Tour de France Stage 9: It’s Down to the Sprint, and a Contender’s Tour is Over

Bike racing is full of unwritten rules, but what happens when you break one? Fabio Aru found out today

The climb to the summit of Mont du Chat ended Alberto Contador’s career as a Grand Tour contender, but a crash on the descent sent a podium finisher home in an ambulance. It was never going to be an easy day, but this was a disaster. Just minutes before it seemed an upset for race leader Chris Froome, abandoned by his friends, surrounded by his rivals.

This is what a mountain stage looks like….

A morning of attacks had ended with a solo break by Warren Barguil, recovered from a broken pelvis earlier this year. He was 12th at the summit of Col de la Biche, and first on Grand Colombier. If he could maintain his lead and top Mont du Chat, the last climb before the finish, he’d win the King of the Mountains classification and its polka-dot jersey.

“I raced like an idiot. It’s a pity. It was a good stage for me and I had good legs.” — Warren Barguil on yesterday’s stage eight

His second day in the break was a stunning reversal of his previous performance. Four kilometers from the summit saw him up to a lead of two minutes, striking for a stage win, when chaos broke out in the general classification chase group.

Froome, surrounded by allies, raised his hand to signal the team car: A puncture. Aru saw his hand and attacked, breaking the great taboo of professional cycling. It’s not a rule, it’s a ruthlessly enforced courtesy; do not attack the leader on a mechanical.

They were a small, elite group at this point: Richie Porte, Romain Bardet, Daniel Martin, Nairo Quintana, Froome, Aru, Contador, with a few teammates for each. Froome had the most support, surrounded by a four-man squad. Missing from his squad were former yellow jersey wearer Geraint Thomas, abandoned after yet another crash, and Michal Kwiatkowski, cracked at the base of the climb.

Porte et al caught Aru, words were exchanged, and they slowed to wait for the leader. It’s a perverse tradition, a quirk that defines the sport, and moments like the one depicted in Adam Myerson’s tweet stretch the limits of courtesy.

After Froome finished setting up his powermeter he rejoined the group, and Aru launched a less controversial attack. Ahead of them was Astana’s Jakob Fuglsang, prepared to escort Aru down the descent if he’d come free. The attack didn’t shake Froome, but it cracked Contador, ending his career as a GC rider.

Why is it all over for Contador?

Contador is an incredible contender and a thrilling racer, who won the Tour three times. He was stripped of his last victory, in 2010, after a positive blood test for doping. It was already a controversial win, marred by an attack he launched on rival Andy Schleck during his own mechanical.

He’s only 34, but he’s old for a GC contender. Froome is 32 and hoping to win both this year and next for a career total of five Tour de France victories. The average age of winners is 28, and Froome’s avoided talking about his career at 34.

On top of age, Contador has had an unlucky year, with at least two crashes today, and several others since starting in Dusseldorf. Add that with his performance on the first mountain stage, and it doesn’t look good. He might stay in this race, but he won’t manage a podium finish in Paris. I’ll be surprised if he gets a contract as a leader in 2018.

Why (and when!) does Froome lose his teammates?

Before this, the most exciting attack was led by Bardet’s AG2r Mondiale, at the top of Grand Colombier. They flew down the mountain in a daredevil descent, and shredded the peloton in a race to Mont du Chat. They were caught by Kwiatkowski’s incredible solo lead for Sky, an effort that sent him to the back of the peloton.

This is where it all went down: an unprecedentedly brutal day in the Jura mountains

Sky never had a chance to recover. Shortly after Contador cracked, they’d join him, withering under repeated attacks from Froome’s rivals. Porte, Aru, Martin: they kept going, not quite collaborating, but doing collective damage. This is why dominant teams avoid the lead so early; it leaves you surrounded by enemies.

Froome was isolated and endangered. His response to the attacks looked weak, and with the exception of Aru, his challengers seemed full of energy. Aru danced just off the back, fighting to stay in contact; he was about to learn why you don’t attack the leader over a mechanical.

Seeing his difficulties, Froome finally fired back, launching an attack that caught the Italian out while simultaneously dislodging Quintana. Unlike Contador, Quintana hasn’t crashed yet, and these high mountains are supposed to be his bread and butter. He’s tired from the Giro d’Italia, but I suspect he and Contador will both struggle to find a leader contract for the Tour next year.

The small lead group now consisted of Froome, Porte, Bardet, Martin, and stealthy Rigoberto Uran. Aru managed to bridge in just as they caught Fuglsang, Froome still leading the bunch. The battle had been fought at incredible speeds over 3 km, and cut the time gap to Barguil from two minutes to thirty seconds.

The Frenchman kept clear and won the climb, securing the polka-dot jersey, but a catch on the descent seemed guaranteed. His gap was only ten seconds as he entered the most dangerous descent yet, but then it went up, nearing seventeen. His gamble might succeed.

I can’t take the tension; what happens?

Porte would not be so lucky. He missed the left turn, hit the grass, and went off his bike to the right, as the bike flew left. Ahead of him, Froome, Aru, Fuglsang; behind him, Martin, Urán, Bardet. As he skittered across the pavement, he and Martin collided, taking down a second man. Uran and Bardet just managed to go clear, and Porte lay on the ground in agony waiting for medics, as Martin got back up and continued.

Porte’s Tour de France is over.

The race goes on

Bardet goes clear of the crash and clear of yellow jersey, attacking near the base of the descent and gaining nearly thirty seconds over Froome on the next hill. A chastised Aru and his teammate Fuglsang settle in with Froome and Urán in their draft, chasing down Bardet as a team.

Urán’s derailleur fails, and he gets an emergency fix while holding on to the neutral service car of a mechanic. He rejoins the crew, clearly struggling in the 11th sprocket, unable to shift but able to pedal.

Bardet catches Barguil before the flats, almost leading commentators Matthew Keenan and Robbie McEwen into a Bardet/Barguil tongue-twister, and then drops Barguil. The time gap holds steady and Barguil joins the chasers, sitting on the back and hoping to pip a sprint to still win the stage.

Near the last two kilometer mark, Bardet is caught, and they all ride in together, an uneasy bunch looking for a sprint finish. Barguil is the best sprinter of this climber’s group, but it’s going to be hotly contested. Froome wants his first stage win, and he, Uran, Bardet, and Aru all want the time bonuses from crossing first.

Right to the line… © ASO/Alex BROADWAY

It’s a highly technical run-in and Froome pushes the pace, bringing the group up to the 500 meter mark. Fuglsang opens a gap with a big attack, fails, and disadvantaged Urán comes around, Barguil by his side, and Keenan calls it for Barguil in a tight sprint before the camera jumps back to the next group.

Barguil wins!

No. After three minutes, we’d finally see the photo finish, and the victory would be Urán’s. It’s a disappointing day for Barguil, but he can take comfort in winning both the most aggressive award and the polka-dot jersey.

Who is this guy?

Urán is a 30 year old Colombian, riding with Cannondale-Drapac. He and American Andrew Talansky share the GC contender role for the team. It’s the same team of heart throb Taylor Phinney, who won the polka-dot jersey the day before his other teammate and fellow American Nathan Brown won it.

He’s won second in the Giro d’Italia twice, once for Team Sky in 2011, and now sits 55 seconds behind race leader Froome for the yellow jersey, in fourth place overall. The GC competition has changed dramatically with the abandonment of Porte, Martin’s crash, and Contador and Quintana cracking.

You don’t sound that excited, but, damn…

In the moment, it was amazing. Urán is a strong rider but his name wasn’t even in the top ten for winners, yet he’s riding alongside the biggest names in cycling with a broken derailleur. He stands and just pounds away at the pedals, chasing down Bardet and Barguil, then winning the stage.

It was an incredible win and made for thrilling racing; if I didn’t get that stoked, it’s because I was rooting for Bardet or Barguil. It was heart-breaking to see Barguil’s grief at losing, and watch Bardet fail to gain time on Froome.

Speaking of time… where do we stand on yellow?

Froome is the leader and clear favorite, with 38 hours, 26 minutes, and 28 seconds spent on the road. In second sits Aru, 18 seconds behind, then Bardet in third, at 51. Fuglsang has jumped to fifth, behind Urán, with a deficit of 1:37 to Froome.

I’m predicting the podium in Paris will resemble it’s current makeup, with a swap between Aru and Bardet. It’s possible that Bardet can go one better and beat Froome, but it’s hard to see how now with Porte out and Quintana slipped to eight position. Before, Froome was fighting off Martin, Porte, Quintana, Bardet, Aru. Now the race has ossified, and it’s unlikely that Urán and the rest can gain much time on Froome.

How is Porte?

No idea. An early rumor of a broken back was discounted, and he remained conscious and aware, both good signs. Best of all, he was driven by ambulance, not helicoptered, to the hospital.

The crash has raised questions about course safety. Risks are a necessary evil; they let daring riders beat their rivals, and make for thrilling racing. The organizers are obligated to put in challenges and risky sections. This descent did that, but did the organizers go too far? Expect debates and controversy to continue on this, along with Peter Sagan’s disqualification, for the rest of this Tour.

Any word on the sprinters?

They’ve been totally overshadowed by the crash, but Michael Matthews looks to be emulating Sagan; he won the intermediate sprint, after five brutal climbs, and is seeking to win the sprinter’s green jersey competition. Marcel Kittel, Andre Greipel, and others managed to stay with the peloton, but would have crossed the sprint with the last half of the riders.

Despite a generous time limit of more than fifty minutes, Arnaud Demare came in after elimination and was cut from the Tour. Sadly, he was with three FDJ teammates, who are all out of the race. I’m not sure what FDJ does now with a squad of five, but his teammates seem laudably loyal.

Joining him in disqualification was Mark Renshaw, Cavendish’s lead-out man and possible replacement for Dimension Data, Matteo Trentin, a lead-out man for Kittel on Quickstep, and Juraj Sagan, brother of Peter.

What happens tomorrow?

They rest! The Tour visits the Dordogne region, a beautiful rural area famous for prehistoric cave art. The riders won’t get to visit them, though; they’ll be on their bikes, riding easy recovery pace rides. I’ll do my best to emulate them and post another update here!

Thanks for reading! I write about cycling and am currently blogging the 2017 Tour de France here on Medium.

Visit my personal website at davidstreever.com.

Did you miss yesterday’s recap, covering the exciting ride of debut Lilian Calmejane? Meet France’s new champion below, and find out why he’s on his back!