As it does every year, the Tour de France makes you think about life choices.
So what did you do on Saturday? If you were someone sane you did stuff with the family, maybe some shopping, had a lie in, went out to the movies, gardening perhaps. Or you could have been a poor fool who for some unknown reason was born with a synapse in your head that sends impulses zinging around your brain that make you want to become a professional road cyclist. Even worse, you could have been born with the physique – wiry yet strong – and mentality – insanely dedicated and impervious to pain – that would have you aspire to be one of the “General Classification” riders in the Tour de France.
If so, you will have dedicated your life – forgoing normality and that aspect in life we mortals call fun – to getting selected on a professional racing team. And then more than that, you will seek to have a number that ends with a 1 on your back, for that will mean you are the leader of the team – the man around whom all else in the team will dedicate themselves.
Mountain bikes? You most likely did your stint. You may even have ridden on the track – perhaps some time trailing over a very lazy 4,000m. But not for you is the embanked oval. Not for you is the life of following round a motorbike in “Keirin” races. Not for you the hulking diet of Ryan Bayley types, who can brag about eating KFC before races.
No you have chosen a different path – the path less travelled perhaps, and definitely the path less travelled well. You have included yourself in a select group of a select group. There are those in the Tour who will be happy to finish – happy that they have served their master. There will be those who will have lusted for stage wins, who want nothing more than to ride 190km coasting along, only to go insane over the final 500m.
But that is not you either. You are among that group that is so far beyond special, that elite only touches at your definition.
Elite? What is that? Surely all in the Tour are elite. You are not elite; you are nothing less than a god cycling the earth.
There are 22 teams in the Tour. And yes some of the leaders like Thor Hushovd and Mark Cavendish are there for the Green Jersey, but of the 22 teams, we are down to six of whom remain.
Six out of 198 riders. Three per cent. But let’s not just say that – for many, many riders who many, many others would think of as elite didn’t make it to the Tour. Three per cent? Six out of 198? Try six out of 6.932 billion!
The rest? Done, well, tried hard, but go win yourself a stage, don’t bother us with your Yellow Jersey talk. Don’t bother us with your talk of how you like climbing mountains.
Talk is cheaper on the Tour than in just about any other sporting event.
You got a good team? Great, but they aren’t all going to be able to haul you up the side of a mountain.
You haven’t got a great team? Tough, look around you – it’s you and the other six out of 198. Are you better than them?
Six out 198.
Last night if you were one of that insane sextet. Here is what you faced:
The last climb – 15 km of calf muscle screaming silliness. What did you say about it? Cadel Evans. You’re one of the six, give us your views:
"It was a long, but not a steep climb.”
Not steep? Let’s describe it officially shall we:
Plateau de Beille - 15.8 km climb to 7.9 % - Category H
Only a 7.9% gradient. Pffft. Maybe for the other 192 that means something, but for the supreme six? Is that all you’ve got, earth?
Andy Schleck – you want to be more than just one of six, what say you?
"The climb wasn't selective enough”
Not selective enough?
Stuart O’Grady, Schleck’s team mate, had flogged himself stupid at the front of the peloton giving Schleck a nice pace. They were together at the start of the final climb. O’Grady ended up finishing 22 min 57 second behind. Now sure his race was done, but imagine losing nearly 23 minutes over 15 km.
How impervious to mathematics and logic are these riders? Here’s the 16th Stage:
What do you say? Do you say, Please Mum why on earth did you not slap some sense into me 25 years ago when I said, I want to be a bike rider? Do you ask your Dad why didn’t he give you a golf club and send you out so that you may complain about having to play in the wind and rain? (Yes Bo Van Pelt would describe walking around 18 holes as “"Brutal"; Trevor Immelman said it was like going "18 holes with the heavyweight champion of the world." Yeah, truly.)
But no you don’t say that, and you won’t even get any commentators saying it either. Instead you get this:
As we’re heading towards the Alps, this stage is not flat, which is what you would expect, but it isn’t too hard either as it just rises steadily throughout.
You’re riding 151 km on a steady rise of nearly 1,200m, but hey – quit your crying, it “isn’t too hard”.
What you need to look towards are two glorious selection sorting days in the Alps. Let’s start with Thursday and Stage 18:
Three Highest Classification climbs. Three chances to have a bit of a play of the game – can 6 become 5, or 4 or 3 or…
Here are the six:
|Standing||Rider||Rider number bib||Team||Time||Gaps|
|1||VOECKLER Thomas||181||TEAM EUROPCAR||61h 04' 10"|
|2||SCHLECK Frank||18||TEAM LEOPARD-TREK||61h 05' 59"||+ 01' 49"|
|3||EVANS Cadel||141||BMC RACING TEAM||61h 06' 16"||+ 02' 06"|
|4||SCHLECK Andy||11||TEAM LEOPARD-TREK||61h 06' 25"||+ 02' 15"|
|5||BASSO Ivan||91||LIQUIGAS-CANNONDALE||61h 07' 26"||+ 03' 16"|
|6||SANCHEZ Samuel||21||EUSKALTEL - EUSKADI||61h 07' 54"||+ 03' 44"|
|7||CONTADOR Alberto||1||SAXO BANK SUNGARD||61h 08' 10"||+ 04' 00"|
Ignore the first guy – Voekler. He did well to get through the Pyrenees retaining the Yellow Jersey (he did much the same in 2004 – but in the end in Paris he finished more than 35 minutes behind the winner, Armstrong, so he doesn’t count).
Frank Schleck doesn’t have the 1 at the end of his name, but he finished 6th and 5th in 2008 and 2009, so he’s a big show. So here’s who we have:
- Schleck, F
- Schleck, A
These six can look anyone else in the eye and know they are better than them when it comes to the overall.
Others may climb better; others may time trial better; many more will sprint better. But only these six can claim they have a chance at being able to look down on everyone. Everyone not only in the cycling world, but also we poor newts who when God was handing out muscles, stamina and intelligence, gave us neither the frame, nor lung capacity, nor insane drive.
At other times in the year there will be races – some important like the Giro in Italy, some magical in their brutality like the Paris–Roubaix – but this is the one time each year where the six get to look not so much into each other’s eyes, but each other’s souls. Getting left behind on a mountain stage in the Tour is not blinking in a starting contest, but more having your very life’s purpose crushed.
All those years without fun? Special diets? Life spent in Europe away from family and friends? Miles and miles of training done in heat, cold and wet? Well done, congratulations, valiant effort. But on this day it has been for nought. Maybe you should have tried golf?
Last night the Schlecks attacked up the hill. Evans and Basso reeled them in (Voekler doing his bit as well). Basso had a go – that too was covered. Evans tried once (covered).
Nothing was discovered, no one blinked. Each man’s reason for living remained intact.
Stage 18 may sort some out. But three idiotic climbs over mountains may not wreak the havoc one would think – especially as this is the last climb:
Col du Galibier (2 645 m) - 22.8 km climb to 4.9 % - Category H
Long, but not particularly steep. (Heard that before?)
But if you look closer you see the last kilometre is a lovely 9 per cent gradient. Expect attacks as well with 4 km to go – where the black shows another 9 per cent incline.
You can lose a lot of time in 4 km. Time enough to know that the sextet is now a quintet or perhaps a quartet ready to do a cycling version of Pachelbel's Canon. And at such a point you will know that the Tour de France game of musical chairs has found you standing when the music stopped.
And then – because why on earth would you expect any less – the very next day you get out your bike and head again along the sides of mountains, and face this:
Forget the first climb – they’ll all go up that together. It’ll all be won and lost (as it always is won and lost when the Tour regularly arrives here) on the final climb up Alpe-D’Huez.
Here’s how the Official website describes it:
The stage everyone is afraid of
For us gloriously non-deluded types who can enjoy the Tour not from atop a bicycle, but atop a couch – potato chips, beer and remote at hand – this is a wonderful stage. Short so it won’t keep us up too late, and on Friday night, so we can put the week behind us and get ready for the weekend by enjoying the delights of watching men’s souls crack open in agony.
The last climb? Have a look:
It starts with 2 km of at least 10 per cent incline. But the real fun begins with about 5km to – when the road tilts to the sky and goes up at 11.5 per cent.
The only guarantee is that by the end of this stage we and all those in the tour will know.
All will have been revealed.
Sure there will be a time trial the next day – but the likelihood is that will be for looks and for minor placings.
If you’re not there at the end of the Alpe-D Huez; if you’re not still looking at others in the eye; if you’re not still answering attacks and doing some yourself, then you, my friend, are no longer in the Tour.
Yes you will keep riding. Yes you will still have the number 1 on your back. Yes you will still get to Pairs. But you might as well be sitting on the couch next to us.
You didn’t come here to finish second, and you sure as hell didn’t come here to have your mouth open so wide gaping and groping for oxygen as you hit the 11.5 per cent gradient that some evil god was able to reach his hand inside and tear out your heart.
No other sport has this foreshadowing. Yes in a long distance running event packs will emerge and only the winners will come from the front. But in a marathon you don’t look at a point in the race and say – up till here everyone will be in it; after here only the best will remain. Mostly the pace will be constant and those who can keep up do, those who can’t, won’t.
In the Tour at the bottom of the Alpe-D Huez there will be a majority of the pack. Within 100m it will be a minority. Within a kilometre it will be a selection.
And the thinning will continue all the way up the climb.
Who will remain at the top? For Contador he not only has to be at the top – but also has to do it more than 2 minutes better than the rest – which is why I think only if Contador wins this stage may the time trial still be relevant to the final outcome.
Evans looked strong last night – but will he hold on when the real inclines take over. The Schlecks will work in tandem – it didn’t crack anyone last night, will it next Friday? Basso and Sanchez are less likely, but don’t tell them that – you don’t get to be one of the six by admitting self doubt.
The Tour – as it always does – comes down to a few moments – moments when the great is sorted out from the very good. Moments where viewers will hold their breath then scream for their champion; knowing the next 10 minutes will matter more than the rest of the entire tour. With a week to go we can foresee where they will happen; at this point we know to whom they will happen; but we have no idea of what the result will be.
Sport at its best.
As it is every year.