Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Stage Seventeen

When I arrived at Sansan at 4:15 this afternoon I could tell it was a big enough town to have a bar or two.  My pulse quickened in anticipation of that glorious moment when I would gaze upon a screen televising The Tour. Sansan did indeed have a couple of bars, but it was a rare town so sleepy that the bars did not keep afternoon hours, neither opening until five, even the PMU bar broadcasting horse races.

The next town was too distant to reach before the stage would be completed.  Both bars had tables and chairs out front.  I plopped down outside the non-PMU bar and followed the action on my iPad, until five p.m. when the bar opened and I was able to watch the final fifteen minutes of the action.  Once again Nibali had allowed a twenty rider bunch of non-threats to go up the road.  His group chasing after them had been whittled down to ten riders as they began the final Beyond Category climb of Pla d'Adet to the finish.  Neither Porte nor Horner, former podium and top ten hopefuls, were among them.  Both are still in the top twenty, but more than fifteen minutes from the elite ten.  Van Garderen was the only one among them whose first language was English.

Nibali remained in full control, in a class unto himself, riding without strain and then pushing on ahead with two miles to go to pad his lead by another minute without having to dig deep to do it.  He acknowledged that he has not approached his limit, as there is no need to.  Everyone else reaches the finish in relief, having to give it their all to maintain or improve on their placing.  Nibali hasn't been greedy about stage wins, letting Majka claim his second and Tinkoff-Saxo its third.  Majka also secured the King of the mountain jersey, gaining a whopping fifty points for the stage victory, considerably more than the ten each that Rodriguez picked off by being first over a couple of preceding Category One climbs.  Tomorrow it will be decided for good with the final day in the mountains.  

If Nibali wanted that jersey too, he could have it.  But he is taking no chances in overextending himself.  He is known as the best descender in the peloton, swooping so sharply in the turns that he can reach down and touch the pavement.  I was hoping to see his skills on display the day before when a long descent preceded the finish, but he just stuck with the five guys he was with letting them set the pace, as their was no point in gaining time and taking any kind of risk.

Van Garderen remained in sixth but fell a minute further from the podium.  Just as he suffered a heart-breaking loss last year to a much more inspired French rider on L'Alpe d'Huez after riding alone ahead of everyone else on much of the two climbs up it, he can't match the culturally deep motivation of the three French riders ahead of him seeking the podium.  They also have the impetus of an entire nation that cares deeply how they finish.  The nation will be overcome with ecstasy if they can overcome the fading Valverde, barely clinging to second place, and claim the other two spots on the podium behind Nibali.   I'm doing my best to will Van Garderen on, but its not enough.  He needed Talansky here.  A battle for the top American in The Race would have inspired him to find further strength and will than what he is presently finding.

Though I had no yellow backgrounded course markers to follow, it was still a day of yellow for me--the bright yellow of fields of sunflowers going on for acres and acres up and down the rolling countryside.

It was a hot day, so I welcomed every shady arcade of plane trees, even though they somewhat blocked my view of the sunflowers.

Today I was reliving the 2012 Tour de France through the filter of Chris Froome.  He finished second in The Race to his teammate Wiggins.  He dealt squarely with his rivalry with Wiggins.  Though Wiggins was the designated team leader, Froome didn't consider him so.  He had finished ahead of him at the Vuelta d'Espagne the previous fall, when he was also supposed to be at his service.  He hadn't even been on the original team to ride in the race.  He was a last minute addition when one of the Sky riders became ill.  

Froome had had a lackluster season up till then and was in the final year of a two-year contract that paid him 100,000 euros a year.  Sky wasn't sure if they wanted him back, even though they knew he had tremendous potential.  When Bobby Julich became his coach at the start of the 2011 season, he was  so taken aback by the power meter numbers from his training rides, he thought there had to be something wrong with the meter.  But his previous coach assured him that Froome did produce numbers that only the ultra-elite can, though it was only rarely glimpsed in a race.

Froome was prepared to take a pay cut.  But then he had an explosive Vuelta finishing second, just ahead of Wiggins.  He probably  would have won it if he hadn't had to expend extra energy fetching water bottles earlier in the race and doing other domestique chores before he proved his strength. After his second place finish he was in great demand.  He met with Bjarne Riis at a nightclub, making negotiations difficult, but a reflection on what he considered Riis, a symbol of the dark side.  Astana offered him more than twice what Sky finally offered to keep him.  He wanted to stay with Sky, but it had to come closer to what other teams were willing to pay him and also include a clause in his contract that they team would support his ambitions at the 2012 Tour de France, which were to win The Race. Sky buckled to his demands, after initially refusing them.

But when the 2012 Race began it was all Wiggins, and Froome wasn't happy about that at all.  He didn't care to be a loyal teammate helping Wiggins, when he thought he was the superior rider, or at least climber, where The Race would be won.  When he was ordered back from an attack he made on Wiggins  in the mountains, he was quite distraught.  He couldn't sleep and was up til four a.m. several nights afterwards texting his girl friend.  Wiggins didn't care for Froome upstaging him, and didn't invite him to a party to celebrate his win that all his other teammates and Sky personnel were invited to, nor did he give him the bonus that he gave all his other teammates.  

It is no wonder that Froome wouldn't have wanted him as a teammate at this year's Tour.  He called Wiggins a loner who dampened team spirit.  They had been roommates at the Vuelta and rarely spoke except to say goodnight.  The following year Froome was finally able to realize his ambitions winning The Tour with relative ease and was the favorite to do it again this year.  He will have a chance to prove himself once again next month at the Vuelta after his minor broken bones from his crashes at The Tour have healed.

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