Four Wins, Four Things….

In honour of Chris Froome’s 4th Tour de France win, we look back at 4 things we learned from the 104th edition of the race…..

1) Team Sky can multi task.

Not content with having the rider who completed the course in the shortest amount of time on the team, Sky was also home to the rider who rode round France the slowest – Luke Rowe was this year’s Lanterne Rouge, 4 hours behind his leader Chris Froome.

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Road Captain, Lanterne Rouge….Team Sky show they can munti task with Luke Rowe

2) Team Sky have a thing about numbers…

It looks like 4 might well be Team Sky’s lucky number, which is good, because 9 clearly isn’t. Geraint Thomas crashed out of the race on Stage 9, on July 9th, wearing race number 9. Thomas had been in an excellent position at the Giro a few months earlier when a crash on Stage 9 of the Italian tour caused injuries which eventually saw Team Sky pull him from the race. (There was another 9 involved there too, as Thomas wore number 179, ooh spooky!) Perhaps next year they’ll put Geraint in the number 8 or something, or rename Stage 9 as Stage 8+1. One thing’s for sure, he won’t have the option of turning his race number upside down as is customary for rider 13. (I’ll leave you to think about that for a second – it took me a while to work out why that wouldn’t work….slow day, call me Rowe!)

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This is what happens when you wear number 9 apparently…Geraint’s jersey following his race-ending crash ob the Mont du Chat stage

3) It’s not all about Froome – Landa vs Portal, Kwiatokowski vs rear wheels.

This Tour gave us shades of the 2012 Wiggins v Froome drama when Mikel Landa rode away from a clearly struggling Froome in the closing 200m of the stage to Peyragudes. Briefly stumbling to work out why, commentators seemed relieved when some clever spark suggested that Landa was riding to try and steal some of the bonus seconds on offer to prevent them from going to Froome’s rivals. The angry scenes at the Team Sky bus following the stage seemed to suggest that this wasn’t the case – Directeur Sportif Nicolas Portal was so incensed with Landa’s attack that he couldn’t wait to question the Spaniard in the privacy of the team bus, deciding instead to have words and gesticulate at his rider in full view of the world’s press.

Team Sky’s winning ways didn’t stop at the yellow jersey, as they won the team prize and Michal Kwiatkowsi won Rouleur magazine’s Supreme Banana award. Throughout the race, Rouleur awarded a Top Banana prize to the ‘unsung hero of each stage’. Kwiato won the banana for his instantaneous morphing into a mechanic on the road to Le Puy en Velay on Stage 15. Froome broke a spoke on his rear wheel at a critical moment on the stage; both Froomey himself and Dave Brailsford fully recognise that this could easily have been the end of Team Sky’s grip on the yellow jersey. With an enviable sense of chill, the former World Champion Kwiatkowsi pulled up alongside his team leader, and calmly exchanged Froome’s broken back wheel for his own. It happened so quickly that it was only after the stage had finished that Kwiato’s heroics were appreciated in full. His wheel change was so quick, and Kwiatkowsi so calm, that the incident was almost downplayed.

Now that the Tour is over, we can all appreciate the brilliance of this moment, not to mention the other numerous brilliant Kwiato moments, like actually riding himself to a painful looking standstill on the Izoard, or the tweet he sent attached to a video of him casually throwing his (highly expensive) sunglasses away – “state of mind while you’re over the threshold” (you’ll be pleased to know he sent a follow up tweet the next day thanking Oakley for his replacements “back looking cool”). When presented with the Rouleur Supreme Banana, Kwiatkowsi replied “I was always aiming for the yellow banana on this Tour. Chris has only one yellow jersey, so I’m happy to have the yellow banana. It is yellow, yes?” (I hope he really did say that. They also asked what he was going to do with the Supreme Banana award, which is not actually one supreme specimen of the fruit, but a whole bunch of five. “I’m going to make a smoothie I guess”).

Look up super domestique in the dictionary and there’ll be a photo of Michal Kwiatkowsi, who may or may not be brandishing a banana. Kwiato the mechanic could well have won the Tour for Chris Froome.

4) Chris Froome has a cute baby.

 

Photos courtesy of Reuters, Geraint Thomas Instagram, ASO. Video footage courtesy of France TV and ASO.

On This Day in the Tour…21st July 2011

July 21st 2011

 

To understand the mindset of Andy Schleck as he hauled himself up the Galibier on 21st July 2011, it is necessary to cast your memory back to the previous year’s race, to Stage 15 of the 2010 Tour de France, to the last climb of the day on 19th July 2010, to Port de Balès, and to an event known as ‘Chaingate’.

Chaingate Revisited

Schleck was wearing the yellow jersey for Stage 15 of the 2010 edition of the race, 31 seconds ahead of his nearest rival, Alberto Contador. Further up the road, Frenchman Thomas Voeckler was no threat to the GC contenders, shielded from the drama about to unfold 2km from the summit of the day’s final climb. Hoping for more time to protect his lead in the General Classification – particularly in view of the upcoming Time Trial – Schleck chose to attack on the Port de Balès.

Schleck’s attack looked strong for a fleeting moment, before the rider ground to a standstill in front of confused fans at the roadside and TV cameras expecting to provide cover of every movement made by the yellow jersey. He’d dropped his chain, possibly as a result of changing gear on a steep incline in an aggressive attack. Contador, who was behind the maillot jaune when his chain dropped, rode past Schleck together with Denis Menchov and Sammy Sanchez, a strong group of three riders with serious podium ambitions. Meanwhile, the younger Schleck brother was watching Contador wrest the yellow jersey from his torso with every pedal stroke the three riders took towards the summit of the climb.

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Andy Schleck wrestles with a dropped chain, the infamous ‘Chaingate’ affair as captured by G. Watson

Panic set in as the Luxembourger was unable to put his chain back on, gesturing behind him, hands shaking, no team mates in sight. After a few seconds which seemed to last years, Schleck managed – albeit briefly – to resolve the chain issue. A spectator helped him to get back on the bike but he was unable to turn the pedals, and once again was playing the part of a very poor mechanic. After yet another interminable passage of seconds, Schleck appeared to have fixed the problem with his chain. Two gentleman pushed him uphill, allowing the yellow jersey to regain the momentum required to propel himself towards Port de Balès and the finish line at Bagneres-de-Luchon beyond.

“My Stomach is Full of Anger”

Spurred on by adrenaline and anger, the Luxembourger surged upwards towards the summit, cresting the top of the climb only 13 seconds behind Contador, Menchov and Sanchez, which was an astonishing achievement given the amount of time he could have lost. Schleck was now riding on his own in a desperate attempt to catch the Contador group. The stage was eventually won by Voeckler, who had managed to stay away all day. Schleck’s ride into Bageres-de-Luchon had done nothing to quell his emotions. “My stomach is full of anger” he seethed to the press, “I’m going to take my revenge on the Tourmalet”.

Unfortunately for the former yellow jersey, the much hyped Tourmalet stage, which took place two days after the Chaingate incident, failed to produce the time gaps which would have put the Luxembourger back in yellow, although Schleck did win the stage, the drama and tension heightened by the heavy veil of cloud which had settled at the summit. Schleck – by now wearing the white jersey of the race’s best young rider – was only visible as he crossed the finish line, bearing not an expression of happiness but of grim determination, the white jersey indistinguishable from the cloud from which he emerged. Schleck realised his yellow dreams were over – Contador remained, limpet like, stuck to his back wheel, seeming to already radiate the golden glow of a winner, as what little light available picked out the colour of the maillot jaune, smudged and blurred into the clouds that clung heavily to the Spaniard.

It was this realisation – that the jersey had escaped him – that drove Andy Schleck throughout the following years’ Tour de France. Unsurprisingly, Chaingate became the defining moment of the 2010 pro cycling season. Debate still swirled as to whether Contador was wrong to attack when he did. Some camera angles seemed to suggest that the Spaniard had launched an attack of his own before Schleck had dropped his chain, and that the momentum of this forward movement on such a steep climb would not have allowed for him to sit up. The fact that the time lost by the Luxembourger on that stage – 39 seconds – was the exact time by which Contador won the Tour only perpetuated the sometimes hostile debate.

Bubbling Beneath

Despite remaining friends with Contador and setting aside their different points of view on the drama of 2010, Chaingate bubbled beneath the usually calm exterior of Andy Schleck. The younger Schleck brother was desperately seeking a mountain to duel with – this time Schleck intended to be fighting himself and the cruelty of nature, as opposed to carbon fibre and Spanish steel.

In the back of his mind, Schleck could not be confident that Chaingate was the cause of his drop down to the 2nd step of the Paris podium, and this was like taking sandpaper to his hard fought confidence. Both Schleck brothers, and Andy in particular, were prone to losing time on the descents. They could climb, but had trouble getting back down again. Adrenaline had almost allowed Schleck to catch up to the group of three riders who had attacked his mechanical incident in 2010. Nerves and fear saw him haemorrhaging time all over the road to Bagneres-de-Luchon. Questions haunted Andy as to whether his 39s deficit was actually lost through his comparatively poor descending skills as opposed to the breaking of the unwritten rule on protecting the race leader and not attacking mechanical problems.

Galibier Anoints

Schleck came to the 2011 Tour de France to settle old scores with himself. He’d targetted one stage for his personal redemption – the epic Stage 18, which was designed to honour the 100th anniversary of the Tour’s first visit to Galibier. The stage was set – a high mountain amphitheatre, 200km starting from Pinerolo over the Italian border, taking in iconic climbs of the Col d’Izoard and Col du Galibier, ending at the ski resort of Serre Chevalier. Even many of the principal characters were the same. Thomas Voeckler was again cast in a non-speaking role, as the race leader in yellow.

Schleck planned to attack on the Col d’Izoard, dreaming of riding away from the rest of the race, into the clouds and into the yellowing pages of the Tour’s history books. The attack worked, Schleck was soon sweeping up a large breakaway, riding alone at the head of the race . The first half of Andy’s Tour had looked disappointing and lacked sparkle. He was prepared to try the Izoard plan knowing that at the end of the day he’d either be bathed in glory or collecting the debris from a shattered campaign. As the younger Schleck forged ahead, his attack took on the hue of one of the fantastic unexpected Tour endurance feats – the great race encourages great bravery and defiance in the company of adversity.

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Riding towards a famous win on Galibier, 2011. Photo courtesy of Bettini.

Andy Schleck was steadily securing his 2nd place in the race with every pedal stoke. Team BMC’s podium hope (and eventual Tour winner) Cadel Evans saw his dream of Parisien victory laps evaporating, and was forced to give chase. Although he clawed back precious seconds, Evans could only look up the road towards the finish line as his rival forged on alone. Schleck and Evans were igniting the race like the legendary riders of the interwar era. 

Schleck won a famous victory on Galibier, wresting his demons as well as the road and his carbon fibre machine.  The time he took from Thomas Voeckler saw him winning the yellow jersey with only two days to go before the race heaved itself wearily onto the road to Paris. Unfortunately for the younger Scheck brother, one of these days was an individual time trial, which he would start as race leader, but finish with a Poulidorean air in second place – once again the race’s Nearly Man.  

Whilst the 2010 edition of the race is remembered for Chaingate, the 2011 edition could easily have been looked upon as the race that Schleck lost, rather than the race Cadel Evans won. Instead, the 2011 Tour de France is remembered for an epic battle – an audacious and almost foolhardy dash from the slopes of the Izoard towards the myth of Galibier.  As in fairy tales and legends, a small man with unequalled courage picked a fight with a giant; with uncertain chance of victory.  The intricate tapestry that is the history of the Tour is sewn together with tales like the one Schleck enacted on the Col du Galibier, it is what the race was made for, its purpose to create and narrate stories.  Schleck, in the end, wrote his own final chapter to this three act play. 

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Crossing the finish line of an emphatic victory. Photo courtesy of Bettini.

 

Characters of the Peloton, The Bad Boy

Part Two of a mini series by Girl With The Marco Pantani Tattoo

Since the Tour lost two riders in *that* controversial incident on Stage 4, the peloton has been down two of its biggest characters.  I went on a mission to find out who could step up to the mark since the loss of…well, Mark. And Peter.

The Bad Boy, Nacer Bouhanni

Nacer Bouhanni likes to live life on the edge – the edge of being mildly annoyed and full on I’m-going-to-punch-you-in-the-face. It probably won’t come as a surprise to learn that he used to be a boxer, and plans to continue with that profession when he’s hung up his bike and helmet.

Bouhanni wasn’t at the Tour last year – he’d been involved in an ‘incident’ the night before the French National Championships. His team, Cofidis issued a carefully worded statement which claimed that Bouhanni had ‘suffered incessant noise at night from individuals present at the adjoining hotel room. Nacer asked them to stop the nuisance and was then assaulted by these alcoholic people’. His I’m-going-to-punch-you-in-the-face side appears to have taken over, and he punched someone in the face. Cofidis politely explained that ‘he was wounded in his hand and taken to the emergency room for four stitches’. L’Equipe reported that he’d broken someone’s tooth; later reports claimed that his adversary had lost two teeth. Cofidis initially explained that, whilst he hadn’t been able to compete the National Championships, his Tour preparation wasn’t in jeopardy. This proved erroneous, as eventually Bouhanni had to undergo surgery on the injured hand.

Bouhanni’s boxing background also follows him onto the bike. He was disqualified from a 2016 Paris-Nice stage win for irregular sprinting – he’d deviated from his line to swerve into Michael Matthews, who he then leaned heavily on, with both riders somehow remaining upright. Bouhanni was also involved in a controversial finishing sprint at the 2016 Dauphiné, where several clashes between the Cofidis and Katusha lead-out trains were reported. Bouhanni headbutted rival Alexandre Kristoff in a chaotic run to the line which saw at least one other headbutt from the Cofidis team, and Katusha employing similar combative tactics against Orica-Scott.

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Bouhanni and Matthews during Stage 2 of Paris-Nice, 2016 (Credit: Tim De Waele)
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Getty Images captured the Paris-Nice incident, 2016
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The Bad Boy of the peloton? (Credit: Sky Sports)

Of course, anyone watching the Tour this year will be aware of Bouhanni’s temperament, with the Frenchman earning a fine and time penalty for throwing a punch at Quickstep-Floors rider Jack Bauer during the run-in to the finish line on Stage 10. The decision to dock the Cofidis rider one minute was almost laughable given that he’s way down in the overall standings and isn’t racing for GC. It was even more controversial in the wake of the Sagan-Cavendish incident, which could have been unintentional. Punching someone during a high speed bike race arguably endangers fellow riders much more than Sagan extending an elbow to balance himself – if that is indeed what happened.

This year, the battles between sprinters continued long after they dismounted from their bikes. FDJ’s Jacopo Guarnieri called the Cofidis rider an ‘idiot’ and a ‘dick’ after Guarnieri claimed that Bouhanni deliberately hit his handlebars during the Stage 6 sprint. ‘He doesn’t like me and I don’t like him as well. He’s a dick, he’s always making people crash. We know he’s like that. He’s probably upset with us because he always loses’.

Whether the Frenchman deserves his reputation as the bad boy of the peloton probably depends on whether or not you’re a fan of aggressive sprints, and Cofidis have repeatedly been at pains to explain that Bouhanni reacts to indiscretions against him and doesn’t lash out indiscriminately. Indeed, Jack Bauer didn’t seem overly concerned about Bouhanni’s aggression towards him during Stage 10. ‘There was a little bit of contact, but there was no incident in my eyes’.

A quick glance at his Twitter feed gives as good indication of Nacer’s personality – a lot of photos of him winning stages, usually a thanks to his team, some boxing related re-tweets, and videos of the man himself throwing some – legitimate – punches with gloves on, plus the odd retort in answer to choice words from rivals. One thing is for sure -when Nacer is racing, it won’t be boring!

 

On This Day in the Tour…2003

14th July 2003

2003, and Lance Armstrong is aiming for his record-equalling fifth consecutive Tour de France win. It would be almost a decade before he was stripped of all seven of his wins after the truth about the US Postal Team’s doping programme was revealed. As for many of his Tour attempts, Armstrong believed that Jan Ullrich would be his closest rival in the 2003 race. Ullrich had signed with Team Coast at the start of the year, but the sponsor had run into financial difficulties and the title sponsorship was eventually taken on by Bianchi, which secured the team’s entry into the Tour.

Ullrich’s presence at the race, and the number of other possible yellow jersey rivals, meant that the 2003 Tour was much more competitive than Armstrong’s previously dominant victories. Two of Lance’s biggest rivals, ex teammate Tyler Hamilton and fellow American Levi Leipheimer were involved in a heavy crash early in the race. Leipheimer was forced to abandon, yet Hamilton continued with a broken collarbone. This left Jan Ullrich and the Spaniard Joseba Beloki as the biggest threats to the dominance of the US Postal Team.

Beloki had the ability to perform well in both mountain stages and time trials, and was only 40 seconds behind Armstrong in the General Classification at the start of Stage 9, which was held on 14th July. Beloki’s all round ability had seen him share the final podium in Paris with Lance in the previous three editions of the Tour – as 3rd in 2000 and 2001, moving up to 2nd in 2002. His skill and proximity to the yellow jersey as Stage 9 began meant that the US Postal Team had to mark his every move as the stage took the riders from Le Bourg d’Oisans to Gap.

Although the stage win on 14th July 2003 went to the Kazakh rider Alexandre Vinakourov, his win is overshadowed by an incident on the road between Beloki and Armstrong. 4 kilometres from the finish line in Gap, Beloki was descending from Cote de La Rochette after negotiating the mountain pass of Col de Manse. Attempting to eat into Armstrong’s lead, Beloki appeared to be taking risks on the descent. Armstrong was determined not to let the Spaniard escape, and stuck to his wheel as the pair descended into Gap.

Beloki, riding directly in front of Armstrong, negotiated a difficult turn at high speed, and panicked as he realised the severe angle of the corner. In a split second, Beloki lost control of his bike, applied his rear brake, and locked the back wheel. The heat of the day had partially melted the road surface, with the result that the rear end of his bike swayed wildly in both directions. Beloki crashed heavily, suffering career threatening injuries. His elbow and wrist were broken, and his femur was fractured in two places.

With barely a fraction of a second to react, Armstrong aimed his bike straight ahead in order to avoid hitting Beloki, and rode straight off the road across a ploughed field. The road curved around the edge of the field, which allowed Armstrong to travel a short distance across the rutted field, before leaping off his bike and carrying it across a ditch. Armstrong quickly remounted and continued with the race. The entire incident lasted only a handful of seconds but served as a metaphor for the Armstrong era as a whole. Lance – riding with performance enhancing substances in his system, was gifted a hefty dose of luck to match his undeniable talent. “That man was in complete control” exclaimed race commentator Paul Sherwen, “Armstrong is such a star!”

Beloki’s career as an elite rider was cut short that day, as he attempted to ride away from Lance. The scene only added to the Armstrong legend.

On This Day in the Tour….1967

13th July 1967

The 1967 Tour is infamous for one thing – the death of Tom Simpson, although unless you’re a cycling fan or student of Tour history you might not be fully aware of the whole story of what happened on 13th July 1967. Since the doping scandals of recent decades, Tour organisers ASO and some of the British cycling establishment have almost been afraid to mention Tom Simpson and what happened not far from the summit of Mont Ventoux. The fact that Simpson was carrying vials of amphetamines in his jersey pocket that day cannot be ignored, nor should it be. Doping is an indisputable if unpleasant part of the history of the Tour.

There had been an opportunity for the 2017 edition to acknowledge this history by visiting Mont Ventoux today, the 50th anniversary of Simpson’s death on the slopes of the mountain; however the organisers decided not to include the Giant of Provence in this years route, which many feel was a ploy to avoid having to address difficult questions.

Instead, many of Simpson’s friends, family, and fans will make their way to Provence in order to remember Tom Simpson – Bradley Wiggins will be amongst those on Ventoux today, posting a photo on his Twitter page yesterday at the foot of the mountain. Another Tour legend, Eddy Merckx, will also be amongst those making the pilgrimage to Provence.

Jeremy Whittle, author of Ventoux: Sacrifice and Suffering on the Giant of Provence, feels that the Tour organisers’ refusal to even acknowledge what happened in the race 50 years ago today was wrong. “Marking his death’s 50th anniversary would not suggest a glib acceptance of doping…it would simply be respectful and accepting…fans who knew him show more compassion for his memory than the organisers of the race in which he died”. It seems bizarre that, while the Tour appears ashamed to whisper the name ‘Simpson’, Virenque is still invited to ASO events with others who have been involved with performance enhancing substances. Much like the snubbing of Ullrich at this years’ launch event in Germany, it seems some dopers have been completely forgiven and rehabilitated within the sport, whilst others are ignored or erased from Tour history.

By attempting to whitewash the events of 13th July 1967, ASO are disregarding one of the trigger events in the development of anti-doping regulations – a development which is still ongoing. Simpson’s story also serves to highlight the pressure riders experience during Grand Tours and other key races in the cycling calendar. Simpson’s team mates had grown concerned for his health in the days leading up to his death. On Stage 10, they had urged him to abandon due to stomach problems, yet his manager felt that Simpson should continue. A number of biographers have suggested that some were pressing Simpson to continue for the positive effect his presence at the Tour would have upon his – and by extension their – financial situation. The negative impact that leaving the Tour would have upon his earnings and earning potential could have persuaded Simpson to continue. Others suggest that once Simpson pulled on the British national jersey, he had it within his power to ‘ride himself to death’.

Stage 13 of the 1967 Tour began in Marseille, traversing 211.5km of mountainous road, before finishing in Carpentras after the 13 mile climb of Ventoux and descent down the other side. The heat that day was intense, and once the race left the tree line on the lower slopes of the mountain there was no respite from the beating sun. The Tour’s doctor was concerned that the combined effect of the heat and the climb would be dangerous to rider’s health, allegedly saying to a journalist “if the boys stick their nose in a topette (bag of drugs) today, we could have a death on our hands”.

Simpson appeared to be suffering even before the race had started. Asked on the start line if he was finding the heat a problem, he replied “No, it’s not the heat, it’s the Tour”. A key moment in the story of Stage 13 came whilst the riders were still covering the tree-lined section of the road to Mont Ventoux. Simpson appeared to leave his bike by the side of the road to fill his bottle from a building alongside the race route. One of the race officials, Jacques Lohmutter, confirmed to Simpson’s mechanic Harry Hall that he had filled the bottle with brandy. A team mate had visited a cafe earlier in the day and also procured brandy, which he had shared with Simpson. Simpson had also taken two vials of amphetamine, with a third full tube stowed in his jersey. This cocktail was to prove lethal when combined with the heat and exertion.

At the start of the climb, fellow riders noted tat Simpson was not in a good way. He did not respond when offered a drink of water by Lucien Aimar, a rider in a group of five who overtook Simpson a few kilometres from the summit. Aimar was worried. “His behaviour was completely bizarre”. Almost a mile from the summit, Simpson was weaving across the road in a dazed state. His mechanic gew increasingly concerned that Simpson would not be able to descend in his present state.

Simpson fell from his bike approximately half a mile from the summit. Hall jumped out of his vehicle and told Simpson that his Tour was over. Tom refused to heed his pleas, and declared “no, get me up, get me straight”. The team manager, Alec Taylor, told Hall that if Tom wanted to continue, so be it. Hall was unsettled by this, as Simpson was rambling and incoherent. The last words he heard him utter were “on, on, on” – not the famous “put me back on my bike” that is often quoted.

After remounting, initially it appeared that Simpson would reach the summit. He didn’t. Weaving all over the road, spectators held him up, and then lowered him to the ground upon seeing his glazed eyes and dazed appearance. Simpson had lost consciousness with his hands locked to his handlebars. A nurse from the Tour’s medical staff attempted CPR. Eventually an oxygen mask was procured by the Tour’s doctor, Dumas.

Almost three quarters of an hour after Simpson collapsed, he was taken by helicopter to Avignon hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Dumas would not sign a death certificate, and an autopsy was commissioned. Simpson’s death was attributed to heat exhaustion. Hall believes that he was dead by the time he was lowered to the ground.

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Part Two, After 13th July 1967, will be available soon. 

On This Day in the Tour……1995

12th July 1995.

The 1995 Tour was beyond heartbreaking for the Italians, the Motorola Team, the global peloton, fans of the sport and the cycling world in general. Olympic gold medallist and Motorola Team member Fabio Casartelli crashed along with several other riders on Stage 15, with fatal consequences. The race was on the descent of the Col de Portet d’Aspet in the Pyrenees, when the tragedy occurred. Casartelli struck a concrete block on the side of the road, and it was immediately apparent that something terrible had happened. Casartelli was taken by helicopter to the nearest hospital where it was confirmed that he had not survived the incident. Today, a memorial to his memory stands beside the Pyrenean road where he crashed, and his death still evokes strong emotions. Casartelli had not been wearing a helmet, and some argued that there would have been a different outcome if he had been.

Six days prior to the terrible tragedy on the Col de Portet d’Aspet, the tifosi had been celebrating the arrival of a new Italian superstar bike rider, when Marco Pantani won Stage 10 from La Plagne to L’Alpe d’Huez. Prior to entering the mountains, Italians Fabio Baldato and Mario Cipollini had already given Italy something to cheer about, with three stage wins between them. Pantani had been steadily breaking into the consciousness of the cycling world since his days as a Junior, with his incredible climbing skill and daring attacks when the road kicked up. Pantani drove his coaches mad with his preferred style of attack – sit at the very back of the race before tearing past everyone and climbing into the clouds; a risky strategy which could easily see a rider sustain heavy time losses.

A few days prior to the Alpe d’Huez stage, Pantani was considering abandoning the race. A small adjustment to the cranks on his bike had altered his position and caused an old injury to flare up. When the race entered Belgium at the end of the first week, the pain was unbearable. In a desperate effort to keep the Italian in the race, an osteopath was found to work his magic. Miraculously it worked, allowing Marco the opportunity to enter the mountains with the peloton and showcase his panache and flair when climbing.

Thirteen kilometres from the finish line on 12th July, the Italian climber attacked in his usual style, coming up from behind until he reached a group of three elite riders – Laurent Dufaux, fellow Italian Ivan Gotti, and the darling of the French cycling world, Richard Virenque, who were he leaders on the road. Sensing Marco’s intentions, Gotti accelerated away from Virenque and Dufaux before Pantani was able to catch the triumvirate. His previous two companions were unable to match his speed, and Gotti broke away from the group. Marco was a different proposition however, and he sailed past Virenque and Dufaux to gain Gotti’s wheel. Not content to sit on, Pantani launched another attack; dancing on the pedals, he rode away from his compatriot. No one was able to catch Marco that day, and as he wasn’t a contender for the General Classification, his move hadn’t panicked the bunch.

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He might not have panicked the bunch, but Pantani did manage to briefly panic the tifosi and anyone else watching his escapades as he approached the finish line. At the 250m to go mark, there was a curve in the road which Marco appeared not to see until the very last moment. A collective exhale was made by the spectators as Pantani realised he was heading straight for the crowd barriers and the exit point for race vehicles instead of the finish line. Braking in time, Marco finally made the turn and rode to victory on Alpe d’Huez, a mountain that proved good to him throughout his career. To this day, Pantani is the holder of the record for the fastest ascent of the Alpe – although not without some debate. The controversy of the feat having been achieved during the EPO era not withstanding, different sources quote various times for the fastest climb of the mountain due to discrepancies between the accepted start point for the ascent. It is generally accepted by mainstream cycling publications and the Alpe d’Huez tourist board that Pantani’s 1997 ascent is the fastest – in 37 minutes and 35 seconds, with an average speed of 23.08kph. Others claim that 1995 was faster, quoting figures of 36 minutes and 40 seconds at 22.58kph. A third time of 36 minutes and 50 seconds is recorded elsewhere.

Whilst the figures may be in doubt, one thing is for sure – on 12th July 1995, Marco Pantani stamped his authority on the ascent, and announced himself as one of the finest climbers of his generation.

Photo courtesy of L’Equipe.

Characters of the Peloton – The Quiet One

Part One of a mini series by Girl With The Marco Pantani Tattoo

Since the Tour lost two riders in *that* controversial incident on Stage 4, the peloton has been down two of its biggest characters.  I went on a mission to find out who could step up to the mark since the loss of…well, Mark. And Peter.

The Quiet One, Alberto Contador

If you’re not social media savvy you might be forgiven for wondering why I’ve picked ‘Bertie’ (as Contador is affectionately called online) as one of my characters of the peloton. An extraordinary rider, Contador’s post-race interviews tended – until recently – to be in rapid-fire Spanish, with a focus on the day’s tactics and tomorrow’s hopes. You’ll not catch Alberto indulging in a victory jig as he crosses the finish line like Sagan, and, perhaps due to his perceived seriousness, he is never asked the more off-the-wall questions that some of his peers attract.

Yet behind his steely exterior and ridiculously high pain threshold, Alberto Contador is an animal lover with a cheeky sense of humour, which is definitely being showcased now that he’s confident to conduct interviews in English.

Matt Stephens of Global Cycling Network (GCN) has a particularly good rapport with the Spanish rider; check out the YouTube video below to see Bertie lightheartedly mock the former British pro during an interview conducted on a training ride with Alberto’s previous Tinkoff team.

A quick glimpse at Contador’s Instagram feed tells you many things about his interests outside of cycling. I first discovered his love of animals when he posted an amusing photo of his dog wearing the red leaders’ jersey from the Vuelta, amusingly captioned in Spanish ‘I don’t know what was harder, winning the Vuelta or getting the jersey on my dog’.

Contador’s social media is full of photographs of him and his dog, aptly named Tour, as well as various other dogs and friendly animals that he’s come across on his travels. Invariably there’s a sweetly amusing caption to go with each photo. One of my favourite videos on Contador’s Instagram shows him cycling round his apartment with Tour following. It makes me smile that we get to see this side of him.

Don’t forget to visit Bertie’s Instagram page for amusing photographs of food, funny faces and furry friends much like these…

Photos courtesy of Alberto Contador, Instagram, Video thanks to GCN.