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The biggest day of Egan Bernal’s young career coincided with one of the most surreal moments in modern Tour de France history.
Stage 19 of the 2019 Tour de France, a route with five categorized climbs across the French Alps and a planned summit finish at Tignes, will go down as the day the Colombian phenom first wore the maillot jaune, a day without a stage winner, and thankfully, a day when no one was seriously hurt.
It will also be a Tour stage debated for ages after the race jury decided to neutralize the race atop the fourth of five categorized climbs, eliminating the final descent and summit finish due to unforeseen weather conditions.
More than anything, however, it was a day that serves as a stark reminder that bike races take place on a living, breathing canvas. The very thing that makes pro cycling so unique and beautiful also presents a host of logistical challenges, some that cannot be foreseen.
Climbed a mountain, turned around
With 5km remaining to the summit of the Col de l’Iseran and race leader Julian Alaphilippe already struggling, Bernal rode away from the race’s GC group and was the virtual maillot jaune over the top, riding his way toward a possible stage win with Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) in tow.
Team Ineos, it appeared, was on its way to another Tour de France victory, its seventh in eight years, with a fourth rider.
Behind, a chasing group of GC contenders including Steven Kruijswijk and Laurens De Plus (Jumbo-Visma), Geraint Thomas (Team Ineos), Emanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) crossed the summit 55 seconds behind, trailed by several riders from the breakaway including Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) and Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First).
Further back, Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) was losing hold on the maillot jaune he’s worn for 14 days of this race. He’d been dropped when Thomas had upped the pace with 6.5km to go, and would cross the summit of the Iseran two minutes behind Bernal. The yellow jersey belonged to the Colombian, if only virtually, by over 30 seconds.
Meanwhile, five kilometers down the mountain, near the bottom of the descent, in the valley that leads to the climb to Tignes, a flash snow storm had just covered the road in ice, hail, and slush. There was a massive, oozing landslide. Road conditions weren’t simply dangerous, they were impassable. Even the front loader snow plow tasked with clearing the debris was shown sliding around, losing traction. Bernal and Yates were at the head of the race, plummeting toward imminent danger at breakneck speed.
Race director Christian Prudhomme had to make a series of decisions, and he had to make them quickly. In reality, however, there was only one decision that mattered most — the race would be neutralized. He needed to regain control of a situation that had quickly escalated out of his control.
There would be no chance for Alaphilippe to take back time on the descent, as he’d done on the Col du Galibier on the previous stage. There would be no summit finish at Tignes. There would be no post-up for Bernal, no stage win to celebrate. Just mass confusion — as demonstrated by Yates, who initially disregarded instructions by a moto commissaire to slow down. The road at the top was dry; further down, impending disaster awaited the peloton.
Behind Bernal and Yates, cameras showed Uran grow angry with Nibali as the Italian tried to relay the message to ease off the speed on the descent. It was an understandable reaction considering that Uran lost the 2014 Giro d’Italia to Nairo Quintana in similar circumstances due to miscommunication about a temporary neutralization on the descent of the snowy Passo dello Stelvio.
Ultimately, finishing times would be awarded at the summit of the Col de l’Iseran. No stage winner or most aggressive rider would be awarded, but Bernal would be the new maillot jaune. Time bonuses on offer at the summit of the Iseran would still be awarded. The entire race caravan would be routed to Val d’Isère, with a delayed podium ceremony at Tignes. It was an imperfect solution to an imperfect situation.
Chaos reigned. This is not fair to Alaphilippe, some claimed; he would have taken back time on the descent. This is not fair to Bernal, some claimed, he would have taken more time on the final climb to Tignes. This is not fair to Yates, some claimed, he could have won the stage and jumped up the standings in the KOM competition. It’s impossible to know what the time gaps might have been at Tignes.
Some argued the stage should have been completely nullified. It’s not a true bike race, the argument goes, if every rider isn’t clear on where the finish line is. The effort riders put in during the stage corresponds directly to a shared, understood finish line.
However, the UCI rulebook leaves it up to the race jury. Rule 2.2.029, under the heading “race incidents,” allows for any number of decisions to be made, ranging from the course being modified, to a temporary neutralization, to a race being stopped and restarted, to cancellation, to taking account of time gaps recorded “at the moment of the incident,” to declaring a stage null and void.
The reality is that there would have been no solution that would have made everyone happy. The reality was that racing had taken place; four of the stage’s five climbs had been covered. The reality was that Bernal had put two minutes into Alaphilippe in five kilometers over the Iseran. The reality was, in this case, there was timing equipment recording times at the top of the Iseran, not far from the “moment of the incident.” And the reality is that the UCI’s race jury made the decision to use those recorded times.
Given the eight-second time bonus at the summit of the Col d’Iseran, Bernal now leads Alaphilippe by 45 seconds, with Thomas at 1:03, Kruijswijk at 1:15, and Buchmann at 1:42.
TV images showed Alaphilippe appearing frustrated as he discussed the situation with Prudhomme, but the decision may have been to his benefit. While he may have taken back some time on Bernal the descent, he was likely to lose even more time on the 7.4km climb up to Tignes.
Alaphilippe was philosophical about the situation, however. He won’t win the race, but he could possibly still finish on the podium.
“We are all the in the same situation,” he said. “I did my maximum. I don’t have any regrets. It was a dream to have worn it for so long, it was longer than I ever imagined. I beat myself up every day to keep a hold of it. From the moment I took hold of the yellow jersey I dreamed, but I never thought I could win the Tour.”
Jumbo-Visma was among those whose tactics may have been upended by the decision. With De Plus still there riding in support, Kruijswijk was clearly hoping Bernal would tire on the valley between the Iseran and Tignes, which might allow him to bridge up, or at least narrow the gap, on the final climb
“Laurens was very strong and then kept on pulling all the way to the top, so that we could take some time back knowing that it was still a long way to the finish,” Kruijswijk said. “Of course I was going full throttle on the Iseran, but had I known that they would finish the stage there, I would have put in an even bigger effort. It’s a pity that Bernal took extra seconds on Alaphilippe there and I did not. This is bad luck, but it’s not the end just yet.”
The thing is, bike races aren’t held in a stadium. They’re held on open roads where things like weather and wildlife factor into the equation. When you take a Grand Tour to over 2,000 meters above sea level, these types of spontaneous weather events can happen. It’s futile to get angry or start pointing the finger at someone to blame. Sometimes, the race jury just has to make a decision and let the cards fall as they may.
“It was the only decision possible,” said Groupama-FDJ director Marc Madiot, whose day overflowed with drama after team leader Thibaut Pinot had been forced to abandon the stage earlier due to a torn quadriceps muscle. “Imagine what might have happened.”
And he’s right. Even worse, imagine what might have happened if the flash storm could have hit five minutes before the peloton arrived. There could have been a cascading series of devastating injuries shown on live television. The Tour de France avoided tragedy Friday. In that context, everyone wins.
Bernal’s family and girlfriend were waiting for him at the podium presentation. As he strode toward the podium calmly, several from his entourage cried openly. It was the culmination of a series of surreal events that ended with him leading the biggest bike race in the world with one mountain stage remaining, adorned in the maillot jaune while clutching the ceremonial stuffed lion of longtime yellow jersey sponsor Crédit Lyonnais.
“I was going at full speed, I attacked, and then was told to stop,” Bernal told French television. “‘No! Not now!’ I was told that the race was stopped, and when it was explained that I was a leader and I had the yellow jersey, I did not believe it. The road was dry but we could not to continue the race due to the state of the road, but at the moment it was very weird. What matters is that I have the yellow jersey. It was a dream for me. Tomorrow there is still a very hard stage, but when I was given the yellow jersey and the lion, I really wanted to cry. I still cannot believe it.”
It may have been an anticlimactic finish to what was poised to be the most exciting stage of the Tour, but it certainly wasn’t short on drama. Either way, there are things that are more important than entertainment. There will be a summit finish tomorrow. Egan Bernal, the 22-year-old poised to become the first Colombian to win the Tour de France, will have one last opportunity to win a stage, and this time, it will be in the yellow jersey.