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 24, 2009
Bourgoin-Jallieu to Aubenas
178 km/111 mi. rolling
A controversial figure who had admitted to doping when he won the Tour in 1996, Riis was now running the Saxo Bank squad, and one of his riders, Andy Schleck, was still in contention to win the 2009 Tour. As a manager, Riis had earned a reputation as one of the sport’s thinkers and innovators, whose teams were tactically astute and excep- tionally well organized. Partly this reputation might have been due to his demeanor: Riis, a Dane, was cold and inscrutable, his aloof manner sug- gesting he was in possession of a secret code.
But today, Riis had something else on his mind when he walked over to Cavendish’s table as he ate dinner.
“Have you looked at the profile for stage 19, the finish in Aubenas?” Riis asked.
“Yeah,” said Cavendish. “Kind of. Looks like a massive climb at the end.” “You can get over it. We trained around there. The first half—the first 3 or 4 km—are hard, but if you can get over that, you can settle into it. The last 10 km are steady.”
“You can go for that one.”
The riders were coming out of the Alps, heading west. The stage was a bridge to the final mountain of the Tour, on the penultimate day: Mont Ventoux. But the stage Riis was talking Cavendish into—stage 19, from Bourgoin-Jallieu, in the Rhône-Alpes, into the Ardèche Valley, then on to the town of Aubenas—was anything but flat. It was mountainous; the etymological root of the town’s name, alb, means “height.” Aubenas sits on a hill overlooking the valley.
It was the kind of stage that Cavendish, the best sprinter of his or per- haps any other generation, would have studied and then probably dismissed. Cavendish and Riis had this in common, if nothing else: Both were assiduous in their preparation. Every evening, while some riders were playing computer games or phoning home, Cavendish would study the official road book, the bible of the Tour, detailing every village, every hill, every bend in the road, along with brief tourist-style descriptions of the start and finish towns (“Aubenas,” read the entry for stage 19, “perched on a rocky spur overlooking the Ardèche Valley, with a population of 12,000, benefits from the temperament, the accent and the radiant smile of the south. In the summer, the sunlight illuminates the treasures of the town, captivating the senses of those who visit the city of the Montlaurs . . .”).
When Cavendish looked at the profile for the stage to Aubenas, it did not look promising. A lumpy first 50 km included two category 4 climbs, and four peaks in total: up, down, up, down, up, down, up. While category 4 climbs carry the “easiest” ranking, you still have to get up and over them, and these so-called transitional stages can be the hardest of all. There would be too many riders who would fancy their chances. And it would be their last chance, with Ventoux reserved for the overall contenders, and the Champs-Élysées, on the final day, reserved for the sprinters—for Cavendish, that is.
I MEET CAVENDISH IN THE deserted coastal town of Calpe in southern Spain, in the bar of an out-of-season hotel. It’s early January. It is a pretty bleak setting. And Cavendish is cagey and monosyllabic when asked about recent controversies—there are always recent controversies with Cavendish—and immediate plans. But ask him to discuss his best-ever stage win in the Tour de France and he is transformed. He sits upright. His eyes—framed by long, cow-like eyelashes—widen and sparkle. He uses his hands to speak. And he recites what happened as though he was reading from the road book, recalling every corner, every hill, every pothole.
But first, he has to settle on which stage win is his “greatest.”
He thinks aloud. There are some contenders. Stage 18 in 2012, from Blagnac to Brive- la-Gaillarde, three days from Paris, is one. “It was a fucking hard day. Block headwind, 230 km, and it wasn’t flat, it was heavy roads.” It was doubly— or triply, or quadruply—hard because he felt he was going against the orders of his team, Team Sky, who led the race with Bradley Wiggins. The team meeting that morning had been confused. Sean Yates, the director, told them to take it easy, at which point Cavendish, who had been led to believe they would set it up for him, raised his hand. “What about me?”
Cav has fire in his eyes now, as he relives it. His heart might be racing, as it was when he caught and passed the Spaniard, Luis León Sánchez, in the finishing straight in Brive. He settles back in his chair. He lifts a hand to his mouth. His brow furrows, not an unfamiliar sight. It’s difficult to tell if he is still thinking or if he is allowing himself to become pissed off, again, as he reflects on his 2012 Tour with Team Sky, when he was made to feel like a bit player, a luxurious extra in a team built around Wiggins.
Then he leans forward again and the furrow vanishes. “Nah. That wasn’t the best one. I would say Aubenas.
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