Tales from the Tour: The haunted man and the home team

by Caley Fretz

Last year’s Tour de France was one of the best in recent memory. So, without a Tour to watch this July, we thought we’d look back at some of our favorite moments from that race, exactly a year on.

LA MONGIE, France (CT) – Julian Alaphilippe stood off to the side of the main podium, out of view of most of the crowd. He held one hand crossed over the other and looked down at the ground, pausing there for a moment as the announcer’s voice grew to a bellow and the crowd on the hillside amphitheater opposite rose as one. He looked up, grinning, held two fists in the air, and walked out of the shadows and onto the stage, into the roar.

A Frenchman in yellow; another, first to top the Tourmalet. A finish line tucked into the summit of a mountain, treeless slopes rising on either side, funneling the vast and raucous entirety of the Tour de France into a space too small for it all to fit.

Soigneurs with cooler bags full of recovery drinks jostled with reporters and cameras for room under the watchful eye of security personnel, as all tried to get out of the way of riders blowing weary whistles. They descended, necks wrapped in towels, to team busses shrouded in a hanging cloud four kilometers down the backside of the mountain.

Behind the anti-doping van, perched precariously on the edge of an unwalkably-sheer drop-off, Geraint Thomas spun slowly on a trainer. A team staffer handed him a black towel and he wiped his face, still covered in sweat. He looked haggard, and a bit haunted. Like he’d seen some things he didn’t want to see.

Those things included, but were not limited to: The backside of his teammate, Egan Bernal, as Thomas slipped slowly off the back of the lead group; the backside of Rigoberto Uran as he passed in the closing meters; the clock on the finish line arch, which read 36 seconds as he passed underneath.

It was not his day. It still might be his Tour.

It was France’s day. The president was there. The influx of men in blue blazers and wires in their ears was a dead giveaway. And the extra guns. So too were the boos, which cut through the cheers when he was spotted on the podium. Emmanuel Macron’s approval rating hovers around 30 percent, and while I haven’t seen the latest polls, anecdotal evidence suggests Thibaut Pinot and Alaphilippe sit quite a bit higher. There were many photo ops.

The headline of L’Equipe Sunday morning: Jour de France, plastered over a photo of Pinot and Alaphilippe, side by side, ahead of the world atop the Tourmalet. And it was France’s day at France’s Tour, the best for French cycling in 34 years. The best since Laurent Fignon in 1989, really.

At the top, each mobbed by press, Alaphilippe and Pinot found each other. Pinot twisted back and Alaphilippe reached forward and they embraced, only quickly, before the push and shove of the finish line separated them again. On Sunday they face yet another test; at the end of the week, the Alps. One rides on joy, the other on anger. Both pushed forward by the collective will of this entire country, which wonders what can be.

For two weeks now, we’ve said that Alaphilippe needs only to pass the next test. Planche des Belles Filles – that will get him. No? The time trial then. No? Surely the Tourmalet, achingly long and so far from his natural habitat. No, again. Another test passed. At the top of the Tourmalet there were only half a dozen men left, and he was one of them. You can’t fake form like that.

And Pinot. Let’s not forget about Pinot, as if such a thing was possible with his five o’clock shadow beaming out from every L’Equipe in every tabac shop window across France. He rides on anger, he said, furious at the betrayal of the French winds, which blew in Ineos’ favor last Monday. “The more you win, the more you want to win,” he said, right after winning. “It’s an eternal circle.”

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