When Tour de France organizers set up a course that featured fewer traditional opportunities for set piece racing and fewer direct chances to take time from one’s rivals on mountaintop finishes and time trials, they did so to intentionally stoke aggressive, exciting racing. They never could have dreamed for something as ugly and enthralling as what happened Sunday on Stage 9. The Tour’s most arduous stage so far was its most dangerous day of racing in a few years, and after across-the-board chaos, the race is shaping up for a bonkers final two weeks.
As the Olympic road race course made plainly obvious over and over again, aggressive racing on slick surfaces is a combination that will inevitably produce crashes. The Tour’s decision to stick the finish line 25 kilometers on the other side of the day’s last climb meant that time gaps between riders were less likely unless anyone felt like pushing their luck descending the Mont du Chat (literally “cat mountain”). Geraint Thomas, a top lieutenant of race leader Chris Froome, crashed out 100 kilometers from the finish, and his sudden exit was a harbinger of the madness to come.
Heavy hitters like Alberto Contador, Robert Gesink, and Rafal Majka all went down at various points in the race, with Gesink and Majka leaving the Tour with injuries and Contador losing any chance at winning the yellow jersey. On the final descent of the day, BMC leader Richie Porte lost control of his machine after his wheel locked up. Unable to regain control, Porte tumbled off the tarmac and onto the grass, shattering his pelvis and collarbone before flying back onto the road and into Dan Martin. Porte was going about 45 mph when he fell, and he later said he was lucky to escape the crash without further injuries.
Martin survived and somehow only finished one minute behind the leading group, although he was acutely critical of the way riders were informally forced to take risks leaving Cat Mountain:
It’s so slippery and I guess the organizers got what they wanted. I don’t think anyone wanted to take risks there, but it was so slippery under the trees. Richie locked up his back wheel, went straight into the grass, just wiped out, and his bike just collected me. I had nowhere to go.
When riders weren’t crashing, they were finding other ways to get themselves into trouble. Feisty Italian jitterbug Fabio Aru showed his ass on the final climb of the day when he attacked in the dumbest possible moment. Chris Froome had a mechanical issue, and Aru went past him right as he was signaling for help. Debates over the ethics of attacking while rivals are in trouble are often murky and inconclusive; this one was not. Aru did not get away, and once Team Sky caught back up with him, Froome gave him the people’s shoulder, nearly sending him sprawling into the crowd. He apologized and denied the intentionality of his actions. The video evidence doesn’t exactly support Froome’s assertions.
Froome and Aru eventually coasted into the finish together in a six-man group. Both men finished with the same time, while punchy climbers Rigoberto Uran Uran and Warren Barguil contested the sprint for first place and a few bonus seconds. The two men have met at the end of a Grand Tour stage before, with a then-unknown Barguil upsetting Uran at the line in the 2013 Vuelta a España. At the 2012 Olympics, Uran was also the victim of perhaps the most high-profile and embarrassing sprint foible, when Alexander Vinokourov owned him with a world-class jump. This time around, the Colombian took an incredible stage win by millimeters. Uran reeled in a late Jakob Fuglsang attack (it could have been a sprint, since climbers are weird in situations like this), and held off a charging Barguil despite ceding prime position during the chase.
Uran’s win was all the more impressive since his bike was all fucked up. According to race mechanics, Uran’s derailleur got damaged in the Martin-Porte crash and he was unable to shift gears. Cannondale mechanics decided to manually move Uran’s chainring into the 11-tooth sprocket (the big ring) and let him ride forward at 53 x 11. Winning the sprint he did was impressive; winning it on one gear was even better.
After all the madness, Froome still holds the yellow jersey. Crashes took a few of his rivals out of the way, most notably Porte and Martin, who looked strong and unintimidated through the first eight stages of the race. But losing Thomas will hurt, since he’s perhaps Sky’s most well-rounded rider, and there are three dudes within a minute of him. Aru, Romain Bardet, and Uran are close enough to keep trying Froome, and for all the unbelievable firepower Sky bring to the mountains, their top dog has still been isolated at the end of mountain stages. This Tour is now without some of its better riders, and it’s far from decided.