Westra’s abandon meant that only 169 of the starting 198 riders crossed the finish line; 170 finishers would have been a record-breaking proportion. ‘How hard can a sport be?’ he tweeted afterwards, to which the answer was: heartbreakingly hard. Sometimes, however far you’ve survived and however courageous you are, things just don’t go your way.
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By Stage 8, the race’s first summit finish, he was battling it out with the injured Ted King for the lanterne rouge, the nickname affectionately given by fans to the last man in the general standings; and when King was forced to abandon there was nothing for Cheng to do but bring up the rear, alone, all the way to Paris, where the team was targeting a final win for Kittel. On that final stage Cheng proved little help: somewhere on the Champs-Élysées he crashed, couldn’t bridge back and came in solo, several minutes behind the peloton. Last man in that year’s race, but the first Chinese rider ever to finish the Tour; and finishing in the knowledge that the blood, sweat and skin he’d shed during those three weeks had contributed to his team’s success.
Cheng was a good advocate for the lanterne rouge, which in recent years has fallen somewhat into obscurity. In times past, riders used to compete for the honour and its popularity with fans gained the bearer entry to the lucrative post-Tour criterium races, where an enterprising lanterne could double his year’s salary in just a few weeks’ riding. Prospective lanternes would hide behind cars just to lose a few seconds, or come to a standstill on the Champs-Élysées.
These ‘wacky races’ at the back of the peloton did not endear them to the Tour hierarchy. The organisers have always frowned on the lanterne, believing it perhaps to be a celebration of failure, or taking attention away from the real race at the front. But that, it seems to me, is wrong-headed. Celebrating the lanterne is more about recognising determination, grit, dignity and sacrifice, as well as the simple fact of getting to the bloody end and finishing the job off.
The Tour was conceived as a brutal test of endurance. In its earliest years, as the days took their toll and riders dropped out, those still on the road, from first man to last, were called rescapés – ‘survivors’ – in the official reports. In 1919 only 10 men finished of 69 starters, and it is said that the race director Henri Desgrange’s car accompanied the last man, Jules Nempon, for much of the final stage, and that the great man applauded the lanterne rouge on his way.
Much has changed since then, but the fundamentals remain the same: men, bicycles, and a long and arduous journey around France testing talent, skill and courage. Desgrange’s original cult of the survivor may have been somewhat forgotten, but we should not forget, as the circle is closed on the Champs-Élysées for another year, the cobbles, crosswinds, mountains, mechanicals, crashes, even telegraph poles, that the riders have had to endure, and that everyone, from yellow jersey to lanterne rouge, is a survivor.
– Max Leonard is the author of Lanterne Rouge: The Last Man in the Tour de France.
Once a domestique’s job is done for the day, it isn’t: he still has to pedal all the way to the finish line. Riding home when already exhausted is a tough mental hurdle to overcome and, in the wet and the cold, it is harder still, so even the slightest bit of comfort in an uncomfortable situation can help keep a rider mentally strong. With this in mind, Rapha has developed a prototype foul-weather jacket for Team Sky which offers not only sufficient protection from the worst weather imaginable but also a superb level of comfort for making the journey to the finish line more tolerable.
The seed for the idea was planted more than a year ago when, on Stage 16 of the 2014 Giro d’Italia, the 100-strong gruppetto were freezing cold, miserably wet and at the back of the race. Team duties long forgotten, it was a case of survival, both to make the time-cut and to protect themselves from the brutal elements. Ploughing through roads flooded with icy water, snow piled ten-feet high alongside them, they climbed into a blizzard atop the 2,758m-high Stelvio mountain pass. Before the even colder descent, the group stopped to pour hot tea on their hands, or add a second, even a third, jacket, but it wasn’t enough. Many riders said afterwards that mentally, as well as physically, it was one of the toughest times they’ve ever had on a bike.
Following that day, Team Sky’s Head of Performance Operations Rod Ellingworth decided that, if race organisers were going to keep making his cyclists compete in such extreme conditions, his men would need suitably protective clothing. He had to look after the health – and happiness – of those riders who weren’t racing for the win. Their help throughout the course of a three-week Grand Tour is invaluable to the team, and therefore their wellbeing, both physical and mental is paramount. After conversations with Rapha, the idea snowballed into the development of the Extreme Rain Jacket.
For apocalyptic days on Tour, Team Sky now carries several of the jackets in the team car for their domestiques to put on when riding with the gruppetto. It is a luxury emergency blanket to help keep them going until they reach the warmth of the team bus. And while it sometimes may not need to be used at a race, the jacket reflects Rapha’s dedication to developing technical products that cover all eventualities for Team Sky’s cyclists.
Packed with innovative features, the jacket has an inner fabric – first pioneered by NASA – with ‘phase-change’ qualities, meaning it can absorb the heat of a warm team car and maintain that ambient temperature once outside again. Its warmth is further regulated by heat pads bonded into both lower sleeves, which riders can control with a switch that displays three colour-coded temperature settings. The inside uses a plush, fibre-pile fleece for that cosy feeling – psychologically important to someone who just wants to get out of the wet and cold – and the sleeves open wide to accommodate gloved hands. The Velcro straps are oversized too, allowing mechanics, or riders with numb fingers, to easily tighten them. The extra-long tail was a request made by the riders themselves, to help keep their gluteal muscles warm.
Completely waterproof, the garment’s most extreme-weather design element is a tight-fitting, peaked hood made of Japanese neoprene, which fits under a helmet. The jacket is not scheduled for release to the public, but as with all the technical innovations Rapha pioneers for Team Sky, the knowledge accrued will cross into our commercially available products in some form or other.
The Extreme Rain Jacket is as close to armour as foul-weather clothing gets; perfect for enabling Team Sky’s cyclists to stay battle-hardened and ready to race another day.
On staying safe:
A lot of the time, keeping the riders safe is our main objective. It’s all about positioning and we’ve got the guys to dig in and do that: Luke Rowe and Ian Stannard love a bit of pushing and shoving. Pete Kennaugh does, too – it’s a real shame for him to have gone home ill – and Nicolas Roche has bags of experience riding Grand Tours. The nerves are felt all the way until the last week, but we make sure we get our riders in the right frame of mind every day.
Luke Rowe’s role has been very much to chaperone Chris Froome. This is his first Tour, so I warned him beforehand that it’s like riding 21 Paris-Roubaixs back-to-back. The everyday intensity of the crowds, the stress of getting to the start of each stage, it all adds up. Being well rested is crucial, so I’m always telling the guys to be mindful of things like spending too much time looking at their phones, staring at screens.
On when to attack:
Some people try and make a move earlier and quite often it doesn’t work. Knowing when to make a move, getting your timing right and surprising people is a great skill to have. Froome knows when he’s going to go; he senses the moment very well.
On overcoming adversity:
Responding to an attack if you’re struggling is hard. But how you do it depends on what type of bike rider you are. Wiggins would claw someone back slowly and efficiently. Contador has the ability to counter-attack, to accelerate and maintain that pace. Froome is somewhere in between.
On Saturday’s Stage 20:
Alpe d’Huez – it’s going to be very fast, pretty full-on. We’ll just have to concentrate, stay focused and look after the yellow jersey (which we’ll hopefully still have).
On the journey to Paris:
Getting to the Champs-Élysées is a huge journey. You feel like you’ve gone around the whole world, not just France. There is a real bond by the end, as every single person on the team, both riders and support staff, goes through highs and lows. There’s so much happening, so many stories buzzing around the dinner table.
On surviving the Tour, and beyond:
Everyone gets so involved that there is a real sense of being lost once it’s over. You have this routine, these days planned out, and you feel lost, even vulnerable afterwards. And of course for the riders there’s a real emptiness. They are so drained and feel totally at sea walking around in normal clothes, with those sharp suntan lines and funny straplines from their helmets. For those who have to turn it around quickly and get back on the bike, it’s quite a challenge. But it’s a huge achievement just to get round and have that in your pocket. It’s the biggest bike race in the world, isn’t it?
Riders crossing the line for the final time in Paris will likely breathe a collective sigh of relief. The Champs-Elysées marks the culmination of three hard-fought weeks of racing, but there’s still one more day of climbing to survive before then.
The bends. 21 hairpins, and that’s just Alpe d’Huez. The riders will first have to summit the Col de la Croix Fer and the Col du Télégraphe though. The Tour’s first ever summit finish, in 1952, the ‘Alpe’ has witnessed some otherworldly performances, and should be the scene of another extraordinary battle on Saturday.
The final stage of the Tour is a procession to Paris, traditionally much shorter and flatter than the brutal days that precede it. Once there however, eight fast laps of partially cobbled roads must be negotiated. And if you’re contesting the most prestigious sprint finish of the year up the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, you’d better be well placed near the front.
It’s a feeling that all kinds of cyclists know. It’s the look over the shoulder to see rider after rider gaining, and a resigned stare forward; there’s no rope to pull back on.
There’s something about the Tour’s third week. It’s the time the wheels come off; a time for simple preservation. It’s not a matter of who slows down, just who slows down by how much. When that ennervating moment strikes, it’s about racing for survival.
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“You’ve definitely got to respect the physical side of it because it’s legitimate,” explains Cannondale-Garmin DS Charly Wegelius. “If it’s 40 degrees and a rider’s been hanging on the back for two and-a-half hours riding at his maximum, you can’t just go to him and say ‘ride harder,’ that it’s all in his head. It isn’t. Sometimes it can help to know that the road is going to get a little bit easier. And many times a rider can feel a panic in a moment when he doesn’t need to. Sometimes a rider can get dropped from a group and there’s no one around, no cars either, and he’s kind of disorientated and maybe you can let him know that there’s still 90 riders behind him.”
Once the slow march to the finish is over, riders who normally ride the trainer to cool down and chat walk straight into the bus, soaking wet and with shoulders that look caved in. A GC man may lapse into a stage-hunter. Objectives are redefined.
“Once they cool down, calm down, have a shower and get their gear on again, then you can start making a contingency plan,” says BMC’s sporting manager, Allan Peiper. “It is a reality check. If you’ve lost minutes and you’ve slipped out it is a process to find your place in the race. It’s not a one-two-three thing. It is a process of resetting the goals and resetting the hard drive.”
This weekend, however, there’s no reset. No new goals. There is the mountain, and then there is Paris.
By Matthew Beaudin
Us photographers at the Tour might not have to work as hard as the riders do, but it’s still an exhausting job. We’re shooting for 21 long days, driving 250km a day and editing photos late into the night.
A typical day is 13-14 hours long. I’ll start taking photos at the sign-on in the morning before jumping in the car to chase the race, hopping out to take photos throughout, until the day’s end, at around 5.30pm. Then I’ll immediately begin editing as my wife drives us to the hotel to eat dinner. It would be so much harder without her helping me, so I’m a lucky guy.
After dinner I have to get back to work, sending my images out and writing the story which goes on my website, beardyscaravan.com, each day. Once that’s done, we still have to come up with a plan of action for the next day, choosing places to stop, the routes we need to take to get there. It’s lights out sometime between midnight and 2am.
The race is such an unpredictable beast that even the best-laid plans can go astray. Take Stage 5’s finish in Amiens: we were racing along our pre-planned route to get there in time but suddenly, with only a couple of turns left, the road was completely blocked by a World War Two tank, complete with soldiers in full uniform. Mad. The detour we had to take meant we missed André Greipel winning the sprint. I was gutted.
Then, on Stage 16, we had to make a mad dash over the Col de Grimone to get back in front of a peloton that was averaging 53kph. A tailwind was pushing them faster than expected and, after being caught behind the Fin de Course van driver who had stopped for a nature break and a cigarette, we had to employ some risky rally car driving to get to the spot in time. Phew.
Of course, throughout all of this there is the pressure of actually taking great shots of a peloton that flies past at an amazing speed. This is my first Tour but the kind comments on Instagram have really helped among the madness of it all. Thank you.
There are two ‘rest days’ but they end up being just as busy. The first rest day this year involved a 700km drive south, towards the Pyrenees, and as soon as we arrived we had to go to the laundromat – nine days without washing clothes takes its toll. As the machines whirled we ate takeaway pizza in the front seats of our car. Oh, the glamorous life of a cycling photographer.
Crashes are a daily occurrence at the Tour but do we truly appreciate the injuries that accompany them, many of which have lingering consequences long after we’ve forgotten them? Read the daily medical report, Le Bulletin Médical, which the race organisers make available at the end of each day, and you’ll feel the riders’ pain. Detailing each stage’s incidents, this year includes a collection of the fairly mundane: wasp sting (Michael Schär); nosebleed (Winner Anacona); vomiting (Romain Bardet). Yet we have also witnessed the calamitous: fractured vertebrae (Fabian Cancellara); broken shoulder (Tom Dumoulin); broken left clavicle (Tony Martin).
The Bulletin also details infractions. These range from minor incidents, such as Wilco Kelderman sheltering behind a team car for a 20-second penalty, to comic ones; the Tinkoff-Saxo mechanic who threw a bidon at a TV motorbike brought a one-stage ban for his DS, Sean Yates. And then there are the more serious trangressions: Eduardo Sepúlveda’s acceptance of a lift from a team car ssaw him disqualified from the race. A sobering reminder that, during the fever of competition, bad judgement will out at some stage or other.
Each stage of the Tour brings new drama because the risks and rewards seem to be unfairly distributed. Unlucky riders may find themselves as statistics in the following day’s Bulletin, while the rest survive to fight another stage – and move that little bit closer to fame and glory.