When Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp) rolled to a halt, placed his bike in the verge and sat on a crash barrier at the side of an anonymous road near Chassal, it seemed as though his Tour de France had finally come to an end.
Struggling with back and arm injuries since crashing heavily on successive days at the end of the opening week, Talansky had been distanced by the peloton shortly after the feed zone on stage 11. Now some 55 kilometres from the finish in Oyonnox, he was already 10 minutes down on the bunch, and when the door of the team car yawned open, the sense was that his race was run.
Directeur sportif Robbie Hunter emerged and crouched before Talansky at the roadside, and it appeared initially as though he was delivering the last rites of the American's Tour. Instead, he was reading him his rights as a convict of the road.
"Honestly, I didn't say too much," Hunter said of their conversation afterwards. "I said to him that the decision was up to him. If at the end of the day, he finds himself in a situation where he can't continue, no problem. But if he wants to fight on and get to the finish - because that's the kind of guy he is - then the only way we're going to get there is by riding."
After pondering his situation, a tearful Talansky rose to his feet once again, and set off gingerly on his way. Cruelly, the toughest section of the stage was yet to come, as the road rippled over the rolling foothills of the Jura in the finale, but he stuck assiduously to task of surviving the day.
"I'll never encourage a person to get off his bike. I've been in a position where I've stopped Tour de Frances previously and a couple of hours later I've regretted it," Hunter said. "The only thing I said to Andrew is that if you're going to stop, make sure it's the right decision. I think going forward a decision will be made and Andrew is glad he's got to the finish."
Inside the time cut
The temptation to abandon abated at least for the time being, Talansky's concerns turned to the time limit in the final 50 kilometres. Garmin-Sharp opted not to have anyone wait with him and risk elimination, but at that precise moment, the squad was driving on the front of the peloton. With Talansky's general classification hopes long over, the team's strategy is now re-focused around stage wins, and he was left to fend for himself.
While the attacks flew in at the front of the race in the final 20 kilometres, Talansky was trailing 20 minutes down the road. By the time Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Belisol) claimed stage honours, that deficit had risen to almost half an hour, as he laboured over the Côte d'Échallon, barely able to climb out of the saddle.
When the lengthy podium ceremonies petered out to a conclusion, Talansky was still in his own private purgatory five kilometres from the finish, and speaker Daniel Mangeas turned his attention from feting the maillot jaune to encouraging the spectators at the line to stay and cheer for the lone straggler. "This is also the Tour de France," Mangeas said breathlessly and the crowds cheered in response.
Just as the clock ticked over 31 minutes, two Garmin-Sharp soigneurs were ushered closer to the finish line and they exchanged silent nods of relief: Talansky would make it. He rolled across the line 32:05 down on Gallopin, a little over five minutes within the time limit, and to generous applause from the roadside.
A path was cleared for Talansky through the finish area and he made his way immediately to the team bus, where he sought to compose his thoughts before briefly emerging to speak to the press who had gathered outside. His voice was hoarse and wavering, his eyes red.
"I'm just suffering quite a bit from my crashes. I have some really bad back pain but I just wanted to make it to the finish for my team," Talansky said. "It was for my teammates, for my team and the work that they've put into this Tour for me. I didn't just want to stop and go home that way after everything they've done for me."
Decision to be made
To add insult to injury, Talansky was later handed a 20-second time penalty by the race jury for prolonged drafting, but for now at least, the 25-year-old stays in the race, 47:09 off the maillot jaune in 44th place overall.
It remains to be seen, of course, whether Talansky will be on the start line in Bourg-en-Bresse on Thursday, although Hunter was careful to stress that no decision has been made either way just yet. In finishing the stage, Talansky at least bought himself the time to take stock and arrive at a reasoned decision on his predicament.
"He thought it was time to maybe stop the Tour but we sat down, got the emotion out of it, thought about it for a couple of seconds and decided to continue to get to the finish," Hunter said. "Tonight we can sit down together with the medical staff and make a proper decision about where we can go with this."
Talansky, meanwhile, was asked by a television crew to describe how much pain he was in. "A lot," was the succinct response, and it's hard to imagine that the answer will be any different in the morning.