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Wednesday, 9 July 2008
The most important ten seconds of my life. The next ten . . .
When most people think of a Tour de France sprint, the words and images that flash into their heads probably have something to do with speed, noise, color, danger, or adrenaline. But I don’t think of any of that, at least not when I’m winning. I think of the silence.
You know those moments in sports films when the striker’s through on goal, or the wide receiver’s galloping into the end zone, watching the ball over his shoulder, or the baseball leaves the pitcher’s hand—and the music and crowd noise suddenly stop and the film starts running in slow motion? Well, you may think those scenes are a cliché, but that’s actually what it’s like. In those moments—the speed, the noise, the color, the danger, the adrenaline—none of that matters. It’s just you, the bike, the finish line, and . . . the silence.
How can you have silence when you also have tens of thousands offans screaming on either side of the road? It’s a good question, and not one I can answer; at every other time in the Tour, the crowd and its noise are the tailwind that whips you along faster than at any other race in the season. In those final few hundred meters, though, you notice the noise no more than you notice the air; maybe that’s why, if silence is what it sounds and looks like, you feel as if you’re riding through a vacuum.I’d seen Thor Hushovd’s lead-out man, Mark Renshaw, surge level with my right shoulder. I’d seen Hushovd on Renshaw’s wheel. I’d swung left, across and past my teammate Gerald Ciolek. I’d trampled all overthe pedals.
For the first time, 300 meters away, at the end of that vacuum, I had an unobstructed view of the finish line. Almost. Incredibly, just as he and his two breakaway companions were about to be swept up under the kilometer-to-go barrier . . . the Frenchman Nicolas Vogondy somehow located a few last droplets of energy and burst clear again. He hugged the barriers on the right-hand side, sheltered from the crowd, hidden in the shadows, clutching at the last available straws.
For a cyclist, “form” is probably a more mythologized state of physical euphoria than it is for any other sportsman, but for me, there are two,maybe three, seconds in every sprint finish when form doesn’t matter.My kick is the fastest in cycling whether I’m on a good day or not; all that form changes is how long I can stay at top speed.On this day, two beats of the pedals were enough to make me certain I couldn’t lose.
My kick took me level with Hushovd. Usually, as long as you’re sprintingparallel to another sprinter, you keep accelerating in case he surges again. Sense, rather than see, him slipping back and you know he’s gone for good.
Now Hushovd was slipping.
My right side was clear . . . except for Vogondy, who could hear me coming like a death rattle. On my left was nothing. A vacuum.
I could hear one voice. My own. There were no more of those decisions to make, no more wheels to follow, no more risks to run—just me,a hundred meters of open road, the finish line, and a hundred photographerswaiting to capture the moment.
Come on, Cav. It’s coming, come on, it’s coming, it’s coming . . . fifty, forty,thirty, twenty . . . don’t let them back in . . . just a few more revs . . . it’s coming. . . one more effort . . . fifteen . . . yes, it is . . . ten . . . Oh, my God!Oh, my God. Oh . . . my . . . God.
Five meters short of the line, I released my hands from the bars and brought them to rest on my helmet. Oh, my God, I’d done it.
My front wheel sliced through the finish line. And the silence ended.
First came the noise, then the emotion. Six million volts of emotion—like an electric shock. For the last half of the race, throughout those last 50 kilometers, I hadn’t entertained a single emotion, hadn’t given a second’sconsideration to anything beyond what my body was doing and what it was going to do next. I was in the zone. Crossing the line was like turningon the power switch.
One of the first faces I saw when I crossed the line was Bob Stapleton’s;his was always one of the first faces I saw when I crossed the line. Our team owner could have been sipping champagne in the hospitality area,which you’d think was the most natural place for a billionaire business man-to-be. But no, Bob was always there, in the middle of the stampede of journalists, photographers, and soigneurs—inconspicuous, reserved,but as quietly delighted and excited as anyone. In age, demeanor, and occupation, Bob and I couldn’t be more different, but we get on because we have one vital thing in common: passion.
I felt the Spaniard Oscar Freire give me a congratulatory pat, then the great German sprinter Erik Zabel. But now my emotions were running wild. I just wanted to see my teammates. Where were my teammates? Ihad to see my teammates.
Almost to a man, they’d crossed the line with arms aloft in jubilation.Now, one by one, they fought their way through the scrum to find me, hug me, and shout words that may have seemed incoherent at the time but that, in fifty years’ time, I’ll still remember. I later found out that Gerald Ciolek had hurt himself so much in the effort to launch me in the final kilometer that he’d had to go for a ride to warm down.
In a matter of seconds, chaos had broken out—a chaos that I’d helped to create by turning around and heading into the current of 180 riders,sucking the crowd of pressmen with me. Several of those 180, like DavidMillar, were happy for me; most were too preoccupied with their own fight for survival and the fight to muscle through to their team buses.One was furious—furious to have to battle through this crush and furious at the result; thus, Filippo “Playboy” Pozzato celebrated my first Tour de France stage win by reaching down for his water bottle and hurling it at a journalist.
There is a school of thought that says a rider aiming for the general classification in the Tour is better off doing without stage wins. The theory goes that stage wins are a handicap for general classification riderssimply because the post-stage rigmarole eats big chunks out of your recovery time.
The first people I wanted to see after crossing the line were my teammates.One of the first people I actually saw, standing with my team soigneur, was an antidoping chaperone. These chaperones are underorders not to leave your side until you’ve given a urine sample. You havean hour after the finish to report to the cabin just beyond the finish line marked “anti-dopage.”
The sixty minutes that followed my first professional win at the Grote Scheldeprijs had been the most euphoric, exciting moments of my life. What I’ll most remember of that hour, besides listening to Melissa screaming down the telephone as she danced around the living room back on the Isle of Man, is that the Belgian journalists seemed almost as excited as I was; there was no 700-seat media center, no real protocol—just me, a tent, and a handful of mostly middle-aged men with bad haircuts and notepads. I could have talked all day, and they would have listened. I loved every second.
Was I less excited a year and a bit later at the Tour? I don’t know. In the same way that the race is faster, fiercer, just altogether more, so is everything that comes next. There were more text messages, more phone calls, and certainly more microphones and television cameras. In cycling,anyone will tell you, it simply doesn’t get any bigger than this.
The podium ceremony alone seemed as carefully choreographed as a West End musical. By this time, the antidoping chaperone was justone member of a growing posse of journalists and officials stalking me everywhere, and it was one of those officials’ job to explain the podium protocol as I waited backstage.
There’d been interviews on the finish line, in the ruck, then more before the podium ceremony and a few more en route to the video room.At one time, apparently, stage winners would do a full-blown press conference in front of the accredited press pack in the main media center;now there were no more than a dozen in the video room and the rest watched and asked questions via a remote linkup. I’m a fickle bastard:Two days before, when I’d missed my chance in Nantes, I’d given more than one interviewer short shrift; now, by comparison, my answers were long and full of interesting nuggets.
Next stop was the antidoping booth. As always, I’d stopped only once on the stage, planning for precisely this eventuality; stop twice in the race and you might find that the plumbing’s dried up, and before you know it, it’s not just one hour of the evening that’s been lost, it’s two. The whole process is complicated and tedious enough without that added inconvenience: Drop your pants, lift your shirt, and turn 360 degrees so the antidoping officer can check for any hidden pouches or containers;wash your hands; pick a random flask with a sealed lid; break the seal;piss into the flask, which is then resealed by the antidoping officer; take the flask and pick a random container with two sealed bottles inside;open the two bottles and check for any signs of contamination; pour the required amount of urine into each of the bottles, which are then permanently sealed with a screw-type mechanism that can’t be opened;hand over the bottles; watch the antidoping officer put them in a sealed plastic bag and then place the bag in a polystyrene box, which is also sealed. Oh, and I nearly forgot—you also have to sign a form to confirm that all the required hygiene conditions were respected and to specify any medicine you’ve been taking.
I left the antidoping booth, finally free of my chaperone, and walked straight into another scrum: autograph hunters. It’s always the same; sign a hundred but don’t get round to the last ten and you look like an arsehole. At the same time you’re worrying about that, you’re also worrying about the fact that you’ve been on your feet for over an hour, and if you’re not careful, it’ll be your legs that suffer tomorrow. You know it could make a kid’s day, or even ignite a passion for the sport that might culminate,twenty years from now, in him doing exactly what you’re doing now. But sometimes you walk on, guilt-ridden. It’s just one of those things.In the last hour of the race, I’d concentrated a lot, planned very little,and felt absolutely nothing. After that brief initial outpouring of emotion when I’d seen my teammates and Bob and my directeurs sportifs Brian Holm and Rolf Aldag, the last hour had been a relentless assault course of obligations. The previous year, at Scheldeprijs, the euphoria had been total, overwhelming, and unmitigated; now there was the rest of the Tour to contemplate—and the question of how I was going to recover.I’d spoken to Melissa immediately after the finish, but now, in the team car that had waited behind to drive me back to the hotel, we had more time. She and her friend had seen me at the start village that morning,then headed straight for the airport to wait for their flight home. She’d watched the stage from a bar in the airport, which, in the space of a couple of hours, had become the newest outpost of my official fan club.The bar owner had uncorked a bottle of champagne to toast my win.My memories of the rest of the evening are sketchy. It’s funny—I remember time gaps and sprints and blowups from races going back ten years in brilliant detail, yet the more mundane aspects of life on the Tour tend to blend into one. The Tour organizers have a system whereby, over the course of the three weeks, every team gets its share of good and bad hotels, and one thing I do remember about that night was that we were in a hotel that could only be described as, well, shit. Two stars would have flattered the place.
Very little else stands out. The shower, the massage, dinner—give or take the odd phone interview or ten, the odd text message or fifty, it could have been just another day on the treadmill that is the Tour. There was champagne, sure, but then we always had one glass when we won a race, which had been practically every second day in 2008. At all other times, at races, alcohol wasn’t allowed.
At one point during dinner Brian Holm wandered over holding his mobile phone. He crouched down next to my chair and passed me the phone. He said someone wanted to talk to me.
I looked at him suspiciously.
“Er, hello. Who’s this?”
It was Sir Paul Smith, one of the fashion world’s most famous menswear designers—a cycling nut, former aspiring pro, and Brian’s mate.
It would be easy to say I went to bed that night wearing a huge, contented grin under a warm duvet of self-satisfaction, but the reality’s different.Every night before going to sleep, I looked at the race manual and memorized the last 5 kilometers. Tonight I opened the book to Stage 6. Aigurande to Super Besse, 195.5 km through the Massif Central, with an 11-kilometer climb to the finish, of which the last kilometer looked brutal. It would be a day for surviving, not sprinting.
Tomorrow I’d wake up a Tour de France stage winner, the most talked-about 23-year-old in the race and in the sport. It didn’t make ablind bloody bit of difference: I’d still have 195.5 km to ride before my next bedtime.
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