“The day's [race] has been called due to adverse weather conditions,” reads one dispatch from the organisers of the Tour de France. “Rider times have been taken at Col de l'Iseran.”
It was shaping up to be an amazing race with the rider ranked second overall at the start of the stage, Egan Bernal, going on the attack near the top of the 2,770 metre high pass – the highpoint of the 106th edition.
He crested the Iseran climb in first place and held an advantage of around one minute over a group that contained his team mate and last year’s champion, Geraint Thomas, as well as a small collective of other ‘GC’ specialists.
By that time, the halcyon Tour French riders were enjoying was in tatters.
Early in the stage, the darling of cycling in France, Thibaut Pinot abandoned, citing muscle pain in his left quadricep. That was already a big blow for the host nation, with Pinot ranked fifth overall after 18 stages – and, until his injury became public, one of the favourites for the title.
But things went from curious to utterly bizarre as riders sped down the treacherously steep and technical descent of the Iseran, expecting to race another 37.5km to the site of the finish in Tignes, at an altitude of 2,113 metres.
Race cancelled: Bernal takes over lead
It was already a rarity in modern cycling to see someone vying for the yellow jersey make a move so early in a mountain stage.
In recent years, the GC specialists usually wait until the final climb of a mountain stage before lashing out with an attack. But Bernal had to go early to; his deficit to the leader of the race for 14 of the 21 stages - Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe - a minute and 30 seconds.
Although Alaphilippe battled gallantly to limit his losses, he arrived at the top of the Col de l’Iseran with a deficit of two minutes and seven seconds.
At the top of the Iseran, the Colombian 22-year-old was dubbed ‘Virtual Leader’ of the Tour de France.
The concept of a ‘Virtual Leader’ relates to the situation on the road: if a rider has made up his deficit in the cumulative collection of time for all stages in the Tour… but it has never hinted that this would be the actual result, not until stage 19 of the 2019 race.
Ice on the road causes confusion
What turned a dramatic stage into an unprecedented one is the effect of a massive hail storm in the French Alps. Although dry where the riders were competing, high in the mountains of the Savoie department, extreme conditions unfolded further down the mountain.
A day after high temperatures brutalised the peloton of the Tour – with riders competing in almost 40 degrees Celsius – hail brought the race to a halt.
Race organisers decided to stop the race well before the riders arrived at a scene of white: hail stones piled up, blanketing the road. Meanwhile, the weight of the downpour caused mudslides which effectively closed the roads.
The commissaires from the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale, cycling’s governing body) announced a halt to the race and the effective finish line, the site of the ‘Souvenir Henri Desgrange’, the title given to the highest point of the Tour de France.
In 2019, it just happened to be the Col de l’Iseran – the exact place where the Colombian ‘altitude native’, Bernal, was on his own in the lead of the stage.
Awaiting official results
There was confusion in the peloton as official vehicles attempted to alert the riders of the cancellation, that the line atop the Col d’Iseran was now effectively the finish.
The message got through to Geraint Thomas and others in his group earlier than others.
After cresting the Iseran, Bernal – who earned a time bonus of eight seconds (as part of a ‘Bonus Point’ initiative introduced by Tour organisers last year and continued in 2019) – set off for what he expected was the next major challenge.
The 22-year-old Colombian held his advantage over Alaphilippe, attempting to increase his gains but he was joined by Mitchelton-Scott’s Simon Yates on the descent.
The pair sped onward towards where the ice-covered road awaited when motorcycles carrying officials rode alongside the cyclists and tried to explain the circumstances of what lay ahead.
Initially Bernal didn’t seem to understand, so he kept pedalling, kept racing… kept trying to increase his advantage. Yates then responded by racing after him but the official on the motorcycle continued to try explaining the bizarre circumstances.
Eventually Bernal and Yates ceased their efforts and tried to come to terms with what was happening.
Confusion from unprecedented scenes
Today Bernal has become only the third Colombian in history to wear the yellow jersey. He moves up from second overall to first place with only two stages to come, the tough mountain stage to Val Thorens on Saturday and the procession to Paris on Sunday.
The delayed podium presentations confirmed the Colombian's ascension to yellow, with Alaphilippe 45 seconds in arrears and team-mate Thomas a minute and two seconds behind.