A fortnight into the Tour de France, the real fight is going on away from the contenders’ skirmishes and TV cameras.
Twenty-five minutes down the road in the gruppetto, most don’t give a damn about whether Nairo Quintana or Chris Froome is going to win the race. That might as well be a different race in another dimension.
Some are broken from unfortunate crashes or sick; others simply knackered. Every day, a few poor souls are engaged in their own Calvary, mustering all their energy so they can get to the finish line within the time cut and turn their complaining legs over for another day.
It is one of the unwritten rules of professional cycling: some races you quit when it’s not going your way. But the Tour de France? Never.
Yet, the nearer the hallowed finish on the Champs-Elysées approaches, the more the temptation to pull over to the side of the road grows.
“I remember seeing the inviting lakes and streams as I went up a climb,” says Malcolm Elliott, a Tour rider in 1987 with ANC-Halfords and ’88 with Fagor. “You can see the water trickling, all these fans, and you just want to be there.
“It felt very claustrophobic, an environment that you couldn’t escape. And the more you couldn’t escape, the more you wanted to escape.
“I used to spend most of the last two weeks of the Tour promising myself ‘just get through today and tomorrow’s another day’. That was my coping mechanism for getting through the whole thing.”
At the start of the 1986 Tour, 7-Eleven rider Alex Stieda broke away and became the first North American to wear the maillot jaune. But by stage 18 to Alpe d’Huez, the Canadian was on his knees. He was dropped early on with Système U rider Alain Bondue and it took the help of a gendarme on the descent of the Croix de Fer to see him through.
“Bondue and I were taking turns, following the motorcycle, just ripping down. It was so cool,” he says. “There was a flat bit before Bourg d’Oisans. I started to think ‘oh shit, Bondue is going to get all the pushes on Alpe d’Huez, he’s French, a national hero’.
“I tried to tell him in French to make sure I get one too. We start the climb, I look up and there’s a guy with racing runner’s shoes on, pushing Bondue away from me.
“I come round the next hairpin, it’s a different guy pushing him. I’m yelling” ‘Poussez le Canadien! Poussez!’ Nobody did. I made it inside the time limit; to this day, I don’t know how. I was shattered, hanging off the bike.
“The next stage, the peloton started singing the Champs-Elysées song, a few days before Paris. There were no major difficulties left, we knew everyone was going to make it. Hearing that song was surreal.” Stieda rode into the French capital to finish his only Tour in 120th place.
Geraint Thomas says he has only considered quitting the race once. The Welshman’s nightmare day came during his first Tour in 2007.
“It was stage 11 to Montpellier, the day my [Barloworld] team-mate Robbie Hunter won. It broke up in crosswinds and I remember being in the gruppetto with Charly Wegelius. No offence to him, but I thought ‘what am I doing back here with a climber? I’m a flat rider, I should be up there’.
“I remember I paused and free-wheeled for a split second, then got back into the pace line.
“Max Sciandri [GB Academy manager] used to call me up after dinner, telling me: ‘You can finish tomorrow, just keep going, don’t give up,’” Thomas says.
“I remember thinking when he was telling me this ‘I’m knackered, mate. Keep going? It’s not going to happen’.”
But it did. Thomas (below) got to Paris and has completed all but one of the eight Tours he has started – including 2013, when he fractured his pelvis early in the race.
Thomas had a coincidental involvement in the Calvary of another Tour debutant who carried on against the odds. In the 2014 edition, Reto Hollenstein (IAM Cycling) crashed after tangling with the Welshman in the neutralised zone of stage 16 and rode 240 kilometres over three Pyrenean cols with a punctured lung.
“I’ll never forget that stage. I don’t know how I finished a stage like that with one lung. It was just a terrible day, I had so much pain,” Hollenstein says.
So why didn’t he stop? “I thought I’d maybe just broken a rib. I’d fought two and a half weeks in the Tour de France, so to not try, to just abandon? I hope never to be in the same situation again – in another race, I’d quit straight away. But the Tour is a little bit special.
“So I was on the bike, thinking ‘fuck, I have to try: go to the finish, fight, fight!”
The Swiss spent 60km in the convoy of team cars as the day’s breakaway fought to go clear. Against the odds, Hollenstein finished just behind the gruppetto, but to no avail. At the hospital following the stage, the diagnosis of a pneumothorax, when air is trapped between the lung and chest wall, ended his Tour.
“The doctor looked me in the eyes and said: ‘Stop the race straight away. You’re not normal, how did you do that?’”
The doctor would need to be a cyclist to know the answer. To finish the Tour is to realise a long-held dream. Abandoning, stepping out of the bubble, is so much more unpalatable than fighting through the pain.
This article was originally published in issue 55 of Rouleur in June 2015.