Stage 18 of the 2004 Tour de France between Annemasse and Lons-le-Saunier should have been a routine day. It was sandwiched in between the final mountain stage and the penultimate day’s time trial, the wearer of the yellow jersey Lance Armstrong had a good four minute lead over Ivan Basso and the terrain was hilly. You wouldn’t have got very good odds on there being a breakaway and the GC men staying quiet before rolling in together at the finish. However, the day ended up becoming the definition of the omerta which helped keep the ‘EPO era’ running.
The inevitable breakaway was established early on in the day and contained six riders. As the gap grew the Italian rider Filippo Simeoni decided that he wanted a piece of the action and broke from the peloton and started bridging over to the group. Bizarrely though so did Lance Armstrong. The two eventually made it up to the head of the race but once Armstrong started taking turns the peloton, lead by T-Mobile, started the chase. They couldn’t let Armstrong gain more time so it seemed that the breakaway was doomed. Soon Armstrong and Simeoni started arguing and Vicente Garcia Acosta, who was in the original break, joined in the heated discussion. The upshot of the debate was that Armstrong and Simeoni dropped away from the break to rejoin the peloton and the attackers were allowed to go off and contest the stage win.
What was all that about then? It was explained by many at the time as the consequence of a long term rift between two men. Filippo Simeoni had testified in a court case against Dr Michele Ferrari in 2002 where the ‘infamous doctor’ was defending a charge of sporting fraud ans the abuse of the position of pharmacist. During the trial Simeoni confessed that Ferrari prescribed him with products such as EPO and Human Growth Hormone while he was in his care.
There have plenty of great stage 17’s at the Tour de France in recent times. Often it contains the final mountain top finish of the race so has the potential for plenty of drama. So I had to choose two stages for today:
Stage 17 of the 2008 Tour de France had all the ingredients to turn it into a classic. It was was one of the closes races in years, only 8 seconds separated Frank Schleck in 1st and Cadel Evans in 3rd and the top five were all within 1 minute 13 seconds of each other. It was also the final mountain stage with its finale taking part on Alpe d’Huez. Perfect.
The battle to win the Tour that day was going to be between the climbers and the time trialists. Frank Schleck, his CSC teammate Carlos Sastre and Bernhard Kohl knew they needed to put time into Evans and Denis Menchov as the penultimate stage that year was going to a 53 km test against the clock. It was reckoned 2 minutes would have done the trick.
Schleck and Sastre had the advantage of having the strongest team. They had been aided well in the mountains by Frank’s younger brother. Andy Schleck was taking part in his first Tour and held the white jersey. There is a little mentioned story that tells of Frank Schleck proclaiming to some journalists: “If you think I am good then wait till you see my brother”. Andy was living up to his hype. Cadel Evans’ Silence-Lotto team by contrast had been letting him down every time the road went up.
Cycling is a sport where you get to witness some tremendous, and some unbelievable feats. Sudden attacks can move you to the edge of your seat and long range attacks can leave you mesmerised, staring at your TV for hours willing a brave rider towards victory. Then there are the times when a rider begins to crack. I wouldn’t say watching these moments are as enjoyable, there is certainly no rejoicing, but I wouldn’t miss them for the world. There is a type of voyeuristic fascination with seeing an old champion or new contender failing in their quest.
When I first started following cycling it was at the start of Miguel Indurain’s five Tours in a row. There was certainly no pizazz about the way he won those titles but I enjoyed watching non the less. The Tour de France was the only race I could watch back then, I hadn’t seen any other way to win a Grand Tour, and the way Indurain powered through the three weeks was impressive to me. That’s why it was so absorbing to watch him fall away from his rivals in 1996 seeing for the first time that what I thought was a machine was in fact human.
Going into stage sixteen Indurain was in 8th, 4 minutes 38 seconds behind the leader Bjarne Riis. He had already had a terrible day, his first at the Tour in over five years, on stage 7 when he bonked on towards the top of the final climb Les Arcs. After a decent time trial, where he equalled Tony Rominger’s time, and finishing with the favourites in Sestriere though his fans hoped that he would preform a miraculous comeback on the final two mountain stages. The first finished on Hautacam and the second, with five major climbs, went past Indurain’s childhood home and ended in Pamplona. But they were hoping for a miracle.
Andy Schleck was my favourite Tour rider for a while. It’s always good to see young riders come through and especially if they are gifted climbers. By 2010 he had won the previous two white jerseys and finished 2nd in 2009. He just needed another small step up to become overall champion but near the top of the Port de Balès on stage 15 he succumbed to the rotten luck, indecision and poor judgement that plague his career and rob him of a glittering palmarès.
At the start of the day, The second of four Pyrenean stages which would decide the race, Schleck had a stage win and was in yellow with Alberto Contador 31 seconds behind. With the next best rider Samuel Sánchez a further 2 minutes back it seemed the the winner of the Tour would be either Schleck or Contador, who were close friends.
As the French Champion Thomas Voeckler who had attacked out of the days break neared the top of the Port de Balès Schleck attacked out of the group of favourites. It was a strong move and he quickly put a gap on his rivals but he quickly came to a sudden halt. His chain had jumped off his drive-train and soon rider after rider were steaming passed him as tried to continue, unsure what to do. He got off his bike, tried to sort out the issue, got back on, got off again, managed fix things before getting going to chase down Contador. After his pursuit up the rest of the climb, down the other side and along the valley to the finish in Bagnères-de-Luchon he lost 39 seconds and the yellow jersey to his Spanish pal. He was now 2nd and the top two positions would remain the same all the way to the finish in Paris where Contador won by, 39 seconds.
Over the 25 years or so of being a cycling fan I have had many favourite riders who I have willed on during many different races. I have shouted with excitement when they’ve won and felt their pain in defeat. I have never been an avid follower of any cycling teams though. I liked ONCE and T-Mobile back in the day because they had a few of my types of riders but I have never been like the avid Belgium fans of either Quick-Step or Lotto or the Team Sky diehards.
In 2014 the team gained its first entry to a Grand Tour after getting a Wild Card for that years Vuelta. They put in a solid performance with all their riders finishing and Sergio Pardilla their top rider in 17th place to show they belonged in the biggest races on the calendar. At the end of the season their new General Manager Brian Smith announced some big name signings for 2015 such as Edvald Boasson Hagen and Matt Goss and that along with their showing in the Vuelta convinced ASO to give them a wildcard berth for the 2015 Tour de France.
Brian Smith introduced another aspect to the team for 2015 with made them more supportable for me, the distinctive black and white jerseys. I had hoped that fellow Paisley Buddie had got inspiration for the design from our local football team St Mirren but he admitted in an interview that he was thinking more along the lines of Juventus.
As the years have gone by since I got interested in the sort, professional cycling has become more and more a game being controlled by directeur sportifs and scientists than a spectacle preformed by cyclists. During races many riders seem to be glued to their power meters thinking of the numbers that have been drilled into them during training sessions waiting for the order to attack. Orders which, as time goes by, seem to come higher and higher up final climbs. The rest of the time the generals sit in their carriages, letting a breakaway hang by a thread before telling the peloton to advance and swallow them up. What this leads to are smaller time gaps and fewer daring escapes by GC contenders. Winning margins of over 15 minutes by breakaways should be consigned to the black and white era.
So in 2006 I would have never imagined I would witness five riders escape with over 200 km to go and finish 29 minutes and 57 seconds ahead of the rest at the finish. The gap was so big that if the race jury had applied the rules strictly then only Jens Voigt, Oscar Pereiro, Sylvain Chavanel, Manuel Quinziato and Andriy Grivko would have contested the rest of the race as the time limit for the day was 29 minutes.
However, amazing as these numbers are, behind them lies the calculations of the Phonak teams directeur sportif John Lelangue. His star rider Floyd Landis was leading the race but the rest of the team had been finding things tough going, particularly in the Pyrenees a few days previous. As the gap to the break kept growing during the stage he realised that one of the escapees could move into top spot overall. If that were allowed to happen then the pressure would be off Phonak for the coming Alpine stages. And he really wanted rid of the yellow jersey because the top placed rider in the break was Oscar Pereiro who started the day in 46th place at 28 minutes 50.
At the finish line Voigt took victory and his second ever stage win, Pereiro was a close second and had the chance to go into yellow with Chavanel third. The French escape artist was bitterly disappointed at the finish. Not only had he missed a great opportunity for a stage win but he would now get catapulted up the GC making it less likely he would be allowed into any breaks in the coming days.
I sometimes wonder how many hours or even days I have spent over the years staring at the TV watching the parts of bicycle races where nothing is happening. The break has formed, the peloton is cruising along and the only thing happening is the riders are going from A to B. Thankfully there is usually some beautiful scenery to look at and my mind can be occupied by thoughts of having an idyllic life on the continent. It’s the same escapism I get into when going for a ride on my own. There is one day at the Tour every year though that gets my full attention from the start of the broadcast to the end, and that falls on the 14th of July.
The atmosphere on the roadside during Bastille Day is absolutely fantastic. It seems that the whole of France watches the race during la Fête nationale and the high spirits make the race a joy to watch back home. However, when there is the chance of a French victory things reach fever pitch.
The first time I witnessed this happen was in 1995. There hadn’t been a French Bastille day win for six years, the longest such gap since the Second World War but the hosts were having a decent Tour. Jacky Durand and Laurent Jalabert had both worn the Yellow Jersey in the first week and going into stage 12 Jalabert was now in Green and Richard Virenque was leading the mountains classification.
Of those two in-form French riders it was Jalabert who most suited the terrain, rolling hills through the Massif Central with a steep 8 km climb at the finish to an airfield in Mendé. He didn’t wait long to make his move and attacked after 20 km, meaning he and the other five escapees would have to survive over 200 km if they were to win the stage.
One of the most dangerous parts of pro cycling are the mass sprints. To be successful in these tightly packed, high speed situations the riders need plenty of bottle. Skill and aggression are also necessary and in 2010s stage 11 these two attributes were used by HTC-Columbia to win the stage.
The teams biggest rival were Garmin-Transitions and the friction between the two was the closest you would get to a football club style rivalry in cycling. They were both American teams and they loved beating each other and as they had two of the top sprinters of the time, Tyler Farrar of Garmin and Mark Cavendish of HTC, the flat stage 11 meant the teams would again come head to head, literally.
Coming into the final 600 meters Cavendish and his lead out man Mark Renshaw were on the left of the road close to the barriers. Just to their right was Julian Dean leading out Tyler Farrar. Dean seemed to be veering left which meant the HTC men might get boxed in. Renshaw decided to put an end to it by headbutting Dean on the shoulder. The first two times didn’t do the trick but the third one certainly did. Dean was moved to the right and a huge space opened up for Cavendish and he did a long sprint for the win as he was charging off Renshaw swung back to the left almost pushing Farrar into the barriers, in effect taking care of both of the Garmin men.
Cavendish saw Renshaws actions as great team work but the commissaries disagreed and disqualified Renshaw from the race.
I became a fan of professional cycling in the early 90’s and being from Britain this meant watching Tour de France highlights on Channel 4 at home or occasionally Eurosport if I was at a sports club. The Tour was the gateway drug and it was only later that I hit the harder stuff like the Giro or the classics. So watching cycling in this restricted manner at that particular time meant witnessing Miguel Indurain’s dominance. It was very impressive and as I enjoyed a Time Trial I didn’t find the era as boring as others. There were also more flamboyant riders such as Claudio Chiappucci to add some colour to the race but when his team mate Marco Pantani came on the scene my enjoyment of the sport reached a new level. He was different from everyone else, everything about him was striking from his looks to his climbing style, out of his saddle but still in the drops. He quickly became my favourite rider. I was so fond of him I even liked his Carrera Jeans kit with the denim cycling shorts.
He turned pro in 1992 and completed his first Grand Tours in 19994, he was 2nd at the Giro and finished 3rd and won the White Jersy in his Tour debut. During that Tour he had beat the record for the ascent of Alpe d’Huez but missed out on the stage victory as Roberto Conti had triumphed from a break. The climb was to be used again in 1995 and he wasn’t going to let the opportunity of a stage win slip him by again.
Approaching the mountain there was a break just like the previous year but Miguel Indurain’s Banesto team were racing well and keeping those ahead at a manageable gap. The riders in the break were of a good caliber (Richard Virenque and Ivan Gotti among others) but it looked like they would be caught. On the lower slopes of the Alpe Banesto start riding hard but Gerard Rue tells them to slow down, has he concerns about the form of his leader Indurain? Pantani decides to find out and flies off. He passes by members of the break one by one and after passing Gotti he has the lead. After that his victory is never in doubt and the top riders of a generation such as Indurain, Riis and Zuelle are left fighting for second.
Like some people I’ve never been a Lance Armstrong fan. But unlike the majority of Lance haters I’m old school, not one of these post-oprah ex-dope-denier types. I didn’t like him as a person and while I couldn’t deny he was a great bike rider, he was certainly bad-ass, I didn’t enjoy watching him race. He was too mechanical, I thought he lacked panache. On the big issue that surrounded him, I thought accusations made against him made sense of a lot of things but I would never believe them 100% until there was a positive test (though I was always happy to mention the Swiss cortisone thing to Armstrong fans) and I would never in the world believed there would be a confession. Furthermore I was a huge Pantani fan and deplored the way he acted in the 2000 Tour after the stage to Mont Ventoux. After Armstrong let Pantani win the stage Pantani said in an interview that Armstrong was being a little disrespectful in doing so. Lance being Lance then resorted to his role of schoolyard bully during a press conference calling Marco ‘Elefantino’, a reference to his big ears and a nickname which the psychologically fragile Italian had hated for years. That stage win on Mont Ventoux happened to be Pantanis final victory and as his life headed towards a tragic end Armstrong was becoming the dominant force in cycling. I was hopeful someone would be able to challenge him. Ullrich looked very promising finishind 2nd behind Lance in 2000 and 2001 but I was holding out hope for an ever improving Joseba Beloki.
The Basque rider had turned professional in 1998 aged 24 and rode for Euskatel-Euskadi for two years. During this time he placed well in some mountainous stages of the Dauphine and Tour of Catalunya. He also had the reputation of a decent time trialist, he was perfect GC material. He joined *cough* Festina in 2000, finished 2nd in the Tour de Romandie and in July started his first Tour de France. Without really doing much he finished a solid 3rd behind Armstrong and Ullrich. 2001 saw the exact same podium but Beloki was starting to look much more dangerous by finishing 3rd on the stages to Alpe D’Huez, Pla d’Adet and the Time Trial to Chamrousse. Ullrich was missing from the 2002 Tour. He hadn’t raced since January due to a knee injury and had just been handed a six month suspension for testing positive for amphetamines. (The ban wasn’t for longer as the German Cycling Federation believed his explanation that they were taken recreationaly along with ecstasy thus not performance enhancing). With the German missing Beloki duly finished 2nd. In the Texans first three Tours de France nobody had finished within 6 minutes of him but Beloki was getting closer to him. He was now next to him on the podium and the time differences between the two at the end of each race were shrinking too. I was sure that in 2003 the Basque rider was in with a great chance of winning.
After the first week of the race which was designed heavily for the sprinters the riders were faced with three days in the Alps. Beloki was matching Armstrong all the way during the first two of those stages finishing alongside him in Morzine and Alpe D’Huez. The two were together again on the decent of the Cote de La Rochette which was the final climb of the first block of mountains. Things were looking good. There were only 4 km left till the finish in Gap and Beloki was only 40 seconds behind Armstrong in the overall (30 of those were ceded in the Team Time Trial) and 1 minute 30 ahead of Ullrich who had returned after his year out. Beloki could maybe start thinking about what he could do in the Pyrenees. It wasn’t to be.
Cycling is a sport were you hang from success by a thread. If the thread snaps you can only watch it disappear as you eventually crash down to earth. Coming down a straight towards a sharp turn Beloki lost control of his bike. Skidding one way then the other it looked as though both his wheels had locked. He was fighting to regain control but just could’t and ended up crashing heavily onto his hip and sliding down the road. Armstrong just behind him reacted quickly to avoid the stricken Basque but the only place he could go was off road as his momentum took him into a field. He guided his bike downhill over the coarse ground and back towards the road which wasn’t too far due to the twisting nature of the course. There’s a ditch now between him and the road but Lance quickly hops off his bike, jumps over the ditch with it and rejoins the race as the group he was just with goes past. The calm way he instinctively delt with the situation was incredible and contrasted brilliantly with the sight of the wee fan at the roadside running about like a headless chicken not sure whether to help then just standing and clapping. Armstrong didn’t have the riding flair of some of the greats but he certainly provided a bit of Hollywood from time to time.
Armstrong finished the stage and was still in the lead of the race. It was however a disaster for Beloki. A teammate had stopped to see how he was but it was over for him. The crash was horrific. He had hit a piece of tarmac which had melted in the intense heat of the day. His injuries included fractures on his right thigh, elbow and hip and would effect him for years to come. He was never the same rider after this stage, the crash had ended his career as a world class GC rider. Beloki retired in 2006 and has since worked as a commentator for Basque radio and various magazines and was also a training consultant for the Cafes BasqueBasque team.