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.
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.
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