Flashback to the 2013 TDF: The Italian Job
This tour so far has been a war of nerves. For one reason or another we have not managed to win. Peter, after having a crazy crash in the opening stage, has come close over the next two days, taking home two second places that still burn. When speaking to the press he blamed these failures on the team, but we know that they were negative circumstances, having to put a spoke in the wheels. We have no reproach for ourselves. Unfortunately, excuses do not help you win, indeed, they only increase the frustration and take you away from the targets. We have already lost one man and this does not work in our favor. Ted King finished out of the time cut in the team time trial in Nice, after starting with a separated shoulder because of the fall of the first day. I am so sorry for Ted.
But now everything is filed, we are now at the seventh stage, and we have only one thing in our head: win! The tactic is simple: from about 110 kilometers to the finish there is a climb of 6.7 km at 6.5% average. There, we will enter into serious action to force the race to split. We will be trying to blow up the three best sprinters of this Tour: Cavendish, Greipel and Kittel. We will not try for the first intermediate sprint, for the rest we’ll see. We are all determined, today must be our day, and that’s that.
It starts! After about fifteen km only Voigt and Kadri manage to escape, the group slows. It seems to proceed smoothly, but at some point the disaster happens. In a slightly downhill stretch contact is made between two distracted riders and it triggers a fall of biblical proportions. I’m right in the middle. I do not have time to brake from behind and so I end up upside down. I land on top of another rider. I get up in a hurry, I look around and there seems to have been a bomb in the middle of the group. There are people lying all over the place. I have a feeling that someone got hurt seriously. In the midst of this hubbub, the carbon and aluminum that smashed, there are probably some fractured bones. In fact for some, the Tour ends right there, in the midst of an anonymous stretch of French countryside, with no audience, light years away from the finish. Months of preparation went up in smoke in an instant… often cycling is really cruel. Luckily for me it wasn’t too bad. I got away with a small “swiping” on the right leg. My teammate Kristian Koren was involved as well, he has a bloody arm but nothing more serious. All my other teammates avoided the crash. Great, we’re ready to begin the battle. The breakaway reaches six minutes and GreenEdge, which hold the leader’s jersey on Darryl Impey, take the head of the peloton with a regular rhythm. But they do not remain long as QuickStep , Lotto and Argos move to the front. We send Vandborg up to cooperate. The first of the team to be sacrificed. The uphill ramp fatefully increases. QuickStep is now deployed throughout the lead with Cavendish in last place: his lieutenants want to take the wind, and make it a regular intensity, to suit their leader. At that point we take sides, with us throughout the next train. They begin to look at us quizzically, as if to say “but what do they want to do?” They will understand in a moment. We start climbing. The first stretch is led by Vandborg and his legs begin immediately to do evil. QuickStep back off a bit at a time, while the radio informs us that Kittel came off. Brian still increases, then moves and Moser takes over, who continues to push hard: drop Cavendish and, shortly after, even Greipel. To each “victim” that is communicated to us the rhythm increases, whoever is leading drives with courage and seems not to feel fatigue. De Marchi leads the last part, I’m on the hook, the legs are full of lactic acid and do not even see the beginning of the descent! Over the top of the climb and soon after comes the first time gaps: Greipel there with a small group at a minute behind while Cavendish and Kittel are more detached. This information gives us petrol. We pull more and more determined, the mere thought of being in the Tour, under the eyes of the world and full of memorable action stimulates the brain to produce more and more adrenaline and numbs the effort. Behind, the ones who chase us are becoming outnumbered because the two front groups have merged. There is little to do today, we are the “steamroller.” Unfortunately we lost Vandborg after working hard at the beginning he came off, so we’ll have to work with the six of us left. We reach the two fugitives, and without even looking at them pull straight past. At the intermediate sprint Peter passes first. More points in the bag for the green jersey. There are still 70 km, however, and there is still much to “winning.”… After the sprint we are slightly breathless. Pull and snap: Gautier, Oroz and Bakelants attack. The latter is what screwed us in the second leg in Corsica, in Ajaccio, when he arrived alone, with a few meters on Peter that in the sprint if he was dancing. What a mockery! This Belgian wants to fuck us again, but today he can not and should not. Today there will be no gifts for anyone. Today is ours, and that’s that.
Bit by bit we start to get into the swing of the front. The climbs that occur are rideable but we have to manage the effort to avoid the risk of collapse. Everyone continues to make contribution without spare. Before a GPM I’m going back for water bottles for the team mates. They slip in the pockets and under my shirt, all in seven bottles. I go up the group, the speed is high, and with all that weight, it is tough. I check around to see where my companions are and I feel a hand pushing me. I turn around and to my great surprise I realize that is Rodriguez. I get the impression that if a rider as big as Purito makes this gesture, maybe today we are really gaining respect in the group. At just over 40 kilometers from the finish the news reaches us that they raised the white flag behind us. Case closed? Game over? Not really… Now the challenge is against the three “rebels.” They hold a steady advantage around 50 seconds. It seems so little, but when we are at the limit for more than two hours, a minute can be an eternity. Albasini of GreenEdge comes to give us a hand. If the Australians want to keep the jersey another day with Impey, it’s right that they also collaborate, as Bakelants is high in the classification, it is very close and he could well edge him out. Now the pace is constantly high as we enter a descent: too fast in the corners and in danger of going to the ground. Fear. The advantage of the breakaway starts to decline but not enough for how we’re pedaling. I start to think of another terrible insult and to all those who criticized us as a team for not being good enough for Peter. For sure they will be watching on TV, hoping to see us fail. When I go to the front to pull, my acceleration is like an anger vent; to let out what is inside, thus irritating my companions who invite me to calm down. They are right in doing so. I am taking risks just to put everyone on the hook, myself included. I can go quiet. Unfortunately in my career the competitive fury often has made me do shit. Today that must not happen. It cannot be long now and here they come, the… unmistakable… cramps! I feel the inside of my thighs bite, and a great evil as I slip to the bottom of the group trying to shake out the pain with a little movement. I think I cannot push anymore and I’m sure I can no longer help, leaving the team with a man down. Then I see De Marchi coming back to the group. (Although with difficulty, his back full of water bottles.) As we met I could see the determination and strength in him that I thought I had lost. I realize that I could not give up now, everyone is giving their soul, scraping the barrel and I have to get back in front, whatever the cost. The cramps ease off a bit, and painfully I make it back to the front group. I’ll be back to pull with the others. There is now another GreenEdge rider to give us a hand, and the fugitives are closer, the road is straight and we can see them. They have no chance. It is up to the last four of us, where I do the last “turn” and then give the lead to Bodnar and sit up. I’m sure my teammates still have enough to make up my share in these last few kilometers. Now I really give it all, and I’m at peace with myself. With this last effort the cramps came surging back, but the job is done , the break is virtually dead. After I separated from the group I find Moser and the last kilometer we proceed at a crawl. He too is squeezed to the last drop. We ride together. We are waiting to hear good news on the radio. Not hearing anything, I take off the headset from my ear for good luck. It’s all up to fate now. I look in Moreno’s face in search of a signal, a nod, something that makes me realize that Peter has won. I look to the crowds, but no one gives me anything except some applause. At some point, however, Moreno begins to smile and says: “Yes .. won!” I scream, fist in the air. I am over the moon. I get goose bumps from the emotion, I feel like I, myself have won. After having crossed the line I find Peter who comes to us, and embraces me, thanking me. The people around us admire the spectacle. Perhaps today they all cheered for us. Here is the conclusion to this perfect day, the day that we will remember for doing what seemed impossible, for putting into practice the plan from the start line, with the whole team doing their roles to perfection. This is the story I will tell my (future) kids about the Tour, this stage to Albi, to make them understand what it means to be a “team.” That to achieve a big goal at times we must know how to sacrifice for each other. And that, for one day, we can all feel like God’s “wingman.”
Words: Alan Marangoni @Alanmarangoni
Images: Kristof Ramon @kristoframon