Commentary

A speedy, harrowing descent this late in the Tour? It shouldn't have happened

Updated: July 22, 2008, 6:01 PM ET
By Bobby Julich | Special to ESPN.com

While watching the harrowing descent of Tuesday's Stage 16, I couldn't breathe. Rider after rider went down the mountain at speeds of about 55 mph. I would have been less stressed if I had been riding in the darn race instead of watching it on television.

My wife, Angela, turned to me and said, "Now you know how I felt watching you race in all those Tours."

[+] EnlargeBonette-Restefond
AP Photo/Bas CzerwinskiThe rocky and sandy backdrop of the descent from the Bonette-Restefond pass (the highest of the Tour at 9,1000 feet) made for a risky finish to Stage 16.

And I can honestly say it's not a great feeling. My Team CSC-Saxo Bank teammate Jens Voigt and I have talked about descents like this, and he has said to me, "I'm not a bad descender; I'm a careful descender." He has five kids; I have two. You just look at things differently.

But you have to ask yourself the bigger question: Why in the world did organizers put a descent finish like this in the third week of the Tour?

After climbing 15.8 miles to the top of the La Bonette-Restefond pass (mind you, a climb that reaches more than 9,000 feet in elevation), South African rider John-Lee Augustyn was the first to cross the peak, but he skidded off the road on a turn in the descent. Thankfully, he landed in a sandy, barren spot. But it was steep. His bike just kept falling. A spectator had to help him back up to the road. He was OK. He finished the race. But what if he had been a mile or two higher and had fallen over a steeper, rockier edge of the descent? We could have had a dead rider on the Tour. American contender Christian Vande Velde also crashed during one of the turns on the descent (he, too, was OK and finished the race). Then, French rider Cyril Dessel, who won Stage 16, couldn't even put up his arms in celebration at the finish line. Why? Because of a dangerous 90-degree turn immediately after the finish line. Imagine how more dangerous that descent would have been if it had rained (something that's always a possibility at that altitude).

Don't misinterpret where I am coming from. I am not making light of any of this -- I am pointing out the unnecessary risk of a stage like this so late in the Tour.

In the last week of the Tour, riders are more prone to take risks on the road because of what is at stake. And it's not just the yellow jersey. Riders are competing for other awards as well, like king of the mountains and top young rider. A stage like this is like putting the rabbit in front of the greyhound. If the descent came after the first climb of the day and there was more race to go, that's a different story. But that wasn't the case Tuesday. You never want a race decided by descents instead of climbs.

I can't believe Tour organizers were thinking of the riders' safety when they added this stage to the route, and shame on them for doing it. The Tour is a business, and the business wants to make money. The Tour goes out and searches for the routes it wants and takes the highest bidders when it comes to the finishing towns. It's an honor to have a Tour stage finish in your town -- it's broadcast around the world with those great aerial shots. So, this had to factor into the final decision on Stage 16's course. And the end result was dangerous. Don't cyclists risk enough in our sport to justify our status as athletes? We're not paid enough to put on a little dog-and-pony show like the cyclists were put through Tuesday.

The riders, especially the small group that contained the overall contenders, were careful out there. You can bet that once they heard about Augustyn's crash over the race radio, there was an understanding among them in which they said, "OK, guys, this is a bike race. Let's not go nuts here. Let's wait until Wednesday and lay it on the line then -- on an uphill finish."

It was scary to watch. My only hope is race organizers will learn from this for future Tours.

[+] EnlargeCadel Evans and Frank Schleck
Pascal Pavani/AFP/Getty ImagesFrank Schleck, right, kept the overall lead, but Cadel Evans, left, is only eight seconds back in third place.

What about Vande Velde?

While some might look at Vande Velde's sixth-place spot (3:15 behind overall leader Frank Schleck) as a disadvantage, I believe it isn't over for the American rider. Being only 3:15 back and in sixth overall heading into an Alps stage is most riders' dream scenario.

It was a relief to see him cross the finish line and see his result. Once he was dropped by the main contenders up the La Bonette-Restefond pass, I didn't know where he was (TV broadcasts lost him in the field). Usually, if the Tour race radio and cameras don't know where a rider is, it's not a good sign. We found out after the race that he had crashed on the descent; considering that, it was a big comeback for him to be sitting sixth overall at the end of the day.

Let's remember that every rider has a bad day at the Tour de France. Everyone. Tuesday was that day for Vande Velde. If he can come back and be his absolute best, as he had been up until Stage 16, he has no worries. He has the experience, he has people behind him and he knows he has to stay close to the overall contenders in Wednesday's Stage 17. If he can do that, he still has a chance to reach the podium, with Saturday's time trial still to come.

What about Uncle Frankie?

Uncle Frankie was still in yellow after Tuesday's stage, which was all about control and maintaining time with the overall contenders. Schleck, Bernhard Kohl, Cadel Evans and Carlos Sastre (first through fourth overall, respectively) got a bit of a bonus with Vande Velde's finish and Dennis Menchov losing time. But things will be different Wednesday.

Schleck and Team CSC-Saxo Bank will have to light it up and put all the other favorites in jeopardy. They have to take time out of Evans. And the attack has to start early. The team will have to send Sastre and/or Andy Schleck up the road early, by the Croix-de-Fer, the second climb of the day, and let it all hang out.

It's great to talk about tactics and put them down on paper, but it doesn't really matter unless the riders are strong on the road. You saw the strength and tactics come to fruition for CSC again Tuesday. On Wednesday, Frank and Co. will try to wear down the overall contenders before reaching the bottom of L'Alpe d'Huez. If all the Tour favorites arrive at the bottom together, the best you can hope for is a two-minute advantage at the end of the day. These riders have been at each others' throats for two and a half weeks now. There's no sprinkle dust that will come over any of these riders. Only a crash or someone getting sick will force a contender to lose a major amount of time. CSC can take comfort in knowing Frank was dominant in the Pyrenees and has won L'Alpe d'Huez before. Of course, he wasn't wearing yellow when he did it.

That's why I believe the attacks have to come early. The way racing is now, there isn't a team strong enough to attack on all three climbs (Galibier, Croix-de-Fer and L'Alpe d'Huez). CSC has quite the team, but it would take some superhuman effort to really attack over the top of Croix-de-Fer and L'Alpe d'Huez. There will be more time gaps Wednesday; will that guarantee a rider the Tour? I don't think so. I still think the Tour will come down to Saturday's time trial.

[+] EnlargeAlpe d'Huez
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesFans camp out for days to get prime seating along the L'Alpe d'Huez route of the Tour.

L'Alpe-d'Huez awaits …

I was riding with a few of my friends here in Nice the past few days, and all they wanted to do was ride up the Col d'Eze, one of the most famous climbs of the Paris-Nice race. Once we made it to the top, they looked at me and said, "That's it?!" Well, it was, but the climb is one of the determining factors of who wins Paris-Nice, even though it's not the toughest climb of the race.

You can say the same thing about L'Alpe d'Huez. It is one of sports' most mystical sites. It is revered by many, even casual cycling fans. But it is in no way the toughest climb of the Tour. What makes it special is its environment.

People camp out for days for prime viewing spots of the climb. There are 21 switchbacks, each with a sign; the signs number the switchbacks and include names of the riders who have won the famed stage. When you preview the stage (you don't notice the signs while you are in the middle of the race), you see the names, some signs with two or three names because of the 42 times the Tour has come up the mountain; it is very humbling.

Again, it's not the hardest climb. It is easier than the Croix-de-Fer climb because you're able to stay in a rhythm, as the gradient stays the same. On the Croix-de-Fer, it's almost impossible to stay in rhythm because the climb and gradients are always changing. When you factor in fatigue after more than two weeks of racing, along with the two other climbs on the route, which come before L'Alpe d'Huez, you see why it's an important stage.

My favorite moment on L'L'Alpe-d'Huez has to be from 1997. It was my first Tour and first time up the famed climb. I was with my teammate Kevin Livingston with about two and a half miles to go. That's when I was hit by the sea of people. I looked back, saw Livingston wasn't with me anymore and kept going. It hit me that I was about to finish a stage I had watched many legends of the sport finish before me. I was dropped from the lead group, but riding alone over the last miles made me feel like I was in the lead. I still was close enough to the lead group to feel the passion from the fans. I also got to smell the alcohol on their breaths and other odors I won't pain you with! But you feel the atmosphere and the excitement around you, and you realize how unique the experience is -- tell me another sport in which fans get that close to the athletes in the heat of competition. It's a vibrant feeling.

Surprise …

Dessel's finish. To be able to negotiate that crazy finish and win that stage in front of Sandy Casar and Yaroslav Popovych was impressive.

Disappointment …

I think you know what it was Tuesday. Just re-read the paragraphs above.

I will again have to get my training session out of the way early Wednesday. I do not want to miss one minute of this stage. There is too much on the line!

Bobby Julich, a member of Team CSC-Saxo Bank, will be providing a diary for ESPN.com throughout the Tour de France. The American has been a professional cyclist since 1992. He finished third overall in the 1998 Tour de France and won the Paris-Nice race in 2005.

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