Cycling History

Le Tour de France: Stage 15 – Bagnères-de-Bigorre-Luz Ardiden, 2003

Somewhat to my surprise the official Race Regulations of Le Tour, in English at least, only run to thirteen pages in total which is remarkably concise for an event that lasts three weeks and has so many potential variables. The regulations set out what may and may not be done, ranging from the requirement for each rider to display their race number on their clothing and bicycle, where they can remove waterproofs, when, where, and how they can take on refreshments, the awarding of bonuses and the handing down of penalties, how the cut-off time is calculated, bans on riders using mobile phones during the race, and, interestingly, the strict forbidding of any collusion of any sort between riders from different teams.

Interesting because pretty much every breakaway in Le Tour starts with riders from different teams colluding together to make the breakaway work. Not to mention the individual pacts and deals between riders on the road, and between teams as they jockey to preserve their best interests. In other words Le Tour’s organizers are happy to break their own rules or turn a blind eye to infringements as and when it suits them.

On many occasions they do so under pressure, as happened in 1991 when the riders staged a strike at the start of stage 12 in protest against the new regulation requiring they wear helmets during mountain stages. Under pressure to get the days racing started the organizers relented, allowing the riders to continue without helmets.

On other occasions Le Tour breaks its rules in recognition of a rider’s performance or their spirit. In 1985 Phil Sherwen crashed in the streets of Epinal within the first kilometre of stage 10. While he may now be one of the English speaking world’s top cycling pundits, during his racing career Sherwen was a humble domestique. With the leaders intent on racing that day Sherwen was left on the ground. For the next six hours he rode solo with only a police motorcycle for company, nursing his cuts and bruises while covering 204 kilometres and crossing six mountain passes before reaching the finish 23 minutes outside the cut-off time. Impressed by his determination and courage the race officials overturned the rulebook and reinstated Sherwen, who went on to finish Le Tour in 141st position.

Equally important to Le Tour’s official rules are the unwritten rules of cycling and of Le Tour, those that cover etiquette and behaviour, or the justness or rightness of an action that may be officially sanctioned, or at least not regulated against, but that breaks an established and accepted code that operates alongside the written rules. In Le Tour many of these unwritten rules cover situations when riders may be temporarily inconvenienced. When you’re facing up to 6 hours in the saddle and taking on litres of fluid to stay hydrated nature inevitably takes its course. Attacking while another rider is taking a leak or a group of riders have stopped for a pause pipi is a major breach of the unwritten rules, as is attacking at a feeding station while the majority of riders have slowed down to grab their musettes and sift through the contents to decide what they want to consume and what to chuck.

Riders who have crashed or suffered a mechanical can draft behind team cars or take a ‘sticky bottle’ to pull them back to the peloton and organizers will turn a blind eye, as long it’s not too blatant. Riders with birthdays on that day’s stage will be allowed to go off the front for a period in the spotlight. Riders who will be passing through their home town or village are also allowed to lead the bunch or to ride ahead to meet their family at their roadside. It’s a respectful nod from the peloton to one of their own. Of course, in return the rider so honoured cannot use the temporary advantage to try to win the stage.

Teams with the same interest will work together to bring down a break, despite the ban on collusion. And it’s not unknown for cash, or other incentives, to be traded on the road to secure the help of other riders or teams. In breakaways riders with different goals may collude so that all benefit, the mountain classification jersey hopeful being allowed to take the points on offer in return for not competing the sprint for the stage win for example.

Then there are the unwritten rules surrounding the yellow jersey. In a nutshell it’s not acceptable to take advantage of the yellow jersey’s misfortune if the wearer suffers a crash or a mechanical, or is caught out by an unforeseen event such as a closing level crossing barrier, a large crash in front of them, or a road block of striking French workers. And it’s traditional that on the final stage into Paris the yellow jersey is sacrosanct, even if their margin of advantage is only a few seconds that could be gained in a bold attacking move.

On the whole riders respect these unwritten rules and woe betide those who don’t. The battle between Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich on stage 15 of the 2003 Tour is still the stuff of cycling legend, whatever one may think of either rider following the revelations of recent years. By stage 15 Armstrong was in yellow but just 15 seconds ahead of Ullrich in second place. With 5 categorized climbs, including the Col d’Aspin, Col du Tourmalet and the mountain finish at Luz Ardiden the 159.5 kilometre stage was crucial to both of them.

Despite a brief flurry of excitement on the Tourmalet as Ullrich created a short-lived gap on Armstrong, stage 15 had little to report as far as the general classification was concerned until the final climb of the day. With just over 10 kilometres to go Armstrong made his move, a short acceleration creating a small gap back to Ullrich. As Armstrong pressed on following a line that brought him close to the spectators lining the road his brake lever snagged the handle of, ironically, an official Tour de France musette carried by a child sending Armstrong crashing to the ground. Armstrong’s fall also brought Iban Mayo down, while Ullrich was able to take evasive action thanks in large part to the extra fraction of time he had to respond due to the small gap that Armstrong and Mayo had opened up on him.

Jan Ullrich manoeuvres around Lance Armstrong and Iban Mayo on the slopes of Luz Ardiden.

Jan Ullrich manoeuvres around Lance Armstrong and Iban Mayo on the slopes of Luz Ardiden.

As Armstrong got back to his feet Ullrich rode on, clearly accelerating away from the immediate aftermath of the crash. Armstrong remounted and set off again with the help of an almighty shove from team mechanic Chris Van Roosbroek. Having made contact with Ullrich, Armstrong then launched his second attack and rode away to take the stage by 40 seconds from Iban Mayo who pipped Ullrich into second place after riding on his wheel for the last few kilometres.

The question, hotly debated at the time and still open to debate today, is whether Ullrich took advantage of Armstrong’s misfortune by attacking when the yellow jersey was down, thereby breaking the unwritten rules of cycling? At the end of the stage both Armstrong and his directeur sportif, Johann Bruyneel, congratulated Ullrich on showing his sportsmanship and respect for the yellow jersey by waiting. Armstrong’s tune was to quickly change however as he began to publicly question whether Ullrich had waited.

Looking at the TV footage it’s not difficult to see why many people think that Ullrich didn’t wait for Armstrong. On a 13.4 kilometre climb with an average gradient of 7.6 per cent Ullrich still looks to be riding faster than most of us can manage on the flat, and he doesn’t appear to appreciably slow down until Tyler Hamilton rides to the front making his ostentatious hand gestures asking the Ullrich group to slow down and wait for Armstrong. Later Mayo was to comment that he thought Hamilton was more motivated to slow the group because he was having a bad day rather than for any real concern for Armstrong.

Personally I think Ullrich did wait for Armstrong. Approximately 1 minute and 53 seconds elapsed between Armstrong’s crash and him getting back to Ullrich. If Ullrich had been riding hard it would have taken Armstrong much longer to get back on, if he was able to at all. While Armstrong’s winning attack left him with a 40 second margin by the finish line, all that time was gained in the initial acceleration that Ullrich was unable to follow. Once Armstrong had settled back into a rhythm Ullrich was able to hold the gap pretty much constantly. This suggests that had Ullrich genuinely attacked Armstrong when he crashed he would have opened up a sufficient gap to claw back his 15 second deficit to Armstrong and take yellow at the summit.

Others. of course will completely disagree. In the event the what’s, if’s and but’s were all made moot during the rain soaked final individual time trial. With 1 minute 5 seconds to gain to take yellow Ullrich had little choice but to throw caution to the winds. A crash with 12 kilometres to go ruined any hope of challenging Armstrong for first place in the general classification, leaving Armstrong able to ride a more careful race safe in the knowledge that he all he needed to do was get round the course without incident to seal his fifth Tour victory. David Millar won the time trial, coming in first 9 seconds ahead of Tyler Hamilton and 14 seconds ahead of Armstrong in third, with Ullrich fourth 26 seconds down on the British rider.

In hindsight we now know that the first four placed riders that day were all guilty of taking performance enhancing drugs during their careers. A year afterwards Millar was arrested in Biarritz; Hamilton was suspended in 2005, finally confessing in 2011 to a long history of doping; Ullrich confessed to blood doping in 2013 after years of speculation and a retroactive ban that had been imposed in 2012 that also stripped him of his titles since 2005; and of course Armstrong confessed in 2013 following USADA’s exposure of his career long use of drugs and as the ringleader of “the most sophisticated, professionalized and successful doping program that sport has ever seen.”


2 comments on “Le Tour de France: Stage 15 – Bagnères-de-Bigorre-Luz Ardiden, 2003

  1. kiathuang
    July 21, 2015

    Excellent article. It seems perfectly reasonable that given Armstrong took under 2 minutes to catch back up to Ulrich, that Ulrich himself did not take advantage of it. At worst he was riding tempo, which is a perfectly acceptable option within the unwritten rule.

    On the “the Tour is won on the penultimate day” unwritten rule, which other stage races is this also true of?


    • aaroncripps
      July 21, 2015

      As far as I know the ‘rule’ applies to all Grand Tours, though interestingly when Chris Froome was just 13 seconds behind Juan José Cobo in the 2011 Vuelta both riders took the view that it wasn’t over when interviewed on the night before the last stage; Froome stating “I’m going to continue fighting for overall victory,” and Cobo commenting “mathematically it’s not over, and Froome has got the right to fight on right until the end.” As it turned out neither rider did anything to change the status quo on the final stage.

      One week stage races are a different kettle of fish with many examples of overall victory taken on the last day of racing.

      There’s also a practical reason for the ‘rule’. With several sprinters teams gung ho for a victory, the leader’s jersey team prepared to mark any moves, and the absence of any terrain likely to cause significant time gaps, it’s very unlikely that any rider in second or third place will be able to make up even a handful of seconds.

      Liked by 1 person

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