Mad Jack Down Under

Santos Tour Down Under
Stage 5 – McLaren Vale to Willunga Hill (151.5km)

Jack Bauer was already the most competitive rider of Stage 4 when he apparently decided it was worth doing all over again on Stage 5. Not only did that make him the most combative rider, but probably the craziest too. At least that was the general consensus, given that this was too heroic an attack to have any chance of succeeding. Mad Jack Bauer begged to differ, and you couldn’t help but take his side as he pedaled away to glory, joined by Thomas De Gendt of Lotto Soudal, and William Clarke of Cannondale.

Still, three in the break, with 143km to ride, would be difficult. So when Bauer turned to see that Jeremy Maison, a first year pro from FDJ, was trying to reach them, he slowed, gave Maison a thumbs up, and let him join them. It was a nice moment, (one Maison will never likely see again in his career) and it improved their situation. Now they were four, which as Bauer knew, gave this heroic, if doomed attack, a fighting chance.

But this was less a hopeless breakaway than a boys own action story about four men with something to prove.

Thomas De Gendt, the Lotto Soudal rider, was on an all-or-nothing mission to lock up the KOM jersey on his back. He needed to reach the summit of Willunga Hill first, and he’d destroy anyone who tried to stop him.

A good enough motive, but what saved the others from the label lunatic?

The plucky Jeremy Maison wanted to prove something in the first race of the year. Notably smaller than the others, he looked to struggle at times, but this was his chance to put in a good show for his employer.

Then there was Mad Jack himself, chasing of his own mythical Green Place, away from the demons of last season, and chased by a bike gang of a different sort. He seemed to want De Gendt to get up his hill, to want to drag Maison along in his first breakaway. As for Clarke, he was happy to let him be the eyewitness. Sure success seemed unlikely, but Bauer, like Maison and indeed Clarke, knew simply that this is what bike riders do.

And so they took turns setting the pace, Bauer, at one point putting an arm on Maison’s back to encourage the new boy, De Gendt determined with that one mission in mind.

It was now a big adventure. De Gendt had his mission to complete; Bauer was the man holding everyone together. Maison the young kid who we worry might not make it. Clarke, well, there’s always someone in stories like this that has to die, taking the role of Shelley Winters, reminding the others of the danger they’re in. In keeping with the role Clarke faded and dropped off.

With Clarke gone the writing was on the wall.

With 33km to race their lead was down to 3min 05 seconds, teetering on that borderline between what amount of time can be closed within the distance remaining. But that included two climbs of Willunga Hill, and 3km later the gap had closed even more.

Bauer, riding alongside the young Maison, smaller in both experience and stature to himself, gave him a fist of encouragement. At this point Bauer was the virtual race leader. Was he really trying to hang on? Probably not. But the implication that he was seemed heroic enough.

They would get up Willunga Hill, and De Gendt would get his points. But by that time the gap had dropped to 1 minute 55 seconds, and with his mission accomplished De Gendt had no reason to chase the impossible.

With 15 km to go the gap hovered around 1 minute 20. Five kilometers later it was down to 45 seconds. Five kilometers after that it was all over.

It was inevitable that the peloton would swallow them up, and the real story of the day would finally begin. Now on the final climb, Richie Porte would climb best, taking the stage (fourth he fourth time), and the overall lead, although not quite De Gendt’s KOM jersey.

But not before Mad Jack Bauer, finding something left in his legs – pride, adrenaline, simple enjoyment – led his Quick-Step team to the base of the climb. Some would say with a grimace on his face. To others though, it could only have been a smile.

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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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The 50km lead-out man

The Dubai Tour
Is Bobby Jungels made of steel?

Some ride for GC, some ride to sprint or climb mountains, others are there to work. Then there’s Bobby Jungels, who is there to lead out his teammate Marcel Kittel from about 50km.

Watching Jungels is to watch a man at ease only when dragging the peloton along behind him. In stage one of the Dubai Tour he led the pack for almost the entire day. The five-man breakaway wasn’t caught by the peloton; they were caught by Jungels, who dragged everyone to them, and then beyond.

A rare shot of Bobby Jungels third wheel, and not leading the peloton
A rare shot of Bobby Jungels not leading the peloton

On Stage 2 he did the same, only separating from Kittel and the train of Quickstep teammates once they’d breached the 3km marker. Up until that point he’d been in charge, his mouth open, his arms flopped over his handlebars, like a wolfhound with its head and paws hanging over the front window of a convertible. He paid about the same attention as a dog would as he passed the break away, just part of towing Kittel to the line.

How do you describe a rider like that? The 24-year-old, in the colours of the Luxembourg champion, is no sprinter, he’s not exactly a climber, which puts him in the Puncheur category — non of which really describes the rider who, wearing a bodysuit, sets the pace for everyone for two days in a row.

Kittel went on to win the Dubai Tour, winning three of the four stages (with an elbow in the eye from Astana’s Andriy Grivko along the way). Jungels meanwhile had done his job, proving himself in that most uncomplainingly brilliant fashion that he is one of the most valuable teammates on the World Tour.

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Doesn’t everyone like watching Kenny Ellisonde?

Cadel Evans Great Ocean Road Race

I get excited when I see Kenny Ellisonde going uphill. It’s time you admitted this too.

The most recent example was in the Cadel Evens Ocean Race. The final loop of the Escher designer Geelong circuit – all right angles going up and up – climbed into the hills around the Bellarine Peninsula, past the driveways of middle-class Australia, which for one day were daubed in chalk with names of Porte and Evans, which will stay there until it next rains.

Ellisonde shone this day, albeit only for about 600 glorious meters.

Ellisonde burst away and led on the way up, powering forward with the size and grace of a bobble head doll, leaving the field behind and taking two camera bikes with him. It’s the kind of climb we weekend riders pretend we’re doing as we storm up a 30 yard steep bit, not far from home, and before a big lunch. Ellisonde though had a point to prove. Short in stature he might be, but he has pluck, and pluck surely counts for a lot in cycling.

The move came with 13kms to go, but alas it didn’t last long. Despite all the effort Ellisonde was reeled back in by the time he’d reached the summit. In moments like this most riders admit defeat and rejoin the pack, trying to style it out. But Ellisonde had other plans. He decided to ignore them, and lead the descent to the finish as if he hadn’t been caught at all. And so there he remained, at the front holding onto his bike for dear life, because it was moving so fast it seemed ready to go on without him, all the way into Geelong.

Ellisonde wouldn’t make it all the way, but who really cared. A show of class to his new team perhaps, but a demonstration of why Ellisonde is so fun to watch, for certain.

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Laurens De Vrees gets his day in the sun

Stage 1 of the Santos Tour Down Under

There was an odd sight at the start of the Santos Tour Down Under, the first accidental attack I think I’ve ever seen.

Rather than trying to break away Belgian rider Laurens De Vreese looked like he was being asked to leave. It’s not uncommon to see a rider drop off the back of the pack. On this occasion they managed to drop him off the front. Riding in extraordinary heat that would force organizers to trim 27km off the stage, the Peloton simply slowed down, and De Vreese was the last to notice. Next thing he knew he had a four-minute gap, 110km to ride on his own in 100 degree heat, and an almost certain inferiority complex.

Laurens De Vrees finds himself "let go" by the peloton
Laurens De Vrees finds himself “let go” by the peloton

If it was all by design the Belgian’s body language, labored and, well, sad, said that he regretted it almost immediately. Then the news came that organizers had shortened the stage owing to excessive heat. On hearing this De Vreese actually smiled. Although one can only imagine that by that time, as the temperature gauge melted, he was most likely delirious, wondering whether he’d ever see his teammates again, or his family, before he turned to dust.

The peloton finally caught him, Laurens of Down Under, this now salt encrusted lunatic who had been alone for all but 19km. If he felt the disappointment in being caught it was only from wondering what took them so long. He’d done everything he could to rejoin them without falling off, and yet they’d left him out there to dry – or disintegrate — in the sunshine, like an infectious jam-boy.

He did eventually make it to the finish, some 6 minutes 56 seconds behind eventual winner Caleb Ewan, the local man, who familiar with conditions no doubt checked the weather forecast that morning and figured it was too hot to do anything hasty.

He also earned the King of the Mountain jersey, which if it didn’t immediately burst into flames will serve as some consolation when he arrives at the start of Stage 2 in Stirling tomorrow. Either that or it will simply bring back a whole load of bad memories of his unwanted day in the sun.

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From out of nowhere

Or Cameron Bayly, a tragedy in 7 stages
Tour of Taihu Lake, Stage 3

This was the closing scene of another long day in the saddle. Around the final bend swept Australian Cameron Bayly, four seconds ahead of the bunch he’d just left behind. All that stood between him and his first UCI Stage win was 100 meters of tarmac and a man with a whistle frantically waving a flag in the gloom.

The limelight was rightfully Bayly’s, for about the 16 seconds the camera followed him as he powered across the finish line. Funnily enough these were the only 16 seconds we did see, and it made it one of the most exciting wins of the year.

Few realized it would come in so late in the season, in November, in China, in stage 3 of the Tour of Taihu Lake, a low key 2.1 race, made up of Belarussians and young Italians in Day-Glo, on a hill top stage played out under almost total cloud cover.

If it was hard to believe what was happening, spare a thought for the commentator. He spent the broadcast filling in for a bike race that had failed to show up. Or at least had not been able to by the conditions. We saw a lot of promotional footage about tea, and the local economy, but no bikes.

Then word came forth that the riders were a kilometer away. Who that included wasn’t clear. By the looks of the camera shot, it was hard to believe they hadn’t decided to turn back and head downhill to somewhere warm.

The visibility continued to get worse. A neutral service car drove past, and then two blokes on a motorcycle who looked like they were escaping something. But no riders.

Then Bayly appeared.

Later, with a grin on his face and with the courtesy of a man not yet bored of media intrusion, he would explain that he’d spent the entire 800 meter climb in the big ring. But emerging out of the mist he looked as though he’d raced alone, even if the leaderboard would later say he’d beaten the lead group by a mere four seconds, but minutes ahead of the others – enough to put him in the leader’s jersey.

The camera stayed in position, peering fruitlessly into the mist as indistinguishable riders slogged towards the finish line, passing the wide-eyed man with the whistle waving his flag to warn riders of the obstacle. With each passing rider, the whistling seemed to become more frantic. Or irritable. It was too foggy to tell.

But for those moments before Bayly appeared, there was genuine excitement. Not Mont Ventoux, but still. Not bad for a 2.1 Chinese race in November.

Postscript: Despite putting himself in a good position to win, Bayly would lose the Tour, falling in each of the last two stages.

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