Tour de France, Tour de Force

lundi, le 25 julliet 2011

Le Tour de France, La Grande Boucle. My annual three weeks of dreaming, of wishing, of hoping. Of reflecting on what was, on what could have been and on what will never be. Of being inspired, being transported, being amazed.

I don’t miss a pedal stroke, a gear change, a tournesol brightly following the path of the sun, a chateau grandly alluding to an era gone by, a church steeple pin-pointing to heaven, a mountain peak majestically bursting through the clouds.

When this year’s race started, I didn’t have a clear favourite to support, not a rider, not a team. The first week was drawing to a close. The Tour had rolled off the Passage du Gois at low tide, wound through the oyster beds of Bretagne, passed under the watchful eye of the magnificent Le Mont Saint-Michel and was hurtling past the Chaînes des Puys through the Massif Central towards the Pyrénées.

And I wasn’t sitting up yet.

Then there was Stage 9. The last day of the first week. The last day before the first rest day. The Tour rolled out of Issoire at noon that overcast Sunday. Standing up through the sunroof of his post-box red Skoda, Christian Prudhomme dropped the white Depart flag and 187 of the original 198 riders set off on the up-and-down profile.

The feeding zone was just over a third of the way in, the intermediate sprint point 30 km before the finish, and seven categorized climbs lay scattered over the route. But, on that glorious Sunday in La Belle France, the Tour erupted like the Puys did 10,000 years ago.

The Peloton came flowing down Le Puy Mary, the first of three Cat-2 climbs, faster than red hot lava. Around a sweeping left bend just over halfway through the stage, someone had lost it. In an attempt to avoid the carnage on the road, Vinokourov was catapulted into the forest, fracturing his femur, forcing an early exit to what would have been his last Grande Boucle.

Then came Hoogerland’s tour de force into the prikkeldraad (barbed wire fence) and into the Polka Dot jersey and into every sport headline and straight into my heart!! Fletcha crawled out of a ditch and the driver of the French TV car that chose to hit the riders over a tree, sped off!

The lead group of five was now reduced to three.

Sanchez snatched the stage win from Voeckler (leader for the Europcar team), but later that afternoon, Le Chouchou stepped onto the podium and was draped in resplendent yellow!! A Frenchman in yellow – I had found what I was looking for!

A badly bandaged and emotional Hoogerland stepped up for the Polka Dot jersey amid wild applause from the crowd. You get gutsy, you get determined and then you get Hoogerland! A head count in Saint-Flour showed that the brutal Stage 9 saw seven riders abandon. Fletcha and Hoogerland had picked themselves up and ridden themselves into the history books of La Grande Boucle. For the first time since Henri Desgrange’s motley crew of cyclists left Montgeron on 1 July 1903 had the white-on-red number of the prix de la combativité been awarded to two riders on a single stage.

Now I was sitting up!

In the second week the riders were eased into the Pyrénées, and though the high drama was saved for the 100th visit to the Alpes, the usual suspects were all lined up: Col du Tourmalet, Luz-Ardiden, Col d’Aubisque and a stage finish on the Hors Catégorie Plateau de Beille. There is nothing level about the 15.8 km, average 7.9% gradient climb to the top of this plateau!

And every day I would fear that Le Chouchou would lose yellow, and every day he hung on. Pulling his mouth, sticking his tongue out, digging deep! Everyone had flashbacks to his ten days in yellow in 2004. Everyone knew the risks he would take to keep the coveted jersey. Everyone knew the blood flowing through his veins was now yellow. And the French went berserk! And Le Chouchou did not give up one second of his lead over the torturous, barren Pyrénéan peaks! Was he older now and wiser than then?

I was now on the edge of my seat.

The first day after the last rest day the sprinters led La Grande Boucle towards the Alpes. Le Chouchou gave up four seconds of his lead. But now it was Evans biting at his ankles. The climbers pulled the train into Italy past the bobsleigh and luge tracks of the 2006 Torino Winter Olympic games at Cesana Pariol. The engine pulled the Tour over the Cat-1 Sestrières where the games’ Alpine skiing events were held on the dizzying slopes. The dash to the finish at Pinerolo under a shady canopy of trees was insane. Le Chouchou rode like a man possessed. But he over-cooked a sweeping right corner and briefly left the road. He righted his machine and then did exactly the same thing on a sweeping left turn, ending up in a strangely empty parking lot. Thankfully the gate was left open! But his antics gifted Evans twenty seven seconds. But he did it for his team, he did it for his country, he did it for yellow. And I could have sworn he did it for me.

The road back into France was a murderous 220.5 km. The intermediary sprint point came early in the day and, job done, the sprinters could hang out in the gruppetta while the grimpeurs fought it out over the two Hors Catégorie climbs of Col Agnel and Col d’Izoard. After a short respite, the 100th year celebration of the race in the Alpes snaked up a 23 km climb at an average 5.1% gradient to reach the top of Galibier for the highest stage finish in the history of the tour. Stage 18 was to be the Queen stage of this year's La Grande Boucle.

It was here that Le Chouchou’s true colours were nailed to the mast: his grit, his determination, his guts, his willpower, his unfaltering resolve never to give up, never to give in. When he pushed down on the pedals one last time to cross the finish line on Stage 18, he had Andy Schleck sitting a mere, miniscule fifteen seconds behind him!

Déjà-vu? In 2004 Le Chouchou snatched the maillot jaune off the shoulders of Lance Armstrong in Stage 5 in Chatres in the shadows of the pristinely preserved Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chatres. He was resplendent in yellow through the Vendee and on the flight into the Massif Central. He wore the maillot jaune at the stage finish in Saint-Flour – the same town where he grabbed it this year. By the time the Tour reached the summit of Plateau de Beille seven years ago, it was Le Chouchou who stepped up at the presentation ceremony to receive the traditional lion, a happy bunch of yellow flowers and the much desired maillot jaune. The climbs on Stage 13 in 2004 were virtually identical to those of Stage 14 in this year’s race. In 2004 Armstrong had reduced the gap between himself and Le Chouchou to a narrow twenty two seconds at the top of the Plateau de Beille. Voeckler managed to maintain that gap on the way to the Alpes after the rest day in Nîmes that year.

Then, as now, Le Chouchou proudly wore the yellow jersey on his shoulders to the Alpes. But way back then, Armstrong took the jersey back on the first day that the tour went over the steep mountain passes. When Stage 15 ended in Villard-de-Lans, Lance was back in yellow. Le Chouchou’s ten days of glory were over. The elastic had well and truly snapped. Voeckler finished in 8th position in the Classement Général that day and was not in the top ten when the clock stopped in Paris. But he had become the true darling of the nation that hosts the most amazing bicycle race every year. And Armstrong was in line to become the first person in the history of the tour to wear the maillot jaune onto the Champs-Élysées for the sixth consecutive year.

What was going through Voeckler’s mind this year on the back of that motorcycle he’d hitched a ride with down to the team bus at the foot of Galibier at the end of Stage 18? Was he thinking that he was wrapped in yellow for the tenth consecutive day as in 2004? Was he thinking of 2004’s twenty two second time difference and 2011’s fifteen second time difference? Was he thinking that on the descent of the Galibier the next day that he’d probably be able to see Villard-de-Lans where he relinquished the maillot jaune way back when? Or was he simply thinking about the leader’s bunk in the back of team bus? Whatever he was thinking, at the end of La Grande Boucle’s Queen stage, Voeckler was my King.

Stage 19 in this year’s race was a grueling stage. It was a short stage of 109.5 km, but it included the Cat-1 Col du Télégraphe, with a slight descent and little time for recovery before the climb up Galibier kicked in. Galibier offered a long descent to the picturesque little town of Bourg d’Oisans where a sharp right turn started the climb up Alpe-d’Huez, through the twenty one switchbacks. Each marked by a sign listing its elevation and a name or two of a previous stage winner.

I was now up on my feet.

I willed Le Chouchou up Col du Télégraphe. He was dropped from the main contender group just before the summit. He maintained the small time gap. His faithful team mate, the all-rounder Pierre Rolland, was with him. In an awesome dislplay of greatness, Voeckler told Rolland on the climb of Galibier: ‘Seize your chance, don’t worry about me’. Le Chouchou danced on his pedals up most of Galibier on his own. No team mate left to offer respite, no fellow-rider to work with. I was jumping up and down like Didi the Devil. With 8 km to go to the summit of Galibier, the lone Voeckler was only thirty seconds behind his main rivals. But then it seemed as if the elastic snapped. My heart went out to Le Chouchou.

Pushed near to the limits of human endurance, riders started tumbling over the massive Galibier and plummeting down into the Romanche Valley. Le Chouchou can go downhill. He can go downhill fast. When the riders regrouped just outside Bourg d’Oisans to swing right up Alpe-d’Huez, the man resplendent in yellow was right back in the bunch! Unbelievable!!

The attacks on Alpe-d’Huez didn’t only come early. They were relentless. Eventually the defending champion, Alberto Contador, fellow Spaniard Sanchez and the youngster, Rolland, got away. It was a do or die battle up the winding road. In the final twist Rolland managed to shake the Spaniards off his wheel to cross the line on his own. In one fell swoop the Frenchman was awarded not only the prix de la combativité for the most competitive rider, but also the white jersey for the best young rider. A jersey he would wear to the podium in Paris.

Late that afternoon, the Polka Dot jersey would fittingly be pulled onto the shoulders of Sanchez, an Euskatel Euskadi rider, a team renowned for their abilities in the tough mountain stages.

And at the top of Alpe-d’Huez Le Chouchou was out of yellow and down to fourth place in the Classement Général, also a position he would keep when Le Grande Boucle turned up the Champs-Élysées. When the day ended, Andy Schleck was draped in the maillot jaune, with brother Frank behind him in the General Classification and Evans in third place. With one stage to go the race was far from over.

Despite feeling utterly exhausted, as if I had run up Alpe d’Huez cheering Le Chouchou on, I was deeply satisfied. Out of yellow and off the podium in my beloved Paris, Voeckler was MY champion. When he realised that he wouldn’t have the legs to carry him through the switchbacks, he set the guy whose job it was to look after him, free. For ten days team Europcar had the eyes of the world focused on the yellow jersey and with Le Chouchou’s magnanimous gesture, the team was still represented on the podium on the last day of the race in the white jersey. The mark of a true champion.

The last real racing stage was a grueling 42.5 km individual time trial from Grenoble, through Vizille and Gières, back to Grenoble. But Voeckler was not going to lie down. He may have relinquished yellow, but he was not going to give up his fourth place. He rode the time trial of his life. For only the second time in thirteen encounters did he cross the finish line ahead of Andy Schleck, albeit not far enough ahead to claim a podium position. Evans, a consummate time trialist, not only leap frogged Frank and clawed back the fifty seven seconds he was behind Andy when he rolled out of the starting house, but he finished the stage nearly one and a half minutes ahead of Andy.

As the maillot jaune was pulled over Evan’s red BMC jersey at the end of Stage 20, the race was effectively over. Its only the outcome that still needed to be decided was the green jersey. In the final sprint on the Champs-Élysées that jersey went to Cavendish.

Yesterday I could sit back and watch the procession roll into Paris, past La Tour D’Argent, swinging across the Seine over Pont Royal just before the Musée d’Orsay, popping out of the tunnel at the feet of the golden statue of Joan of Arc before turning left onto Rue de Rivoli and sweeping across Place de la Concorde and finally down the magnificent Champs-Élysées.

La Grande Boucle is much, much more a mere bicycle race for me. It is more than the close to two hundred professional cyclists fighting it out annually on a rigorous course around l’Hexagone. It is more than the riders locked into a three week high stakes poker game with a new hand dealt each day. Some days for the sprinters, some days for the climbers, but every day for the team to sneak a look at their cards and to strategise and to play their hand close to their chest. Bluffs often pay off, as it did for Armstrong in 2001 on the winding road of the most hallowed mountain of the Tour, Alpe-d’Huez. Sometimes they don’t.

It is more than the human suffering, human spirit and human ability where the frontiers of endurance are crossed every day. On this level bluffs mostly don’t pay off. In the early days riders resorted to alcohol to dull the pain, but this was soon replaced by performance-enhancing drugs. A number of deaths and near deaths occurred on the Tour as a result of doping over the years, the most notable the death of Tom Simpson on the slopes of Mount Ventoux in 1967. Since 1965 performance-enhancing drugs have been illegal in France and the Tour saw the first anti-dope testing in 1966.

The Festina Affair of 1998 began when a soigneur for the team was caught in possession of illegal drugs which lead to race directeur at the time, Jean-Marie Leblanc, expelling the team from the tour. Today dope testing for every rider of a professional cycling team is in place – during the season and in the off season and is done by surprise to unsettle those who considered getting involved in systematic doping. Some reckon cycling is the ‘cleanest’ professional sport.

For me, Le Tour de France, La Grande Boucle, remains three weeks of dreaming, of wishing, of hoping. Of reflecting on what was, on what could have been and on what will never be. Of being inspired, being transported, being amazed. For me, it is one of those things where the whole is larger than the sum of its parts.

Some music musings: The most heard tune in my house every July is Musique podium official du Tour de France,

The photograph: No sooner had the France TV car sped off after knocking Fletcha and Hoogerland off their bikes on Stage 9 or this photo of the ‘prikkeldraad’ admonishing the driver appeared on the Internet.

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