Posted: Jul 18, 2013 at 0040 hrs IST
The road descending from la Rochette into Gap is picture-book pretty. A valley dotted with red-tile roofs and tawny wheat fields opens before it. The snowy crags of the high Alps rise behind. Rustic farmhouses and purple wildflowers line its shoulders.
For hikers, it is idyllic. For drivers, tricky. For racers on bikes traveling 40 miles per hour, terrifying. The road is twisting and steep, narrow with switchbacks that arrive shockingly fast. Innumerable ridges and barely filled potholes in the pavement jolt even heavy vehicles.
It was here during the 2003 Tour de France that a top rider, Joseba Beloki, let fly, hoping to drop the race leader, Lance Armstrong. Instead, his front wheel slid on tar softened by the July heat and sent him tumbling. The crash effectively ended Beloki’s promising career and provided a stark reminder of an old saying: races are rarely won on descents, but they can be lost.
On Tuesday, as the 16th stage of the Tour came storming through these Alpine foothills, the dangerous descent from la Rochette almost took another big victim: Chris Froome of Sky, the race leader, who went off the road while swerving around the third-place rider, Alberto Contador of Saxo-Tinkoff.
In a near replay of the 2003 crash, Froome had been chasing Contador after the Spanish rider had tried to pedal away before the summit of the Col de Manse, hoping to trim his deficit and perhaps force the leader into a rash move. But when Contador momentarily lost control on a hairpin turn, Froome was forced into the grass. Neither was hurt, and they leapt back on their bikes to finish with another group of contenders who, following Tour etiquette, had slowed to let them catch up. As a result, at the end of the descent, the top three places in the race remained unchanged, with Froome retaining the yellow jersey.
Between the ascents scheduled for the subsequent stages of the tour, the riders will face a treacherous descent, off the Col de Sarrene along a back road that has not been used in the Tour before. “It is a very dangerous descent,” Froome said. “It’s not smooth, that’s for sure. There aren’t any barriers on the corners. If you go over the corner, you will fall down a long way,” he added. “One incident, one mechanical, or one crash in the wrong moment, and your Tour can be over.”
Indeed, at this point in the three-week race, when the leader is trying to stay safe while his rivals are trying to pressure him into dangerous mistakes, descents become all the more crucial. Yet, descending remains the forgotten stepchild of bike racing, with far more attention given to climbing, sprinting and time trialing.
To casual observers, riders flying at speeds in excess of 50 m.p.h. downhill may appear to be taking a break after a hard climb. But far from it. With so many dangers to worry about, including gravel, holes, wet spots and unexpectedly sharp turns, a crash would not just cost a rider time; it would probably end his race.
“Descents are tough on the riders,” said Michael Barry, a former Grand Tour rider. “The television doesn’t capture the speed the riders are descending at, how close they are to each other, and how fast they accelerate to catch each other.”
Though Beloki’s crash is the best known cautionary tale about descending, it is not the only case of a downhill’s affecting a race. In the 2011 Tour, Andy Schleck, a top contender, not known for his descending skills, lost time on the climb to la Rochette and then even more on the descent. He finished second that year to Cadel Evans. But descents can also work in favor of those who are bold and skillful enough to attack them. After losing valuable seconds on a climb during this year’s Tour of Switzerland, Peter Sagan of Cannondale regained time by descending aggressively. His swift descent allowed him to contest the final sprint, which he won.
Sagan is best known as a sprinter, but he is also widely considered among the best descenders on the Tour. Weight - as in, more of it - helps. At about 160 pounds, Sagan carries at least 10 pounds more than some of the skinniest climbers. His strong bike-handling skills are also essential. There is something else to it too. “A huge part of it is up here,” Andrew Talansky, a 24-year-old American rider with Garmin-Sharp, said, pointing to his head. “People like Sagan are just not afraid. And part of that is confidence. If you tap your brakes at the wrong time in a corner, you crash. If you think you’re going to crash, you crash.”
Fearful riders are usually stiff riders, making them more prone to the kinds of herky-jerky movements that can destabilize a bike. “When you see fear in his eyes, then he’s rigid,” said Sagan. As for his own technique? Sagan, a 23-year-old Slovak for whom English is his third language, thought for a moment before boiling it down to this: “Not risk too much and come first down.”