There are fears that the sinister, sinuous descent of the Col de Sarenne on Thursdays 18th stage of the 100th Tour de France will prove a disastrous pick by race director Christian Prudhomme. The French official has made bolder and bolder choices with race routes since he took over from the more conservative Jean-Marie Leblanc in 2007; but his decision to include two ascents of LAlpe dHuezmade possible by looping over and down the Sarennes somewhat refurbished pavementcould come back to haunt him. Not because of its inherent dangers but because thunderstorms are forecast for Thursday afternoon with an 80-percent chance of rain and hail!
The Sarenne has been a neglected dirt road for most of its existence and was more likely to be used by marmots and mountain goats than motorists and cyclists. The rudimentary road remains bumpy despite the recent improvements, and many of its frequent curves are unprotected from vertiginous drop-offs. Its not the sort of road a rider wants to be racing down in dry weather, let alone torrential rain.
After the first long haul up the Alpes infamous 21 turns, the racers will leave the town of Alpe dHuez from below the later stage finish, with 50 kilometers left in the 172.5-kilometer stage. After a short climb past the Club Med, where many of the Tours 21 teams will be staying the night, the new route descends for three kilometers, then goes up another three, to reach the 1,999-meter (6,559-foot) Sarenne summit
From this remote alpine location, the survivors then face 16 kilometers of technical downhill racing, starting with the steepest, most dangerous part, which has several sharp hairpin turns and crazily erratic curves. The Sarenne descent made its race debut last month in the Critrium du Dauphin, but it came early in a stage, in dry weather, and was not raced flat outvery different from what we expect on Thursday afternoon.
Rain and limited visibility would at least double the risks of this nasty downhill and could completely alter the complexion of the race. Thats not something that would surprise Prudhomme, who once said about bike racing: Its a sport where anything can happen. The weather plays a significant part and the riders have to confront it. But not even Prudhomme would want riders to crash.
If the predicted thunderstorms do appear, veteran race followers will recall what happened to Luis Ocaa in 1971 when the Spanish rider was wearing the yellow jersey with a seven-minute lead over second-placed Eddy Merckx. On the first stage in the Pyrnes, on the descent of the Col de Ment, a blinding rainstorm suddenly hit the Tour. Merckx was taking every possible riskjust like Alberto Contador did (on dry roads) on Tuesday, and will likely do on Thursday. Ocaa tried to follow Merckx on a road awash with mud and gravel. Unable to control his bike at Merckxs speed, the race leader skidded on a left turn and ended up sitting on the gravel shoulder; and as he picked himself up he was hit by two other rider who couldnt control their bikes. Ocaas Tour ended right there.
This years yellow jersey, Chris Froome, said several times Wednesday, after narrowly winning the mountainous Embrun-Chorges time trial over Contador, that if it rains Thursday he would favor the organizers removing the Sarenne descent and finishing the stage after the first climb up to LAlpe dHuez. Thats a view not shared by Contador or his Saxo-Tinkoff team boss Bjarne Riis, who said, This is bike racing, not a Sunday afternoon ride.
Rarely has it rained on LAlpe dHuez during the Tour, but the descent before it (down the Col dOrnon, which is on Thursdays course) saw torrential rain in the 1966 edition. It was a storm like the one that would put Ocaa out of the Tour five years later and saw five-time Tour champ Jacques Anquetil lose significant time to his greatest rival, Raymond Poulidor. The Sarenne descent is almost twice as long and potentially far more more treacherous than the Ornon.
In Wednesdays time trial, stage winner Froome was impressive on the two 6.5-kilometer climbsonly two seconds slower than Contador on the opening one, and (if his bike change is taken into account), he was level on time with Joaquim Rodriguez and Nairo Quintana on the second. But on the technical descent in between, just 7 kilometers long, Froome lost 18 seconds to Contador, and 30 seconds to Contadors teammate Roman Kreuzigerwho averaged a remarkable 61.3 kph on that snaking downhill!
A look at the new general classification shows Contador in second, 4:34 behind Froome, and Kreuziger third, only 17 seconds farther back. And in view of the Saxo teams vow to keep on attacking Froome, and with two cards still to play, it looks like some fascinating racing is coming on Thursday, whether it rains or not.
As these words are being written, a thunderstorm, with hail and heavy rain, has hit this alpine valley near Gap, where Thursdays stage begins. The Col de Sarenne is 1,100 meters (about 3,600 feet) higher, where such sudden storms are more likely to happen.
Prudhomme says that theres no possibility of the already notorious Col de Sarenne being eliminated. The road over it has been closed since July 12, and no vehicles will be allowed on it Thursday except the ones essential to the race (team cars and race officials). Also, like the rest of the course, road crews preceding the race will be making the road surface as clean as possible. Those precautions are as much as the Tour organization will do.
As Prudhomme said, This is a sport where anything can happen. So whatever youre doing on Thursday, make sure you first watch both climbs of the Alpeand that sinister descent in between.
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You can follow John on twitter.com @johnwilcockson. Look for more of his commentaries from the Tour in the days ahead.