July has been a month of ‘what just happened’ moments in sport, but as a cyclist this one takes the cake. We could see stage 19 of the Tour de France unfolding in a number of ways, but not like this.
Today will be remembered for two big events, the end of the race for Thibaut Pinot and the end of the stage earlier than planned that left us with more questions than answers. Colombia now stands on the cusp of its first Tour de France victory despite not having finished the stage that got them into the yellow jersey. It was anticlimactic, frustrating, but ultimately the best decision that the race organisers could have possibly taken; one that could well have literally saved lives.
First the tragedy. France may well have gone from daring to dream to despair as potentially their most likely hope of Tour triumph ended his race in sorry and emotional scenes. You can do nought but feel for Thibaut Pinot, the man who terrorised the GC candidates with some of the best climbing we’ve ever seen from him. He had all and sundry on the ropes, Thomas and Bernal had no answer, Alaphilippe could only limit his losses. If we were excited about anyone today it was Pinot. Little did we know that before the stage had even begun the beginning of the end was unfolding for the Frenchman.
The problem had started for Pinot in stage 18 to Valloire, where he’d been able to match his GC rivals, but he’d done so while masking a muscular tear in his lower quadricep. After getting through the night Pinot lined up for stage 19, but the race hadn’t even really begun for the GC hopefuls, before it was clear that this was no ordinary injury.
Pain and emotion were etched in equal measure across the face of the man who’d begun the day just 1.50mins from his coveted colour. His Tour de France was slipping away from him and with every pedal stroke he realised he could do absolutely nothing about it as a few seconds deficit became 1 minute, then 2, then 4.30mins. Every push of the pedals was met with agony as the pain on the inside of his left knee became too much to bear.
A tearful Pinot climbed into the car having been overtaken even by the grupetto, one of cycling’s finest climbers caught and passed by riders who’d typically be battling to make the time cut. It remains, then, that Pinot has not finished a Tour de France in four years; and many will be wondering if France has lost its best opportunity for a champion in 35 years.
If that wasn’t drama enough then the climb and descent of the Col de l’Iseran took drama, confusion, frustration all from 0-60 very quickly. The riders were understandably furious when the message came through race radio that the stage was to be suddenly stopped. They’d ridden dry roads all day, even the finish line had dry roads. What was the problem?
Julian Alaphilippe was busy trying to get back the yellow jersey that was virtually on the shoulders of Egan Bernal. Jumbo-Visma were busy trying to peg back the white jersey, which would then surely have left Geraint Thomas with a straight shot at the stage and yellow jersey. But what would have happened on the final climb is anyone’s guess now.
A freak combination of hailstorm, snow, ice, mud and enormous amounts of water combined to make an impassable section of road in the valley prior to Monteé de Tignes. If the organisers had made their call much later or not at all then the results could well have been life-threatening to the riders. It was absolutely the right decision made, although the only question we are left with is around where the organisers and commissaires heard about the weather problems.
If the decision had been made at the bottom of the Col de l’Iseran the riders, though frustrated, would have definitely raced the final climb differently. Alaphilippe was on the ropes, but how much did he leave in reserve for the Monteé de Tignes? All of those reserves would surely have gone into saving his yellow jersey, and while he may not have succeeded he may have had a shorter time gap than 48 seconds.
And what of Simon Yates? The Brit caught Bernal on the descent, but how much of his race in the latter stages was based around the certainty that he could catch the Colombian and then contest the stage later on?
Just as a certain cricket game should have given 5 runs instead of 6, but then that would have completely changed the approach to the final 2 balls, a certain cycle race faced its own ‘what just happened’ moment that can leave us only speculating what might have occurred had the stage been completed.