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Agonisingly close. With 50 metres to go Jack Bauer was on the verge of something he had mentally rehearsed since a very young age; five metres later, that possibility was shattered, and he went from being the day’s winner to the day’s hard luck story.
Stage victory at the Tour de France would have changed his career, opened doors and added a lot more to his annual paycheque; he might yet achieve that distinction, but he’ll have to wait for another time. Ditto for a place in New Zealand’s sporting history, another missed chance today.
Having been out front for almost all of the 222 kilometre stage, Bauer and breakaway companion Martin Elmiger (IAM Cycling) were swamped on the finishing straight, and finished 10th and 16th respectively behind the winner Alexander Kristoff (Katusha).
It was a big blow to both riders, not least because of the sheer amount of work they put in throughout the day. Another reason is that each of their teams are desperately chasing what would be their first stage wins in this year’s race.
“It’s just bitter, bitter disappointment,” said Bauer to a scrum of TV, radio and written press reporters at the Garmin team bus in Nîmes. “It was a childhood dream to win a stage of the Tour de France.
“For a person like myself, a domestique, I am normally working for others. So it is my first chance to actually be up the road and with the change in the wind and the weather in the last 100 kilometres, we really realised, myself and Martin, were in with a chance for the win.”
The duo worked hard after getting some daylight and built a maximum lead of 8 minutes 50 seconds by kilometre 26. Both had a lot to gain and they pulled hard together, doing what they could to improve their chances.
Bauer said that he and Elmiger were fully aware how hard it was to make it into their position, and they were determined to make the most of it.
“A break is not just a group of people who are stronger than the other 180 and can just ride away. It is a shuffle in the beginning of the stage. It is a positioning thing. It is a motivational thing after two hard days,” he said.
“There are a lot of people that wanted to get in the break today. There are a lot of people who wanted a sprint finish. It was myself and Martin and a few other teams who were prepared at the beginning of the race. We had a real drive to get into the break.”
Bauer’s Garmin Sharp team entered the race hoping to have a strong result in the overall standings. Andrew Talansky had won the Critérium du Dauphiné and was in good shape when the Tour started. Unfortunately for him, crashes took the zip out of his legs and tangled up his back, causing spasms of pain and a loss of power. The injury ultimately forced him out.
Since then the team has had to try to fight back. Its sole top three placing on a stage dated back to Ramunas Navardauskas’ third on stage one, however, and so the pressure was growing on the riders to land a stage.
“For us it was important,” said Bauer, who would have become the first ever Kiwi winner of a stage if the bunch had stalled for even one second longer. “Losing Talansky and not having many stages in the last week that suit [meant that] today was a day that it was worth a gamble.
“There was a chance a break would stay away. As you saw in a windy finale, it is hard for sprinters to bring back a small gap. So close yet still so far.
“For any team, you win a stage at the Tour and it has been a success. I’m not going to say our Tour hasn’t been a success so far, and it’s not over yet, but a stage win would have gone a long way towards rectifying what has been a difficult five days with the loss of Andrew and the reshuffle of our goals and ambitions.”
Bauer said the breakaway duo had one advantage over the bunch, but also admitted afterwards that he might have made an error of judgement in how he handled things with respect to Elmiger.
“With five k to go I thought it was pretty much certain that we were going to take the stage because of the roundabouts, the slickness on the roads. Even myself and Martin were sliding all over the road, and we could pick our own lines and our own pace. It was obviously a lot harder for those in the peloton, and it slows the pace of the peloton down.
“So with five k to go I really started playing the game. Maybe I played it a little too much but, looking backwards with one kilometre, we still had a decent gap. Martin tried his move and I was on his wheel straight away. I tried my hand with 400 to go and I think I just came up a little bit too short.”
Although the spectators in the crowd and those watching on television could see the peloton bearing down on them, devouring the space between the break and the bunch, Bauer said that he really believed that he was on the verge of that childhood dream.
“I thought I had it,” he said. “I realised in the last 50 metres that I didn’t.”
It’s a blow, but he’s not letting it get him down too much. “For myself personally and my family, I would have… I gave it everything, but it was a dream that didn’t quite happen,” he stated.
“But I am sure I will get chances again in the future.”
His team will hope that too, but his chances in this year’s race are likely done. Six stages remain until the Tour ends; his team has six more opportunities to salvage things with a win.