El Pistolero turns Shootist on the Croix de la Fer

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.

Contador (left) turns to thank Gogl (right) before pressing on.

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.

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Stage 16: Wanted. Men brave enough to serve as Cofidis Domestiques

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.

Cyril Lemoine rides his team leader Nacer Bouhanni back into contention

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.

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Stage 15: Perichon’s circus act through Bardet country

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.

Perichon set about bring the tour closer to the fans by pointing his bike in their direction at 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.

Having zigged left, Perichon zagged right

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.

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Stage 14: Cooler heads prevail (well… maybe)

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 (in white), perhaps concerned that his loyal soigneur was burning up in the heat, blasts water in his face to find out.

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 arm appears from the rear right window, the admonished boy shrugs

The kid shrugged, and ran back to where he’d started. We didn’t see the reaction of the commissaire.

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Stage 13: Fuglsang rides on to a courageous defeat

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 was unable to grip the handlebars

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.

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Stage 11: No lollygagging… and other rules of the road

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.

As Michael Gogl suffers on the floor, team leader Alberto Contador checks the damage

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.

Contador rides off, to be paced back by teammate 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.

Despite obvious injuries, Gogl’s boss says something to the effect that there are plenty of bandages at the finish line, and to get back on his bike

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?

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Stage 10: Offredo winning hearts and minds

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.

Yoann Offredo sprints away from the peloton, alone…

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.

Offredo delivers bottle to a kid watching the race in Sarlat

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.

Offredo and Gesbert, ahead of the peloton, shake hands before they’re swept up

Then he shook his head again, as exasperated by the circumstances as he had been 171 kilometers ago.

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Stage 8: One man’s mission to throw cold water on the Tour

He was at one point water boy, the next a shower attendant, and at all times permanently on call. He was also arguably the unsung hero of Stage 8.

I’m not sure what a typical morning looks like for the water boy. For sure he climbs into leathers and overalls while cyclists climb into Lycra. He may well spend the morning checking over his Kawasaki to ensure it’s in working order. All before loading up bidons onto the, err… things attached to the back of his bike. These are the courtesy bottles, provided by a race sponsor, and available to any rider up the road, away from his team car, and in danger of turning to dust in the July heat.

That made him the hardest working rider in the race on stage 8, as he darted back and forth between breakaways and his mother ship, on terrain that would put his horsepower, if not his legs exactly, to the test.

He also had a knack for interpreting exactly when and where he was needed.

Michael Valgren needed only to waggle his hand like a telephone to summon refreshments

There was Astana rider Michael Valgren for example, who as he closed the gap on the lead group, having chasing, tongue out, for some time. He made a gesture with his hand – rather like hinting to someone that the phone was ringing – which brought an acceleration from the water boy, who twigged he was needed and, dodging official cars arrived to hand him a bottle.

Then there was the lead group itself, half way up the Montee de la Combe de Laisia Les Molunes. Here he turned Turkish Bath attendant, as riders such as Warren Barguil, Robert Gesink, and Lilian Calmejane helped themselves to bottles and poured the contents over their heads as the mountain slapped them around.

Bath time for Robert Gesink, and others

In hindsight Calmejane might have done well to pour more down his throat than down his back. It was to be his day but the cramp he suffered 5km from the finish nearly made it a less than perfect one as his legs ground to a halt on a 9 per cent gradient. But he got there for what was a memorable win.

Lilian Calmejane, with skin hydrated, finds his legs aren’t with 5km to go

I’m not sure what a typical evening looks like for the water boy. But on this occasion it might have been a raised glass of something to a job well done. Perhaps a raised water bottle, if he happens to be a romantic.

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Stage 6: Learning to love this lawyering-up revolution

Peter Sagan won Stage 3 in style earlier this week. Today he started Stage 6 with a little less panache, forced to swap his usual swagger for the hope that his team might be successful in overturning the decision the race jury took the night before, to boot him from the race.

The reason was that crash, which left Mark Cavendish with a broken shoulder, and both he and Sagan, the alleged perpetrator of the pile up, out of the race, along with various million dollar obligations, and all before the end of the first week.

The team had him ready to race, presumably locked up in a hotel somewhere, ready at a moment’s notice, to wheelie his way through the lobby, paying his bill with a smile, before making his way to the start line.

But having spent the night pleading his case, but the ruling stood. And so, motivated by a mixture of contracts, and a cooking revolution now on hold, Bora lawyered up. Their plan: a legal revolution that Sagan might also love, one that would get him re-instated even if that meant turning the greatest bike race in the world into a farce.

It was a glorious punt, and had it worked it would have taken most people’s breath away, better even than one of those rather nice extractor fans Bora shows off in their advertisement. But it had the potential to leave more questions than answers, not to mention a sporting legal nightmare.

It was enough to make you long for less complicated times, unshackled from the demands of controversy. In fact what we needed was a predictable, slightly boring procession through the French countryside.

That made Stage 6 everything we could have hoped for!

It was one of those commuter stages, designed, it seemed, to move the Tour forward a day through glorious countryside, with nothing more than a beginning, a middle (a three man breakaway), and an end (a sprint finish won by Marcel Kittel).

Highlights included a parasol flying into the road, General De Gaulle’s resting place, and the discovery that Thomas Voeckler’s surname is pronounced Vok-Klerr, not Voke-Ler, which given I’d been saying it wrong for 15 years means it’s probably for the best he bows out of the sport at the end of the race.

Otherwise the kilometers, all 216 of them, ticked down, as did time on Sagan’s hopes of a renaissance.

How exactly things would worked if he were brought back were unclear. Would he have been permitted to skip a stage? Or would there have been another option that required him to ride the Stage 6 parcour alone, hours after everyone else had packed up at the finish line, armed only with a flashlight and a road map.

None of which came to pass, or at least it hasn’t yet. As much as you can sympathise with Sagan’s case — and who doesn’t want to see the World Champion in the sport’s biggest race — allowing him back would somehow be an even crazier decision than disqualifying him in the first place.

I don’t think we would have loved the reinstatement revolution, and all the baggage that came with it. Even if, with 5km, word hadn’t come through that the Court of Arbitration in Sport, hadn’t upheld the decision.

So no Sagan in the Tour. While I think of it… is it Sar-gun, or Sa-gann?

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Jeremy Roy: King for a day (at least)

Retrospective: Highlights of Le Tour 2011
Stage 1

Will there ever be an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary about the man in the yellow shirt who helped decide the outcome of the 2011 Tour de France?

I don’t mean the leader in the yellow jersey. I mean the spectator who caused the pile up that split the peloton and gifted Cadel Evans more than a minute between himself and rival Alberto Contador.

Probably not.

Evans would go on to win the tour by 1m 34sec over Andy Schleck, while Contador’s name would be listed somewhere around fifth, but with a line through it. Baseball, the familiar territory of ESPN films, puts an asterisk by its doped players. In cycling we cross them out.

The Bike Channel is reshowing the 2011 Tour, with dodgy audio that make commentary team of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin sound like they’re reporting from the payphone in a nightclub. But none of the drama on the screen is lost.

That crash came about 5km from the finish. A man in yellow nudged into Alexander Vinokourov as he rode by. The Astana rider then brought down half the peloton in a tragi-comic slow motion free for all – half the field rode on, the other half fell over and waited.

Evans finished second in the stage won by Philippe Gilbert. But it was the breakaway that provided the best moment.

Three riders set off together a kilometer into the 191.5km stage and stayed out front for all but the last 19.3 km.

You must get to know a man after that long on your bike, and maybe that’s what Jeremy Roy was thinking when he looked back and saw the peloton about to swallow them up and make them anonymous again.

It was at this point that Roy sat up, and reached across to put his arm on the back of countryman Perrig Quemeneur of Team Europcar who he’d shared the work with. It was a king of “we tried, but it wasn’t to be” gesture, that was followed by a handshake that seemed from cycling’s black and white era.

Then, Roy dropped back and did the same with Vacansoleil rider Lieuwe Westra. It was a nice gesture, one of those sporting moments that makes cycling easy to love, before the drama of the end of the stage unfolded.

It wouldn’t be the only attack that year for Roy, who would end that year’s race, as it’s most aggressive rider. He still rides for the same FDJ team he joined in 2003.

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