Stage 17, Untold Stories: Mark Cavendish, Bernhard Eisel, and David Millar in the 2010 Tour de France

This story is a chapter from Richard Moore’s book Étape: 20 Great Stages from the Modern Tour de France, which assembles the greatest days of modern Tour history into a Tour de France of incredible victory, glorious failure, shocking revelation, and beautiful memories. Moore assembles an incredible cast of interviews with riders including Armstrong, Cavendish, Fignon, Hampsten, Hinault, Julich, LeMond, Merckx, Roche, and others. In the words of those who were there, Étape recreates each day vividly and reveals the beauty and the madness of cycling’s greatest race. Enjoy!

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Bagneres-de-Luchon to Pau

199.5 km/124 mi high mountains


Etape by Richard Moore Tour de France stages 2010 Mark Cavendish, Bernhard Eisel, David Millar, Untold StoriesClimbing the Col du Tourmalet, Mark Cavendish slips out the back of the group. His loyal teammate, Bernhard Eisel, remains at his side and tries to encourage him.

“Big effort, Cav, come on, stay with the group.”

Cavendish screws up his face. “Bernie, I can’t do it.” He is suffering a thousand agonies. He wants Eisel, his best friend, to shut up. But Eisel knows how critical it is that they stay with the gruppetto, the group that rides a shadow Tour de France in the mountains, out of view of the television and photographers’ lenses. For Cavendish, a prolific winner of flat sprinters’ stages, stages like this are the B-sides to his hit singles, songs that no one hears.

Today, the top of the Tourmalet is not the end of the stage; there is a fourth Pyrenean climb, the Col d’Aubisque, and then 60 km of flat valley roads to the finish in Pau. Manageable in a group, impossible as a duo. He and Eisel will almost certainly miss the time cut and be out of the race.

Cavendish is ill, feverish, and in a desperate bid for marginal gains he removes all extraneous items: sunglasses, food from pockets, even bidons. Still Eisel cajoles him and Cavendish snaps, “Don’t nag! Just let me fucking ride,” he says. Fuck you, then, Eisel thinks. He could ride back up to the group and leave Cavendish to his self-pity, to stew in his petulance. But he doesn’t. He sticks to the task, which means sticking with Cavendish, but pointedly veers to the other side of the road.

On they ride up the Tourmalet, “together” but not together, Cavendish hugging one side, Eisel the other, shutting each other out, not speaking a
word, sulking like a married couple.

FOR THE MAJORITY, THE TOUR de France is not about winning. By the third week, it has nothing to do with winning. An example: With two days to go, the 2008 Tour was on a knife edge. It was so close that either Cadel Evans or Carlos Sastre could still win. The time trial on the penultimate day would decide.

It was thrilling; the watching world was transfixed. On the eve of the decisive time trial, David Millar, not a bad time trialist himself, was asked how he thought the race would go and who he thought would win.

“I don’t give a fuck,” said Millar.

The great myth of the Tour is that the riders are all engaged in the main narrative, the battle for yellow. Yet those transfixed by the duel in 2008 did not include most of the riders.

I was keen to speak to Cavendish, the greatest sprinter of his generation, about this aspect of his Tour, the shadow Tour. Days in the gruppetto are Cavendish’s most difficult, the suffering of a different order to the days in which he fights for position and follows his lead-out train, then sprints for the win at the end. Those days, in the full glare of the TV cameras, involve courage, skill, and the sharp pain of a flat-out effort (or several). Days in the mountains, away from the glare, involve pure suffering.

When asked to nominate his single toughest day in the mountains, Cavendish struggles. “All of them?” he suggests. Perhaps they seem a long way away from where we are sitting, in a deserted hotel on the Costa del Sol in Spain in January, during a pre-season training camp. How about Hauta- cam in 2008? “That was pretty hard ’cause I crashed,” Cavendish recalls, almost nostalgically. “I hit a football [soccer ball]. A football in the middle of fucking nowhere!

“But nah, there have been harder ones. Oh, I tell you. There was one I was ill, it finished up the Tourmalet. We only did the Col d’Aubisque and Tourmalet, but I had fever. I suffered that day. I was way off on the Aubisque with Bernie, but we got back on the descent. Then I suffered up the Tourmalet.

“But no, that wasn’t the hardest . . . I don’t know. Days like 2012, the ring of fire: Aubisque, Tourmalet, Aspin, Peyresourde. That was bloody hard.

“No!” Now Cavendish is sitting forward in his chair. “When we did that ring of fire the other way, in 2010. That day was fucking—” he trails off, shakes his head.

It was dubbed the Circle of Death (rather than ring of fire) when this circuit of the Pyrenees, including four major climbs, first appeared on the route in 1910 and the riders feared bear attacks, among other things. A century later, the same route, in reverse, was stage 16 of the 2010 Tour, over 199.5 km, or 124 miles.

Thanks for reading this excerpt from Étape! You’ve read 18% of the chapter. Read the full chapter in Etape: 20 Great Stages from the Modern Tour de France by Richard Moore.


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