Fear and Safety in the Tour de France

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.

Monte Crostis was crossed off

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.

Déjà vu: Froome and Contador descend the Sarenne in the Dauphiné

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.

Rider Safety
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.

52 thoughts on “Fear and Safety in the Tour de France”

  1. Firstly, as always, many thanks for the fantastic website, Mr Ri ng. The first place for informed opinion both from yourself and most of the commenters (unlike a number of other cycling related websites).

    I cannot comment on the descents in Italy and Spain, but I know from experience that the Sarenne is an “interesting” descent. The worst part seemed to be the concrete drainage culverts that ran across the road and which could easily cause a rider to lose balance or blow a tire. I know there was talk of these being piped and filled, do you know if this has happened? Hopefully we have no crashes tomorrow and a cracking race up the Alpe.

  2. Froome’s comments yesterday on Contador’s descent are emblematic of what turns people off of Sky’s style of racing. It’s as if they can’t fathom the race not following their script which they started developing when the route was announced. It’s awfully presumptuous of him to think the race is only on when it suits him.

    Will it make him lose this year? Not likely. But in the future, it most definitely will.

    • Sky have been very different in this years Tour. (Last year was boring). Porte has blown the rest of the field apart bar six riders on 2 occasions, saw non of that last year.

    • I totally agree Owen. He Called Contador “irresponsible”. Don’t follow another riders line if you can’t ride it. I’m not a Contador fan, but it is impressive how much he is willing to put his whole body on the line to win the greatest race on earth. Sky makes it so easy to hate them.

    • It’s probably more accurate to say that people’s reactions to Froome’s comments are emblematic of whether they’re turned off by Sky. Most cyclists will have caught themselves saying “that maniac nearly had me off then” at one point or another.

    • To be fair to Froome and his comments on Contadors descent he did qualify them later by making the point “it’s only a bike race”. That said Froome had the option of dropping back from Contador on the descent to allow time and space to take evasive action should Contador stack his bike (as indeed he did).

  3. I think – and hope – that this will be a non-issue, mostly because the selection that is likely to happen on the first climb of the Alpe will lead to the field being split into small groups before they get to the Sarenne. If hell is other people, I doubt there’ll be too many other people around the GC contenders, and the autobus can take care on the descent.

    Of course, I also expect Contador to descend like a lunatic – so there’s still some potential for carnage.

  4. Any lunatic descending from Contador or others – reckon Porte will fancy his chances of bringing them back on the next climb – won’t be more than 30 seconds.

  5. The Sarenne will be one if the highlights of this edition and I doubt the ASO have cancellation in mind.It is only as dangerous as the riders make it.Hopefully they will respect the uneven surfaces and long straight sections-more so towards the bottom where there are one or two sharp bends to negotiate.

  6. We visited the col twice in the last days. Even 24 hours prior the race they are working on the surface! Fresh tarmac is placed in some corners,which makes it very dangerous if wet or hot. We directly followed the Cleaning Machines who removed half of the “work”. Looks like Last-Minute-Actionism. So, for us fans its a clear NO to that descend. We hope to see ALL of the riders a the second time ascending the Alpe…

  7. Once again an excellent article, Mr. Ring. I’d not really considered the comparison with other ‘professionals’ in the 1900s vs. now before. I suppose it’s easy to forget that although we think of cycling as a sport, really it’s one of the few ‘sports’ that was originally created as a form of entertainment and promotion rather than the evolutionary pure sporting battles seen with other sports. These people are ‘professionals’ in the truest form of the word.

    For me though the thing that always sticks in my mind is that, behind closed doors, a certain selection of them seem only too happy to inject, transfuse or swallow who knows what (and I’m almost certain that most of the time they have no idea themselves), without having any idea what it will do to their body. Maybe it will kill them, or maybe it will just put them in hospital, or maybe they won’t see the effects for 30 years. When you have a group of cyclists then complaining that a descent is too dangerous it seems odd given what some of them are secretly willing to do to themselves when no one’s looking. Perhaps it’s a different group of people complaining about the danger of a descent than those that are risking their life putting things in their bodies that they shouldn’t, but from the outside they’re all one and the same— professional cyclists.

    For that reason it seems to suggest only one thing to me, which is competitive advantage vs. risk. If people are willing to risk everything putting things inside themselves because it gives them a competitive advantage, then they’ll be equally vociferous in trying to get a dodgy descent changed if they think it’ll give them a competitive advantage too, rather than because it’s too dangerous. That robs us of the chance to marvel at people’s incredible ability to go downhill fast and make it down to the bottom (as a cyclist who’s fallen off bikes enough times I never want to see anyone else do it either), perhaps for cynical competitive reasons rather than safety-related ones, which, as a viewer of the extravaganza, seems a bit disappointing. Perhaps when cyclists stop doping and show themselves to be fully committed to preserving their body in one piece people will be happier to listen to their safety concerns.

      • If that’s what you managed to get out of my message I suggest that you practise your reading skills a little bit before trying to contribute your thoughts, or, if it’s easier, just hang around the cyclingnews forums instead, where everyone’s messages are 10 words long and it should therefore be much more easy for you to understand what’s been written. Hopefully then your response might bear some relation to what the other person’s said.

  8. Another well balanced view from INRNG.
    Bike racing by its very nature can be/is dangerous, and no amount of ‘health and safety’ or ‘risk/hazard’ assessment will change this fact simple fact – witness todays time trial. I hope all riders negotiate the descent safely. I would assume this descent will be way too far out for a successful attack to survive until the final accent of the Alpe.

  9. Inrng, thanks for the thoughtful commentary on this important issue. Like your injection of existentialist thinking… Sartre might also remind us that competing cyclists are ‘condemned to be free’; they’re constantly shouldering heavy burdens of free will and choice in descending, sprinting, etc!

    BTW, the KOM B&B link you kindly provided was not working when I tried it.

  10. It’s going to be a fascinating contrast for the riders to go from the noise of the Alp into almost pristine wilderness and back up the grandstand of the Alpe again. Fingers crossed the stage goes safely for all.

    I think the last minute tidying up is always going to be the case simply because it’s one of those climbs that will catch a little debris, best to clear it up just in advance of the race rather than a month before.

    The culverts have been replaced by short sections of fresh blacktop but this stretch isn’t technical (by pro standards) as the riders descend a bit before having to climb out of this dip. There is a lot more climbing after the ski-station than people might realise. It’s when it drops again that there are concerns. There were no culverts on this section to resurface but the road is definitely bumpy at speed. It is narrow, steep enough and there are drop-offs but the descent is mostly open which means descenders can properly read most of the corners without surprises. I don’t think the descent is overly difficult but its narrowness ensures that all riders will have to brake hard. It will be difficult though to overtake if a rider ahead is getting gapped or to take corrective action to avoid a rider if needed. I would expect Contador to make sure he is best positioned on the climb out of the dip to attack the descent if he is planning to put Froome under pressure. The hard braking will split a group, as will a mistake by a rider.

    It’s such a slalom-run once the road opens up all the way to the bottom of the Alpe that it will take a big effort from any dropped rider to bridge back up to the attackers. Such an effort will have to hurt considering the difficulty of the section up to La Garde on the Alpe. Thus, splitting the group on the Sarenne descent is definitely a smart idea for any rider who needs to soften up the opposition in advance of the finale but my guess is only Contador and Fuglsang of the GC contenders have the ability to do so. I can’t see only two men staying away though, attackers will probably need a few riders to bridge up to help them and likely Froome will be one of those.

    If it rains however …

  11. Hey Inrng,
    I am starting to suspect you have strong links to SKY, inner knowledge, or to put it “à la inrng”, you are part of the inner ring of SKY.
    My clues? Photo in your twitter account + that bike change by Froome in today’s TT!

    Anyway, as always, many thanks for your always interesting, pertinent analysis. You’re my first stop in the morning, when I open my computer.

  12. I remember seeing this thing many years ago and thinking “LeTour should race over the Alpe and down this side, giving the good descenders a chance, but only after doing some improvements.” Seems they have and they have, so all good for me. “Workplace safety”? This is SPORT…if these guys want to be safe they can go work in a factory somewhere or take up chess. Why is there so much respect for climbers over descenders, sprinters, hard men of the cobbles, etc?

    • I’m with you, brother. I think we’re the only real men watching cycling nowadays.

      I was watching a docu about Niki Lauda yesterday. Back driving after less than six weeks after being in a coma. Can’t believe we’ve been deprived of such spectacles. Sport’s not been the same since the gladiatoral games ended – H&S gone mad.

      • It’s sport but it’s a job. Riders have health insurance, pension contributions and more. If you want sport in the noble sense, see an amateur race. But this is professional cycling and a job. Note I’m not trying to be argumentative here, just giving the rider perspective.

        • I doubt it’s just a job to Contador, G. Thomas, Peraud, D. Martin, etc., etc. Sure, it’s a job. O.K. They derive their income from it. After that, it’s hard to see many interesting similarities. Riders have health insurance? Last I heard, from a pro, riders (from some/many(?) countries) can’t get normal health insurance and instead buy their own policies from Lloyd’s of London and other such special insurance companies. (That’s old scoop. Don’t know if that’s still the case.) But, it’s clearly so much more than a job. Love, passion, glory, fame, victory, triumph, not to mention pain, suffering, and misery, are part and parcel for this “job.” So, I’m really skeptical that normal workplace safety rules should have any application here at all. Poor workers need to be protected. I’m happy letting the riders decide how much risk they want to take.

      • We should be careful about glorifying the past as something like 8 drivers died in Formula One races during the 70’s. I’m happy to be ‘deprived of such spectacle’.

  13. Reply to Owen/Ian/Anomymous post from earlier.
    I tend to agree with Owen regarding Froome’s “condescending” tone towards AC attacking him. So you’ve got a 4+ minute lead in the GC. Good for you, and you darn well better be prepared to defend that lead. Last I checked this was a RACE, not a ride. It’s the leader’s race to lose, and all the other GC contenders are there to try to win it themselves – regardless of how much time is between 1st and the others. If they think they have even the slightest chance, the can and should take it.
    This attitude of one rider or team deciding when everyone else can step on the gas is B.S. CF and Sky put their bibs on like everyone else, one leg at a time; and while some riders’ form is better than others currently, it doesn’t excuse the elitist attitude. Reminds me of another rider/team who shall remain nameless.
    If you’ve worked hard to establish your lead, bravo. But don’t expect everyone else to roll over and just hand you the win. Competition is what makes it a RACE.
    My $0.02

    • There seem to be some definite double standards going on here. If you want to criticise Froome for his unexceptionable comments on Twitter then you also need to criticise Contador for having a go at Quintana for not waiting for him. I also wasn’t too impressed with the way that Contador, having brought Froome down, then relied on Froome’s teammate Porte to pace him back to the bunch.

    • I think that AC is a petulant child. What insolence to think he could come near the purple robe of
      CF, let alone try and touch it. He must be reprimanded as most peasants who try and be like the king have been through history.
      It is that Sky has an image of hubris and if Helen Keller was near the finish line, they would work hard to defeat her. Now that hubris turned other riders against them and it is not because of sour grapes.
      No riders condemned Evans and his team when they won the TdF. A team can always win the minds of competitors and fans, but when they do not win their respect, the other teams will screw them.

      • In US football, if a team is leading by a landslide in the last quarter with 10 seconds to go and the winning team decides to kick a very long field goal, as if to shove defeat in their face, want to see how quickly they lose respect from fans and foes?

  14. I rode this descent last year (Had a very pleasant stay at Guy’s Chalet), and certainly didn’t feel it was particularly dangerous. Spectacular yes, and ridden at lower speeds, as we had to make allowances for the storm drains, but no worse than others in the area – the descent of col de Glandon was similarly technical at the top, not sure last time a race has descended this though).

    Does anyone have data on time gains possible on a typical descent between an expert descender (Say Nibali), and an average descender (Leaving aside riders who suffer the yips, a la Brad in the Giro) .

    As an aside, it does surprise me that given the preparation that goes into other areas, that descending can be such a problem for some riders – Thibaut Pinot the most recent example. My experience is that compared to mountain bike descents, road descents are much easier (albeit not at race speeds with racing pressures). Is there any correlation between ex Mountain bikers being good descenders? – It didn’t work for JC Peraud today, but was that because he was pushing the limits more?

    • An example that comes to mind is the 2008 Tour when they finished off the Col de la Bonette in Jausiers. People will remember it for the young South African disappearing over the edge on the first corner. Anyway, Menchov got dropped from the GC group early on the way down but only lost 35 seconds to them by the finish. Valverde crested the climb behind Menchov but came past him on the descent and did a brilliant job to bridge back up to the yellow jersey group. That descent is 24k and pretty technical over the first half, so it seems very difficult to gain much time on most descents unless you are exploiting a known weakness in another rider. Descending skills definitely come in handy when you need to get back on after a climb though.

      Only a handful of riders are a little bit better or a little bit worse. Most of the peloton descend at a similar rate and are able to follow the superior descenders even if they can’t lead as fast as them. It’s only now and again that the parcours suits a rider with descending skills as the gap earned is often so small that it is generally only useful for a stage-win. Tomorrow will be interesting to see whether they bother, it requires a big effort … maybe a little risk too. Stage 19 seems the more appropriate stage for strong descenders, there are the beautiful Glandon and Madeleine descents to breakaway on as well as the finishing descent into Le Grand-Bornard.

    • Pinot has a phobia of speed, even when sitting in a car that goes fast it seems.

      As for the MTB = demon descender, not really. But you’ll see some MTB riders are agile and good when the wheel locks up or sliding around corners. As it happens Thibaut Pinot does cyclo-cross in winter and is very agile.

      • Have any of the teams worked with a motorcycle racer to work on the dynamics of high speed handling? I recall the Nibali article with details that he was working with an engineer from MotoGP, but it would seem more appropriate to engage the racers. The dynamics of counter-steering are the same and it could provide excellent guidance for the riders with reduced confidence.

        There are a number of panic reactions that are “natural” and need to be overcome in motorcycle racing that would affect a bicycle quite a bit as well. Keeping muscles to stiff, straightening the elbows, gripping too hard, etc need to be taught to be overcome. Body position is critical as well, and just an inch forward or backward has an impact on tire grip and feel. Anyway, just a thought.

        • As an ex-AMA Superbike pro I know what you mean, but my wife, who has never throttled a motorcycle in her life, can race downhill with the best, so maybe it doesn’t matter, either you can or you can’t. As a poor climber her racing career was helped (in the few hilly races she contested) by descending abilities. As a sprinter she was often derided as a wheel-sucker too. But someone dumb enough to tow a known sprinter to the final few hundred meters knows what is likely to happen. If Froomey is too scared to descend (I read somewhere he’s calling for the race to either not go down or be neutralized if it’s wet?) with the fast guys, let him take it easy and then chase back on during the final climb to the finish. Isn’t this what RACING is all about? Guys like this (as well as A. Schleck) seem to simply want a watt-producing test, eliminating the SKILL of riding a bicycle..a classic case of wanting the test to ONLY be about the stuff you’re good at instead of what a stage race should be – test of all round abilities.

          • “Isn’t this what RACING is all about? Guys like this (as well as A. Schleck) seem to simply want a watt-producing test, eliminating the SKILL of riding a bicycle..a classic case of wanting the test to ONLY be about the stuff you’re good at instead of what a stage race should be – test of all round abilities.”

            Exactly, Larry, you nailed it. There are enough aspects of this theme to write a long essay about it if you want to properly cover them all. But in the heart of the matter it comes down to exactly that motivation those boys have.
            They should go away from the TdF and start a hill-climb ITT World Series. Then they will quickly find out how many sponsors they find wanting to pay them salaries close to what they make now.

  15. Safety first, always, but is it not simply a matter of riding safely in this case? Froome asking for the descent to be cancelled in case of rain does not sound good at all. He can get to the bottom of the hill in one piece and still have a considerable advantage over his rivals. Now, invoke the safety of the *other* riders? Please. This sport tests all kinds of limits: your lungs, your legs and your guts. Each one of those starting the stage tomorrow will be subjected to the same conditions and hopefully will see by the end of the day who is the fastest. As other commenters pointed out, it is called the Tour, but it is a race.

    And maybe there should be some sort of rider organization, like in Formula One, where riders can make decisions about safety as a group. Maybe that’s not so practical with some 200 athletes, so they could be represented by team officials.

      • No, I said represented. Presumably they would relay the team’s decision. Or you could have one rider per team voting for the team. I don’t even know if there is something like this in place today, but I suspect there isn’t.

  16. As always very nice commentary by all!
    I did have to Goggle “cackling Muttley” must be my age.

    If they wanted the tour to be safe the first thing that should be done is less teams and less riders per squad.

    I can only imagine that Hinault must be mumbling to himself “Man up”

  17. I tend to agree with those that compare this to doping. If we just let everyone dope, then its not fair to the guy who is worried about reproductive problems and kidney failure and so on. Similarly, its not fair to the guy the doesn’t want to risk his life on slippery cliff corners to hold his position in the GC. They can get safely down the mountain, but rain adds the element of unknown slipperiness, and some clown is going to push the pace and others don’t want to lose position and the associated money, prestige, etc.. The problem is that you can’t just call foul the day before. If its unsafe the rider’s union should have demanded barriers be built or a route change months ago. The complaints fall on deaf ears when its only the guys with something to lose are crying foul.

  18. Not much has been talked or published about right frame geometry, that can make difference in fast descending too. From what I’ve read so far longer chain stays, straight seat post, low enough bottom bracket, appropriate fork rake/trail etc. fitted correctly to person will make you go faster/safer? It seems now days most “mass production” of frames are just t-shirt size and sure pro’s can ride anything and we get “better value” frames? Some frames/bikes just get ‘wobbly” after you reach 70-80km/h?

    • I read an article last year that addressed this, at least in part. I will post a link if I can find it again. It made the claim that due to how modern carbon frames are manufactured, most professionals are riding stock frames. And because these frames are really intended for the mass market rather than the Tour, their ultimate performance is often not what you’d expect if you have the skill and fitness to find its edge. What reminded me of this article is that the example it used was the Pinarello Dogma, which was new at the time. The article claimed that it was unstable in high speed descents – something to do with the steering geometry being engineered to feel “alive” or “twitchy” at low speeds as this is an attribute many amateurs value (apparently).

  19. No one wants life-threatening risks to be taken, either with regard to road safety or to doping. Having said that, I’m with Larry T.: skill should be rewarded, and also mental fortitude and self-knowledge (which also makes the case for banning heartrate and power monitoring during TTs).
    The riders’ point of view can be understood. Only too well. Like any other professional, they tend to create a situation whereby they take the maximum and give the minimum. As a collective, they are bargaining with us fans. And the harder they pull their end of the rope and complain, without trying to understand us, the more we will pull ours and call them sissies, without trying to understand them.

    A final word, as when they complain about descending when it’s very cold: they must be reminded that, although it’s a race, no one expected to descend faster than he can. But if some guy can descend faster, either because he endures the cold better (perhaps he’s not so skinny) or because he chose better clothes, or because he’s more skilful and self-assured and daring, he must be allowed to make a difference.

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