Not many things faze Luke Rowe. He’s been one of the rocks on which Team Sky (now INEOS Grenadiers) has built its success. He’s not one of the stars but with his consistent strength on the Tour’s flat stages and his tactical nous as the team’s road captain, he has been Mr. Reliable ever since he turned pro with the team in 2012. That’s why his finishing stage 11 outside the time limit came as such a shock. Sitting in the team bus after the stage, which included climbing twice over Mont Ventoux, Thomas said: “I’m just gutted really; it’s tough. This is the first time in my career that I’ve missed the time cut—and what a race to do it in!”
In his seven Tours de France, the only other time he didn’t finish the race was two years ago, four days before the finish. That stage 17 was in the same part of Provence, on a course that passed in the shadow of Mont Ventoux. That day, when fighting for position before the day’s final climb, Rowe and Jumbo-Visma’s road captain Tony Martin had an altercation. Both were DQ’d.
This year’s stage 11 was almost 200 kilometers long on a day of harsh sunshine, 80-degree temperatures and a strong breeze. Before the two ascents of Mont Ventoux came three lesser climbs, the type that Rowe would be expected to ride near the head of the peloton, saving his teammates’ energy before the later, longer climbs. As Rowe explained: “I started to ride like I have a hundred times before. The plan was to move Billy [Richard Carapaz] up in the GC…and at that point I was feeling okay. I was feeling solid.”
No surprise there.
But on the very first climb, right after Martin crashed out, Rowe was dropped on the Cat. 4 climb out of the village of Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, just 30 kilometers into the stage. He said that hitting the short climb’s opening double-digit slopes was “like I hit a wall. Like someone had switched a switch. Guys who I would normally be able to out-climb…were leaving me for dead.” So, with more than 160 kilometers still to race, Rowe was on his own, off the back.
That put added pressure on his teammates, especially the one he rooms with, fellow Welshman Geraint Thomas, the 2018 Tour champion. Instead of saving Thomas for pacing Carapaz on the Ventoux, INEOS had to use him on the day’s third climb, the Cat. 1 Col de la Liguière. That early use of Thomas could have made a difference over the Ventoux for the second time, when a slightly fresher Carapaz might have joined forces with Jumbo-Visma’s Jonas Vingegaard when the young Dane dropped race leader Pogačar before the summit.
Meanwhile far behind, Rowe got the temporary company of another struggling rider, Søren Kragh Andersen, but his constant companion was the broom wagon—which picks up riders who abandon the stage. Despite that feeling of potential doom, Rowe said: “I never lost belief that I could arrive at the finish within the time limit, but in the end I missed it by five minutes.”
He added on Instagram: “This race has been good to me over the years, but this is the harsh reality of the sport. One bad day and it’s pack your bags and off to the airport. It’s a shitter!!! Gutted to be leaving the lads to finish off the job without me. … But I’m leaving them in a good place. Billy moved up to fourth…and the Tour is a long way from being over.” A week after Rowe left the race, prior to the critical stage 17, Carapaz was still in fourth overall, one second behind Vingegaard, 15 seconds behind second-placed Rigoberto Urán and 5:33 behind Pogačar. But the INEOS Grenadiers would miss the strength of their Mr. Reliable.
The Tour’s Lost Boys
In the first week 19 riders dropped out; another 20 left the race by the second rest day, making a total of 39 abandons (see “Into the Third Week: Another 20 Lost Boys”). So, prior to stage 17, the Tour’s 184-strong starting field has been reduced to 145.