Tomorrow’s stage will climb Alpe d’Huez twice but it’s the lone descent of the Col de Sarenne that’s got many talking. Riders are worried and articles are being written about this new descent. The Tour de France could not hope for anything better.
Fear has long been part of the drama of the Tour. In the early years of the race the railway had united much of France but the mountains remained an impenetrable land of mystery. Tour de France organiser Henri Desgrange deliberately tried to scare the riders and with talk of bears roaming the Pyrenees and the public lapped up the hype. Desgrange once quipped, perhaps insincerely, that the ideal Tour de France should have only one finisher, as if a bike race should turn into a last man standing contest.
Ideally the fear should be bigger than the reality. The 2011 Giro had a big mountain stage that ended on the Zoncolan but crucially climbed Monte Crostis and then took a gravel descent. This was worrying riders a lot and race organisers RCS set about lining the road with padding on one side to protect against hitting the mountain and safety nets on the other to stop riders flying down. It was absurd, rather than borrowing from nature the race had invented a wacky-races contest where all that was missing was a cackling Muttley. In the end the stage was modified at the eleventh hour and the only casualty was race director Angelo Zomegnan, who was left to fall on his sword and Michele Acquarone took over.
The Col de Sarenne
So how dangerous is the Col de Sarenne? There’s no way to measure it. Now you could try to score a road based on its gradient, width, surface, the number of corners and the vertical drop off the side but it’s really something you know when you do it.
Your correspondent has checked all the Alpine stages of the Tour and the Sarenne does feel wild but it’s not exceptional, there are other dangerous roads in this race. There must be 101 more scary descents in France and Italy, including the Col de la Rochette tackled yesterday. This is not to say the Sarenne is easy. It’s steep at the top and suffers from the schist-like rocks crumbling onto the road. Plus there are big drops, one mistake could be horrific. Yet this is valid for many mountain roads in grand tours, I can’t see what is novel with the Sarenne.
The route was announced last October and ever since all the teams have had a chance to visit the road. It was used in the Dauphiné so riders could test it in race conditions. There was a crash but it happened when a rider tangled with a team car so the mountain might not be to blame.
“L’enfer, c’est les autres”
– Jean-Paul Sartre, Huis Clos
Sartre said “hell is other people” and if he wasn’t talking about the peloton, it’s worth borrowing the quote because the danger of a descent can come from other riders taking risks. This is always the case in a bike race and Gerard Vroomen makes the case for descending as a race skill today.
Some will say “man up” when riders raise concerns about safety. When I say the Sarenne is not so bad, I’m not joining this call, rather I’m comparing it to other mountain roads which seem equally risky. For those saying riders should stop complaining, be careful with your armchair impressions. I’d urge you to look at the point of view of riders for whom cycling is a job. Visit a factory today and you’ll see plenty of safety warnings and practices that never existed a century ago. Like it or not, it’s normal that pro cycling follows with 21st century workplace safety.
Workplace safety has often been improved by the work of unions. In cycling there is the CPA but today it’s issued a statement condemning the suspicion hanging over Chris Froome, declaring “it’s not fair to blame someone without evidence.” But the union swings into action long after the problem has emerged and at this rate they’ll raise concerns about the Col de Sarenne next week. Instead any safety issues should have been raised months ago.
There are ongoing attempts to improve safety. After a series of crashes in 2011 the UCI pledged an enquiry into safety but the conclusions have never been made public although I gather the Road Commission and the Athlete Commission have reviewed them.
The Tour has thrived on the promise of danger, a hype that’s often been inflated beyond reality in a bid to attract an audience. Whether wild tales of marauding bears a century ago to the certified extremes offered by the mountains today. Sure the Col de Sarenne is difficult but I’m not convinced it’s worse than anything the Giro or Vuelta can offer; perhaps it’s the pressure of the Tour de France that makes some nervous and besides a dangerous accident can happen any time, just see the first week of this race.
But just as workplace safety practices have changed over the year for offices and factories, cycle races will see safety measures. We’ve seen the compulsory use of helmets and risk assessments are part of the pre-race planning. But as long as riders make lone soundings about safety, nothing changes except they hype up the excitement to the profit of ASO and television producers.
The top picture and the images below have been sent in by reader Guy of the King of the Mountains bed and breakfast located near Alpe d’Huez and the Sarenne. Thanks.