Stage 16, to the lazy armchair fan, looked like providing the calm of a rolling day and a sprint finish, before the storm of tomorrow and the roof of the race on the Col du Galibier.
And a beautifully executed sprint finish was what we got, with Aussie Michael Matthews photo-finishing just a touch quicker than out-of-luck Edvald Boassen-Hagen.
But before that, the wind blew.
For any pro-cycling fan who has ever watched a bike race on a windy day, the word ‘echelon’ causes the ears to prick up. To any non pro-cycling fan the word ‘echelon’ causes an: “Eh…what…really? You’re about to give a detailed explanation of some weather?”
*Bored slump, head in hands, eyes roll*
Yes. Yes I am.
When a strong crosswind blows it forces the riders to find a slipstream and seek shelter just to one side, off the shoulder of the rider in front, rather than directly behind their wheel as they normally would.
They do this in turn, forming a diagonal across the road, until the width of the road is full of sheltering riders.
The ones who miss the shelter are battered by the wind, dislodged from the group (because a slipstream is THAT important), and about to kiss goodbye to anything resembling a civilised heart rate.*
Echelons are exciting because they’re unpredictable.
They result in groups of riders scattered all down the road, none of whom can hope to bridge the gap to the group in front because the wind is stronger than they are.Embed from Getty Images
When the race breaks up in the wind the attack comes half way down a non-descript main road, with no race-provoking features other than a ninety–degree bend and a lack of shelter.
Then it becomes a survival situation. And desperate, and critical, and SUPER-exciting. Find yourself the wrong side of a split and you can lose minutes.
Who’s in which group? Who’s not? Who missed the split? Who’s in the gutter?
Where’s Froome? Bardet? Uran? Martin?
So, Stage 16: not so much the calm before the storm, as the storm before the storm.
I think we’d all better get an early night.
*Other descriptions of echelons are available – this one, on YouTube, from GCN, for example: