the foot of Mont Ventoux, with three riders — Thomas De Gendt, Serge Pauwels, and Daniel Navarro — taking the lead.

Behind them, Orica-BikeExchange rider Simon Gerrans, leading the peloton, crashed on a descent, taking three Team Sky riders with him. Yellow jersey holder and Sky leader Christopher Froome took a natural break to slow the peloton. This allowed his teammates to catch up, but also allowed many trailing riders, including top-15 GC riders Warren Barguil and Louis Meintjes, to return to the peloton. The slowing peloton also allowed the breakaway to succeed. A gap that reached 18:45 had dropped to under 8:00, with over 30 km to go, much of it uphill. When the peloton stopped chasing, though, the teams not in the break lost their chance at a stage win. At least one of Sky's competitors, Movistar's Alejandro Valverde, was visibly upset by Froome's move.

Ahead on the final climb, Pauwels and Navarro dropped De Gendt, but Pauwels was doing all the work. Navarro, considered the strongest climber in the breakaway, appeared to be waiting to make his move. Instead, De Gendt rejoined the leaders, and it was Navarro who dropped behind. De Gendt attacked Pauwels, maintaining a small lead all the way to the finish line. He won the stage, and 50 points in the King of the Mountains competition, taking the polka dot jersey as the leader in that competition. It was a measure of vindication for De Gendt's Lotto-Soudal team, as well as their sprinter, Andre Greipel, who has gone winless in this year's Tour, but did ride in the breakaway and facilitated his teammate's win.

The real drama was yet to come, though, and overshadowed De Gendt's win on an iconic climb. The ascent of Mont Ventoux quickly decimated the peloton, as an elite group of 14 formed at the front: Team Sky's Wout Poels and Sergio Henao leading Froome; Team Movistar's Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde; Team BMC's Richie Porte and Tejay van Garderen; Orica's Adam Yates; Trek-Segafredo's Bauke Mollema; Ag2r's Romain Bardet; Astana's Fabio Aru; Katusha's Joaquim Rodriguez; Lampre's Meintjes; and Giant-Alpecin's Barguil. Top-10 riders Dan Martin and Roman Kreuziger fell behind on the climb, moving everyone else up the standings. The drop of Martin, who began the day in third place (+ :31), was particularly significant.

Poels and Henao brought back attacks from Valverde and Quintana, and eventually, Froome himself attacked. Porte answered and looked strong, but the rest of the field was unable to match the yellow jersey. It looked like perhaps the other riders expected Quintana to respond, and planned to follow his wheel, but the response never came. Soon afterwards, Mollema bridged across to Froome and Porte, unmatched by the rest of the field.

And then, disaster. Every year, crowds are a problem at the Tour de France. Fans block the road, flags and banners hit the bikes and go into the wheels, morons run along with the race, interfering with the event they're supposedly fans of. Similarly, motor vehicles interfere with the race. Motorbikes and team cars sometimes seem to forget that the bike race takes priority, and riders have been seriously injured, sometimes killed, in crashes.

On Thursday, the crowds were thick on the ascent of Mont Ventoux. With the final 6 km of the race eliminated because of winds, crowds from the top of the climb pressed down toward the final kilometers of the new finish. Furthermore, with Stage 12 coming on Bastille Day, the French crowds were even more demonstrative than usual. And Mont Ventoux is an iconic climb, drawing large crowds to small roads.

With under 1 km to go, Porte, Froome, and Mollema were riding to glory and gaining distance on their GC competition. A motorbike suddenly stopped in front of Porte, presumably because the road was blocked ahead. Porte crashed into the motorbike, hard, and Froome crashed into Porte. Then Mollema crashed into Froome.

Mollema did what every rider does after a crash: he picked up his bike, got back on, and rode as hard as he could toward the finish. Porte, who took the brunt of the crash, took longer to recover. A second motorbike ran into Froome's bicycle and cracked the frame, making riding impossible. He picked up the bike and ran up Mont Ventoux, before abandoning the cracked bike and simply running up the road. Eventually the neutral service vehicle gave Froome a new bike, but the clips didn't match his shoes, making it useless. Finally, at 400 m, the Sky team car gave Froome a replacement bike and he rode across the finish line.

In the meantime, the chasing group with Quintana, Yates, and company, had passed Froome on the road. The provisional leaderboard, at the stage's conclusion, showed Froome dropping from the race lead, 28 seconds ahead of Yates, to 6th, almost a minute behind his countryman.

That obviously wasn't fair. Rather than gaining time on their competitors, Froome and Porte lost time. NBC's Bob Roll was flabbergasted by the crash and its aftermath: "It was like a slow-motion nightmare ... the most bizarre thing I've ever seen in the Tour de France." Roll was adamant that Tour organizers had to give Froome, Porte, and Mollema the lead they had earned. Christian Vande Velde concurred, "Let's make sure that this is still sport at the end of the day." A motorbike braking to a sudden stop in front of the leaders of the race is not consistent with recognizing the greatest cyclists on the Tour.

The jury eventually gave the three lead riders a 19-second advantage over the next group on the road, containing the other top contenders. That's probably less than they would have gained without the interference, but it's far more fair than ignoring the incident, which was entirely outside the riders' control: a mishap which was never intended to be part of the race and didn't reflect the nature of the sport.

The stage, an iconic climb on France's most important holiday, became a massive embarrassment for organizers. But the problem ultimately lies with fans, and those who pretend to be fans. Every time I watch a Grand Tour, I'm amazed by fan interference. People stand on the road, and many of them lean in as cyclists approach, presumably in the hopes of appearing on TV. The Tour de France is supposed to be a test of cyclists, but hardly a stage goes by, especially in the mountains, without some degree of fan interference.

Following Stage 12, Mollema's teammate Peter Stetina lamented, "The fans are dictating the race more than the legs sometimes." Tour director Christian Prudhomme was less direct, but even he publicly acknowledged the problem with Thursday's stage: "It really was due to an excess of fans."

The race organizers tried to do the right thing for rider safety by moving the finish and avoiding the strongest winds. But on short notice, they were unable to erect the barriers that should have protected Porte, Froome, Mollema, and the other riders. I understand that, and it's fair to criticize the Tour organizers. But what we're criticizing them for is failing to control unruly fans and careless motorbikes. The problem begins there. Blaming organizers for the disruption to Stage 12 is a little like blaming police for a crime wave. Sure, the police could do a better job. But they wouldn't have to if not for all these criminals.

Perversely, many race observers seem to have blamed Chris Froome and Bauke Mollema. That's idiotic.

Van Garderen, interviewed after the stage, complained that Mollema had ridden on following the crash, rather than neutralizing to wait for Froome. Roll, Vande Velde, Phil Liggett, and Paul Sherwen were unanimous in agreeing that Mollema did nothing wrong. Getting on the bike after a crash is normal, especially inside of 1 km, and it wouldn't have been obvious to him that Froome's bike was unusable. Mollema had no obligation to wait for van Garderen's group, and the complaint seemed like sour grapes from a rider who thought he had lost time because of the crash and its aftermath.

When Froome put on the yellow jersey after the jury's decision, he was widely booed. A lot of people hate Chris Froome, but he did nothing wrong on Thursday. Competitors aren't supposed to run without their bikes, but he didn't go far, and the circumstances were beyond extraordinary. I can only suppose that spectators at the finish line didn't understand what had happened: they thought Froome had lost time, and crashes are part of the Tour. But those people didn't see what transpired: this crash was completely outside the normal race, and it would have been far more unjust to take the yellow jersey from Froome than to restore him to it. If anything, his current advantage probably understates how well he's riding. Even Adam Yates, who would have taken the maillot jaune without the jury's decision, agreed that Froome should retain the lead: "Nobody would have wanted to take the yellow jersey like this so it's a good decision the jury has taken." Yates himself was given time in Stage 7, when a spectator accidentally unplugged one of the generators and a banner collapsed on his bike while he was sprinting to the finish.

None of the three riders involved in the collision on Mont Ventoux seems notably injured, thank heaven, but it's another crash caused by spectators too close to the road. Sooner or later, some lunatic is going to kill one of the riders, accidentally or otherwise. Last year, a demented fan threw a cup of urine in Froome's face during one of the stages. The Tour de France is the biggest bike race in the world, with the largest crowds and the brightest spotlight. But at some point, all of cycling needs to reform its approach to spectator's distance from and interaction with the riders they've come to watch. Thursday's debacle was a farce and an atrocity, and it can't happen again. People are blaming cyclists, which is ridiculous, and blaming organizers, which is fair, but the real blame lies with the spectators and the motorbikes. A bike race should be about the cyclists, and too often, it isn't.

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