When Chris Froome crashed, the bar erupted. The replay showed him down again, louder still. Revelers spilled beer on the shiny wooden tables and kept yelling, like teenagers watching a fight they were never brave enough to be in.
Racers trickled in atop the mountain after Stage 19 at this year’s Tour. Jerseys looked like wet newspapers plastered to birdcages. Some stopped and played their parts in the platitude procession: unclip, stare at a camera, report the day’s victories and defeats (mostly defeats), clip back in and pedal off.
There was a comet of press waiting for Pierre Rolland, and Pierre always stops, even if he’s covered in gauze and bleeding out of his shorts. (No one in the bar cheered when their native son hit the ground.)
Rolland was good that day in that could-have-been-great way, but crashed on the descent before the final climb. He told the reporters that he felt good, that his slashed up hand had finally healed enough from his crash in the Pyrenees, that he felt like he had to try. “But my tire slipped out, and I crashed pretty hard. Cycling is like that. All we can do is keep pedaling,” he said.
They left, but he stood there and then put his head on his handlebars. His shoulders moved up and down. The exhaling race had finally spit him out, and what remained was a shredded and bloody kit and that broken pane of glass we crash through when something great is so close and eludes us.
Tears fell among the raindrops. Diétrich Plumerat, his soigneur of seven years, dropped to his knee in front of him and put his hand on the back of Pierre’s neck. “Ce n’est pas fini,” he told him. It’s not finished. Diétrich cried, too, though no one could see. He pressed his face into Pierre’s.
“It’s my friend,” Diétrich said. “It’s my little brother. And I know the work. You work hard for that, and at the end, you have nothing.” Rolland rode that day’s parcours six times in training.
A day later, on the Tour’s final mountain stage, Rolland was in the break again. He got dropped on descents in the rain, not wanting to take another hard fall. He fought to tack back on in the valley. It was always going to be a tall order to win, but Rolland promised DS Charly Wegelius he’d fight the whole Tour. And he did. Rolland’s name is still on Tour roads in old paint and will be painted on more roads, still.
You see his name, 16th on GC. But you don’t see this. You don’t see him riding the trainer in white compression tights that soon turn red over his cuts. He had to warm up before he got on the bus to see if his body will move the right way after a hard fall. He’s not the only one, either. In pro bike racing, many riders have to be told to stop; they don’t give up themselves.
Ce n’est pas fini.
What makes this sport work are the things that happen when no one is looking. Those sticky bottles and the river of team cars that lend a few moments of breeze to get a rider to the finish. Those words heaped onto the race judges mid-race over injustices. The DS who tells his rider fighting to get back to the peloton, adrift among the cars, to look up. Look up or you’ll go into this glass.
Everyone sees the wide grin of victory. But it’s the things they don’t see that make this sport work. Tears included.