A shorter stage today, 86kms and 2700m climbing. 2 climbs, the 35km drag up the Lautaret followed by a summit finish on the beautiful, wild but steep Col du Granon.
We enjoyed the luxury of an 8.30am start from Alpe d’Huez, a neutralized convoy all the way to the valley. A tedious and fiddly way to start the day with brakes on pretty much all the way down behind the commissaire’s car. Down to Bourg d’Oisans, onto the flats and the relief of being able to pedal again.
The flag went down and we headed towards Lautaret on a wide flat road. The whole peloton intact, I was swamped by riders who’d I not ridden alongside all week. I’d be glad of a hill and a bit of a selection…..I thought. Any hope of a shorter day being an easier day went out of the window as soon as the road ramped up. A few riders attacked and the pace was brutal. I was too far back and a shade too old to hang in there with the lead group that established itself with about 12 riders. I had my work cut out to be part of the second group of about 20, but I made it and the pace settled to something more sustainable. I hadn’t even had a chance to think about how I felt today. It had just been a painful and brutal 5 minutes.
Bruce was there in my group along with Steve Allen, Jaime and many riders who I was unfamiliar with. It was a good place to be though, enough of the riders were motivated to push a bit so this could work well. Bruce had a couple of goes to move off the front but we stayed with him. Into one of the long tunnels and Bruce made a move that stuck. He put the hammer down and as we emerged from the tunnel I was the only one with him. Scrawny me was having to chuck out such an effort to stay with this Canadian engine. I couldn’t cope any longer and had to let him go. I was absorbed by the rest of my group and settled for watching Bruce power up the road.
The rest of the long climb went well for our group. At one stage we got within 30 seconds of the lead group that Bruce had managed to bridge to. Attacks happened in that group too though meaning they moved up the road away from us. They would crest Lautaret 1 min 30 before us. Simon Crisp pulled us well in the last 2kms to keep that deficit down.
I grabbed a bidon from Carolyn as we crested and started the super fast 20km descent to the foot of the next climb. The road off the Lautaret is wide, smooth and very few bends to contemplate braking. Downwind too. This would be fast. We were 20 riders and I was positioned about 15th. I was comfortable but super alert. There was traffic to negotiate and I just wanted to make sure no big gaps emerged that would uncouple me from the train.
What happened next will be etched in my memory for ever. As I recollect the next few moments it’s like a slow motion action scene from a movie. I have no idea what caused the crash but I saw at least two men hurled high into the air, cartwheeling. Bikes exploded in different directions. Bidons and debris in the air. I’m travelling at about 70kph and this is all in my face. I’m lucky, I thread my bike through a gap along with Franck just behind me. I’m upright and intact and I start to process what is happening. I’m still careering down the mountain at speed, I look back and I can see men on the road, it looks bad.
I carry on with the group. There are instantly people on the scene to assist. Part of me feels bad carrying on but another realises that by the time we’d slowed down and climbed back we’d be just adding to a growing number of people at the scene.
We carried on in subdued mood to the foot of Granon. I had no idea who’d gone down and as I write this I’m still awaiting news as to how those guys are.
Onto the Col du Granon, 11km at an average gradient of nearly 10%. The pain of this beast would certainly distract us all from what we’d witnessed minutes before. I knew Bruce was somewhere on the road ahead and I wanted to ride a sustainable pace that would stay strong to the end. I found myself mid pack, a handful rode ahead and a handful fell back. It was hard but manageable. Richard Scales looked strong and I was happy to be a few metres behind him.
Halfway up and all’s still ok, just behind Richard and I’m getting the job done. I sight Bruce a couple of bends up ahead. 1 minute 40. I figure he would have got to the foot of the climb about 3 minutes ahead so I think I’m gaining on him. I push past Richard and stay strong to the top. Bruce doesn’t falter though and still crosses the line over a minute ahead of me.
I’m happy again with my ride but as soon as I finish I’m preoccupied with the crash situation. We’ve heard sirens everywhere and heard of helicopters on the scene. It doesn’t sound good. How fast I am in a bike race doesn’t seem to matter in this moment.
I ended up coming 21st on the stage and maintaining 12th overall in GC. Bruce ended up pinching 13 seconds off me once they decided to remove our times from the crash descent from our overall times.
A tough day ahead tomorrow with Col du Vars and the mighty Bonette on the agenda, as well as a summit finish in Auron. More importantly my thoughts are with the crash victims and their families. I think the whole of the Haute Route peloton is willing those guys to be ok right now.