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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Tour of Slovenia: Stage 2 – Ljubljana to Ljubljana
We missed extended highlights of the Tour of Slovenia’s second stage as live footage cut out, presumably for reasons relating to the same weather that it such a thrilling climax. But what we missed out in bike racing on we made up for in the closing kilometers, as conditions turned the finishing loop into an ice rink.
You couldn’t blame riders for easing up a bit going into the corners, thinking perhaps that it wasn’t worth being spread over the Slovenian asphalt like margarine with the Tour looming. But any let up was short lived. By the last lap the speed was up to break-neck again, and the peloton turned, ready to break neck.
Riding diagonally through a zebra crossing, it was a Dimension Data rider (Jacques Janse Van Rensburg?), charging along for Mark Cavendish, who went down first, losing his bike but none of his momentum, and finding himself with enough time to write his will as he slid along the road, over the curb, and straight into a wall. He came to a halt in front of some open-mouthed spectators getting their first look of professional bike racing.
The rider behind, possibly unidentifiable but for a white jersey, managed to dodge him, and survived the turn by steering wide onto the sidewalk.
But just as he was about to look behind him and laugh maniacally, he clattered into what looked from the helicopter like a teenaged boy, all arms and legs, whose distress was peeked not just by the collision, but by the sudden disappearance of his kagool.
One moment it had been tucked under his arm, the next it had vanished. He looked aghast, in a silent movie kind of way, before his coat re-emerged 30 feet away, wrapped around the rider. The transformation of Stage 2 into an episode of Wacky Races was now complete.
The rider in white got to his feet. He seemed less interested in what had just happened, than how he’d come to be wrapped in a teenager’s kagool, which television footage showed him producing from out of nowhere, like a bunch of flowers in a magic trick.
The novice public swept into action, performing those little tasks that are neither appreciated nor really necessary in times like this – fetching lost bidons, propping bikes up, and mothering grown men in Lycra. They weren’t to know that compassion doesn’t count inside the 1km to go marker and to the fallen at least, the race was already lost.
With the crash riders on their feet and relatively unharmed, Orica rider Luka Mezgec crossed the line first, gripping his top tube with his knees and checking his balance before finally risking raising his arms in triumph. Or was it survival?
Route du Sud: Stage 3 – Saint-Gaudens to Gavarnie-Gedre
He looked like an ordinary spectator, one of those diehard tifosi who parks up at the side of the road and waits hours for the riders to pass by in a matter of seconds.
But to those who knew what to look out for this man was quite clearly a super hero. Plain clothed to be sure, but his cape and red underpants were presumably hidden under the outfit of a schlub, albeit one about to perform an act of dexterity that would dazzle, and hydrate, a soon-to-be captive audience.
What’s more he’d do all of this in about three seconds.
It’s a tricky business handing out bottles at the side of the road. The feedzone is usually a mixture of relief, litter, and peril for riders, as they first seek out their bottle and then try to grab it at about 40kmh without crashing.
It’s difficult getting one bottle into the hand of a rider, let along three. Some get dropped, some are missed altogether, while others fail to meet the high standards of those expected to drink it.
So handing out three in as many seconds would appear impossible. To suggest otherwise would merely alert the skeptics. Oswald couldn’t get off three shots in six they’d say, so nobody could dish out three bidons in three.
But our guy in a t-shirt and cap was ready to try.
It must be difficult for riders, working out who among the spectators lining the road are the type trying to help, and which are the utter lunatics, ready to run alongside you, before getting too close and requiring a colleague, with Swiss francs to spare, to risk a UCI rebuke and elbow the man-sized banana in the face.
But this man didn’t have on a banana outfit, or a chicken costume. Neither did he appear to wear the colours of a team. No costume, no polo, just three bottles of water ready to hand out, and a moment in which to do so which took even him by surprise.
As the main group of about 15 riders approached three – Brice Feillu and Eduardo Sepulveda of Fortuneo-Vital Concept, and Richard Carapaz of Movistar — peeled off, drifting over with an eye on refreshments without the UCI fine (based on the no drinks inside 20km rule) that makes a bottle of citrus energy drink more expensive than a bottle of Johnny Walker blue.
But our man stepped up: first one bottle, then another, and then another. On the last he sort of spun around, pirouetting for the benefit of the judges. The riders rode on with their bottles while our man, shaken but not stirred, stepped out of the limelight, and back to the side of the road where I like to think he stripped to the waist so he could beat his chest.
Giro d’Italia: Stage 7 – Castrovillari to Alberobello (224km)
It was a stage that recreated an early summer motorway trip to see relatives as kids, hot and humid, stuck in the back of the car with no air conditioning. Tinfoil sandwiches for lunch, and no end in sight. This was a commuter stage.
Whoever came up with the route from Stage 7 was obviously obvious to the subtleties of bike racing. Tasked with getting riders from Castrovillari to Alberobello he picked up the map, found a ruler, and simply drew a straight line between the two. By weird coincidence, transport planners had done exactly the same decades earlier, building the perfect 100km straight road.
Riders’ minds must drift off on roads such as this.
Breakaway riders Dmitry Kozonchuk and Giuseppe Fonzi could rightfully claim credit for grabbing boredom by the throat and sticking it out for the day. Simone Ponzi of CCC had joined them earlier, but on seeing what lay ahead, dropped back again to where he knew his mental health would be better protected.
Viewers had a difficult job on their hands. More than once I found myself watching traffic on the other side of the road, for something more interesting.
I know I drifted off once or twice, bringing myself sharply back to life having dreamt about visiting Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, with strong hair, to spread the word to Israel of the coming cooking revolution.
Each time aerial shots brought me back to life, showing just how long and straight this road was, like a council-made promotional video from 1959 for the newly built M1 motorway.
Finally the riders reached a turn, leaving the motorway, only for the first corner to catch some rider out. So unaccustomed to anything but a straight line, this right-hander felt so unnatural that some simply rode on. We can only assume they were able to make the U-turn and rejoin the peloton.
Giro d’Italia: Stage 6 – Reggio Calabria to Terme Lugiane (217km)
After 217 km of riding Silvan Dillier and Jasper Stuyven were somehow about to slog it out with what energy they had left for a memorable stage win.
Behind them Lukas Postlberger was doing what he could to keep up, failing gallantly to spin his wheels quickly enough to contest a second stage win. Meanwhile Bardiani-CSF’s Simone Andreetta, tired for the last 50km, was out of contention, but rolling doggedly on towards the finish line a few seconds back.
Neither rider could be described after that kind of effort to be at their quickest by this point. The man in the hi-vis jacket meanwhile was moving at lightening speed.
Which was probably a good job.
With the break a minute ahead of the chasing peloton the moment for logistical nightmares was fast approaching, with bikes and cars gridlocking the ever-decreasing space between the last breakaway rider and the group.
Clearly it needed a man of exceptional speed and authority to get them out of the way in an orderly fashion. Or a man in a tabard and holding a stick, frantically waving cars out of the way.
Which is what he did, possibly while yelling in the direction of Andreeta, telling him to get a move on. But he ushered cars out of the road with the dexterity of a jungle cat, shimmying to the left in the nick of time to give the chasing pack the room they needed, and averting a massive pile up of bikes, riders, TV cameras and hi-vis jackets in the process.
Giro d’Italia: Stage 5 – Pedara to Messina (159km)
With just 300 meters to go on a lap of Messina, Luka Pibernik of Bahrain Merida looked up. Ahead of him there was nothing but open road, just the camera bike ready to capture the moment, and the finish line in the distance. He dared look behind him at the peloton, some 30 yards away and for some reason unable to catch him. It must have been an almighty burst of speed.
Such a scenario is why you can only really have great pity for Pibernik, who had victory snatched from him today in the most surreal, painful, and well, embarrassing way possible.
With what must have seemed a peculiar ringing in his ears, Pibernik looked back one last time. He knew he couldn’t be caught so he did what came naturally, raised his arms in triumph as he crossed the line.
It’s worth pausing for moment to wonder what exactly was going through Pibernik’s mind.
Had he really been so fast, powerful enough even to outwit the sprinters and their hell for leather teammates travelling at 60 kph? Had he really caught everyone by surprise, even the cameramen of the press who were nowhere to be seen, or the soigneurs for that matter, usually on hand to catch their riders?
Where were they? And what the hell was that blasted ringing noise all about?
Then, as if looking at the subtitle that had just appeared on the screen, the horrible, wincing truth hit him hard enough for his arms to fall back onto his handlebars. “Last lap”, said the subtitle on screen.
What exactly do you do now?
The only way he could really rectify the… crushing humiliation, would have been to somehow try and win again on the next lap, but he must have known his fate was sealed.
He slunk back into the pack, as the sound of the one-lap to go bell gradually faded. He knew now that he had a lap to think about how he would face his teammates, explain himself to his Director Sportive, let along the press, and all while getting back to his actual job of looking after Vincenzo Nibali at 60 kph. He knew one thing though. There isn’t enough chutzpah in the world to “style out” a mistake like this
A lap later Fernando Gaviria did things properly, beating Jakub Mareczko by about a length and a half, in front of a bank of cameras, and welcomed into the arms of his smiling soigneur. If looking for some consolation, Gaviria’s winning distance was nothing like the 30 yards of Pibernik.
It was painful to watch, but not as painful as Pibernik’s evening right now. Were reports to come through that he had decided to swim the Straight of Messina to the Italian mainland, rather than face his teammates, the press, or distraught loved ones, we’d do well to believe it.
True or not, Pibernik will hear that bell in his sleep.
Giro d’Italia: Stage 4 – Cefalù to Etna (181km)
Amid the great pharmacopeia of athletic performance enhancement, few doses can claim the same power as that which powered Jan Polanc of UAE Team Emirates to a remarkable stage win at the top of Mount Etna.
What he was on was not injected, it did not require a trip to Switzerland, or a code name; it was not even on the forbidden list… well not exactly. But it was old as mankind itself. What was this magic elixir? It was pure adrenalin, in this case sourced from a good old-fashioned punch-up.
The eruption occurred some 90 km before they’d got anywhere near the volcanic landscape of Mount Etna. The break of four was approaching the summit of the first climb, a long winding ascent up Portella Feminina Morta. With a few hundred meters left to climb Jacques Janse Van Rensburg of Dimension Data jumped ahead towards the summit and the KOM points his team had made their own. Polanc followed.
But as they reached the line Van Rensburg (at least as far as Polanc saw it) lurched right, slamming the door closed and denying him a route past. It looked doubtful he would have got past anyway, but Polanc was furious.
Cameras picked up what happened next. Polanc went to reach out to Van Rensburg with his left hand, although he seemed to deliberately stop short of direct contact. It was the biking equivalent of capoeira, the martial art designed to mimic a street brawl so as not to catch the attention of the police. At least that’s what the Brazilians call it. The duty officer back at the station would probably call it “handbags”.
There was pushing and shoving, or more accurately leaning and gesticulation, followed by a brief but animated chat. Van Rensburg argued back… a little, but looking at the rage in Polanc’s face figured his defense would be better off mounted from distance. So he backed off, and took the still raging Polanc’s back wheel for the descent.
The outcome of the scuffle was not fight or flight exactly; it was fight and flight, which eventually carried Polanc away from Van Rensburg and up Mount Etna alone, with a permanent look of aggravation on his face, albeit one with an added tongue hanging out for the last few kilometers. But it was a winning race face, which turned glorious 200 meters from the finish, as Polanc looked back to see an empty road behind him.