2016 Anglefort

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Today’s photo shows Geraint Thomas, the Welsh Team Sky cyclist, getting a wheel change in Anglefort from the Mavic neutral service mechanic during Stage 15 of the Tour de France. Witnessing a wheel change at a cycling race is a rare event and it is a bit like catching a ball after a home run at a baseball game, so we were incredibly lucky to get to see a cyclist getting his wheel changed in such a big race. But this wheel change was no ordinary wheel change as after the stage was over, Geraint tweeted his annoyance with Mavic and in particular, the driver of their service vehicle about what he did after this wheel change. Professional cyclists are normally always on message and rarely ever tweet anything controversial. But that was not the case today as about an hour after Stage 15 had finished, Geraint  tweeted “Well today was the first time neutral service and the commissaire have flicked me after a mechanical”. Flicking normally means trying to knock a cyclist off his bike or it can mean trying to drop a cyclist by repeatedly attacking him but here I think Geraint means that the commissaire and neutral service vehicles refused to help pace him back to the peloton rather than implying they tried to knock him off his bike. His tweet was directed at @letour, which is the official Tour de France Twitter account and sarcastically included the hashtag #chapeau which is French for “well done”.

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Geraint Thomas’s tweet after Stage 15. To be perfectly clear, Geraint’s tweet wasn’t about the wheel change but rather what happened after the wheel change. The wheel change was like Formula One and was over within about 10 seconds which is fast for a back wheel change. The Mavic mechanic then pushed Geraint for about 20 yards so that he could get up to speed, something he didn’t have to do. So the Mavic mechanic could not have done his job any better and was not to blame for what happened next. Normally, cyclists will use the draft from a vehicle to catch up back to the peloton after a puncture or a mechanical. Technically, it is against the rules but the commissaires normally turn a blind eye so long as a cyclist does not hang on to a vehicle. But ever since Vincenzo Nibali was thrown off the Vuelta last year for getting a tow after he suffered a puncture, commissaires have been keeping a closer eye on what happens after a wheel or bike change. Perhaps, the Mavic driver didn’t want to incur the wrath of the commissaire and stayed behind Geraint after the wheel change eventhough Geraint kept waving at him to overtake him. Whatever the true story, Geraint’s tweet generated headlines the world over in the cycling press that evening and the next day.

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Stage 15 of the Tour de France. Our day had started much earlier at a campsite in Duignt on the shores of Lake Annecy studying the route of the today’s stage of the Tour de France. On paper, Stage 15 was one of the toughest of the whole 2016 Tour de France. With 6 categorized climbs, including the HC climb of the Grand Colombier, it was almost certain to test the leading riders to their limit. Normally, on the Tour de France roads are closed at about 10 o’clock so to see the Tour on the Grand Colombier, a journey of about 50 km, we would have had to leave our campsite around about dawn. Instead, we decided to watch the Tour at the nearest town to Duignt on today’s stage which was at Anglefort and which was only about 30 km away. Unusually, for the Tour de France the last 25 km or so was on a circuit so by going to Anglefort, we would get to see the race twice.

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Quite a crowd in Anglefort awaiting the arrival of the Tour de France. It was around 1 when we arrived in Anglefort. The Tour riders were only after setting off from Bourg-en-Bresse so it would be another 4 hours before they made it this far.

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Street message welcoming the Tour to l’Ain. Unlike the neighbouring departements of Isere and Savoy, the Tour de France rarely passes through Ain. So there were many flags and signs welcoming the race to this region of France.

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Youth cyclists on the circuit about 3 hours before the professionals were due to appear. There were lots of local cyclists, both girls and boys, being cheered on by the spectators on the circuit between Culoz and Anglefort. Their spin would certainly have given them an idea what it must be like to be a professional in the Tour de France.

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Team buses on their way to the finish at Culoz. Around about 2 o’clock, the team buses started going through Anglefort on their way to the finish at Culoz.

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Start of the cavalcade. Around about 3.30, the cavalcade started and it went on for about 20 minutes. It was 20 minutes of mayhem as we ran about trying to catch as much merchandise as possible. We had split up with 2 people on one side of the road and 2 on the other. This tactic paid off big time as we ended up with a pile of stuff.

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Pile of stuff from the cavalcade. Incredibly, our haul included 3 green Skoda hats something I had missed out on the year before. Carrefour hats are two a penny but Skoda hats are much rarer and harder to get. Last year, Festina were also giving out hats but they didn’t seem to have a van on this year’s Tour. We also got a pile of bags including a polka dot Carrefour one.

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Jarlinson Pantano (IAM Cycling) just ahead of Rafael Majka (Tinkoff). About an hour after the cavalcade, you could hear the helicopter getting louder as the leading riders approached Anglefort. I had been following the race on my phone and knew  that Pantano and Majka had broken clear of their breakaway companions on the Grand Colombier. But it still was incredible to see the speed at which they whooshed past us.

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Chris Froome (Team Sky) just behind Fabio Aru (Astana). About 7 minutes after Pantano and Majka had gone by, we could hear a 2nd helicopter which was following the Yellow Jersey. There was a group of about 30 cyclists with Chris Froome but the speed they were going, it was impossible to pick out individual riders.

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Geraint Thomas gets a wheel change just opposite us. It might sound silly but getting to witness a wheel change at a cycling race is a bit like catching a ball after a home run at a baseball game. There are people going to cycle races all their life and who have never ever seen a wheel change live. But when Geraint Thomas pulled in to get his back wheel changed after a mechanical, we couldn’t have been better placed to film it.

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Geraint had his wheel changed in no time at all. The wheel change was like Formula One and was over in about 10 seconds or so. Back wheels are trickier than front wheels to changed but the neutral Mavic mechanic replaced the wheel and had Geraint back on the road in 2 ticks of a lamb’s tail. So it was a huge surprise to read the cycling press the next day and see that this wheel change was making headlines all over the world.

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Main story on Cycling Weekly after Stage 15 of the Tour de France. Anyone reading this headline would think that Mavic had refused to change Geraint’s wheel. In actual fact, the opposite happened. Geraint could not have had his wheel changed any quicker. Cycling Weekly obviously hadn’t the full story and wrongly reported that Geraint may have crashed. Last year, on Stage 16 of the Tour de France, Geraint had crashed on the descent to Gap and lost about a minute on GC. So when he was missing from the peloton the first time they went through Culoz, I guess the rumour may have started among the press that he may have crashed again. But you can see from the video below that he didn’t crash but instead pulled up at the side of the road to get his back wheel changed.

Video of Geraint Thomas wheel change. To be perfectly honest, I can understand why Cycling Weekly were making such a big issue out of Geraint Thomas’s tweet and his wheel change.  On paper, the profile of Stage 15 promised fireworks but the stage had ended with only TJ van Garderen of the leading riders losing any time. So the press were stuck for a story and when Geraint Thomas tweeted his displeasure with the Mavic service vehicle after the stage, Cycling Weekly would have went “Halleliujah” and ran with a clickbait headline implying the Mavic neutral vehicle hadn’t helped Geraint after he suffered a mechanical. But Geraint’s tweet was not about the wheel change but what happened after the wheel change. Apparently, the commisaire would not let the Mavic vehicle overtake Geraint to help bring him back to the peloton.

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Geraint’s Tweet and how it was reported by Cycling Weekly. I can understand why Geraint was annoyed not to get any help from the Mavic vehicle. But many drivers are thrown off the Tour de France every year for dangerous manoeuvres, and had the Mavic driver disobeyed the commisaire, he risked the same thing happening him. Once you are thrown off the Tour, you are never allowed back on it again if you are a driver. The punishment is very draconian so it is quite understandable that the Mavic driver didn’t want to incur the wrath of the commisaire. But having said that, had it been Romain Bardet or another top French rider who suffered  a mechanical, then the Mavic driver almost certainly would have tried to pace him back to the peloton.

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Geraint Thomas and team-mate Sergio Henao on 2nd lap of circuit. Geraint had been in the peloton on the first circuit in Anglefort and the wheel change would have cost him at least 30 seconds. Geraint eventually finished in 33rd place on today’s stage and ended up losing about 6 minutes to the other top riders. Chris Froome had 3 teammates during the first circuit but only Wout Poels finished in the peloton with him. It is possible that Sergio Henao dropped back to help Geraint and they both finished with the same time. The untimely wheel change meant Thomas dropped from 15th to 17th place overall and he now had no chance of a Top 10 finish which had been his aim at the start of the Tour. He was now over 7 minutes behind Fabio Aru in 10th place despite starting the day only 2 minutes behind him. He eventually finished the Tour a week later in Paris in 15th place, the same position he had finished in 2015. But after beating Alberto Contador to win the 2016 Paris Nice, he would have been disappointed not to have improved upon his 2015 Tour result and only for that unfortunate wheel change in Anglefort, he almost certainly would have. So you can understand his disappointment at the outcome of today’s stage and this would explain why he tweeted about his displeasure with Mavic’s support vehicle.

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Mavic service vehicle on 2nd lap of circuit. The Mavic neutral service vehicle went past us on the 2nd circuit about 2 minutes after Pantano and Majka and about 7 minutes ahead of Geraint Thomas. It was just behind Tom Slagter of Team Cannondale-Drapac, who eventually finished 10th and was about a minute ahead of the peloton containing Chris Froome and Nairo Quintana. So the Mavic neutral service vehicle must have first overtook Geraint and then the peloton on the Lacets du Grand Colombier, which was the last climb of today’s stage. Slagter’s team-mate, Pierre Rolland was about a minute ahead of Slagter so I guess that is why the neutral vehicle was following Slagter as the team car would have been behind Rolland. But with riders spread out all over the road, it is almost an impossible task as to who you follow if you are a neutral service vehicle. Mavic specialize in making wheels but have been providing neutral service vehicles at all the big races since 1973. But this year’s Tour would have been by far their worst for publicity after giving Chris Froome a bike with unsuitable pedals on Mont Ventoux and then a few days later, being dissed by one of Froome’s team-mates on Twitter. Next year, with disc brakes being allowed during the Tour de France, it is going to get even more complicated for Mavic and their neutral service vehicles. At the moment, Mavic only have to transport 2 types of back wheel. They supply their own brand of wheel called Cosmic fitted with either a Shimano or Campagnolo gear cassette. But next year, they will have to transport at least 3 types of disc wheels as each manufacturer has a slightly different thru-axle design. Most teams will probably still use rim brakes so that means Mavic will need 5 types of spare back wheels and 4 types of spare front wheels. After the debacle on Mont Ventoux, they will almost certainly also need to transport bikes with 5 types of pedals. A bit like Roy Scheider in Jaws who famously said “We are going to need a bigger boat”, I think Mavic next year are going to need a bigger vehicle to transport all the extra bikes and wheels.