Stage 4: Norwood to Uraidla (128.2km)
After a bad news winter, what with all the speculation and the let down, Stage 4 of the Santos Tour Down Under came prescribed to cycling fans like a tranquilizer. “Take this”, they should have said when introducing coverage on the FreeSport channel. “You’ll feel better.”
And we did. After an off-season that caused fans some tightness in the chest, and breathing difficulty, this was a bike race straight out of the good old days.
Suddenly, rather than dealing with asthma inhalers and doping scandals, we were transported back to a world before doping had been invented, or at least before it was acknowledged with more than a wink. And besides, we were eight in that world, and wouldn’t have understood anyway.
There was no need for salbutamol among our ranks though, for we had something far more powerful, and at the prescribed legal dose.
Three hours of Phil Liggett is all it takes to transport you back 30 years. Just when you think the voice of cycling had hung up his headphones, or been ushered out for younger voices who know how to pronounce “Tom-Jelte Slagter”, he was back, alongside the ever positive, and similarly ageless Paul Sherwen.
Of all bike-racing commentators, Phil Liggett remains the easiest to recognise in a noisy crowd, to anyone over about 35 anyway. The great grandfather of cycling commentary, Liggett must be on something to last so long, but he’s been clean for decades. Listening to his unshakable enthusiasm, he gets the job done on little more than bread, water, and with thanks to the official sponsorship partners of the Santos Tour.
I’m not sure Liggett ever went anywhere. He was surely on a TV network in some corner of the world. But those of us reliant on Eurosport got used to his absence. That was until he reappeared in glorious standard definition, on an obscure new channel FreeSport. The timing was perfect.
We got the winner we needed too.
Uncatchable by peers, unblemished in the press, Peter Sagan wears the World Champion stripes like super powers.
He rode hard up Norton Summit, and then out sprinted the pack to take his first win of the year, at speeds to make even non-interested family members, forced to watch cycling in January, exclaimed “look at him go!”
Even his rage at the crush afterwards felt right, as his body descended into dehydration, and his team fed him gummy bears while pouring water over his head. Like some of us, it’s a preference for the business of bike racing to be kept between the start and finish lines.
For Sagan the race ends at the finish line. All that other stuff, the interviews, the photos, the podium, doesn’t really fit into what his version of bike racing. Interviews are awkward, his temper flares on the ride back to doping control, and he eats gummy bears while his team pours down his neck. It’s all about that part of the job between the start and finish lines.
Which applies to a lot of cycling fans too for that matter.
So this was more like it. Not a classic as such, more a trip out with the grandparents, after a long running family argument, to buy us kids an ice cream. For a day at least we could all breathe easily.
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They appear as beautiful people; the purest of the pure, looking alike and raised on what must be a diet of alpine glacial water and soya beans. They’re fresh, and curiously single minded, as if programmed to detest fraternization (and probably procreation) in favour of purity, and service to a greater cause.
What do they call these super beings that live high up in the hills?
They’re called: “The people in Carrefour sponsored t-shirts who dash out at the end of mountain stages and catch exhausted riders”.
It’s all commendable stuff, if a little on the creepy side. But there they were again as one by one riders crossed the finish line at the top of the Cumbre del Sol.
Held first in what looks like a holding pen, they are released one by one, leaping out with unavoidable enthusiasm in time with the riders procession across the line. This is fine if there’s a gap, but a little dicey when three or four cross the line together. But the super beings ignore the dangers, and dash directly towards their assigned riders, grabbing them by the saddle, and relieving them of any need to peddle further.
With their single task complete, they return to their holding pen where we can only assume they are resealed in airtight containers and shipped off to wherever the next mountain finish might be. I’m guessing here, I can’t say for sure.
As for the riders, what they think is harder to fathom.
By the time they cross the line most of them are delirious anyway, having scaled a 20 per cent climb for longer than they would have liked, so probably welcome any kind of help. But then less weary riders might resent the arrival of a determined young man ready to grab his ass. It’s a fine line.
Not that these super beings stick around very long. Ironically they disappear after passing on the riders to their team’s soigneurs, usually of a body shape more familiar to the rest of us.
One day though, when sugar is banned and the shops sell only soya and mung beans, these super beings will be back, probably with powers of arrest, dressed in the same Carrefour t-shirts, and waiting for us at the finish line. They’ll take over the world.
You imagine Antwan Tolhoek had to break through some walls to get a slot on the Lotto Jumbo squad for the Vuelta a Espana. First there was the task of getting a slot on the Roompot team in 2016, then making the leap to the World Tour this season.
So maybe he was ready for the next one, albeit an invisible one that sent him cartwheeling over his handlebars on the opening Team Time Trial in Nimes. Then again perhaps he wasn’t.
Footage showed Tolhoek’s fate. Sitting fifth wheel in the Lotto Jumbo train he suddenly came to an abrupt halt, as if someone had inserted an invisible and immoveable pole into his front spokes. Over he went in an almost perfect forward role, bike still attached to his hands and feet, until he hit the concrete. He didn’t have time to wonder what had happened before team mate Floris De Tier, in the position behind him, rode over his head, before crashing himself.
For Tolhoek it was a case of what to think about first – the invisible wall, or the fact that his teammate De Tier, whose company he’d probably enjoyed only minutes before, had used his head as a power trainer.
But at least he had shock to think about. De Tier had only the looming concrete, the now unfortunate features of his teammates’s face, and then a difficult landing on hard ground to keep him busy. Not for him the oblivious nature of a sudden crash, the “what just happened?” daze that can be a blessing. Instead he had that agonising second spent fully aware that his world was about to become very painful.
Tolhoek’s was quickly back on his bike, in the manner of a ship wreck survivor grabbing a passing life jacket first and wondering what sank the boat later. It was quite the first taste of grand tour racing. De Tier meanwhile followed some way behind, unable to pin point exactly what moment in the last two minutes to curse.
Robin Carpenter had a problem, and not just that he was laying flat on the concrete.
The race was getting away from him, that much was true, but he’d banged his head and torn off half his jersey. That meant dazed, and partially naked, he had to be checked over before he could rejoin the race. But worse than that, he had no helmet.
So while the medic asked him how many fingers he was holding up and whether he could spell his first name, all Carpenter could think about was solving his cabeza problem.
And so, faced with an ever increasing deficit to make up, and no team car in sight, Carpenter did what any self-respecting pro cyclist would do. He stole one.
Stole might be a bit harsh. “Borrowed” is more accurate.
Either way the fan at the side of the road was left lid-less, as Carpenter rode on, putting in a mighty effort to make the eight minutes he’d lost, to regain the group, albeit in an oversized black, retro-Lemond bicycle helmet, a big black thing, that made his head look big, even if he had been cleared of concussion.
The image of him grinning as the camera caught up served duel purposes.
On the one hand, while the fact that Carpenter thought he looked good must have left the concussion doctor wondering whether he might want to call in a second opinion, he could only have been reassured by the ingenuity that made him so pleased with himself in the first place.
It did make you wonder how differently things could have gone.
What would have happened had there been no spectator to cadge a favour from? What if their head had been much smaller than his?
Or maybe worse.
What if, having been sent skidding across the asphalt, it was not Carpenter’s helmet that was torn apart, but his shorts, and maybe his bike? This, combined with a limited choice of spectators, could have painted a different picture.
Carpenter could have faced the prospect of being paced back to the group wearing an oversized helmet and a skirt, while testing the aerodynamics of a nine-year-old’s Raleigh Chopper.
Carpenter competed the stage in good shape, in his own clothes, on his own bike, and with a more familiar team helmet on his head after his team got their own heads in gear. What became of the purloined bonnet, we don’t know. Returned perhaps with a few more miles on the clock, and with a story to tell.
The organisers of the Tour of Utah had made their intentions clear. Their race would not be ordinary, nor would it pander to convention. Instead it would suit crazy people, specifically those with maps, crayons, and an authority bestowed upon them to create what looked to be the parcour from hell. By the end of it a State known for its winter downhills would begin to celebrate its summer ups.
The result on day one was a race profile that looked like a hollowed out volcano, with super-hero-climbing not seen since Adam West donned his Batman cape and scaled walls using nothing more than a rope from his utility belt, with a little help from a dramatic camera angle.
But a race billed as “The toughest stage race in America”, had a name to live up to. Which might have explained why the race the profile looked like the result of some prison art therapy. The patient was likely a former rider, with the demented intention of denying anyone a race win ever again. And so, recalling a selection of razor sharp murder weapons, and presented with some blunt crayons, set about using each to design stage outlines.
The result must have been quite startling. The rest of the race features silhouettes of a bike spanner, a meat cleaver, a smashed beer bottle, a pipe wrench, a hook sword, and a set of brass knuckles.
Thankfully first impressions suggests riders could handle it, and in some style. That is if Ty Magner is anything to go by, or Brent Bookwalter who won stage 2, not to mention all that murderous scenery.
It might well look lunatic, but luckily some of us like lunatic. It’s one of the best races of the year.
Like the leader of a troupe of tragedians looking for an audience, Alberto Contador started Stage 17 of the Tour ready to put on a show.
Playing the famous version of himself – a bit like John Wayne in a western, rather than one of those police films he did – El Pistolero attacked on the Col de la Croix de Fer, out of the saddle and dancing past his opposition on a long range Quixotic bid to snare some Tour glory, even if his GC hopes had burned out days ago.
Nairo Quintana went with him, but quickly faded, possibly owing to his legs, but most likely because he couldn’t match Contador for enthusiasm. His Trek team meanwhile was ready to offer support. Not least his mechanic, who having changed his bike pushed Contador with Herculean effort up a ten per cent gradient for what must have felt like half a mile.
Before that though Michael Gogl had paced his leader for as long as he could. Days before he’d crashed With Contador, only to watch his leader ride off with apparent ambivalence as he writhed around in agony on the floor (until told to stop lollygagging by a team boss). This time though he got a chivalrous nod of thanks as Contador came out of his slipstream to ride on without him. You like to think that single nod turned Gogl’s now exquisite torture into something a little easier to endure.
All of which made it a day for non-Contador fans to submit late applications to join his fan club before he left the Tour for good. But then most of us remaining skeptics had had our minds changed days before, when he’d turned to his countryman Mikel Landa on an earlier attack to suggest they both “pull till they were dead”.
Was this Contador as El Pistolero, or Contador as The Shootist – like Wayne played in his final film – a lap of honour and some hard-earned limelight before the shadow cast by the younger generation became too great to outrun?
Only time would tell.
Or maybe the Trek DS, who it turned out did tell, midway through Contador’s break, announced on the commentary feed, which made things a little awkward. This would be Contador’s last Tour came the news – which would have made things even more heroic had Contador actually been in on the announcement.
The attack came to nothing and Contador resumed his place in the peloton, alongside ordinary-looking riders who had not lived like Contador had just done. After the race he said he knew nothing of his Tour swansong, but with the credit pouring in for his performance probably sensed it would be improper to cause a scene.
But if this was his last Tour we’d at least had one last look. Just about enough to want more Contador next year.
The explorer Ernest Shackleton famously placed an ad in the Times of London to recruit the crew of his doomed South Pole expedition. It simply read: “MEN WANTED”.
Shackleton was clear about the dangers that lay ahead: the risk to life and limb, and the prospect of not returning. But he offered glory to the survivors, which in those days was often enough. Shackleton, so the story goes, was inundated with applications.
Any day now a similar ad will appear, taped to the door of the Cofidis team bus by the Director Sportif looking for help. But would anyone apply?
“Cofidis Domestique” must be the most inauspicious position in the peloton. Each day eight men are tasked with getting Nacar Bouhanni to the finish line, and preferably in front of everyone else. It’s thought failure to satisfy these demands causes all sorts of tantrums, and bollockings.
However bad their lot is, riders in the peloton can at least say they don’t ride for Cofidis, as they watch the bruiser butt and slug his way through the peloton, with eight excuses ready for when things go wrong.
And they have been going wrong.
So when Bouhanni found himself in the wrong group when the peloton split, and on what was supposed to be a sprint stage, he set about reversing the situation.
We can only imagine the teeth grinding among his teammates, grinding specifically through the wiring of their two-way radios, hoping to disable them and justify inactivity. But Cyril Lemoine rode forth and into the wind, ready to pedal like hell. Bouhanni hung on.
Fear is not exactly a healthy motivator, but you wonder how much it motivated Lemoine to deliver his man. He and Bouhanni pulled back the two lost minutes of ground before finally easing off – Lemoine leaving Bouhanni to push towards the front. Had his team leader muttered any word of thanks, Lemoine would have been without the breath to acknowledge it.
Bouhanni would miss out on contesting the stage, finishing some 1:43 back. Only the renegade Christophe Laporte, in an obvious act of betrayal, finished ahead of him. The others, wiser perhaps, rolled in later. No thanks or appreciation guaranteed.
Pierre-Luc Perichon must have figured it would be difficult to win TV time when the race rolled through Romain Bardet country. But he wasn’t going to let name unrecognition prevent him from enjoying some limelight, at least on the big climb of the day.
While some might ask themselves how they would react when faced with an impossible gradient, settling for any which way up it that didn’t result in rolling back down it, Perichon knew exactly how to handle the big climb of the day.
Riding as part of the breakaway, and finding himself at the foot of the Col de Peyra Taillade, Perichon embraced an unorthodox strategy, transforming himself into a kind of crowd-clearing circus act, sweeping the way clear for any rider even slower than himself, while at the same time bringing the tour closer to the fans by pointing his bike in their direction and riding straight at them.
Zigzagging right, then left, then right again, Perichon rejected the dramatic events of the stage (Froome’s latest technical setting off a tense pursuit) in favour of a novel, comical technique meant to slash the gradient of the climb, even if that meant doubling the distance up it.
Television images showed fans, their hand frozen in the air mid-clap, unsure whether to laugh or to push. Perichon had won them over, gaining camera time for his Fortuneo-Oscaro team in the most unlikely moment. While Froome was being booed for his eccentricities, Perichon was being cheered for his.
Well kind of. Not everyone was convinced. Perichon has proved he can climb, not least in the Tour de Savoie Mont Blanc just weeks before the Tour, where he won a rather pointy looking stage and the mountains jersey. But then to put on a show of weakness like this a rider always needed significant reserves of strength.
And if this was for show nobody minded. Besides, Perichon might have preferred that the technique didn’t catch on, making this his signature move. For when it comes to securing immortality there’s no better way than by making a gloriously heroic ass of yourself. For that reason Perichon’s Tour legacy is secure.
It’s a demanding job, soigneur. Your working day starts before everyone wakes up, and ends after everyone else has gone to bed, making the hours pretty brutal. But imbued with a team spirit, and an enviable proximity to the action, “soigneur” still carriers with it enough prestige to make it an appealing job, and the riders, no doubt, readily show their appreciation.
All of which must be repeated like a mantra on those tiresome days when your assignment is to stand at the side of the road, with bidons and musette bags, waiting for your Fortuneo-Oscaro boys to ride by at a gingerly 40 kmh.
Without complaint you take your position among the crowds 85 km from the finish line, somewhere in the French countryside, in blazing 30-degree heat, wearing a team shirt designed for a man two sizes smaller than you, and who doesn’t share your fondness for rich food.
The hours pass by until finally, having got word your rider Maxime Bouet is in the breakaway, you take a step into the road and hold out a food bag ready for delivery.
Here they come. You see the riders. Your man Bouet is third in line, taking what looks like the last toots from a bottle as he approaches. And then, as you hold out a musette bag at arms length, he uses the bottle to squirt water directly into your face.
Bouet rode on quite contently, having declined the option of lunch. We didn’t see the reaction of the loyal soigneur.
But if he’d suddenly descended into a raging bad mood it was nothing compared to the race commissaire in the red Skoda, driving along behind the break.
Also following the break, for the 20 yards he was able to keep up, was a small boy in a Direct Energie shirt, running as fast as he could to give his hero Thomas Voeckler all the encouragement he could muster. The commissaire though was having none of it, and drew up alongside the boy. An arm emerged from the rear window, and pointed in no uncertain terms at the boy, warning him to keep back.
The kid shrugged, and ran back to where he’d started. We didn’t see the reaction of the commissaire.
It was Bastille Day on the Tour, and as is the custom French riders made sure to appear intent on winning the stage, even if their legs weren’t really up for it. One after one they hammered away at the pointy end, seeking victory, invitations to prime time television programs, or heroic injuries that would endear them to the nations heart for the rest of their career.
This fuss at one end of the race did mean one rider could ride out the last of his Tour without interruption, and in relative peace. Or at the very least alone, and with a Moto rider for company.
That man was Jakob Fuglsang (Astana), who rode the first quarter of the 101 km sprint to Foix today about 100 meters behind the peloton, and the next quarter looking for somewhere soft at the side of the road onto which to fall. At which point he could safely assume his team would scoop him up and take him somewhere safe and warm, with unlimited painkillers, and fresh bandages.
The Dane crashed badly on Stage 11, cracking the bones in his left arm twice – once near the elbow and again at the wrist. Any normal man, as well as any sane one, would have called it a day shortly after hearing crack number two. But Fuglsang rode on, unable to grip his handlebars. His legs still worked though, which seemed about enough.
And so what if by putting him on the road Astana was violating every health and safety regulation written since the Penny Farthing rolled off the production line, as well as all those working directives that by rights entitled him to an army of attack lawyers. Really though, all he needed was a push.
Fuglsang cut as heroic figure as the likes of Warren Barguil and others racing away up front. Unwilling to pack it in, the gap between himself and the peloton grew larger and larger, as he tried simultaneously to both hold his handlebars, and not hold his handlebars.
Some speculated when he would throw in the towel, ironic given that Fuglsang wouldn’t have been able to grip the towel had he had one to throw in. But others hoped Fuglsang might hang on, using nothing more than paracetamol and gritted teeth to manage to big climbs and a long descent into Foix.
But midway through the stage Fuglsang understood that enough was enough, right about that point where, some way along the descent of the Col De Latrape, and in what must have been an alarming moment of clarity, he could no apply the brakes. Riding with no hands was one thing – with no breaks was something else.
“I am fully empty,” Fuglsang had said the night before, probably while seeing stars and chewing aspirin like M&Ms. He was wrong. He wouldn’t be “fully empty” until another 50 km had passed. But by then his courage was overflowing.
Domestiques know their fate even before the race begins. The deal is there’s no glory, little chance of a stage win, and no exceptions. The leader comes first.
That goes for when you’re lying wounded in the middle of the road too.
This just about summed up Michael Gogl’s day on Stage 11 today, another of those commuter stages that might have been better served by putting all the riders on a train to Pau, and allowing Marcel Kittel to disembark first.
Then with 21 km to race a lack of concentration somewhere brought down Gogl, and more importantly his team leader: Alberto Contador.
The pictures told the painful story. Gogl was on his back and who took some time to climb up off the concrete. And then there was Contador, seemingly ambivalent toward his teammate’s anguish, as he first checked his chain, found everything in order, remounted, and rode off, paced back to the peloton and safety by Jarlinson Pantano.
Gogl meanwhile, who himself had been called on to pace Contador back to the peloton after a mechanical earlier in the day, had by this time just about got to his feet. Not that he was about to get any kind of reprieve.
Despite looking like he could use a moment to check the basics, things like his bones, skin, and vital organs, Gogl, still just 23, got a sharp reminder from his team boss what his job was again. In this case that was to stop lollygagging, and get back in the race.
The team boss had appeared from the car and picked Gogl’s bike up off the road. What more did he want? A kiss? He then shoved the bike towards his rider and then pointed up the road.
When you’re 23, a domestique in your first Tour, and your boss tells you to stop hanging around, you don’t really have much choice, even if you are in pain, and two kindly women with first aid kits are insisting they bandage you up first.
Gogl got back on his way. Contador meanwhile crossed the line with the peloton. Do team leaders even notice when their teammates do the same more than four minutes later?
This was supposed to be a big day for Yoann Offredo. First away after the flag dropped, the Frenchman put distance between himself and the peloton just as he had done on Stage 2. After half a minute of sprinting he was in his rhythm. The only problem was that when he looked back nobody else was doing the same.
If being in the break is good, being the break is bad. There he was, alone, presumably now irritable, and cursing his luck. He’d essentially volunteered to race 178 km on his own, the plaything of an ambivalent peloton, members of which did well not to laugh out loud.
It’s the fate of these animated go-getters. They plan to cross the line first, while knowing all too well they’re more likely to roll in last, minutes behind everyone, exhausted and unnoticed as the winner gets a bunch of flowers and a stuffed lion.
But just as Offredo was counting in his head the number of people he hated right now, Elie Gesbert (Fortuneo-Oscaro) came along behind him, looking for redemption. It was a small piece of luck for Offredo, for if you’re looking for a man to help you set fire to a stage, who better than a man who set fire to his hotel the night before?
The story went that Gesbert had left some tissue paper on an electric heater in his room. Stumbling around in the middle of the night, he’d flicked what he’d assumed was the light switch, but had instead turned on the heater. Soon everyone was stumbling around in the middle of the night, the fire alarm forcing everyone out of the hotel.
Perhaps it was penance, perhaps it was that his teammates were not yet back on speaking terms – either way his team, their eyebrows a little singed, sent him off to hook up with Offredo and to think about what he’d done.
More importantly Offredo now had company. Together, they set off.
Offredo could have been forgiven for a degree of cynicism at this point. But even with the exasperation, cynicism doesn’t appear to be Offredo’s style.
Just a few months ago he was the victim of a drive-by mugging, complete with a hoodlum armed with a baseball bat. In reporting it he refused to get angry, expressing only remorse that people acted like this, and that the threat was more to kids, than to him.
A sentiment that might have explained why, as they rode through the Medieval town of Sarlat-la-Canéda, festooned for the day with flags, bunting, and three deep crowds, Offredo picked out a little kid waving a French tricolor at the side of the road, and made sure his empty bottle landed at his feet.
You wonder sometimes whether riders notice the size of the crowds of people who wait hours to watch them ride by, or the kids about to experience moments that will have them hooked on bike racing forever. Not to mention their parents, touched a little by moments like this, who before the close of business become lifelong Wanty-Group construction materials customers. If Offredo is anything to go by, they do.
Not bad from a man who was on a fools errand, on the flat terrain, and chased by Marcel Kittel and his friends.
But Offredo must have figured his chances were slim from the moment he set off on this break. He knew this again when 7 km from the line, he looked over his shoulder to see the peloton approaching, reaching out to shake hands with Gesbert and giving some recognition to the belief that there had been honour in this crazy plan.
Then he shook his head again, as exasperated by the circumstances as he had been 171 kilometers ago.