Tour de France: Courage and Respect?

Egan Bernal is a young Colombian cyclist who won the 2019 Tour de France at the age of 22.  This year, however, he dropped out of the Tour, immediately before the beginning of yesterday’s most difficult “Queen Stage” 17, from Grenoble to Méribel Col de Loze, featuring an uphill finishing climb of over 20 km, with some sections near the end rising above a cruel 20% grade.  Bernal came into the Tour with a bad back, but was nevertheless designated by his team, Ineos, as their primary contender for overall victory.  The team had designated two former Tour winners, Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome, to the Giro d’Italia (begins October 3) and Vuelta a España (begins October 20) respectively.  When he left he was in 16th place, trailing the race leader, Primoz Roglic, by 19 minutes and 4 seconds.

Bernal won last year’s Tour on a kind of fluke.  He was among the contenders for overall victory at the beginning of Stage 19, a route with a big climb in the middle and an uphill finish.  He attacked on the big climb and was leading the race on the descent when it was neutralized.  In the valley between the big climb and the finishing uphill route, heavy hail and rain had produced landslides that made the road impassible.  All riders were assigned times for the stage based on their position at the time the race was neutralized.  So Bernal vaulted into first place overall and did not lose ground on the single remaining contested stage of the race.  Typically, had the neutralized stage been continued, he would have been attacked on the final climb by other contenders who were saving their strength for the final push.  That is what actually happened yesterday on a very similar route; the breakaway leaders were caught and passed on the last uphill by the group of strongest riders.

Egan Bernal

Egan Bernal Riding the Tour de France

Bernal’s back injury this year is not to be trifled with.  He went to the Tour to see how well he could hold up, and he found out he couldn’t.  But the question of whether he should have pulled out remains.  Despite his protests to the contrary, it shows a certain disrespect for the race.  The attitude conveyed is that since Bernal was no longer a contender for overall victory, his presence didn’t matter.  He had better things to do, namely prepare himself to win one or two remaining races this year, perhaps even one of the remaining major Tours.  Why struggle at the rear of the race (dubbed the “autobus” and consisting of sprinters and others not in overall contention)?  Why be there to assist teammates?  It’s somewhat reminiscent of the attitude of erstwhile champion sprinter Mario Cipollini, who would win three or four sprints during the first week of the Tour and then pull out before the mountain stages began.  “Altitude sickness,” as it was sardonically called.  He used the Tour, and provided both sprint skills and a flashy personality, but never once finished it.  He’s still seen more as a flashy rider than a great Tour champion.

So Bernal’s now 23 years old, and he already has a compromised relationship with the Tour.  First he won on a fluke with a neutralized stage, and now he and his team have pulled him out early.  He has yet to complete a full Tour de France, and he has yet to win a regular Tour while racing against the best in the world.  Let’s hope that next year he can demonstrate who he really is, for better or for worse.

©Arnold Bradford, 2020.

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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