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!
Thursday, July 21, 2011
Pinerolo (Italy) to Col du Galibier
200.5 km/124.6 mi high mountains
On the 100th anniversary of the Tour’s first expedition into the Alps, the 18th stage finished at the top of one of the most mythical of mountains, the Col du Galibier.
The Galibier was first included in 1911, but almost wasn’t. The road was finished just in time. Although to call it a road is pushing it a little; from the old pictures of riders pushing their bikes up the rough, rutted surface, the Galibier pass resembled a goat track.
A hundred years later, the Tour’s 57th visit to the Galibier was to be the first time the Tour would finish atop it. At 2,645 m, or 8,678 feet, it would be the highest finish ever. And this 18th stage of the 2011 race included two more brutes, the 2,774-m Col d’Agnel (9,101 feet) and 2,360-m Col d’Izoard (7,743 feet). Then the Galibier. (Officially, the finish would be listed as Serre-Chevalier, the name by which the southern Hautes-Alpes Valley’s enormous winter sports resort is known, a disappointing but hardly sur- prising prioritizing of commercial interests over heritage.)
The Galibier, when it first featured, was remote and desolate, and soared higher into the sky than the Pyrenean climbs, prompting Henri Desgrange, the Tour’s founder, to consider other mountains in a diminished light. “Oh! Sappey! Oh! Laffrey! Oh! Bayard! Oh! Tourmalet! I will not fail in my duty by proclaiming that beside the Galibier you are but pale and vulgar beer. Before this giant, there is nothing to do but tip your hat and bow very low!”
Given such an endorsement, it is fitting that Desgrange’s memorial now sits close to the summit, a towering, pale stone monument, cylindrical in shape, like a lighthouse.
The Tour’s founder seemed to enjoy inflicting pain and suffering on the riders; as far as he was concerned, this was its raison d’être. The Tour was all about incredible feats that captured the imagination and explored the limits of human endurance. Desgrange would have enjoyed stage 18 of the 2011 race.
“Don’t give me credit,” says Andy Schleck when he sits down, 18 months after the event, to talk about the Galibier stage. “But the idea was mine.”
In 2011 it was all going wrong for Schleck. Or Baby Schleck, as he was disparagingly known. He had other nicknames, none of them flattering: Schleck Minor, Andy Pandy. Which was odd, in some respects, because Schleck was a likeable, goofy, buck-toothed Luxembourger who seemed perpetually trapped in a younger self. Skinny-limbed and size-zero gan- gly, Schleck was the child prodigy who never grew up, and seemed per- manently on the cusp of greatness. But never quite there. He was a pure climber in the classic mold: lightweight, angular (surprisingly tall, at six foot one), with an upright riding style in the mountains, a little like— though not quite as bolt upright as—the Eagle of Toledo, Federico Baha- montes, the great Spanish climber of the 1950s. Indeed, in the modern era, which favored all-rounders, Schleck was a throwback. Like old-school climbers, he seemed incapable of producing anything approaching a de- cent time trial. If he deserved mockery for anything, it was for his hapless- ness against the clock.
[His riding in 2011] seemed to confirm Schleck as a nearly man, brilliant, talented, precocious, but not a champion. And yet he was a member of that rare breed— Anquetil, Merckx, Hinault, LeMond—who had finished on the podium in his début Grand Tour (second at the 2007 Giro at the young age of 22). So what was the problem? That he was too nice? That he didn’t have the required ruthless streak?
So here we are in 2011. Week three. The Alps. It has come to the point where Schleck has to do something, because people are mocking him. In the Pyrenees, where he and Fränk had been expected to tear the race to pieces, they failed. Worse, they hadn’t even seemed to try. They prevaricated. On Plateau de Beille, the final Pyrenean climb, Andy launched a series of attacks, but no sooner had daylight appeared than he would glance back, seeing what damage he’d done.
It meant that on the eve of the Galibier stage, Schleck was fourth overall, two and a half minutes behind Voeckler, with his brother Fränk third, almost a minute and a half down. “We talked about specifics that night,” recalls Luca Guercilena, one of two Leopard directeurs sportifs, along with Kim Andersen. “On the morning, we got down to the fine details.”
“At the team meeting in the morning, the plan was made,” says Brian Nygaard, who was the team manager. “Andy had been talking about it, he told me a couple of days before, and he was extremely confident. I hadn’t seen him that confident since he won Liège–Bastogne–Liège in 2009. Three days before Liège he had said, ‘No one’s going to follow me on Sunday.’”
“The thing with Andy is, he’s either really chilled out or he’s excited. He was really excited for Galibier.”
Partly, admits Nygaard, that owed to his frustration at the criticism. “Criticism doesn’t really bother him, but once in a while he has what I would say is a really useful sense of pride. Then he reacts.” The first part of the day’s plan was to put two riders in the main breakaway. There were four candidates: Maxime Monfort, Joost Posthuma, Jakob Fuglsang, and Linus Gerdemann. O’Grady would keep an eye on things, and try to infiltrate the break if the quartet failed—because making the break is not as simple as it sounds.
“Kim Andersen explained it to me,” says Monfort. “We had had some bad days, especially into Gap. Andy losing a minute for nothing. We were all really disappointed. And Kim told me, ‘We have a plan for Galibier.’
“When he told me what it was, I didn’t believe it.”
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