The modern Passage du Gois was a feat of road building: it took five years to construct a crossing in the 1920s, with locals only able to work for a few hours at low tide. Contrast that to stage two of the 1999 Tour de France when the hopes of several contenders were gone in seconds.
“It was so frightening; the road was so slippery under our tires that we hesitated to so much as turn the wheel, and fought a crosswind that made it hard to keep the bike straight,” eventual race winner Lance Armstrong wrote in It’s Not About The Bike. “Behind us, other riders weren’t so lucky.”
Several hundred metres into their crossing, someone mid-peloton touched their brakes and set off a chain reaction on the narrow road turned treacherous by a mix of sand, seaweed and residual water. A surreal scene ensued as battered riders picked themselves out of the shallow end of the Atlantic. Among them were pre-race favourites Alex Zülle, Michael Boogerd and Tour of Italy winner Ivan Gotti, their chances of victory slip sliding away with their bicycles.
Boogerd had already suffered concussion in an earlier crash and got back to the bunch just in time for the Passage du Gois pile-up. His sense of humour remained intact. “It was just crazy. What they sent us over looked like the Thialf,” he said later, referring to the Amsterdam speed skating mecca. “I bet [legendary skater] Rintje Ritsma could have done a world record there.”
It could have been worse: just ask Jacky Durand. The attack-happy Frenchman dislocated his shoulder in the fall and went to change his bike when he realised that only one brake was working. Too late: he blundered into his stopped Lotto team car and while lying on the ground, Mapei’s Fiat slowly drove over his calf. (Unbelievably, the Frenchman went on to finish the stage and the Tour, winning the Prix de la combativité).
Though the Passage du Gois cropped up 120 kilometres from the finish, the front 70 riders kept their noses to the wind. Their 30-second lead grew to six minutes by the endpoint in Saint-Nazaire, where Rabobank directeur sportif Adri van Houwelingen decried the day’s flashpoint as “something that belongs in Paris-Roubaix, not the Tour.”
The damage was done. The tide of the 1999 edition had been turned within its first 48 hours, making the Passage du Gois professional cycling’s most famous – and let’s face it, probably only – submersible causeway.
Due to tide times, the 2018 Grand Depart from Noirmoutier cannot use the causeway and will instead exit the island via the modern bridge. But will there be a case of encore une fois for the Gois at the Tour? Organisers would surely not be foolhardy enough to make it part of a proper stage again. However, there is still a way to include this strange and spectacular thoroughfare. In 2011, during the neutralised rollout of the Grand Départ in Vendée, the route took the bunch both onto the island over the bridge and back iff it via the causeway (above). Thankfully, it was incident.
A version of this article was first published in Rouleur 18.4