Chris Froome (Sky) can smile about it now but at the time it was terrible. Mont Ventoux has, in more ways than one, played host to its share of the unbelievable over the years at the Tour de France, but the sight of the yellow jersey divorced from his bike and running up its slopes on stage 12 was a moment of unprecedented absurdity even for the Giant of Provence.
Barely a kilometre from the finish line at Chalet Reynard, Froome was extending his advantage atop the overall standings in the company of Richie Porte (BMC) and Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo), when their progress was abruptly halted by a television motorbike that braked in front of them, seemingly to avoid spectators who were crowding the road.
The trio were unable to avoid falling, but while Porte and Mollema were able to disentangle themselves relatively quickly and remount, Froome got to his feet only to discover his bike had been rendered unusable when it was struck by a following motorbike.
With his team car blocked further down the mountain, Froome's better judgement was clouded by panic. Leaving his bike on the road, Froome jogged against the gradient for the best part of 100 metres, his cleats sliding on tarmac as his incredulous rivals rode past in ones and twos.
"Mont Ventoux is full of surprises. Almost in the last kilometre, the motorbike in front of us braked suddenly, and the three of us – Richie, Bauke Mollema and me – we crashed into the motorbike. There was another motorbike behind us that ran over my bike and broke. So like that, I had to go by foot," Froome told France Télévisions afterwards.
"I thought to myself: 'I don't have a bike.' I knew that the car with our mechanic was five minutes behind and too far back. So I was going to have to run."
A Mavic neutral service bike slowed down but it carried only spare wheels, at a moment when Froome was doubtless prepared to offer his kingdom for a bike. A neutral service car later arrived on the scene, but the yellow bike it provided was too small, and there was an air of slapstick about Froome as his shoes slipped from the pedals while he attempted to ride off.
By the time the Sky team car eventually pulled up alongside Froome and sat him aboard his spare bike, it seemed that the Tour had been turned on its head. He crossed the line a minute and half down on the rest of the podium contenders, his hand half-raised in a mixture of protest and disappointment.
Immediately after the stage, the organiser circulated a provisional results sheet that showed Adam Yates (Orica-BikeExchange) atop the overall standings, with Froome down in 6th place, 53 seconds back. Almost an hour after the stage, however, it was telling that Yates had still to be called to the podium to receive the yellow jersey. After the lengthiest of deliberations, the race commissaires took the decision to stop the clock for the general classification at the precise moment when Froome crashed.
Instead of losing ground, Froome's overall advantage has been extended and he now leads Yates by 47 seconds and Nairo Quintana (Movistar) by 54. The incident and the decision will raise a thousand questions, but to the disappointment of the Tour's press corps, Froome limited himself to answering three from French television, eschewed the yellow jersey wearer's usual press conference.
"I'm happy with the commissaires' decision. I think it was correct," Froome said by the podium. "Thanks to them and thanks to the organisation of the Tour de France."
- Tour de France stage 12 - Finish line quotes
- Tour de France: Crashed, Froome forced to run up Mont Ventoux
- Tour de France: Froome knocked from bike on Mont Ventoux, keeps yellow
Brailsford: It's right they hold the gap
After his startling, seated acceleration with three kilometres remaining, Froome had seemed destined to gain up to a minute on Quintana et al, and Sky manager Dave Brailsford welcomed the decision of the race jury to calculate the general classification using the time gaps at the point of the crash.
"You could see that Chris, Richie and Mollema were the strongest riders today, they opened a gap and I think it's right that they hold the gap they held with a little more than a kilometre to go. I think that's right and sensible," said Brailsford.
It appears that the television motorbike that caused Froome, Porte and Mollema's crash had been forced to stop by the sheer volume of spectators spilling into the centre of the road, but Brailsford refused to apportion blame in the immediate aftermath of the incident.
"I think that every time we come to Mont Ventoux, there's a surprise. Everybody saw it, it was an accident. Sometimes accidents happen. I think the jury and the organisation played the fair play card and I think that was just and correct," he said. "Nobody tried to do that on purpose. You have to stay calm. Fair play has won out, Chris still has the jersey and I think that's right. Maybe next year he'll do the Paris Marathon…"
For now, Froome and Sky's thoughts will be fixed firmly on Friday's rolling 37.5-kilometre time trial to La Caverne du Pont-d'Arc, where the yellow jersey will surely expect to augment his advantage still further over Yates and Quintana.
"We're happy to still have the yellow jersey. We'll sleep well and we'll have a go again tomorrow," Brailsford said. "These were exceptional circumstances and there are times when you need to be flexible and make an exceptional decision. I think that fair play won out."