Something magical happened at the end of Stage 19 from Roanne to Montluçon. For just one moment, I was really racing the Tour de France.
Bikestyle Tours arranged for us to ride Stage 19 in front of the peloton on race day and it was an amazing experience. The fans, gendarmes, little villages, everything was there. We got cheered all day long.
You have to understand that I’m a bit competitive (all my close friends laugh when I point that out). I take winning very seriously. Not to say I’m a poor loser, I don’t think I am. But if you put a finish line or a Col marker in front of me, I start calculating how I’m going to get there first, or at least in front of you. I rarely let an opportunity pass to try and win in some way.
So when riding a 165km long, full stage of the Tour de France, I’m thinking about how to win it. Our instructions were to regroup at the 2km line and wait for an escort to the finish line. Ok, the 2km sign is the “finish”. I pulled hard on the front during the first big hill in the morning so when the pace got whipped up in the last 30km, I’m rubber banding off the back. Luckily, Aussies don’t race downhill for some reason and I always get back on the group. As we raced the final kilos into Montluçon, we hit some traffic which made for some very nervous positioning. We got stuck behind this slow-assed van which finally pulled aside inside the 3km banner, leaving about 500m of racing space. We were approaching a steep overpass and I calculated that the 2km banner was just on the other side, hidden from view. Voris would be proud of how I came out of the far left and hammered it up the overpass, leaving everyone behind. No one really chased though either. I have a hard time understanding that part.
As we waited for the Tour official to arrive and escort us the final 2km, there was much disagreement as to where the real finish line was. Several of the sportier riders decided it was the “real” line that counted. Fine with me, I was feeling good and began calculating how I would win that too.
The escort car arrived and we were told that we could not race ahead of the vehicle, that we must stay behind it at all times. One of our ex-pro guides waggled his finger at me and smiled, “Remember, no racing.” Ha, that’s hilarious. When we started off toward the finish line, the car zoomed ahead leaving the perfect amount of racing space.
It’s just John and I in the last 400m. John was pretty sporty earlier on the road so I think he’ll go for it. I drop behind and get on his wheel, which in cycling language is like pulling out a gun and cocking the trigger. I’m ready to go.
My focus narrows and I begin to feel all hot and prickly. I know I’m going to win, I just can’t lose. My body feels electric, like I’ve got Mark Cavendish legs and my racing anger starts to rise. I stop hearing things and I can’t see anything but John, the finish line and some maintenance truck in the middle of the course at about 100 meters out. Maintenance truck? This is exactly what I need – John will never see it coming. I drop back a little bit and wait for John to decide which way to go.
John goes right so I attack left. The first few seconds of my attack will be hidden behind the truck which should give me great advantage. I come around the truck out of the saddle, hammering for the line. I’m way ahead of John already and I think about easing up, but as I approach the line, something really strange happened.
There I was, out of the saddle and sprinting full out, after 165km of a full TdF stage. At the end of kilometer 537 for the week. After all the fans, the cheering, little villages, gigantic Alps, Didi the Devil, paint on the road, beautiful France…
The signs on the barriers are flashing by and fans are pounding on them and yelling. I’m approaching the REAL finish line, I can see the commentary booths and even the podium. SKODA – SKODA – SKODA flashes underneath my wheels – it’s painted on the road right at the finish line and suddenly, inexplicable, I’m actually in the Tour de France. I mean, really there. I throw my bike across the line and shout out something. I want to do that whole point to the sky thing but don’t want to crash either. I fly through the finish area in a lazy arc as I slow down and try to figure it all out. I really did just win a real stage of the Tour de France. That was cool.