Inside the Tour with John Wilcockson: Calm before the Alpine storm

A cold hard rain is forecast for Tuesday's stage 16. John Wilcockson takes a look at how such conditions have turned previous Tours upside down.

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Cold, wet weather can transform the Tour

1998 Tour de France, Marco Pantani
Marco Pantani won the the 1998 Tour after Jan Ullrich faded in the cold. File photo

St. PAUL-TROIS-CHATEAUX, France (VN) — A bunch sprint was the predictable end of a fast, nervous stage 15 to Montpellier on Sunday. And the 170 weary survivors of this 98th Tour de France are spending a sun-filled second rest day among the Rhône valley vineyards. They’d better enjoy it because no one can predict what will happen on Tuesday — when they face predicted torrential rainstorms laced with strong winds and temperatures in the 50s or low 60s (low-teens Celsius) during stage 16. Up to an inch of rain is forecast for Tuesday’s finish in Gap.

This would normally be a transitional stage dominated by a non-threatening breakaway group, but horrible weather conditions can completely change the expected results. This Tour has already seen more rainfall, wind and cool weather than most editions since the exceptionally wet 1997 race; and the slick roads definitely contributed to the bad crash on stage 9 when a broken leg put an end to the racing career of Kazakh hero Alexander Vinokourov and a fractured clavicle ended the podium hopes of Belgian climber Jurgen Van den Broeck.

But the powerful storms expected on Tuesday are of a different magnitude than the weather the peloton experienced in Brittany and the Massif Central earlier this month. Whenever bike racers have to endure such conditions — especially in the latter stages of a grand tour — their resilience is stretched to the very limit.

The most infamous examples of bad weather and accumulated rider fatigue having a dramatic effect on the race came in the final week of the 1998, 1971 and 1958 Tours, when the yellow jersey changed hands each time. So current race leader Thomas Voeckler and his Europcar teammates must be leery of their rivals making some key moves, especially on the challenging 23.5km (almost 15-mile) loop at Gap, where fog and temperatures as low as 50 degrees (10 Celsius) are expected.

2011 Tour de France stage 16 profile
2011 Tour de France stage 16 profile

Here is a look at the three times when a Tour leader’s worst fears came to pass:

1998: Ullrich destroyed by the cold

Before the penultimate mountain stage of the 1998 Tour, the defending champion Jan Ullrich held a comfortable six-minute lead over Italian climber Marco Pantani. It was raining at the start of the 189km stage in Grenoble and the temperatures steadily dropped as the peloton headed over the Croix-de-Fer and Télégraphe passes until just the leaders were left together on the upper slopes of the Galibier, a couple of minutes behind an early breakaway.

The summit of the Tour’s highest peak at 8,677 feet (2645 meters) was just visible through the lifting clouds and mist to his left when Pantani, seeing signs of weakness in yellow jersey Ullrich 5km from that summit, bolted away in his trademark climbing style: hands on the drops, standing on the pedals and turning a bigger gear than the others.

Pantani caught and passed the breakaways to reach the top two minutes ahead of a struggling Ullrich and runner-up Bobby Julich. The leader stopped on the first part of the long downhill to don a rain jacket and was re-joined by a couple of the earlier breakaways. One of these, fellow Italian Rodolfo Massi, helped Pantani slowly increase their advantage on the 35km of descending roads to the base of the finishing climb to Les Deux-Alpes — where Pantani dashed clear again to win the stage

Just before starting the uphill finale, Ullrich suffering from the glacial conditions, stopped for a wheel change after flatting. It took him a while to get under way and his teammates Bjarne Riis and Udo Bölts joined him on the climb. They helped as much as they could but almost nine minutes had ticked by before Ullrich struggled across the finish line, where Pantani claimed the yellow jersey he’d keep all the way to Paris.

1971: “Unbeatable” Ocaña felled in a tempest

1971 Tour de France, Luis Ocana crash on the Col de Mente. AFP file photo
Luis Ocana after his crash on the Col de Mente in the 1971 Tour. AFP file photo

The 1971Tour seemed to be going the way of the Spanish rider Luis Ocaña when he put almost nine minutes into defending champion Eddy Merckx in a long solo breakaway on a day of heat-wave temperatures in the Alps to take what seemed to be an insurmountable lead of 7:23 into the Pyrénées

“It will be hard to take back that much time on a rider as talented as Ocaña,” Merckx said. But the weather intervened. The heat wave fomented storms in the mountains and just as Merckx and the yellow jersey crested the Col de Menté, the penultimate climb of stage 14, thunder and lightning hit the Tour. The two started the descent through sheets of rain and hailstones that washed mud onto the narrow road.

Although they took care on the downhill, Merckx lost his balance for a moment on a sharp left hairpin bend some 4km from the top but Ocaña couldn’t stop sliding and fell on the rocky shoulder. Two men following also had trouble making the turn, and defending champion Joop Zoetemelk skidded straight into Ocaña as the Spaniard was getting up after his crash.

Stunned by the violence of the impact and with blood staining his yellow jersey, Ocaña couldn’t get up. He remained lying on his back, a helper’s raincoat around his body, until a helicopter arrived to fly him to the hospital in St. Gaudens.

1958: Wet epic solo takes Gaul to victory

1958 Tour de France, Charly Gaul atop the Col d Porte. AFP file photo
1958 Tour de France, Charly Gaul atop the Col d Porte. AFP file photo

There was just one mountain stage left in the 1958 Tour, and popular Frenchman Raphaêl Geminiani (the Thomas Voeckler of his day) appeared to have the yellow jersey locked up. Runner-up Vito Favero of the Italian national team was 3:47 back, with Gem’s French national teammate and defending champion Jacques Anquetil in third at 7:52. No one gave any chance to Luxembourg climber Charly Gaul (an erstwhile Andy Schleck), lying in sixth place 16:03 behind Geminiani.

The last alpine stage, from Briançon to Aix-les-Bains, first headed over the Col du Lauteret and descended the same road where Pantani would set up his coup 40 years later (and where this year’s Tour will approach L’Alpe d’Huez this coming Friday). The 1958 race then climbed the ultra-narrow and steep Col du Luitel to Grenoble before tackling a trio of mountain passes through the Chartreuse Massif: the Porte, Cucheron and Granier.

Actual GC after stage 15

  • 1.Thomas Voeckler, Team Europcar, 65h 24′ 34″
  • 2.Frank Schleck, Team Leopard-Trek, at 1:49
  • 3.Cadel Evans, Bmc Racing Team, at 02:06
  • 4.Andy Schleck, Team Leopard-Trek, at 02:15
  • 5.Ivan Basso, Liquigas-Cannondale, at 03:16
  • 6.Samuel Sanchez, Euskaltel – Euskadi, at 03:44
  • 7.Alberto Contador, Saxo Bank Sungard, at 04:00
  • 8.Damiano Cunego, Lampre – Isd, at 04:01
  • 9.Tom Danielson, Team Garmin – Cervelo, at 05:46
  • 10.Kevin De Weert, Quick Step Cycling Team, at 06:18
  • 11.Rigoberto Uran, Sky Procycling, at 07:55
  • 12.Jean-Christophe Peraud, Ag2r La Mondiale, at 08:20
  • 13.Rein Taaramae, Cofidis Le Credit En Ligne, at 09:02
  • 14.Pierre Rolland, Team Europcar, at 09:20
  • 15.Haimar Zubeldia, Team Radioshack, at 09:50

The mountains were socked in by low clouds and the rain didn’t stop all day, which was a horrible experience for cyclists in the days of wool shorts (that bagged in the wet) and jerseys, and plastic capes that didn’t breathe. As in today’s racing, there was an early break by riders buried in the overall standings, but the stage became more interesting when Gaul, a fabulous climber, decided to jump away from the yellow jersey group on the early slopes of the Luitel.

Geminiani’s French national team wasn’t too concerned about a rider so far down on GC; perhaps Gaul was hoping to score enough point to win the best-climber prize, or win the stage. The KOM leader Federico Bahamontes chased for a while, but he soon left Gaul on his own. The Luxembourger overtook all the early breakaways before Grenoble and headed into the Chartreuse climbs with the rain still pelting down.

Two years earlier at the Giro d’Italia, Gaul showed his resilience in bitter cold weather by winning a stage through freezing rain and sleet over four giant climbs to the summit of Monte Bondone to win the Giro. And on this Chartreuse stage of the 1958 Tour Gaul never flinched in the worsening weather, while Geminiani lost the help of a suffering Anquetil and had to fight on his own to keep Gaul within limits.

The gap was seven minutes at the top of the Col de Porte, 12 minutes at the Granier summit and 14:35 at the stage finish, where Geminiani was in tears, accusing his teammates: “They’re all Judases!” Gaul was within a minute of the yellow jersey, which he took over two days later in winning the final time trial by a three-minute margin over Geminiani. It was the most extraordinary comeback in postwar Tour history

Time gaps today are usually measured in seconds rather than minutes, but with Voeckler leading the 2011 Tour by only 1:49 over Fränk Schleck, 2:06 over Cadel Evans and 2:15 on Andy Schleck, it’s not unreasonable to envision the race leader ceding his jersey at Gap on Tuesday. The climb up the Route Napoléon and over the Col de Manse makes an ideal springboard for Evans and the Schleck brothers, and the dicey descent to the finish via La Rochette — where second-placed Joseba Beloki crashed and broke a leg in the sunshine of the 2003 Tour — will challenge all the riders in the expected driving rain and wind.

Whatever happens, it will be a brutal and unpleasant prologue to the next three days in the High Alps. Already on Sunday, Tour neophyte Ben Swift of Team Sky said, “You can see the whole peloton is pretty tired now.” Fatigued riders, atrocious weather and challenging terrain can make a nasty combination — as Jan Ullrich. Luis Ocaña and Raphaêl Geminiani all discovered in Tours gone by.

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