Chris Froome was just about to answer the final question in his post-stage grilling by the media on the Col de Porte when his face was lit up by lightning flashing above the buttress-like Chartreuse peaks towering over the Critérium du Dauphiné summit finish. Almost instantly, a deafening clap of thunder announced the arrival of a frighteningly powerful storm.
Within minutes, the road was awash with large hailstones, forcing most of those at the summit to run for any shelter they could find – marquees, trees and, in the case of race leader Primoz Roglic's partner Lora Klinc and their young son, the car of this correspondent.
Despite the battering torrents of hail, the podium ceremony continued until the inflatable arch covering the stage started to collapse as Egan Bernal was receiving the white jersey.
Meanwhile, three kilometres down the road, the gruppetto was still making its way to the finish and reached it amidst apocalyptic conditions. The most arresting image of this assault by the elements was of the red polka dot-like impact marks that the hailstones had left on the back of Deceuninck-QuickStep's Tim Declercq.
"I think for one day I had one of the most famous backs in the world, or at least on the internet. I do get red quite easily, but it was quite something," the Belgian said at the stage 3 start in Corenc.
"The last 2km of the stage were quite hectic. I've never experienced anything like that before on the bike. It did provide some nice images, but the marks on my back did clear up pretty quickly. There's no sign of them at all this morning. There's no pain at all, although I did skip the massage on my back last night."
Declercq said that if the storm had arrived when the riders were further out on the course, the race organisation would have needed to react, but added there was little they could do in this case.
"If it had happened 50km from the finish I think we would have had to get into the cars," he said.
"It was OK yesterday because it was for just 2km, and of course the organisation couldn't do anything about it. The fact that we only had to ride that short distance made it bearable. We were looking for shelter but there wasn't any, so I thought the best move was to keep going straight and get to the bus as fast as possible."
His teammate James Knox comes from the Lake District in North-West England, where the weather conditions can often be harsh, but he admitted he'd never experienced anything like yesterday's storm.
"If it wasn't punishment enough being 25 minutes down in the gruppetto and not really enjoying the day, that storm really made it a miserable day," Knox said.
The LATE night show: If you still got the appetite for a horror movie : ” When all hail breaks loose”... Including narration by our riders. Enjoy. #CriteriumduDauphine pic.twitter.com/HY3gosjWZ3August 13, 2020
"It hit when we were about 2-3 kilometres from the line. The hailstones were about the size of marbles. I've seen photos of hailstones that big and even bigger, but to be out on the bike being whacked by them wasn't pleasant."
Like Declercq, Knox didn't come through the storm unscathed.
"Everyone saw the photo of Tim, but I also had a completely red back. And if you look on my helmet you can see that all of the polystyrene bits are all dinted," said the Englishman.
"It was just a matter of survival getting to the line and there was enough ice on the road that it was actually quite hard to ride. When I got to the line, I didn't know where the bus was and I didn't want to risk going downhill [looking for it] so I made a beeline for the VIP tent right on the finish line. There were about 20 riders from the gruppetto in there."
Other riders sustained more serious injuries. Israel Start-Up Nation leader Dan Martin suffered a fracture in his back when he crashed. Trek-Segafredo's Juan Pedro López crashed on the final descent, fracturing his hand, and then rode to the finish with one hand on the bars, hoping that his injury might not be that serious.
"He's so determined to do well, to help the team in any way that he can that he rode through that crazy storm one-handed. It's a real shame that his injury has prevented him from starting today," said Trek-Segafredo press officer Eva Marisa.
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Peter Cossins has written about professional cycling since 1993 and is a contributing editor to Procycling. He is the author of The Monuments: The Grit and the Glory of Cycling's Greatest One-Day Races (Bloomsbury, March 2014) and has translated Christophe Bassons' autobiography, A Clean Break (Bloomsbury, July 2014).
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