For those of us who have never ridden as a pro, never been selected to ride a grand tour, never ridden into Paris in late July, the Tour de France is the ultimate cycling adventure. With 100 years of history, and a roster of thousands of great cyclists who made their reputations over roads carved sometimes by Napoleon’s army, sometimes by Roman conquerors, the Tour epitomizes epic. For most of us, the chance to ride in the peloton zooming past sunflowers, up the slopes of the Col du Galibier or holding position in a single file jet stream barreling toward Bordeaux at 60 kilometer per hour would be the perfect bucket list item. Having done that, the rest of the list would seem entirely optional. It’s not like you’d top that.
But what about the cyclists who made that leap? They turned pro. They moved up the ranks, signed with better teams. Got named to a grand tour squad. Finished their first grand tour. Got selected for the Tour. What of these men? How do they define adventure?
Easy: stage wins. Until you’ve scored a stage win, you dare not even dream of winning the whole thing, not unless modesty left you during your diaper years. A stage win at the Tour de France is that next great rung of the ladder. So which stages would you go for? Well, unless you’re a one-man supernova, you won’t be making headway in the sprints. And if you lack hollow bones and a physique to make a ballet dancer look portly, you’re unlikely to take a mountain-top finish in a late-race surge.
The answer, then, lies in courage. To make your mark, you will need it by the truck load because you will be forced to leave the party before the guests arrive. The solo breakaway is that most mythic of ambitions, the most suicidal, too. No breakaway is more beautiful, more doomed than the man alone.
Andy Schleck gave the world a taste of old-style courage when he attacked 60km from the finish of stage 18 of the 2011 Tour de France. Spurred by encouraging comments from former Giro winner Francesco Moser the afternoon before, Schleck took off from the group of leaders, caught teammate Joost Posthuma who paced him for a while before Schleck went on to catch yet another teammate, Maxime Monfort. On the descent of the Col d’Izoard Monfort guided Schleck, before pacing him up much of the Col du Lauteret. Schleck discarded his domestique and then charged to the stage win and the yellow jersey on the Galibier.
A number of journalists would go on to write that stage was the most exciting of the entire Tour. It reminded fans of the drama that comes from the risky exploit even if the whole of the breakaway wasn’t solo. Regardless, that one day made for one of the best storylines of the whole race: Andy Schleck pistol-whipped Cadel Evans and Alberto Contador with the Col du Galibier.
But in that day there were echoes of other, more daring, exploits. Claudio Chiappucci’s ride to Sestriere in 1992 was a longer, braver, lonelier breakaway and is emblematic of the lone wolf escape. But the year before, an even crazier breakaway took place.
Mountain exploits have a rhythm to them. After suffering on the slopes of some great climb there is the respite of the descent. It is work to be sure; however, it is work of a different sort. It’s time to stock up on calories and clear one’s mind of the distractions that can be so helpful when climbing. But what of the flat?
A man for the plain
Thierry Marie was a talented time trialist who rode in the service of Laurent Fignon from ‘85 to ‘91. His career was spent largely at French teams, supporting Fignon at Renault-Elf, Système U and its successor Castorama. Though he won two two-man time trials (one with Fignon), he was best known as a prologue specialist. In addition to winning the prologues at both Paris-Nice and the Tour of Belgium, he won the prologue of the Tour de France three times, in ‘86, ’90 and ’91.
So while he is best known for his prowess in short efforts, the ride he most deserves to be remembered for was anything but brief.
The sixth stage of the 1991 Tour de France traveled west from Arras in the far north of France to Le Havre on the northern coast. It was a flat, 259km (161 miles) run on a fairly hot day. Just 21.5km into the stage the bunch hit the first intermediate sprint of the day, taken by the Tashkent Terror, Djamolidine Abdoujaparov. Moments later Marie attacked and the bunch let him go like a dog you don’t like.
Marie put his head down and dug into the effort and his lead grew. And grew. By 158km and the second intermediate sprint of the day he had amassed a lead of 15 minutes. Still, the bunch didn’t chase. Part of the reason lay in circumstances. LeMond was technically the GC leader; the previous leader, Rolf Sorenson, crashed the day before and went to the hospital with a broken collarbone. As second overall, LeMond was the new leader, but refused to don the yellow jersey out of respect for Sorenson. His team wasn’t chasing Marie, even though the Frenchman was the virtual yellow.
Eventually Marie’s lead grew to an unthinkable 22 minutes, a lead that simply wouldn’t not be permitted today, if for no other reason than today’s team directors all recall Marie’s ride. Only one rider, Rob Harmeling of TVM, tried to bridge to Marie. He cut the gap to 10 minutes before being reeled in.
Yes, the pack did react eventually. The chase was furious and must have been hell for weaker riders. The peloton brought Marie’s gap down to two minutes, but by then it was much too late to contest the stage win. The Frenchman rolled across the line 1:54 ahead of the pack. His breakaway had lasted 235km and an amazing six hours. His average speed? A stunning 39km/hr.—a nick under 25 mph. Yes, stunning, considering he had no aero equipment.
Gone, just gone
The second post-war Tour de France was held in 1947. It was a remarkably international field, complete with riders from Switzerland, Luxembourg, Belgium, The Netherlands, Poland and even Italy. That year the race wound clockwise around France, hitting the Alps before approaching the Pyrenees.
Stage 14, the first Pyreneean stage, was a 253km (157 miles) journey from Carcassonne at the edge of the mountains to Luchon, deep in the heart of the Pyrenees. The stage included two categorized climbs, the Port and the Portet d’Aspet, which rise to 1250m and 1069m (4125 ft. and 3528 ft.) respectively, good enough for only second category, but this stage rarely traversed a flat road.
Amazingly, little can be found on Albert Bourlon’s ride. There are almost certainly some historic tomes in French that recount more of his adventure, but they are hidden in some antiquarian’s shelves. What we know is this: Bourlon took off at the gun. And as he was considered no threat on the general classification, he was allowed to get up the road.
The chase for Bourlon was fierce, but largely individual. The ultimate second-place on the stage was Norbert Callens who finished 16:20 down on Bourlon. Eventual winner Jean Robic led home the first group of chasers. He finished in sixth place, 22:32 back.
The Tour of 1947 was another era. Riders gained and lost time as if aided by H.G. Wells. Despite finishing more than 16 minutes clear following an eight-hour sojourn at an average speed of 30.9km/h (19.2 mph), Bourlon didn’t even crack the top ten on general classification.
The Col du Galibier was introduced to the Tour de France in 1911. To those men, on those bikes, that climb was as unforgiving as it was unpaved—a totality. The climb made its second appearance the following year and that stage provided the greatest escape the Tour has ever seen. Indeed, given its length, it will go down and the greatest escape the Tour will ever see.
The fifth stage of the ’12 Tour was a monster. Not only did it include the Col du Galibier ascended via its north side to include the Col du Telegraphe, the stage also climbed the Col des Aravis. Those two climbs are nowhere near each other. The stage began in Chamonix, a haven for winter sports already. The stage finished in Grenoble, a whopping 366km (227 mi.) later.
Eugene Christophe took off just 51km (32 mi.) into the stage, on the early slopes of the Aravis. Once over the top he had a descent to the town of Annecy before rounding the lake there and heading southeast. To give you some idea of the land he was riding through, Christophe passed turnoffs to the climbs of the Col de la Forclaz and the Crét de Chatillon before reaching Albertville. From there he headed southwest before turning left onto what is now the A43 highway where he passed the Col de Grand Cucheron, the Col de la Madeleine, the Col du Glandon and even the climb to la Toussuire before reaching the foot of the Col du Telegraphe.
Unlike Bourlon and Marie who had been allowed to slip away, Christophe was being pursued. Once on the slopes of the Col du Galibier, above the treeline, Christophe would have been able to look back down the mountain and see his pursuers, and they, in turn, their prey.
Once over the top Christophe’s ride was downhill to the town of le Bourg d’Oisans—literally, save one kilometer near the foot of Les Deux Alpe. But while that much was relatively easy, he was still 100 km from the finish. What’s more, the ride from le Bourg d’Oisans to the stage finish in Grenoble almost always features a headwind in the afternoon. One other tiny little wrinkle: most of the descent to le Bourg d’Oisans takes place on the Col du Lauteret. While the Galibier is a fairly technical descent, the Lauteret is anything but. A motivated rider, that is, one on the hunt and willing to pedal, can pick up time on that descent.
Christophe was on the road for almost 14 hours that day. There was barely enough daylight to contain his 13:40.23 win. It was a colossal effort. Here’s the mind-blowing part: Octave Lapize finished only 2:37 down on Christophe. One wonders if there were times when Christophe looked over his shoulder and could see not Lapize himself, but the vehicles following him. Seeing a couple of cars back there would be all you would need to know that your pursuer had you in sight.
And that’s the thing. Once a pro, it’s easy to look around in the peloton and think, “Well, if they can do this, then I can do this.” But the solo breakaway guarantees nothing except suffering. Statistically, it’s suicide. Contracts are negotiated these days on UCI points, not hours of TV coverage. Get swallowed up by the bunch and your future might get digested too.
There’s something in each of these rides—Christophe’s especially—that suggests these men thought less of the future than of today, that were you friends with them, they’d lean over to you, wrap a skinny arm around your shoulders and say, “rentrer à la maison ou aller grands”—go big … or go home.
[This story first appeared in Peloton Magazine—Padraig.]