Tim Declercq is fighting on so he can fight some more
Over this past weekend, as the Tour de France ventured into the Pyrenees, two battles took centre stage. One, the fight for stage wins, contested by the breakaway on Saturday and Sunday. The other, the battle for yellow back in the peloton.
But far behind, much further down the road, other battles were being fought. Riders not suited to the high mountains, some of them injured, were fighting desperately to stay within the time cut and within the race.
Among such riders was Tim Declercq (Deceuninck-QuickStep), perhaps the world’s best domestique, and a key cog in the machine that has helped a resurgent Mark Cavendish to four stage wins at this year’s Tour.
On Friday’s stage 13, Declercq found himself on the ground when the peloton hit a gravel-strewn section of road with 60 km to go; a crash that threw many riders down a roadside embankment.
Declercq had just finished another long stint on the front of the peloton, chasing the break for Cavendish. Before too long, Declercq had a different kind of chase on his hands.
First, he was checked over by team and race medical staff. “The doctor of the organization … checked me during the race,” he said the following morning. “I don’t have any fractures, but I was a bit groggy after the fall, so there was some concern about a concussion. Then some tests were done and I was good enough to continue the stage.”
Declercq’s wounds were bandaged, his sunglasses were recovered from somewhere down the embankment, and then he was back on his way. Covered in scrapes, Declercq began a 60 km effort to beat the time cut.
The Belgian was the last rider across the line, a full five minutes after the second-to-last finisher, and nearly 22 minutes after the stage was decided in a scrappy sprint finish. His Deceuninck-QuickStep teammates had gone one-two in that sprint, with Michael Mørkøv turning another world-class lead-out into second place, and Cavendish winning the stage to equal Eddy Merckx’s all-time Tour stage wins record.
Exhausted, Declercq sat down beyond the finish line, head bowed, salt stains encrusted on his jersey.
Despite feeling worse for wear the following morning, Declercq was determined to press on; to fight his way through the looming Pyrenees so he could help Cavendish later in the race. “Had a rough day and night, but after several medical check ups, by our own medical staff and the one of the race I’m ready to start,” he said ahead of Saturday’s stage 14. It would turn out to be one of the hardest days of the 32-year-old’s career.
The pace was frenetic in the first two hours as riders fought for a place in the breakaway. Declercq was dropped several times before the break got clear. His battle to finish inside the time cut would be a long one.
Declercq managed to slot into the grupetto and, nearly five hours after the stage began, he rolled across the line in Quillan, more than 25 minutes down on solo stage winner Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo). Declercq, as well as teammates Mørkøv, Davide Ballerini, Dries Devenyns, and Cavendish, had all finished in the same group, 11 minutes ahead of the last group on the road, and 23 minutes ahead of the time cut. And yet, it was anything but easy.
“That was one of my hardest days ever on the bike,” Declercq told Sporza. “Of course I knew it before the start, the level is so high here. If you are a little less than your best then you know that it will be hard work.
“There was something holding me back; I couldn’t open up as I usually do. Fortunately I was still able to ride at a decent pace but it was a day to forget.”
Sunday’s stage 15 was shaping up to be even harder. On the menu: four tough climbs en route to Andorra, roughly 4,500 metres of climbing, and a visit to the highest point of the race, more than 2,400 metres above sea level.
As the breakaway again battled it out for stage honours up front – with Sep Kuss (Jumbo-Visma) taking a solo win – Declercq and his teammates were again out the back, battling to keep themselves and green jersey wearer Cavendish, inside the time cut.
The last four riders across the line in Andorra la Vella were all from Deceuninck-QuickStep: Mørkøv, Declercq, Devenyns and, finally, Cavendish. They’d finished almost 35 minutes down on the stage winner, but they’d survived another day.
Declercq and co have earned the rest day that Monday will bring. But their battle is far from over. The Tour remains in the Pyrenees for the next three stages and all feature an abundance of climbing. Uphill finishes on stage 17 and 18 are likely to be particularly tough.
But should they make it through to stage 19, the struggle will have been worth it. There Cavendish will get a chance to eclipse Merckx’s stage wins record, something that, until the Tour began, seemed nigh on impossible. And if he can’t do it on stage 19, there’s always the Champs-Élysées.
What could be more fitting than Cavendish capping his Tour comeback with a record-breaking win on cycling’s most famous boulevard? Assuming Cavendish finishes the Tour, he’ll almost certainly win his second green jersey as well, a decade on from his first.
However it ends up, the 2021 Tour will be remembered as much for Cavendish’s resurgence as it will for whoever wins the race overall. And while it’s the Manxman who will get the spotlight – and rightly so – his success has been thanks, in no small part, to the efforts of a tremendous supporting cast.
Strong lead-outs have been crucial, so has nursing Cavendish though the gruelling mountain stages. But so too has Declercq’s tireless work on the front of the bunch, hour after hour, keeping breakaways in check, and reeling them back in.
If Declercq has his way, he’ll slog it out through the mountains for another three days, still recovering from his crash, finishing just inside the time cut each day, just so he can slog it out on the front of the bunch again, on stages 19 and 21.
Such is the life of a WorldTour domestique.