‘Are we in the Tour de France right now? This is crazy’ - Inside the peloton’s wildest day on the gravel

Wind, loose rocks and plenty of stress – it was a wild day on stage nine of the Tour

Riders stood at the finish line in Troyes sporting thousand yard stares and lips caked with congealed dust. Their eyes were glazed over with the exhausted shock of it all: the gravel roads around northeastern France had chewed them up and spat them out again, their bodies battered and their lycra stained with the dirt of the day. The scene can only really be compared to the end of some of the toughest one-day Classics, and stage nine of the Tour de France had been raced like it was one. From the start, attacks came hard and fast – the race was a relentless boxing match with punches being thrown every single time the peloton reached a new sector. Gravel has literally and figuratively made its dirty mark in the Tour de France. And many are happy to see the back of it. 

“The second sector was a bit like: are we in the Tour de France right now? This is crazy,” Fred Wright of Bahrain-Victorious commented after the stage, his face covered in slick, shiny dust. “I’m happy to have survived. This was the one stage I was most nervous for. The fourth sector I was off the back at that point and the gravel was so loose.”

The peloton always had known ahead of Sunday’s stage that it was going to be a brutal day, but few expected the gravel to have such a severe impact on their ability to, at the most basic level, ride their bikes at all. On the second sector, a pinch point at the narrow start to the white road caused riders to slow down so much that it became impossible to keep traction on the gravel. The result was riders in the peloton of the world’s biggest bike race being forced to jump off and run in their cleats, slipping and sliding over loose rocks with very little skill or grace at all.

Image: ASO/Charly Lopez

“On the second one people were running and I was quite proud of myself that I managed to hold it up. At one point I was like here we go again, this is Koppenberg-esque,” Wright continued with a wry smile. “Your head kind of goes out of it, you think: I’m in the Tour de France and I can’t even ride my bike. I’m really pleased this day is out of the way.”

John Degenkolb of Team dsm-firmenich PostNL told a similar story to Wright – the German rider had faced punctures, mechanicals and also found himself having to walk with his bike on the steep sections of gravel. 

“The middle part of the race was ridiculously hard. In the end that’s how it went. By the time I actually fought my way into the race, on the first climb I was far back and we got back to the peloton and I got a good rhythm but then I got a flat tyre, so my race was over,” Degenkolb said. “I also had to walk because the difficulty of the gravel was just a bit unexpected sometimes. At one moment you had grip and there was no loose gravel but a few metres later you were going deep into the stones and you straightaway lost traction. But it’s all part of the game.”

Each rider had their own story to tell about what went well and what didn’t during 199 kilometres that made up one of the hardest stages of this year’s Tour so far. Some relished the chaos and skill required to finesse the undulating, tricky terrain, while others will go into the rest day dreaming of their return to smooth tarmac.

Image: ASO/Billy Ceusters

“This is the stuff I love. It was like a mountain bike race on the road. I loved it out there today. Unfortunately, it was not the win, but I’m back in the mix and had much better legs today,” Michael Matthews of Jayco-Alula commented. “I think it is a good sign that the form is there. Yesterday’s stage was a bit of a missed opportunity, so today was a bit of redemption.”

The likes of Matthews were able to throw themselves full throttle into the treacherous gravel sections because they aren’t focusing on the general classification in this year’s Tour de France. For those thinking about trying not to lose time as two weeks of mountains approach, stage nine was one of the most nerve-wracking and stressful prospects that the race organisers could have thrown at them. Yellow jersey wearer ,Tadej Pogačar, seemed almost lost for words at the severity of the terrain.

“I was not expecting that the gravel would be so… gravelly. There were so many rocks and sand so it was really difficult to ride on,” the UAE Team Emirates rider commented after the stage.

Those who were able to solely battle for the stage win today empathised with the plight of their colleagues who were simply trying to get through the day unscathed.

“I’m not a GC guy so for me this was good fun. It wasn’t too stressful for us but for the GC guys I can imagine it’s a lot worse,” Jake Stewart of Israel-Premier Tech said at the finish. “I saw [Jan] Tratnik have to change the bike with [Jonas] Vingegaard on the second or third sector and UAE drilled it at the same time. Some sectors were worse than others and some you had some really deep gravel which made it harder to keep it upright. It’s been a hard day today. Other than the first two days this has been the hardest.”

To the relief of many, the white roads of Troyes will now disappear into the distance as the Tour de France rolls on towards Nice. The peloton’s stories of the chaos and drama they faced on the day that the Tour’s route planners decided to send them off-road will radiate through team buses for days to come. Mechanics will clean dusty bikes and stain remover will get to work on white jerseys, riders will sleep and recover on the rest day, ready to go again on Tuesday. The gravel is done, and, in the words of Fred Wright: “What a relief.”

Cover image: ASO/Charly Lopez

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