The Tour de France middle man’s modest dreams

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GAP, France (CT) — There’s a yawning gap between the riders who think they can win the Tour de France and the riders who know they can’t. It contains the middle men, the new and the young and the hopeful and, at the moment, it contains Xandro Meurisse.

Meurisse is 27, in his first Tour de France. Two weeks ago, Greg van Avermaet stood in front of the world and said he was the most underrated Belgian talent here. And he has been, both underrated and clearly a talent: Meurisse sat in and around the top 10 until the Tourmalet, when he finally fell apart. “My only bad day,” he said. “But they happen.”

Yesterday, he jumped in the big move on the way to Gap, gained 17 minutes, and pushed himself back up into 13th overall. He sits between Nairo Quintana and Dan Martin with three big mountain stages left.

Meurisse cooled down on rollers next to the Wanty-Gobert bus, spinning away with his hands off the bars, drinking a thick looking recovery shake. The peloton hadn’t crossed the line yet, so neither of us was sure, at the time, where exactly he was going to land on the overall. Top 15 seemed a safe bet.

Is that the dream?

“I have no dream,” he said. All of this is a bit of a surprise, such that he’s not quite sure what to dream about.

“I take it like it comes,” he said. “I know the Tour has ups and downs. I had only one day that was really bad, and it was last Saturday. So I hope it was the only bad day. And now I save my GC. At the end, on Saturday evening, I’ll say where I’m going to finish.”

Meurisse is articulate, thoughtful, and aware of where he is even if he’s not sure where he’s going. He’s a musician, a drummer and a keyboard player. A Belgian colleague, Ann Braeckman, tells me he can play the trombone, too. He once sang in a childrens’ choir when Rod Stewart came to Belgium. Music was his first love, he said, and he’ll return to music when all this is done. Or maybe sooner, so he can teach his young son a couple of instruments.

Thirteenth place is an interesting place to be. Meurisse is surrounded by a mix of riders, some of whom don’t want to be there and feel they deserve to be much higher, and other riders who are fighting for their lives to stay there. There are guys who have been in the top 10, or even won Grand Tours. And there’s Meurisse, unknown, a rookie. Thirteenth, or any of those middling top-20 places, mean something very different depending on who you are.

Meurisse is a fourth-year pro with a Pro Continental team here on a wild card invite.

There are a limited number of people paying attention to 14th or 15th or 17th place at the Tour de France, but that number includes sport directors. A top 15 is worth something; a top 20, too. That’s the sort of result that, when combined with rookie status or youth, suggests the sort of potential that teams want.

There are a lot of riders like Meurisse. The GC riders don’t care about them. Quintana beating him or losing to him won’t change the trajectory of the Colombian’s career. The domestiques, below Meurisse on GC, are jaded or at least aware of their place in the world. They feel the same. Many at the Tour could finish significantly higher on the overall, if that was the goal, but they don’t because they have a job to do. Which creates this odd sort of accidental GC, in the 15th to 30th range, half full of riders trying their best to be there, half full of super domestiques there almost by accident. They are all middle men.

Sometimes, it’s a zone a rider stays in for life. But mostly, it’s a function of circumstance. The privilege of riding for oneself at the Tour is unique; the talent to stay up front is rare. Meurisse will almost certainly find himself moving up, or down, should he return to the Tour again.

He hopes it’s up.

“Maybe with two or three kilos less weight, and a little more specific training camps, I can go for a good GC,” he said, still spinning on his rollers. “Why not? But now, I’m just surprised.”

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