ON THE SPOT at the Tour de France, cycling commentator JOHN TREVORROW sees Australia’s big hope for the yellow jersey finish his race in the back of an ambulance – and says the organisers have a bit to answer for:
AT LEAST he’s alive and able to tell the tale. Richie Porte’s devastating crash in stage nine of the Tour de France was one of the scariest in the great race’s history – and that’s saying something – but he has escaped with a fractured pelvis, a fractured collarbone and extensive cuts and bruises. He’ll recover from all that eventually but his dreams of winning the Tour at his first attempt as lead rider for his team, BMC, ended with a trip to hospital in an ambulance. In a different way, that will have been just as painful.
It could have been much worse. High speed falls, which happen often in one of the most dangerous of all sports, are never a pretty sight but the camera images of this one were sickening as the 32-year-old Tasmanian, who started the event as equal favourite with triple champion Chris Froome to take out the winner’s yellow jersey in Paris at the end of next week, lost control on the treacherous Mont du Chat descent, about 29 km from the finish.
He came off his bike at 72 kph as it left the road to the left, the momentum bouncing him across the bitumen until he slammed into a rock face on the other side, with Irishman Dan Martin unable to avoid coming down on top of him. With bike debris strewn across the surface, Porte lay bloodied and motionless while the Australian TV commentators Matt Keenan and former star rider Robbie McEwen held their breath, unwilling to articulate their worst fears.
It will be weeks, maybe months, before the experienced Tasmanian, who was riding the Tour for the seventh time, is back on his bike and it is anybody’s guess how damaging the experience will be for his confidence in future. He has had his fair share of bad luck in the past but his preparation and form had him well-placed to achieve his dream of becoming the first Australian to win the gruelling marathon since Cadel Evans six years ago.
Porte was far from the only rider to come to grief on the highly challenging 181.5km trip through the mountains from Nantua to Chambery, and the Tour organisers ASO can expect to come in for plenty of flak because of it.
Everybody, the riders certainly no exception, knew there was potential for chaos, and I believe it was avoidable.
Porte had spoken before race about the descent that claimed him, telling the Herald Sun: “It’s a fast descent, it’s quite tricky. It’s not the nicest of descents but you ride to the conditions and if you take big risks you can also crash. Hopefully it’s a straightforward run to the final.”
As famous last words go, they are pretty much 24 carat.
I spoke to Matt White, sports director (head coach) of the Australian team Orica Scott, before the start and we agreed it was going to be a day of carnage and that at least a couple of contenders would pay the price.
At least four other riders came off at various stages with Geraint Thomas and Robert Gesink forced to abandon, joining star sprinters Mark Cavendish and Peter Sagan on the sidelines after their controversial clash late last week. The race has massive gaps in the starting line-up well before the halfway mark.
Mont du Chat has not been used in the Tour since 1974, presumably because the descent is so difficult. “We know it is dangerous – there is a reason it hasn’t been used for a long time,” McEwen said on SBS.
In other words, this was avoidable and ASO certainly should have a major rethink about the use of such risky routes.
What they should have done was finish the stage at the top of Mont du Chat without subjecting the riders to the perils of the charge downhill. Then they would have had an unforgettable stage for all the right reasons instead of what they got – an unforgettable finish for the wrong reasons.
The drama wasn’t confined to the falls. Colombian Roberto Uran of the CDT team won the stage by a whisker in a virtual dead-heat with Frenchman Warren Barguyil (SUN) with race leader Chris Froome a close third as he pursues his fourth consecutive overall win. Uran had also been caught up in the crash drama and damaged his bike, rendering his gears unchangeable. That made his triumph all the more impressive.
In another controversial incident, Froome had a mechanical issue on the final climb and raised his hand, a signal that would normally see his rivals pause while he had it corrected. But Italy’s Fabio Aru, his closest rival in the general classification, attacked instead. What was he thinking? That is just not on. Porte and the other contenders covered his move but refused to work with him and the attack stopped and Froome soon got back. Questioned later, Aru said he hadn’t realised Froome was in trouble. That, pardon my French, is just bullshit.
On a disastrous day for Australia, the plus was the gutsy ride of Michael Matthews. To get in the breakaway and battle over the mountains to take out the intermediate sprint was very impressive and he grabbed back a vital 20 points in the race for the sprinters’ green jersey. But he still has a long way to go as he is 52 points behind the powerful German Marcel Kittel.
Author: John Trevorrow
JOHN TREVORROW is a multiple Australian champion road racer and Olympian who has been doing media commentary at the Tour de France for more than 20 years.