On crossing the line at Semnoz, Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp) wheeled to a halt on the roadside and sat looking over his shoulder at the clock by the finishing banner. The American youngster had just finished ahead of no less a figure than Alberto Contador to take a fine sixth place on the penultimate stage of the Tour de France, but that particular scalp hardly registered as he sat on his top tube.
Instead, Talansky was scanning the finishing area for the figures of Laurens ten Dam (Belkin) and Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-QuickStep), who had been missing in action since the early slopes of the climb. Finally, after sixteen seconds that must have seemed an eternity had passed, Talansky allowed himself to accept the congratulations of his soigneur, and a broad smile began to break across his face as realised that he had finished in the top ten of his debut Tour de France.
Cruelly, the road continues to climb past the finish line at Semnoz and so riders already in varying states of distress were forced to negotiate the gradient, the traffic of the race convoy and the scrums of reporters before they could make their way to the sanctuary of their team cars over the top. As he pedalled gingerly towards the summit, however, Talansky was happy to surrender his momentum and stop to talk to a television crew, while his fellow Tour survivors ghosted wearily past him.
"I just [time trialed] up the climb," Talansky said. "I felt good from the start and I knew that I had half an hour of climbing to just give everything I had left in this Tour."
When he did make it to his team car on the other side of the summit shortly afterwards, Talansky enthusiastically talked his press officer Marya Pongrace through his ascent of Semnoz and then gave Cyclingnews his impressions of the day as he warmed down on the rollers.
"I proved I have what it takes," Talansky said. "This is a confirmation of what I did in the Vuelta last year. I have what it takes to finish in the top 10 at a Grand Tour. It's always what I thought I was going to be able to do, but it's nice to come through and show once again that my body is kind of designed for three weeks of racing."
The pace on the approach to the base of Semnoz was such that Talansky was caught behind the frontrunners as the climb began, but he refused to panic and settled into a tempo that eventually allowed him to catch the Contador group three kilometres from the summit.
"3k before the climb started was actually like a climb in itself and unless you're inside the top ten gaps kind of open," Talansky said. "The gap closed but I was still maybe ten seconds back when we actually hit the climb, but I just took it steady. I know what I can do. That initial five minutes was hard but then I just found my pace and rode up to them."
Talansky began the day in 12th place overall but just 16 seconds behind 10th place Kwiatkowski, and he was keenly aware of the need to distance the Pole and 11th-placed Laurens ten Dam. "Ten Dam cracked pretty early but Kwiatkowski was still around, but I knew that it got hard after a flattish section early on," Talansky said. "I accelerated until Kwiatkowski got dropped, and then I settled in and did my race."
That approach ultimately saw Talansky make contact with Contador and as the road kicked up one final time towards the finishing line, he even succeeded in slightly distancing the Spaniard, who was in the process of dropping off the final overall podium.
Garmin-Sharp directeur sportif Charly Wegelius joked with Talansky that he didn't trust the information he was receiving via radio in the finale. "I couldn't believe it when you said that Contador popped – I thought you meant you were going to pop," he told him as he offered his congratulations during the warm down.
"Well, I think Contador probably gave everything he had to follow Froome and those initial accelerations were brutal. I kind of TT'd my way up the climb and got up to them and then I was able to hang on," Talansky said.
After struggling in the Pyrenees, Talansky stood firm when many around him were struggling in the Tour's demanding finale in the high Alps. The 24-year-old explained that he had taken heart from his showing at last year's Vuelta a España, where he finished 7th overall.
"There were three extremely hard mountain stages kind of similar to this in the third week, and Bola del Mundo, an insane uphill finish, was the 20th stage," he said. "That was one of my best rides in the whole race so I always had it in the back of my mind that I was just going to be better in the third week."
When a Tour debutant shows that rare ability to perform strongly deep into the third week, expectations immediately begin to be revised upwards, but Talansky espouses a healthy view as to his development as a stage racer over the coming seasons.
"I'm going to show up next year as fit as I can be and whatever result that gets me, so be it," he said. "It's going to be a while until I get to the level of somebody like Chris Froome and compete for the win but it's a gradual progression."
Even so, finishing in the top ten in Paris is the culmination of a season's work for Talansky, who has built assiduously towards the Tour since taking second place at Paris-Nice in March and the closing months of the season will be approached with a slightly different mindset. "Honestly, I know every race is important but from here on out, it's fun for me," Talansky said.
And the Tour? "This is not fun. This is what I love to do, but there's nothing fun about the Tour de France. The Tour of Colorado, now that will be fun."