Sometimes the race is just a little too long
Brent Van Moer looked over his shoulder, saw the peloton round the bend, shook his head and pressed on.
The 23-year-old Belgian had been off the front of the race for the entire day, having gone on the attack with Cofidis’s Pierre-Luc Périchon with 137.5 km remaining in a 150 km stage. After an all-too-hectic opening three days that had laid waste to the dreams of all-too-many riders, the peloton had let them go.
In the writing of the formula that a day’s racing will follow, there are a series of little calculations jotted in the margins. The threat of the riders in the break. Team and rider ambitions for the day. Whether the move will hold.
Lotto Soudal’s Tour de France plans went out the window on stage 3 when the compact, coiled form of star sprinter Caleb Ewan slammed into the tarmac, shattering his collarbone. The team didn’t have anyone for the sprints anymore, and they didn’t have anyone for the mountains.
What was left to do but attack?
So that’s what Brent Van Moer did – working turns with Périchon through the blustery roads of Brittany until Périchon could go no longer. And still, with 19 km to the finish line, Van Moer pushed on.
Some riders have better poker faces than others. With Van Moer, you couldn’t read much on his face but you could read his entire body, rocking and rolling and squeezing out every last watt from his tiring legs.
A minute behind him, his teammates moved to the front of the peloton to try and disrupt the chase. But Tosh Van der Sande and Jasper De Buyst were two Belgians trying in vain to hold back an ocean, and when Deceuninck-QuickStep swarmed around them the gap began to shrink.
At 8 km to go, Van Moer had a minute. At 1.5 km, the Wolfpack were at the door. And still, Van Moer pushed on.
On stage 1 at the Critérium du Dauphiné, almost a month ago to the day, Van Moer had his breakthrough win in similar circumstances. Was he thinking of that as the line closed and the peloton closed faster? Was there room for thought at all, or was he an automaton capable only of pedalling, pushing down a rising tide of lactic acid?
At 150 m to the line – a distance that can be measured in a few seconds and an eternity, depending on whether you’re Brent Van Moer or not – he was finally caught, swept past by Jasper Philipsen (Alpecin-Fenix), then Mark Cavendish (Deceuninck-QuickStep), then 46 other riders.
The sports columns in newspapers today will, rightfully, talk about Cavendish’s win – a glorious combination of raw power and raw emotion written across a 14-year timeframe. Forty-ninth on the stage was a young Belgian – just 10 years old when Cavendish first won at the Tour – who had come agonisingly close to his own fairytale result and fallen just short.
“I’m really disappointed but also a little bit proud,” Van Moer reflected after the finish, explaining the way that Ewan’s crash had forced a change of tactics, putting him in the breakaway and condemning him to a day toeing the narrow line between agony and ecstasy. “I go full gas until the finish line … but the race was just 100 metres too long for me,” he added, wearily, before climbing the podium to collect the award for the day’s most combative rider.
Before that, though, as he rolled to a stop, there was less room for reflection. Exhausted, Van Moer lowered himself from the saddle, draped himself over his top tube and handlebars, and sunk his head to his hands. His teammates were soon at his side – including Thomas De Gendt, who knows enough about the formula of the breakaway, its little calculations in the margin, to understand that it was probably always going to end this way.
Sometimes the race is just a little too long.