By Graeme Fife
No Prologue. Cut to the chase and to business straight from the gun. Had the sprinters leafing through the route book, thinking ‘Where do we come in?’ No time, check out the opener: big lump at the end of stage one, the Flanders men smiling, at least, Gilbert with his hair dyed blonde. They don’t do superstition in cobble-land. No time to draw breath and… team time trial – they all hate that: nervy, exposed, let the rest down if you miss a turn, come out of the bend too quick, brain and body on a hot rivet. And it happened: Eisel down, HTC twiddling their pedals to wait, but they don’t need the seconds. Contador, however… Except that it got his dander up. Lost more time on what he’d lost earlier and so, here he was, only stage 4, scrapping with Evans for the win on Britanny’s Mûr.. (The locals insist on the circumflex – it turns a wall into ripe and mellow. Ha ha. Not this day. Evans showing some teeth. An encouraging sign.)
So now we have Cancellara bitching about Brittany. Narrow roads? To hell with narrow roads. Forgetting that other Hell he’s done, seems he’d rather have motorways, big roads for the big bike race. Perhaps Spartacus is thinking more Cacophonix. The man, maybe, being in decline against the clock (Martin his martel…hammer) hankering for the lone highway mindset, without all these other riders to bother about. Sure, it rained. So you adjust. The Bretons, for sure, wouldn’t be having any truck with whingeing Belgians. Imagine Hinault sympathising. But, the crashes came and too many good men hit the deck and stayed there. It’s the hazard of bike racing and nothing can eliminate the momentary lapse, the crass idiocy – the team car barging through to deliver bidons to their bloke and bustling another rider out of the way is the least culpable of the moronic incidents. The casualty list was dire. For them all, the men who went out on the tarmac, let Brakjovic, Van den Broeck, Vinokourov, Wiggins speak the wholesale calamity. It’s always rotten to witness, you feel the awful thud of frail bone on unforgiving metal. Vino? End of the 2011 road, end of the road, fullstop. Wretched way to finish. Wiggo, in the form of his life. I saw him at the Dauphiné. He said he’d learnt from the failure of last year – sure, failure, didn’t step up to the responsibilities of leadership. Mark it, responsibility. It takes more than talent on the bike, you need to be able to look away from the bike and adapt. This he was doing. Learnt some more trade-craft and looked a different man.
So, too, Cavendish. Allan Peiper had a word with him. Look after the others, mate, learn the métier. Okay, he needs the hostility to fire him up but no more petulance. (Hushovd asking to take all the deducted points for the fracas which had them both penalised? Speaks volumes. Think of the two of them at each other’s throats two years back.) So, the rules are changed, you adapt. Cav goes for the intermediates, now, shaping like a complete racer, because that’s the way to green. Never complain: ride the course they give you. Greipel beats you one day, you respond in kind.
A bitter symbolism in the television car carting Hoogerland into the barbed wire and shafting Flecha into Voeckler. TV dictates the times of the race and TV gets evicted from the race, good show. Prudhomme had just told all cars to give priority to the team vehicles and to stay away from the riders. Perhaps the fact that he didn’t mention the verge-side trees gave the TV cretin his licence to attempted murder.
Voeckler in yellow. (Beginning of the season the second-string Europcars weren’t even sure of a ride.) He’ll keep it to Luz-Ardiden was the safe money, Pyrenees is where the Schlecks start to tear it up. Except they didn’t, or couldn’t. It ought to be a simple job to dish Contador (possibly): harassing changes of rhythm, the old one-two, jab jab and paf with the uppercut. No. Didn’t come, and Evans lurks, imperturbable, an encouraging sign. And Rolland. I watched him, Rolland, riding this, his third Tour, never done much before, but the Europcar, or rather the Bernaudeau, collectivity really does seem to be more, a lot more, than psycho-babble. It bloody works. Observe. Rolland was leading his boss up the slopes looking as if he could ride all day. Well, he was riding all day, and Voeckler began to inhabit the jersey like a real champion, not a short-term tenant.
Cav was clocking them up. One French wise-cracker asked (you know what they’re like): ‘Where was Cavendish born? The Isle of Man? Oh, no. Cavendish was born in Chateauroux in 2008 and reborn in 2011.’ The day, alas, of his ex-track partner Wiggins’ demise. The day after Sky’s first stage win. Boasson Hagen, the other Norwegian, who swept across the line in Normandy, named for the Norsemen who settled there. Sweet historical synchrono. And Chateauroux was once a fief of the English crown, so touché on that, too, another symbolic reclamation of territory.
Having moaned about the descent into Gap – ridiculous, dangerous, nasty nasty, pooh – Andy Schleck finally shrugged off the amiable come-what-may attitude and wrote a great page in Tour history, Merckx urging him on through Prudhomme’s sunroof. It was indeed superb, 60km out there and riding at some sublime level of power and concentration that forged the Tour’s Mr Nice Guy anew. Then, too, former shrinking violet Evans, cursing the others for not helping, into the headwind, up the valley to the highest stage finish ever in the Tour, Giant of the Alps, finally realised it was his to do, or not, his race to win, his, or not, and he dug in, the amazing Voeckler and Rolland still there, like the shadows of his old uncertainty. On the rooftop of the Tour, Evans tightening what looked like an unshakeable grip, therefore and Voeckler still in yellow, at the cost of being hardly able to breathe, talk, walk, function. A new level of racing? Hardly. The old level resurfacing clean.
Snapshot: top of the Galibier, Thomas arrives, shepherding Uran for the white jersey, gets to the line, glances back, seeing him in, almost tenderly. He’s got the works, Thomas, and he looks after the others, as well. Responsibility, it’s an essential, to the team, to yourself.
Next day, Contador, the podium slipping away from him, hitting the front on the Télégraphe, saving honour, at least, going for broke and broke is a place we have not seen for years. Contador is, I think, one of those men whose route to the earning of deepest respect lay in the fight back and he was delivering it. The stage was short, the climbers were being invited to attack early and it was happening – at the expense of the intermediate sprint…In Bourg, foot of the Alpe? Given the striking enterprise of the race route as a whole, this was daft. What was wrong with Valloire, outskirts of the Galibier? Hmm.
On the Alpe, another moment of Tour history. Voeckler to Rolland: ‘Go.’ And, as if charged with some force of the mystic tradition of the race, Rolland not only went but, riding in company with Contador and Sanchez towards the finish, knowing that his boss was slipping out of yellow, he turned in the saddle and scoped the Spaniards, once, twice, thrice and with magnificent disdain, haughty as a matador performing the Verónica, he soared off, victory, white jersey, both ears and the tail. (Okay, listen up: the Verónica is where the matador stands stockstill and looks away, into the crowd as the bull brushes past his cape, close as Veronica’s veil wiping the sweat from Christ’s brow on the way to Calvary.)
It was Evans’ win and taken with power – seven seconds off Martin in the time-trial, that showed the core of his all-out tenacity this year where, bad luck aside, he’d shied away before. But it was Voeckler’s Tour. A second division team, ten days in yellow, stage win, white jersey, 4th overall. Wow. And the Norwegians, only two of them there, but four stages and Hushovd trashing the curse of the rainbow jersey with the force of a Viking’s hawk on the stoop. And… oh, yes, Cav… Cavendish, of course, as they say in France.