The Tour de France fascinates me in large part because there are so many subplots — and on a day like today each of these stories can produce a hero. The Tour also fascinates me because I ride bikes and am married to a French woman, which requires me to visit her family in France every summer. Today, after a 40-mile ride through the Drome region where we are staying (and where the Tour passed through on Tuesday), my riding companions settled in to watch the fireworks in French style — with a plate of fromage and a plate of charcuterie.
As the Tour draws to a close, today’s race was the day to put up or shut up for the yellow jersey contenders. Andy Schleck, one of the two favorites who has been subjected to withering criticism this year for riding passively, attacked today on the second of three major climbs, the Col d’Izoard. With 36 miles left to go and the massive Galibier left to climb, he set a devastating cadence, caught and passed the breakaway group ahead and gritted out the day’s win on the mountaintop finish. When he finished, he was the virtual leader of the Tour.
But other heroes were at work — Cadel Evans, turned himself inside out doing all the work to close the gap up the Galibier. Knowing that if he could remain within a minute or two of Schleck going into Saturday’s time trial, he would have the opportunity to regain that time and more against Schleck, a notoriously weak time trialist. Evans, with his trademark grimace, pounded up the mountain closing the gap and remaining in contention. Others, including defending champ and favorite Alberto Contador, were not so lucky and slipped off the back and out of contention.
Two other heroes did not fall back. Thomas Voeckler, the current leader of the Tour but not known as a climber had already exceeded expectations by retaining the lead into the Alps. Few predicted that he would be in the mix today, but through the climbs he remained clamped on to the wheels of the leaders and would not let go. When Evans turned the screws to close the gap on Schleck, Voeckler kept up to the finish to hold on to his yellow jersey for one more day. But Voeckler would not have been able to hang with Evans if it weren’t for his teammate, Pierre Rolland. Rolland rode the race of lifetime — and perhaps most heroic of all, he did it selflessly, to keep Voeckler in yellow. When Evans attacked, it was Rolland who closed the gap, with Voeckler following — incredible riding.
As I pedal back out into the countryside tomorrow, I’ll draw some inspiration from these heroes — inspiration to get back in front of the TV in time to see what heroes will be made tomorrow.
photo by Laurent Cipriani