The AG2R-La Mondiale soigneur attending to Jean-Christophe Péraud atop Hautacam after stage 18 of the Tour de France seemed almost to be performing a ritual to prepare him for passage into another world.
As Péraud sat silently and motionless against a crash barrier, his soigneur helped him into a jacket, wrapped a towel around his neck and undid his yellow shoes, before wiping his face clean with the quiet respect of an embalmer.
Around them swirled a mass of television crews and journalists, jostling for position as they waited for the Frenchman to speak. Somewhere in that maelstrom his bike had temporarily been swept away, although at that precise moment, his eyes glazed, Péraud would likely have been glad never to see a bike again.
Initially, the soigneur’s words were of simple, almost paternal, encouragement. "Bravo," he repeated at intervals. As the white noise that surrounded Péraud gradually become discernible as words and sounds, he introduced more complex themes. "You’re third now, two seconds up on Valverde."
Péraud nodded, and took a long swig from a recovery drink. He blinked a few times and then nodded once again, this time giving his assent for the scrum to draw a little closer around him.
"Today was a super performance, I limited the damage à la courage," Péraud said quietly. "I really suffered today. I could have lost everything. After a big effort you always pay for it the next day. That was the case for Thibaut [Pinot] after Port de Balès and it was the case for me today. That’s the beauty of three week racing, you have good days and bad days."
On the previous two summit finishes, at Risoul and Pla d’Adet, Péraud had enjoyed decidedly good days, following yellow jersey Vincenzo Nibali’s accelerations to gain precious time over his podium rivals.
At Hautacam, nobody dared match Nibali’s attack ten kilometres from home, but Péraud struggled, too, to keep pace with Thibaut Pinot and Tejay van Garderen’s forcing in the final six kilometres. In the end, however, he managed to stay in touch, taking fourth on the stage and moving into third place in the general classification.
"I was lucky that there was some wind, sometimes a headwind and that allowed me to recover," Péraud said, his thin legs spread out before him. "I was on the limit and I never took a turn at the front. I had to stay on the wheels because if I left a gap open I would never have closed it."
Péraud was doubtless encouraged by the travails of Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), who was dropped with five kilometres remaining and came in almost a minute down on his group. The Spaniard now drops to fourth on general classification, and just 15 seconds separate Pinot, Péraud and Valverde ahead of Saturday’s 54km time trial.
"Normally I’m a bit better than Thibaut in a time trial, so I believe in my chances for the podium. I believe in second place," Péraud said. "When I was really in the red, I thought about this podium and I didn’t want to leave Thibaut get away."
In spite of his obvious fatigue, Péraud could even raise a smile when a French television reporter expounded on the grand suspense promised by the Bergerac time trial. "Well, I’d have preferred if the podium was certain but if that gives you pleasure…"
Back in the land of the living and – remarkably – at 37 years of age, within touching distance of the podium of the Tour de France.
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Barry Ryan is Head of Features at Cyclingnews. He has covered professional cycling since 2010, reporting from the Tour de France, Giro d’Italia and events from Argentina to Japan. His writing has appeared in The Independent, Procycling and Cycling Plus. He is the author of The Ascent: Sean Kelly, Stephen Roche and the Rise of Irish Cycling’s Golden Generation, published by Gill Books.