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Downhill to the line in the Tour de France: Is it worth it?

Stages finishing on a descent make for spectacular viewing. But is it right for race organisers to design in additional danger?

Stage 9 of the 2017 Tour de France provided the most exciting and eventful day of Grand Tour racing most cycling fans have seen in many years. It also saw multiple crashes, with both Richie Porte (BMC Racing) and Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) among others now out of the race as a result.

Porte's crash in particular – on the high-speed descent of the Mont du Chat, just 20km from the finish in Chambery – has seen the Tour organisers criticised for including such a techincal descent at the end of a gruelling stage that included seven categorised climbs.

Sunday's stage is one of several on this year's Tour route that steer clear of the time-honoured Tour tradition of mountain stages finishing on a major summit in favour of a more unpredictable formula of following the day's major climbs with a mainly downhill run to the stage finish.

This is just one of several changes that have increasingly defined the modern Tour de France in recent years, others being the tendency for shorter stages, fewer time-trials and steep ramps to the finish on otherwise flat stages early in the race.

These changes are largely the result of the increasing professionalism of the teams, the increasing disparity between their budgets, the use of power meters, and the decrease in doping, all of which have made it harder and harder for organisers to engineer variety and intrigue over a three-week event now covered in its entirety by live TV broadcasts.

Deploying Classics-style stages in the early part of the race can provide unexpected results. Cutting the number of time-trial kilometres means the favorites can’t afford to rely so heavily on their ability against the clock. And short stages encourage the favourites to race each and every climb. Most controversial though is the increasing tendency to have mountain stages finish at the bottom of a decent, rather than atop a climb.

This almost guarantees drama. With the big teams frequently racing entire mountain days quick enough to prevent anyone escaping up the road, they've become increasingly draining for the riders, yet increasingly boring to watch. Ending on a downhill means the best descenders will always try their luck, and neutralizes some of the ability of the super teams to control the race.

It also means crashes. Hanging a finish line in front of a descending peloton practically guarantees an increase in accidents. This year the organisers of the Giro d’Italia were forced to withdraw their plans for a special fourth competition for the best descender after a huge backlash from riders and fans citing safety fears. Yet a GC position or a stage win is a far larger incentive to push on the downhills.

While most riders want to win, they also want to be able to ride their bike and earn a living. At the very least crashing jeopardises this. And at speeds often in excess of 100kmh the results can be far more serious. Riders have died on several previous occasions. It’s not for no reason that attacking on the descents has previously been something of a taboo.

Some stars been vocal in their criticism of the course design of this year's Tour de France. Dan Martin (Quick-Step Floors) was hit by Richie Porte (BMC) when the latter crashed on the descent of Le mont du Chat during Stage 9.

The crash ended Porte’s Tour, and saw Martin lose enough time that his GC challenge is likely over too. In a post stage interview he claimed that in the accident the race organisers 'got what they wanted'.

But while Martin's frustration is understandable having been caught up in a crash he had no part in causing, his criticism isn't entirely fair. While this year's Tour does indeed follow the pattern of the past few years in having more downhill finishes than was the norm before that, that 'norm' itself only stretches back for a few years.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the Tour regularly had as many downhill finishes as the peloton are facing this year, and sometimes more. Towns like Gap, Morzine and Bagneres-de-Luchon are among the most visited locations for Tour stage finishes, and all are only ever reached after descents off the mountains around them.

The real difference this year is not that there are more downhill finishes than normal, but rather that there are fewer true summit finishes, with only Stage 18's finish atop the Col d'Izoard fitting the bill of a 'classic' Tour mountain stage.

Skill and nerve

Even then, descending is an important part pro cycling, and always has been. While a rider’s physical fitness will determine the outcome of a climb, it’s a combination of skill and nerve that determines a descent. When descending weaker riders are invariably able to follow the faster riders’ wheels, until suddenly they’re not.

This high-stakes game is thrilling to watch. Better descenders will often try and intimidate their competitors. Sometimes a badly picked line will shatter the nerve of a rider midway down a decent and they'll suddenly find themselves losing time with every pedal stroke the rest of the way. Sometimes they crash.

Is it right for race organisers to encourage riders to take such risks on the descents? Should the weaker descenders simply accept their limitations and back off? It’s a difficult judgment call to make. No one wants to see more accidents, but fans crave excitement.

There is certainly a case to be made for the organisers being a bit more circumspect in which descents they choose to include in the Tour route than they were in plotting Stage 9's finale down into Chambery.

The descent of the Mont du Chat is steep, fast and technical, ridden under the cover of trees on a newly laid road surface, and has only been visited once in recent years by the WorldTour pros - in last month's Critérium du Dauphiné.

Compare that to last year's descent of the Col de Peyresourde, which saw Chris Froome make arguably the move of the entire Tour by attacking over the top of the climb and holding on for a famous solo win. That was a far more open descent on roads the pros know well, which arguably only made Froome's escape all the more impressive.

As for how to combat the increasingly formulaic nature of Grand Tour racing, the way forward is probably for organisers to sit down with the riders and come up with a way to make the racing less templated, without increasing the risk to the competitors.

There has been little appetite for withdrawing race radios among teams in recent years but providing only neutral race radio, rather than a direct line to each rider’s director sportif, would definitely shake things up. So too would ditching power meters. Even more radical would be limiting the budget of the biggest teams, who currently buy up the best climbers, only to employ them as domestiques.

Fans want to see wild and unpredictable racing. Until the biggest teams relinquish some of their control of the race the organisers will keep seeking to disrupt their plans in the interests of achieving this.

With three more stages featuring significant amounts of descending in the final phase of the stage still to come in this year’s Tour, there's sure to be plenty more high-speed drama to come over the roads of France in the next fortnight. Let's just hope there aren't too many more accidents.

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