Descent

Adam Yates is a professional bike racer for the Mitchelton-Scott team.  A climbing specialist, he’s participating in his third Tour de France.  On Tuesday, Stage 16 took the riders 218 km (135.5 miles)  through southern France and into the Pyrenees, from the medieval walled town of Carcassonne to Bagneres-de-Luchon on the Spanish border, winding over three high mountains (one 2nd category and two first category), and finishing with a twisty, highly technical descent into town.  The first riders over the last summit would stand a good chance of winning the stage, especially if they were good descenders, as the race leaders would probably wait until the next day to duke it out on a wicked uphill finish rather than risking a fall at 50 kmh or more.  Earlier in the stage the race would traverse a descent on which the Italian rider Fabio Casartelli had fallen and died in 1995, a crash that greatly influenced the mandatory wearing of helmets in professional racing.

Descending is a special skill, one that many climbers do have, though not all.  It requires an ability to “read” the turns correctly as one approaches each one, so that one can go through them on the best line, with a minimum need to brake and a minimum chance of demonstrating Newton’s Laws of Motion by careening off the road.  The less force needed to change the direction of the bike, the better.  And any hard braking risks locking up the wheel so that it doesn’t revolve for a moment, resulting almost certainly in a skid and a crash.  Along with those skills, the rider needs a sure and delicate touch in bike handling–no over- or understeering,and just enough lean to keep the center of gravity in a stable spot.

Yates falls

Adam Yates falls on the descent of the Col du Portillon

Going up the Col du Portillon, the last climb of the stage on Tuesday, Yates attacked out of a group of seven riders who were leading the race by a wide margin over the more cautious peloton.  He was 2 km from the summit, and he got a 30-second gap quickly.  The others couldn’t respond, except for the Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe.  No slouch himself, Alaphilippe wore the polka-dot jersey (red on white) as the best climber in the race to that point.

Cresting the summit, Alaphilippe was 18 seconds behind Yates, the others badly distanced.  As the cyclingnews website narrator put it: “Here we go then. One white-knuckle descent to the finish line. . . . Yates begins his descent and takes it aggressively. He . . . can’t afford a single error.”   Two minutes later, on a simple and moderate left-handed bend, that single error came.

Yates crashed.

He was in the middle of the road, whose surface was dry.  The sun was out, the air was dry and clear.  But he crashed.  Alaphillipe went by him in a flash, and though Yates remounted, he was visibly shaken.  He took the next few curves at very moderate speed, compared to the hell-for-leather intensity he exhibited before.  By the end, Alaphilippe was all by himself, 15 seconds ahead of Yates, who was caught by two other riders from the lead group and was the third overall across the line.

In a flash Yates’ fate was reversed.  He and Alaphilippe are both 26.  They’ll have more descents together.  But Adam Yates will have to wait for for another day to get another great opportunity for a stage win at the Tour, and who knows when, or even if, that will be?

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2018

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Yesterday I was about ready to quit watching this year’s Tour de France, as the cold, ruthless hand of Team Sky fell on the peloton in a fashion eerily similar to the way the hand of US Postal would fall on it, in the first serious mountain stage each year.  Four-time Tour winner Chris Froome and his chief lieutenant, a Welshman named Geraint Thomas, took the field by the throat.  Froome almost seemed willing to gift the stage to Thomas, who attacked from the leader’s group with 5km left to go after the two stage leaders.  Froome did not counter until another overall contender, Roman Bardet, also tried to bridge the gap to the leaders.  In the end, Thomas made the final strong move

and it appeared nobody else could counter, even the favorite, Froome.  But Froome still finished third and put time into all his serious rivals except his own teammate.

skysports-geraint-thomas-tour-de-france-cycling_3991360

Geraint Thomas in yellow.

But today showed that the unexpected is always lurking. Team Sky may still be dominant, yet now the question is whether Froome has it in him to win the Tour again.  Today’s stage ended with a much, much steeper climb than yesterday, up the legendary L’Alpe d’Huez, with its twenty-one switchbacks over 13 km, average gradient of 8%, and 1700 meter (5570 foot) elevation.  As the end approached, one rider (Steven Kruijswijk) remained ahead; the leaders were in a fairly large group, led by another Sky rider (Colombian climber Egan Bernal), then Froome and Thomas (the two Sky teammates), then most of the other contenders.  After various feints and charges, as many as five or six were together across the road with just 4 km left.  Then attacks began, and in the last fairly sharp corner Thomas was took the best line and had the most strength.  Froome finished 4th, only three seconds back.  But his lieutenant has now beaten him two days in a row on terrain suited to Froome.  Thomas is the better time trialer, but there’s only one ITT in the Tour, on the next-to-last day.
Finally the booing.  Near the end the crowd was booing some or all of the contending riders.  Perhaps it was that they did not wait when contender Vincenzo Nibali fell with less than 4 km to go.  But the fall was too close to the finish line to establish a “level playing field” for all to contend.  The contenders had to contend, and they did.  Or was the booing directed at Froome, who was allowed to race only at the last minute because of an unresolved doping finding.  The Tour crowds didn’t show much love for Lance Armstrong in his last race up L’Alpe d’Huez either; he has booed and spat on because of suspected doping, which the crowd believed long before the eventual investigation, findings, and fall from grace.
Bradly Wiggins, former Team Sky Tour champion, said Sky would have a problem on its hands if Thomas won.  And he knows, because he was the victim of Froome, his then-young teammate who outpaced him and ultimately replaced him as team leader.
Stay tuned!  The Tour has more feats of derring-do and behind-the-scenes drama to offer in the next eleven days.
© Arnold Bradford, 2018.