There’s little in the way of noise on the Col du Pas de Peyrol, just the sound of mechanics releasing wheels, slamming car doors and shouts of ‘Allez! Allez!’ from various directions. The riders on the ground make hardly a sound, almost as if they’re not yet part of the real world, still trapped in a void between professional athlete and helpless road victim.
On the right hand side of the road Vinokourov lies on a stretcher, his face riddled with pain as medics tend to his broken bones, cuts and wounds. Dave Zabriskie is doubled over, trying to stand as he looks directly at the passenger in the Garmin-Cervelo team car. Just ahead Jurgen Van Den Broeck lies in the arms of a team helper. He can barely open his eyes as he struggles for air.
Cyclingnews is in the Garmin team car for stage 9 from Issoire to Saint Flour and the priority is Zabriskie. No wait, it’s Zabriskie and Vande Velde because ten yards up the road and through the mist, the Chicago born rider is also busy picking himself up off the tarmac. We leave Zabriskie with team boss Jonathan Vaughters and another mechanic but Zabriskie will not make it back onto the bike. Instead he’ll travel to hospital for scans on a suspected broken hand.
It’s 100 kilometres into the stage and Garmin-Cervelo has already been forced to tear up the script for the day. At the start village earlier in the morning Vaughters had walked up and down the team’s bikes, assessing equipment, well aware of what today’s stage meant. By keeping Thor Hushovd in yellow, the American squad would keep the jersey through the rest day and potentially until the race hit the Pyrenees on Thursday: Another four days in the spotlight.
The 208km stage begins perfectly. The roads are wide, the terrain rolling but not too energy sapping and Garmin-Cervelo rides confidently on the front. We pass through sleepy French village after sleepy French village before we hit the third category climb, the Cote de Massiac.
“The plan was to get Millar into the break with Voeckler and make the others chase,” Vaughters would explain after the finish.
But as the gradient bites, Millar crashes; breaking skin on his arm and ripping flesh from his left leg. There’s no sympathy from within the bunch and attacks fly from the front. Back in the team car we watch as casualties of the high pace drift back, a damning reflection of just how brutal the race can be. Dropped now, the riders face a near 200 kilometre fight to finish inside the time limit.
We pass Robert Gesink, the beacon of Dutch interest in the race. After being dropped on such a short climb, his hopes of a good Tour are fading fast, even though his Rabobank teammates surround his brittle limbs like loyal worker ants, in an attempt to rescue him from what looks like a losing battle.
Over the top of the climb and the break is formed. Millar isn’t there. Instead he’s next to us, his hand on the car as a mechanic checks his bike. The driver offers him a bidon but Millar declines and pushes on to catch up to the bunch.
Break at 2:40
Vaughters’ voice crackles through on the radio: “Okay, the break has 2:40. Zabriskie I need to go to the front and ride tempo. Not too fast. Just keep it together.”
With the yellow jersey on their shoulders, Garmin-Cervelo must lead the chase, but they’ll hope that BMC - who have been so active throughout the first week - and others, will help them.
Millar makes it back to the peloton and quickly moves to the front to assess the situation for his team. A veteran of ten Tours, he’s the team’s most experienced racer and can read a race better than almost everyone.
“Gilbert has two men on the front,” he radios through. “We’re going too fast though. “Slow it down.”
Vaughters responds: “Millar’s right, guys. Slow it down. We don’t want to catch them. Keep it around 3 minutes. Ramunas, don’t work yet. Save your legs for after this climb. Zabriskie, keep that tempo.”
We’re in the second Garmin-Cervelo car and we drift back as the peloton snakes its way through the French hillside. It’s a brief respite before the climb to Peyrol. The gap is stable at around three minutes as Vaughters warns the riders of the dangers up ahead, the twisting roads, the narrowing tarmac and the road furniture that dots the landscape. It’s a perfect example of the importance of race radios and why UCI President Pat McQuaid should ride in a team car before he decides on playing with riders’ safety on the road.
Over the top of the climb and Garmin continues to ride tempo, but on the start of the winding descent Vaughters comes through again.
“This is great guys but the gap is going up. I need you to ride, ride fast on the descent and easy on the climbs. You’re going to have to ride fast.”
Moments later just as Lotto hit the front the race radio cuts through the silence in the nervous team car. “Chute, chute Klöden, Van Den Broeck. Chute Zabriskie, Vinokourov.”
Garmin’s driver and director of car two, Lionel Marie, winces as he hears Zabriskie’s name. The rider has been a colossus for the team during the first week, riding on the front every day in order to protect Hushovd’s lead. Minutes later and we’re at the scene of the carnage but the Tour waits for no man, no matter of his name or race number. In a matter of seconds we’re back in the car and chasing the bunch.
The bunch sits up briefly though, allowing riders to make contact. It means the break up ahead can push on and extend its lead and it feels like an age before Vaughters reappears on the radio. The gap is up to nearly eight minutes.
“Ramunas, if you can hear me I need you to ride now. Now. Zabriskie is out, he’s okay but he’s out. The gap, we need to bring it down.”
This isn’t part of Vaughters’ original plan and using the young Lithuanian this early is a danger but one he has little choice in making. Ryder Hesjedal is fighting his own battles and yo-yoing off the back of the bunch after suffering from a crash two days ago. The team’s sprinter Tyler Farrar has been dropped and Tom Danielson and Christian Vande Velde need to be protected and saved for later in the Tour.
Racing through the pain
The climbs continue, the bunch thinning out with each rise on the sucking tarmac. At the back, a gruppetto of sprinters forms. Cavendish towed by Bernhard Eisel is the first recognisable face to appear. The Manxman is struggling as we pull alongside him, his face grimacing in agony as he fixes his gaze firmly on Eisel’s wheel, the Austrian looking back occasionally like a mother would to its young son. Farrar and now Ramunas join the group, along with Rojas, Chavanel and Lars Boom of Rabobank.
Julian Dean, a decent sprinter in his own right, is still with the leaders but his work is almost done for the day. Hushovd radios through but only Vaughters’ reply is audible.
“I know Thor, I know, but keep two men on the front to honour the yellow jersey.”
The gap is still over five minutes and despite some help from Leopard Trek, the break looks unbeatable. Unless events twist once again in Garmin-Cervelo’s favour, the yellow will pass to Thomas Voeckler: the break’s most aggressive rider.
In the gruppetto, Farrar drops back to the team car to pick up drinks. He takes a Coke and bidon while Marie gives him the time cut references. Today’s stage is just about survival but it’s clear that the conditions, mixed with the heat and pace of the stage has taken more than it’s normal toll. He swings off from the team car and paces himself back to the group.
At the head of the race Danielson and Vande Velde are still amongst the best while Hushovd and Millar have been distanced on the final climb. Minutes earlier Voeckler crosses the line, missing out on the stage win but claiming the leader’s jersey.
Hushovd arrives at the finish over six minutes later and gives a brief wave to the fans at the side of the road. His time in yellow is over, ended by a chain of events carved out through the beauty of the Tour, its unpredictability, cruelty and spectacular excitement. C’est Le Tour.
Finally Farrar and Ramunas make it home in the gruppetto, greeted by Vaughters who guided Danielson home in the main group of contenders. It’s been a bruising day for the team and one that has clearly left them shell shocked. Hesjedal can barely stand at the line, while Farrar cracks his first smile of the day when he greets his girlfriend at the Garmin-Cervelo team bus.
Vaughters, a veteran of hard knocks throughout his own career, comes out to address the media. ‘A tough day,’ ‘it’s a cruel but beautiful sport’ he says but it’s clear that he’s as hurt as his riders. From watching Zabriskie abandon to the slow realisation that yellow was lost; his team have flipped from the highs of the first week to a day comparable to the stage to Spa last year, when almost all of the riders crashed and suffered.
Fortunately Monday is a rest day and Garmin-Cervelo can lick their wounds and reassess. They can look back on the first week of racing as a huge success and they’ll get ready to fight another day. The Tour waits for no man.