Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme has announced that the ascent of Mont Ventoux at the end of stage 12 of the race will be shortened by six kilometres due to winds in excess of 100kph at the summit of the Giant of Provence.
The finish of Thursday's stage will be at Chalet Reynard, situated just as the forestry gives way to the more exposed road that leads to the summit. The final ascent will thus be 10 kilometres in length rather than 15, though the overall average gradient will rise slightly, to 9%.
"There were gusts measured at 104kph, and we would run the risk of having riders blown off their bikes as soon as they came out of the forest. And according to the forecast from Météo France, the wind will be even stronger tomorrow and the temperature will only be 4 degrees at the summit," Prudhomme said in Montpellier on Wednesday.
Rumours that the ascent of Mont Ventoux would be truncated – or even removed from the route altogether – were already circulating at the start of stage 11 in Carcassonne, and ASO subsequently confirmed that a final decision on the matter would be taken by close of business on Wednesday.
ASO drew criticism in March when stage 3 of Paris-Nice had to be abandoned midway through due to heavy snowfall, and with that episode fresh in his mind - not to mention the vast logistics involved in the construction of a Tour finish area – Prudhomme resolved to make a decision on the eve of the Tour's visit to Mont Ventoux.
"We can't set up two finish lines. We're not going to play poker by saying 'Let's see tomorrow whether we put it higher or lower,'" Prudhomme said. "I think it was the right decision to take.
"Finishing at Chalet Reynard is traditionally a Paris-Nice finale, but tomorrow the weather is going to be like March, so maybe it's appropriate."
The shortening of the Ventoux marks the first significant alteration to a mountain stage of the Tour since 1996, when the leg to Sestriere was reduced to just 46 kilometres due to heavy snow in the Alps.
"No, it's not a disappointment," Prudhomme said. "We saw the riders arriving at the finish at Arcalis in the hailstones, then they came down the descent of the Envalira in the fog, so I think it's the decision of a responsible organiser."
The high winds could make for a frenetic afternoon of racing long before the peloton hits the lower slopes of the Ventoux, with the minor ascents of the Côte de Gordes and Col des Trois Termes the only climbs to break up the long flat haul from Montpellier.
Prudhomme insisted, too, that while the climb of the Ventoux has been shortened, it has not been truncated beyond recognition. "There might be more of a battle on the shorter climb," he said. "Pay attention! Ten kilometres of climbing at nine percent, that's not nothing, you know…"
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Froome and Quintana on the change
The final two kilometres before Chalet Reynard average 7.5%, slightly shallower than the final approach to the summit, but the steep sections of 9 and 10% gradients after the Virage Saint-Estève are now significantly closer to the finish line. In years past, the attacking on the Ventoux has often only begun in earnest on the exposed moonscape towards the summit, but Chalet Reynard finales makes for a deviation from the traditional script.
Chris Froome (Sky) won atop Mont Ventoux on the Tour's last visit in 2013, and the yellow jersey was alongside Prudhomme when the race director announced the alteration to the route live on French television on Wednesday afternoon.
"I was looking forward to the Ventoux because it's the most iconic climb in this year's race, but there are gale-force winds at the top so it wouldn't have been safe," Froome said, later adding that he did not believe the stage would be any easier as a result.
"To be honest, I don't think it really changes too much. The climb up until Chalet Reynard is very hard in any case. And the stage is still almost 200 kilometres [178km - ed.]. It's very hard, and it could be split to pieces by the wind before the climb. If anything, it's going to be an even more intense stage because it's shorter."
Froome's chief rival Nairo Quintana (Movistar) placed second on Mont Ventoux in 2013 and the Colombian – who raced with a modicum of caution in the Pyrenees – admitted that he was disappointed not to be racing all the way to the summit of the Giant of Provence.
"It's a pain, a shame if we can't go to the top because it's a great climb that suits my characteristics really well," Quintana said.