Tour de France cancellation reminds us how hard it is to run a bike race

A landslide blocked the road during the Tour de France, demonstrating how hard it is to run a bike race.

Many cycling fans, myself included, are disappointed about the dramatic cancellation of yesterday’s Tour de France Stage 19 from Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne to Tignes. This year’s Tour was widely-touted as the best edition since 1989, and with the race for the yellow jersey on a knife’s edge, it was all supposed to reach its thrilling climax yesterday and today.

Those expectations were dashed in most remarkable circumstances when, halfway down the descent of the penultimate climb of the Col de l’Iseran, the race organisers suddenly called a stop to the day’s racing. Instead, it was announced, times for the general classification would be counted from the top of the Iseran, where young Colombian Egan Bernal had taken one minute over his GC rivals and just over two minutes from Julian Alaphilippe to snatch the yellow jersey.

The reason for cancelling the stage? A freak thunderstorm had made the road below impassable. Not only was there a treacherous covering of sleet at the bottom of the descent, the route had been cut off completely by an oozy, rocky mudslide and a flood of rainwater.

Although it didn’t quell the sense of disappointment, most who saw the images agreed with race director Christian Prudhomme’s assessment that halting the race was the “only possible decision” for the sake of rider safety. It was a hard call, but the right one.

To add to the disappointment, the Tour organisers have announced that two mountain passes will be removed from today’s final Alpine stage because another landslide has blocked the route. We might still get an epic showdown on Val Thorens, but right now, the feeling is one of anti-climax.

Racing in the real world

For me, as someone whose job involves organising bike races, last night was an extreme reminder of how difficult that task is. Most other sports operate within predictable environments where such details as the height of grass on the field or the alkalinity of a swimming pool can be controlled to the nth degree. If there’s a spill or obstruction on the playing surface, you can briefly stop the game to mop it up or get rid of it with little consequence. If it rains at Wimbledon, you can always come back tomorrow.

Not so with cycling. Cycling takes place out on the open road under constantly evolving conditions, subject to the fickleness of nature. When the race is on, it stops for no-one. If there’s an obstacle ahead, organisers have moments to remove it before the peloton gets there at roaring speed.

If a stage is cancelled, you can’t just come back the next day. The road closures, traffic management, hospitality and logistics had been planned months in advance. In Australia, council, police and road authority approvals have to be obtained and local residents must be informed well ahead of time about this inconvenience that will be passing through their neighbourhood and shutting down their streets. It’s not as simple as booking out the local footy field for another day. The recent venue changes for the Ken Dinnerville Memorial Handicap and NSW Junior Road Championships show us the added problem of finding road racing venues in NSW at all.

Sure, some races can be neutralised and re-started due to extreme weather. This is possible in the early stages of a race, when the pace is relaxed and there is some time to make a decision. The 2013 Milan-San Remo is a famous example.

Not so last night, when the freak storm cell dumped these torrential conditions on the road just a handful of minutes before the race arrived. With riders hurtling down the Iseran at breakneck speed, there was little time to react.

Getting results

Taking the the times from the top of the climb was the best anyone could have done in the circumstances. Even something like that is not easy. You need a timing system and finish-line camera set up at the top of the climb. That’s standard practice for an important climb in the world’s biggest bike race, but not so easy for smaller races. The cost is one obstacle: the equipment alone costs upwards of $2,000 for each intermediate timing point. Then, you also need staff to set it up, pack it down, and keep watch all day to make sure it’s secure from theft or interference out on the road. Not easy when races struggle just to break even, let alone turn a profit. Cycling NSW makes it a point to have professional timing and results at all state open races, but it’s not so easy to deliver.

From a results and timing perspective, the Tour de France is actually pretty straightforward. On each stage, you have at most 176 riders, all starting together in just one point-to-point race. You know ahead of time who’s going to be in the race, and who’s not. They are clearly identifiable in team kit and with race numbers, and many of them are famous enough that you can identify them by sight.

Most local and state bike races are more complex. You often have multiple grades, all separate races taking place on the same course at the same time. You won’t know who’s in the race until it actually starts, because riders can sign on at the very last minute.

It’s a miracle in itself to identify the riders. They can be wearing any number of club kits, team kits, plain kits or some unsanctioned kit from the local bike shop. Their bib numbers can be folded, torn, missing, covered by a rain jacket, blocked by other riders in the bunch or worn on the wrong side for the finish camera. God forbid any of those grades overtake each other and get mixed up between bunches.

Then you get riders who are dropped in a circuit race. When there are multiple grades lapping each other—some breaking away, others getting dropped, others deciding they’ve had enough and DNFing unannounced—producing an accurate result can be like solving a jigsaw puzzle blindfolded.

Add to the mix riders who’ve forgotten to attach their timing chip, or well-meaning volunteers who’ve given the wrong timing chip and number to the wrong rider, and well, it’s surprising that we get any results at all.

Sympathy for volunteers

Obviously, my opinion here is biased. Defending my Cycling NSW colleagues will surprise nobody. And sure, I’d be first to admit that at times, a lot of the issues and obstacles in state-level racing could be minimised with better planning. But don’t let that detract from the difficulty of the task.

In the end, the Tour de France organisers are making the best they can of an uncontrollable act of God. Cycling fans are right to be disappointed that they’ve been denied one spectacular finish, and maybe one more tonight. But it’s not the organisers’ fault. A bike race is an intrinsically fragile machine with many inter-connected moving parts. If one tiny thing goes wrong, it can stop the race in its tracks.

So, this weekend, spare a thought for the volunteers at your local club and state open bike race. It’s a hard, thankless task with little reward. They’re invisible when things go smoothly, but take all the blame for the slightest setback. Let’s thank and support those who make the miracle of bike racing happen at all in our backyards.

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