Disaster in France

Date
July 26, 2019

Egan Bernal took the overall lead by a landslide on Stage 19 of the Tour de France today, in the most disastrous, dramatic, chaotic day of the Tour since Chris Froome launched a foot race up Mont Ventoux in 2016.

Bernal had attacked the race with five kilometers left to climb on the day’s biggest mountain – the Col d’Iseran – and by the time he reached the summit he was all alone and in the virtual lead of the Tour, with teammate Geraint Thomas and the group of other overall favorites nearly a minute behind, and race leader Julian Alaphilippe still another minute back. The yellow jersey had finally cracked, after 14 days at the top of the standings.

But just as Alaphilippe reached the summit and began what promised to be an edge-of-the-seat descent to the foot of the final climb (the first-category Col de Tignes), a massive hailstorm dumped several inches of hail onto the valley below, triggering a mudslide that covered the race route in sludge.

With Bernal and Simon Yates racing down the backside of the Iseran – Bernal for yellow, Yates for his third stage win of the Tour – the rest of the overall contenders looking for relative gains, and Alaphilippe flying down to try to limit the damage and save his Tour, the race had finally reached the decisive moment we’ve spent nearly three weeks waiting for. And suddenly it was called off. Deemed too dangerous to continue.

Television commentators were the first to receive word that the stage would neutralized, while the riders themselves were notified one-by-one via race personnel in cars and on motorcycles, or over race radio. (All this as the riders continued downhill at 40 miles per hour.) Race director Christian Prudhomme pulled alongside the leading duo of Bernal and Yates and engaged in what looked like a 30-second negotiation, Yates appearing to try to talk the director out of his decision. Further back, Rigoberto Uran and Vincenzo Nibali seemed to argue the point amongst themselves, engaging in a war of Italian hand gestures before racing each other down the road.

The moment Alaphilippe heard the news, he looked over his shoulder at the television camera behind him, threw an arm out in stunned frustration, bowed his head, and zigzagged across the road in defeat.

Television pictures in the valley showed a river of icy water covering the road as heavy machinery tried in vain to sweep the current over the shoulder and into the ravine below. But images atop the final climb – as well as on the roads the riders were descending – showed sunny skies, dry pavement, and relatively warm temperatures.

Confusion still reigned as the riders reached the valley floor, as some continued to ride at a high pace, while others freewheeled. Alaphilippe was the first to simply stop by the side of the road, dismount, and stand by his team car. After all, were they even still racing? A mile down the road, Prudhomme was flapping his arms in resignation as he explained the decision to Geraint Thomas, now bundled up in a warm jacket as the hail continued to fall.

While race officials scrambled to decide how to approach the standings and time gaps – especially crucial on a stage in which race leadership appeared to be changing hands – pundits debated whether the stage should have been canceled, whether it might have been possible to neutralize the racing in the stormy valley and continue it on the sunny slopes of the final climb, and how the standings might have shaken out had the race been allowed to continue.

That’s not all

The bizarre circumstances of the stage’s conclusion nearly overshadowed the fact that French darling Alaphilippe had finally lost control of the race after 14 stages in yellow. Alaphilippe didn’t enter the Tour de France to win it outright, but he has raced with remarkable strength since landing in the jersey.

Even this, however, obscures what otherwise would’ve been a 48-point headline in the reports of the stage: the abandonment of Thibaut Pinot.

The Frenchman started the day in fifth place overall, one minute and 50 seconds behind Alaphilippe but only 20 seconds behind presumed competitors like defending champion Thomas. He has ridden brilliantly in this Tour – raiding with Alaphilippe on Stage 8, winning atop the Tourmalet on Stage 14 – and many believed he had a strong chance of becoming the first home-country winner of the Tour de France since Bernard Hinault in 1985 – 34 years ago!

But Pinot was already showing signs of struggle within the first 30 kilometers of the stage, dropping back to the medical support car to replace a bandage on his left thigh. He stopped briefly, then chased back up the road, but with 86 kilometers – and the entirety of the Col d’Iseran – left to ride, his face was awash with tears. Throwing an arm around the shoulder of teammate William Bonnet, he hung his head, stopped pedaling, dismounted, and slumped into the waiting team car, officially abandoning perhaps his best-ever shot at winning the Tour de France.

Early reports would later suggest that Pinot had suffered a possible muscle tear on yesterday’s stage, and the discomfort was too great to bear today. (Update 7/27/19: Pinot’s injury was reportedly incurred on Stage 17 into Gap, when he hammered his thigh on his handlebar while trying to avoid a crash.)

How the stage ended

The official rule book for the Tour de France is full of regulations and contingency plans, but the unpredictable – and localized – quality of Nature’s incursion on the stage today forced race organizers to improvise. While pundits continued to debate the why and how of the stage’s neutralization, officials had to decide who would end up in what position at the end of the day, and with what time gaps.

Ultimately, they chose not to award a stage win, but to use the times taken at the summit of the Col d’Iseran. No bonus seconds were awarded for the stage victory itself, but Bernal did receive the eight bonus seconds due to him as the first to summit the Iseran. He now leads the Tour overall by 48 seconds, with Alaphilippe in second place and Thomas in third, 28 seconds further back.

Update

7/27/19: Late in the day on Friday, race organizers announced they would preemptively shorten Stage 20, due to concerns over continued bad weather in the area. The stage will now bypass the first two climbs and head straight from Albertville to the final, beyond-category climb to Val Thorens.

Stage Results

Place Rider Time
1 Egan Arley Bernal Gomez 02:40:31
2 Simon Yates +00:00:13
3 Warren Barguil +00:00:40
4 Laurens De Plus +00:01:03
5 Steven Kruijswijk +00:01:03
6 Geraint Thomas +00:01:03
7 Emanuel Buchmann +00:01:03
8 Vincenzo Nibali +00:01:03
9 Rigoberto Uran Uran +00:01:03
10 Mikel Landa Meana +00:01:03

Standings

Place Rider Time
1 Egan Arley Bernal Gomez 78:00:42
2 Julian Alaphilippe +00:00:45
3 Geraint Thomas +00:01:11
4 Steven Kruijswijk +00:01:23
5 Emanuel Buchmann +00:01:50
6 Mikel Landa Meana +00:04:30
7 Rigoberto Uran Uran +00:05:09
8 Nairo Alexander Quintana Rojas +00:05:17
9 Alejandro Valverde +00:06:25
10 Richie Porte +00:06:28