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The hands of the official registered four, three, two, one fingers, and he was gone, a year of preparation and work now compressed into 30 minutes on a bike, alone in his helmet but in front of everyone.
All those bottles made in the morning ferried up and down to him, all the tubulars glued and re-glued, all the things that could have differently distilled into now.
Usually at a bike race, there’s something to do. But on Saturday in the Marseille stadium there was not a single thing to do but wait. Wait and hope and dream. Even if you’re not a dreamer.
Before the 2017 Tour de France began, Alberto Bettiol said the Cannondale-Drapac team wanted to win a stage. “It doesn’t cost anything to dream,” He said. “So let’s dream.”
Taylor Phinney rolled himself into the Tour’s first break and earned the polka dots. He was caught just 800 meters before the line and it was then, if I’m honest, I can say the feeling first tapped me on the shoulder, a gentle nudge of what-if.
Standing at bike races for a living metes out a fair dose of reality, and it’s not often a press officer relents to the voice inside that say yes, you are going to win this thing. Emotionally we can’t think that way each time there’s a possibility. At least I can’t too many feelings involved.
And yet. Phinney, off the front a bit, a known time trialist with a handful of seconds and a kilometre to go? Not impossible. Of course he didn’t win, but he did earn a spotted jersey and more than a few hearts. Our dreams were modest to begin with. Animate. Win a stage. Be there, just in case.
The race ticks by. We pass a million people on the road beaming smiles into the riders and into the cars and grasping at the confetti of the passing spectacle. Fans reach over the barriers for free yellow hats they take home and put in garages, and mechanics struggle with the endless effort to keep bikes clean and perfect. They insist one carries them from the car to the truck, never rolling them over the pavement outside the hotel. The podium girls put on makeup. In the moments before the race finishes they are swans among a garish tangle of TV trucks, miles of electrical cords, and sweating assistants in vests with 20 pockets. The girls smile at the mirrors in their hands. We make our way through the first week.
If you’re a team that doesn’t expect to win the general classification each time you line up, the GC becomes a mistress that’s whispered about but never fully embraced — to do so is to set up for on-display failure and submit to a lamentable boom-bust narrative. But there’s another reason, too. It’s a hard thing to let into you, genuine belief. At this Tour, for me at least, it started with a bottle.
Most guys up front, when they come to you to take a bottle on a mountain feed from your hand, they’re cross-eyed messes, surviving in the inches between wheels. Their jerseys are open and transparent with sweat and their faces shimmer.
On the Grand Colombier, Rigoberto Uran just looked at me 30 meters before the top and nodded his head and came close to me and took the bidon from my hand softly. Uncommon smoothness at the ragged edge.
A few hours, one big gear, and one photograph later, he won the stage and took some bonus seconds. Ok. Ok.
Two cameras in front of the bus became 10. The door of hope cracked open and the triangle of light shining through grew day by day until the room was lit up and we were standing on top of the Izoard amid a pointillist blanket of fans, and I became one of them. We can win the Tour. We can. They came in together on the Izoard and the door closed but I didn’t let it slam.
When he left the start house in Marseille as a dark horse I craned my head up to watch the screen and put my hands behind my head. In those moments there is a string between those on the staff watching on screens, the other eight watching in the stands or on TV, and the man on the road. We wait, we gasp, we hope.
It does cost to dream. I’ll pay every time.
About the author
Matthew Beaudin worked for VeloNews for three road seasons, from 2012-2014, covering the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia, and spring classics as a journalist. He spent 2015 working for Rapha in content and social media, and is now communications director for the Cannondale Pro Cycling Team. He lives in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He can be found on Instagram and Twitter. His work can also be found on the Cannondale Pro Cycling Instagram and Twitter accounts.