All images: ©Conquista
After one last traverse of the Cotentin peninsula, bringing us up from the start in Saint-Lô, we are in Cherbourg for the end of stage two of 2016’s edition of the Tour de France. There is something crazy about following the Tour: you drive for hours and spend a fortune to catch a few seconds of action, if you are lucky – or like today, simply to be in the vicinity as the climax unfolds, while you watch it on television in a nearby tent.
A four-man breakaway has been away for most of the day, though by now it is reduced to just three riders – Paul Voss of BORA – ARGON 18, Vegard Breen of Fortuneo–Vital Concept, and Trek–Segafredo’s Jasper Stuyven. With less than 10km to go, they lead the pack by well over two minutes. The usual arithmetic suggests the peloton can take back a minute over that distance, but not much more – so the break has a good chance of staying away. But today the usual arithmetic is irrelevant, because the route has a sting in the tail: one last, steep climb to the finish line, around one kilometre long, which touches 14% . . .
. . . and then, while the press tent is doing its meaningless sums, there is a break from the break. With 8.5km to go, just as the road briefly rises, and the other two slow for a breather, Stuyven attacks. A murmur of approval goes around the tent. Stuyven, conforming to every positive stereotype of Belgian cycling, looks very big, and very strong, and seems unlikely to be hampered by an excessively sophisticated race strategy. Earlier in the year he won Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne with a similar solo break, that time from twice as far out. But this is the Tour: the competition doesn’t get any stronger, and just to add some extra motivation, with race leader Mark Cavendish struggling, it seems certain that today’s winner will wear the yellow jersey tomorrow.
Breen is spent, and cannot respond to Stuyven’s attack. A red-faced Voss, who has been in the break for most of the first two days, taking the KoM jersey in the process, tries manfully to bridge the gap, but has nothing left: soon he, too, is swept up, then left behind by the peloton.
As we watch the screens in the press tent, Oleg Tinkov shuffles up on crutches - a surprise, given that the previous evening he was quite happily pedalling his bike around the bus in full team kit. Tinkov is much bigger than I expect – both taller and broader, and with a particularly huge head. He is accompanied by an escort of five French policemen. As he stands watching the action, he sniffs hard, gargles, and then blasts the contents of his throat and sinuses through his pursed lips and onto the road at the feet of the press, in a manoeuvre known to Australians as “sending an oyster south”.
On screen, confusingly, the time gaps are measured back to the yellow jersey, but Cavendish is now off the back of the pack – with the result that, briefly, thrillingly, but wrongly, it appears that Stuyven has a lead over the field of almost a minute with just a kilometre to go. And then, with just 500m remaining, like a killer whale surfacing immediately behind a baby seal, the peloton is on him, and he is gone.
Just like on day 1, Tinkoff’s Peter Sagan leads out the final effort. Unlike day 1, and presumably having learned from that error, he realizes he has gone too early, and soft-pedals until others come past. And at the end he is too strong and too smart. Second-placed Julian Alaphilippe hammers his handlebars in frustration. Behind us, Oleg flings his arms in the air, leaps up and down and roars “FUCK THEM! FUCK THEM ALL!” His crutches, apparently forgotten (and, apparently, purely ornamental), flail wildly around him.
Voss rolls over the line looking shattered. By the time he reaches the press tent, perhaps a couple of hundred metres later, when he is stopped and diverted to doping control by an official, the polka-dot jersey is already gone, taken over by Stuyven, who also wins the combativity prize. Vossi’s moment in the spotlight is over with cruel swiftness. But he’ll be back.
Once over the line, the riders head straight downhill to the team buses. The final climb has strung them out, and there is much more room on the road than yesterday, so despite the crowds there is no repeat of the scrum at Utah Beach. Soigneurs hand out bottles, cans of fizzy pop, and towels. Some riders stop for the press. But Tinkoff’s Alberto Contador, having crashed on both days so far, doesn’t even wait for an interviewer before loudly offering his opinions, mostly negative, about the events of the day.
Back at the press tent, a huge scrum awaits Peter Sagan. When he appears, he jokingly makes to walk straight past the TV cameras. In truth, he is a sponsor’s dream, patiently giving the same polite, detailed answers to the same questions over and over again. While I am photographing him mid-interview, I feel a firm prod in the stomach. A policeman, outraged at some fancied transgression, has stuck his umbrella through the barrier and into my belly. I laugh, and carry on, hoping that I am still doing whatever it was that annoyed him.
And then, at the end, someone asks Sagan how long he will keep the yellow jersey. He smiles. "I don't care. If I lose yellow, I have green. If I lose the green jersey I have the rainbow jersey.”
What a line. What a day. What a winner. What a race. What a circus.
We're done. We can’t top that. We head for Cherbourg terminal, and the ferry home. Au revoir, Tour de France. Au revoir.
Like it? Share it!