Last night’s stage on the daunting slopes of Mont Ventoux should have provided the Tour de France with its most spectacular highlights. Instead we got a ridiculous farce.
Race leader Chris Froome (Sky), Australia’s Richie Porte (BMC) and Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) had managed to drop pre-race favourite Nairo Quintana and break away from the main group of general classification contenders on the final climb of the day.
But as they neared the finish line, things went horribly wrong.
The already narrow road was made even tighter as unruly spectators overflowed onto the surface, squeezing around the riders and the accompanying motorbikes until there was no way through.
The TV camera moto that was leading the trio up the hill came to a sudden halt as it was swamped by spectators. Porte, riding strongly in front of Froome and Mollema, had no time to react and slammed face first into the back of the motorbike, with Mollema and Froome crashing heavily over the top of him.
While Mollema was able to get riding again, Porte’s bike was damaged and he was last seen waiting forlornly on the roadside waiting for help. Froome’s bike was also damaged, but rather than wait, he took off on foot, attempting to run to the finish line.
The sight of the yellow jersey running through hordes of spectators was surreal, comical almost if not for the seriousness of the matter.
When the neutral service vehicle finally fought its way through the surging throng of humanity, it gave Froome a bike that was way too small, and the gangly Brit was unable to clip into its pedals properly, let alone make any real headway on it.
The group of riders that Froome had ridden so hard to break away from – Quintana included – rode straight past him. He persevered until the Team Sky car made its way to him, jumped on a spare bike better suited to his size, and finally made it to the finish line.
He lost a huge chunk of time. When the provisional general classification results were announced, Froome had slipped to sixth overall, with a 53-second deficit to Adam Yates (Orica-BikeExchange). Those results also had Quintana jumping up to third place. Mollema, the only one of the trio involved in the crash to be able to keep riding, took over second place.
Not surprisingly, heads were shaking all over the place and anger was simmering.
The stage, which had already been shortened due to strong winds atop the exposed upper reaches of Mont Ventoux, had been spoiled. In fact, the validity of the whole race stood to be compromised.
Yates was to move into yellow. Quintana would jump to third, now with a lead of 39 seconds over Froome, despite the latter having comprehensively dropped him.
It just didn’t taste right.
This was not a mechanical incident. This was not bad luck caused by a puncture. This was not a lapse in concentration that had caused a touch of wheels. It was not an error in judgement, or a lack of legs, or a hunger flat. Riders lose time because of those things at every race. It might be frustrating, but that’s cycling.
This incident though was caused by spectators crowding the course and a motorbike that found itself trapped with nowhere to go, wiping out the very cyclists that had made the race the contest that it was. To penalise them would have stunk and I am sure that Yates would not have felt comfortable being presented with the yellow jersey.
Thankfully, sanity prevailed and Froome and Porte were awarded the same finishing time as Mollema, in a similar fashion to how the three-kilometre rule works on sprint stages.
The revised general classification put Froome back in yellow, leaving Yates in second position at 47 seconds, Mollema third at 56 seconds and Quintana fourth at 1:01. Porte jumped up to 11th place at 2:22.
It was a ruling that the race organisers had to make and I think they got it right. It was a better option than neutralising the whole stage, or worse still, doing nothing.
A precedent was set on Stage 7 when Yates had gained time on the chasing peloton only to be knocked off his bike by a deflating archway. After a protest by his team, he was awarded the time gap he had gained before the crash.
But really, this is something that shouldn’t happen. There has been a spate of spectator and vehicular interference with riders over the past couple of years, sometimes with dire consequences. Lives have been lost and serious injuries sustained. It can’t be allowed to continue.
The time has come for barriers to extend all the way down the popular mountain climbs and to other places where high spectator numbers can be expected. Motorbikes and other vehicles must also be restricted. Yes, motos are the reasons why we get glorious cycling photos and brilliant television footage, but a rider’s life and livelihood have to come first.
It has been talked about and talked about and talked about over the last few years. It is time some action was taken.
Maybe this embarrassing incident at the world’s biggest and highest profile race will finally be the catalyst for change.