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!
Friday, July 13, 2012
Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne to Annonay
266 km/165 mi mountains
We had two and a half weeks to go,” says David Millar, reflecting on the situation he and his team, Garmin- Sharp, found themselves in, just one week into the 2012 Tour. “So we had to pull our heads out of our arses and find a new way of racing.”
The American team had almost been obliterated on one horrific day, when they appeared at the finish of stage 6 in Metz looking like a defeated army returning from the front line. So many riders went down that it was impossible to count, but an astonishing proportion of the tangled bodies and bikes were from Garmin. When they arrived back at their team bus, they were bedraggled, bloodied, in various states of agony and distress, their clothing ripped and in rags. The casualties included the team leaders, Ryder Hesjedal, who had just won the Giro d’Italia, and Tom Danielson. Millar was one of the better-off ones: All you could see was a deep, bloody gash in his arm. His teammate, Johan Vansummeren, seemed to have left most of his skin on the road. His shorts barely concealed his modesty; his buttocks looked like bloody, raw steaks. It was one of those rare occasions at the Tour when the reporters, waiting like vultures by the bus, thought better of approaching the riders.
Instead, surveying the carnage, there was Allan Peiper. Peiper, slim and silver-haired, was leaning against the team car with his arms folded. He looked resigned, but it was worse than that, more like trauma. It was the worst day he had seen in thirty years at the Tour, he said. “We’ve lost most of our chances for everything in the Tour de France. At this moment, I can’t see what a successful Tour might be.”
All this from one crash. One story was that it was caused by one of Alessandro Petacchi’s domestiques, who was helping the Lampre sprinter prepare for the finale. Petacchi had decided to remove his shoe covers and handed them to his domestique, who removed his hands from the bars to stuff them in his back pocket, touched a wheel, lost control.
For Millar, it was “the scariest crash I’ve been in . . . a perfect storm, a howling tailwind, going from a big road to a narrow road; 3 km from a left turn. We were going so fast, 78 kph [48 mph] when the impact happened. It was such a narrow road, we were so tightly packed, and it was that stage in the race when everyone is engaged. And all of a sudden there was a sea of bikes and people. It was like it was all falling from the sky in front of you. There is nothing you can do other than pile into it. And at that speed you’re going to get hurt. That’s what’s scary. You were sliding into it. And you know it’s coming from behind as well. We had been moving Ryder up the bunch at that point and were grouped together: me, Christian [Vande Velde], Summy [Vansummeren], Tommy D., Ryder.”
Millar finished with blood still dripping from the wound on his arm. “I didn’t even notice my arm, I was so bashed and bruised all over, my legs, shoulders, knees. About 10 km later I noticed the blood on my handlebars.” It was a day that changed everything, that narrowed the scope of his team’s ambition. Yet, paradoxically, it opened a door for Millar to try to do what team orders ordinarily denied him. It gave him freedom, carte blanche to ride his own race, get in a breakaway and try to win a stage, his first since 2003 (or 2002, if you go by Millar’s own edited palmarès), his first since his return, in 2006, from a two-year suspension for doping.
Getting in a break and winning a stage sounds so simple. But it is not just a case of picking a day. It is a common misconception, but as Millar explains, “You have to try over several days. You need the combination of a good day, the right people, the right move. It takes a few days of warm- ing up for. I’d say you need a good week of trying.
“I had been trying every day,” he continues. “I was chipping closer, getting my head around the effort needed, and the calculations you need to do. Most of the big breaks that had gone, I had been in, and they were getting a bit further every time. But it’s a different style of racing, getting in breaks.”
Sometimes it happens when you stop trying so hard. On the day in question, exactly one week after the carnage of Metz, going with the break was not Millar’s priority. It was a tough stage, borderline moun- tainous. There were two category 1 climbs early on that worried him. And it was because of these that he remained close to the front of the peloton. From this vantage point, he saw riders attacking, trying to get something to stick. Then he watched them come back, spent from the effort. Some would go again—they included riders Millar describes as “big hitters,” people like Alejandro Valverde, who seemed determined to get away. But it wasn’t happening for Valverde, who excels on such tough stages. Then it dawned on Millar that riding close to the front, following the accelerations, wasn’t hurting as much as it should.
He began to think about attacking himself. He felt so good that the prospect—and the pressure he immediately put on himself—did not make him nervous. Another positive sign. “When you’re on a good day, when you’re super strong, you don’t have to force it. You can wait. You can watch the break forming. You can see the race unfolding in front of you. You’re lucid. You can relax.” He might have been in a minority of one, for it was almost two weeks into the Tour, and one of those hard, fast starts to a stage, when so many riders know that it isn’t one for sprinters, or climbers, or overall contenders, but for opportunists. Trouble is, the Tour is full of opportunists. When they sniff a half chance, the relentless attacking pushes the pace up, stretching the peloton in one long line.
Millar remained well placed. At six foot three he is one of the tallest in the bunch, which meant he could see over others’ heads. He could watch what was happening, see whether any move was going clear. “The break always forms at the point where everyone is close to breaking, when everyone is just getting to that point where they can’t go again. When you’re super strong, you can watch all that unfold, and you’re just waiting for everyone else’s wheels to fall off, basically.
“That’s what I did. I waited until I saw some of the big hitters getting desperate, even Valverde—guys who wanted to be in that break. They all tried to go and I could see them die and come back.”
Millar felt almost detached; he became an observer rather than a par- ticipant, poised to act when he could see that the race had decided which
combination of riders would go clear. He waited until he could see a hard- working cluster of riders at the front, and a gap opening. The peloton hadn’t so much eased off as run out of gas. The expanse of daylight between break and bunch was expanding. “Then I went,” says Millar. “I bridged across the gap in about 200 m. And thought: Ooooh.”
It was only 18 km into the longest stage of the Tour. To most, it felt like they’d already ridden 100. The group that formed at the front was com- prised of 19 riders, and Millar took his place among them. It was all so ef- fortless and easy. “I was so good that day,” recalls Millar now, “that I didn’t realize what a good day I was on.”
Millar was 35 years old. This was the opportunity he had been craving for at least seven years. It could provide the platform to make the point he had been waiting to make.
Thanks for reading this excerpt from Étape! You’ve read 23% of the chapter. Read the full chapter in Etape: 20 Great Stages from the Modern Tour de France by Richard Moore.