Tour de PEZ: Of Tacks And Crashes
Roadside St.14: There’s no mistaking the noise – men down! Two Astanas and a QuickStep – it’s Levi Leipheimer. One of the Astanas is up and away, it’s Brajkovic, he grabs his team mate’s wheel – who sits, stunned, on the cold Pyrenean tarmac.
It looks like his collar bone is broken to us.
Levi is hurting – it’s just not his year – but he struggles back on to his bike; ‘gimme my bottle!’
There are riders bowling off the summit, one of the moto guys runs up the road to motion the cars, motorbikes and riders over to the other side.
The Astana car arrives; but it’s over for their boy – he’s hurting, bad.
Such a cruel sport . . .
And this morning it was all so ‘tranquille’ . . .
Wooded hills roll gently towards the skyline – but not just any old hills, those are the foothills of the Pyrenees.
If Wiggins’ rivals are to have any chance of dethroning the Englishman, they have three mountain and one ‘transition’ stage to do it.
Probably not today, 40 K is too far from the summit of the final climb – the Mur de Peguere – to the finish.
But it’s le Tour; our motto is ‘expect the unexpected’ – and we’re sitting in a Renault, not riding a Pinarello.
We’re among vineyards and soft, rolling, wooded hills as we leave Limoux and head south west on a bright but very breezy Sunday morning.
The crowds are a bit subdued – it was all that Bastille Day red wine, last night.
And a German winning on the 14th? – ‘sacre bleu!’
And just to confirm that there’s no hard feelings, Andre doesn’t get his picture on the cover of L’Equipe – Millar was full page yesterday.
Our man Michael Morkov was on the offensive again, yesterday – in memory of his late father.
Michael has now been ‘up the road’ for some 813 kilometres in total; 191 of those on stage 13.
The horizon lifts and we’re on the first climb, the second cat. Col du Portel, 5.3 K @ 6.3% sweeping up through the scrub and woodland.
Some get a bit of help in the last K.
The descent is fast, onto a high plateau; there’s a fierce breeze tugging at the flags.
The countryside is beautifully green; easy on the soul – and once again it occurs to us that le Tour isn’t just a bike race, it’s a state of mind.
All the villages ‘en fete,’ picnic tables everywhere, even the gendarmes are relaxed, today.
And the thing about le Tour is that you never know what’s round that next bend – check out the pom pom girls.
The trend is upwards now, the sky is becoming grey – do the Heavens know something we don’t?
The feed – and even the Sky musettes carry their mantra.
The crowds aren’t the biggest, today – we reckon that much of France still has a hangover and many villages have a fete today, too.
It’s on the toss of the coin – get up early and go see the Tour, or lay in bed ’til the afternoon, go to the fete and ‘hair of the dog’ it.
Honourable Arashiro fan insist on a photo in the foothills, ah so!
And all the way from Argentina – JJ Haedo fans.
But the parcours are getting serious – Port de Lers, 9.3 K @ 7.9% average, category one.
A hard one, the gradient can’t make its mind up, the breeze is stiff and there’s a drizzle falling so you can worry about the descent on the way up.
It’s cool at the top and the rain cool on sun blasted skin.
It drops off immediately and looks greasy to us.
It’s as green as Scotland up here, with a carpet of ferns under a surly grey sky – if Nibali is on his descending game, this is one for him.
The tar is drier as we drop down out of the clouds – but it’s still not one for the faint hearted.
The valley floor and at Le Port the Good Lord keeps watch over the peloton.
‘Breakaway starting the climb peloton at 14 minutes – Gilbert, Casar and Sanchez all in break of 11 riders,’ comes the text from Ed Junior – he definitely wants my job!
And even the bears are out to watch.
The Mur de Peguere, 9.3% @ 7.9% but with nasty 18% and 16% ramps.
Suddenly we go single track and the crowd goes critical mass; no room to stop, just plough on through the mass of screaming, people.
Over the top, a vision appears – a big screen TV, and – burger bar.
Stop the car!
The smell of burgers fills the air, frozen cyclists light fires, Kazakh fans delight in telling us that Astana has ‘no sponsors’ – just the city of Astana and the country of Kazakhstan.
Up on the screen, Christophe Kern has jumped his breakaway companions and is on the Mur – the gap back to the peloton is 14 minutes.
The producer goes back to the gruppetto, Cav leads with no chances being taken by the Manxman on the descent.
Kern comes back; Gilbert is there, LL Sanchez, Casar, Hutarovich, Kruiswijk, Martin Velits – and the remarkable Sagan.
Barring disaster, the green jersey is his, after today.
Up on the screen, Sanchez drives, Gilbert marks him, so does Izaguirre – and Casar, he wants this stage.
But that’s not going to happen with Sagan in the mix.
The Slovak’s big torso isn’t designed for, this but he forces the cranks round – he knows they’ll go crazy off the top to stop him from rejoining.
Sanchez is the locomotive, he rides and rides but in the middle distance is the phenomenon that is Peter Sagan.
Casar attacks, he has to punish Sagan, but the Slovak fights and fights.
He gets back up to Sanchez – but Casar has daylight; he’s on the ramps, driving hard, the crowd are going crazy.
Casar sprints hard for the summit; he knows that he can’t beat Sagan in a sprint – few can.
And they’re on us – Casar, then Sagan and Izaguirre, Gilbert and Sanchez – the rest in ones and twos.
On the screen, Casar drops like a stone, Sagan is hunting him, though – hungry for stage win number four.
Porte and Froome are at the front of the peloton – Wiggins looks comfortable in their wheels, spinning a tiny gear.
Rolland is there, Nibali, Van Den Broeck, Evans – but sitting there waiting for Brad to batter them in the chrono won’t win them the Tour.
Sagan is up to Casar – it’ll be tough for the FDJ man, now.
We go live again; Sky lead, Wiggins is right there.
The peloton streams past us – chute!
Riders still spill off the summit, we snap away as they head for home – it’s mostly downhill all the way to the finish.
Jump in the Renault, tuck in behind the voiture balait before the ‘civilians’ get back on the road.
It’s the usual mad drop off the col until we make contact – there’s one rider ahead of the voiture balait.
It’s Christophe Kern – he was in the break, he must have punctured.
The texts start to come in; tacks on the road, Evans punctured a couple of times – damn!
Martin has a picture of a tack in Brajkovic’s tubular at the crash scene.
Sanchez wins, he did well to beat a Terminator and a wily old fox like Casar – but what were LL and Peter chatting about as they battled up that last climb?
With six K to go, we leave Kern; his deficit on the leaders will be 31:53 at the finish.
It’s been another hectic stage – but it’s another day closer to Paris for Wiggins.
Those ‘moments’ for his rivals which Servais Knaven told us about in Albertville are slipping away.