After three weeks of the Tour de France, Jean-Christophe Péraud finally cracked. Since leaving Leeds, the only expression the 37-year-old seemed to wear was a pained one, whether he was grimly hanging on to Thibaut Pinot's wheel in the Pyrenees, or sitting on the roadside trying to catch his breath afterwards.
In Perigueux on Saturday, the Frenchman secured second overall at the Tour by overhauling Thibaut Pinot (FDJ.fr) in the final, 54-kilometre time trial, and on reaching the finish line, he was struck by the enormity of his achievement.
Péraud's soigneur marshalled him to a nook just past the finish line in a bid to protect him from the waiting television crews and reporters, but instead it served only to pen them in. As Péraud burst into tears, the soigneur attempted to attend to his post-stage duties while a wall of cameras and microphones was assembled before them.
Ag2r-La Mondiale manager Vincent Lavenu eventually managed to beat a path through the crowds, followed by directeur sportif Julien Jurdie, and on seeing Péraud's tears, they, too, were caught up in the emotion of the occasion.
"C'est beau, voilà, c'est beau," was all Péraud could manage for the cameras before he welled up once again and Lavenu locked him in an embrace. When a television reporter asked again for "just a word," Péraud apologetically refused. "I'm not capable of giving you a word because I'm crying," he said.
By this point, Lavenu was also struggling to compose his thoughts. "We've done it," he said, his voice wavering. "There was a lot of emotion. It's done, it's done, it's done."
Soon afterwards, Péraud was able to make his way towards the Ag2r-La Mondiale camper van on the hill just above the finish area, with a large retinue of reporters in tow. After changing aboard, he emerged red-eyed and only slightly more coherent than he had been amid the chaos on the line.
"I came for a top five place, but when Froome and Contador were out it opened up my possibilities, and little by little, I started to think about second place, so for me, it's a little victory," was about all Péraud could manage before he was again whisked away.
On arriving in the press room some two hours after finishing the stage, Péraud was finally able to bring some order to his earlier riot of emotions. "I've recovered a bit now," he smiled.
Péraud began the time trial in third place overall, 13 seconds down on Thibaut Pinot and just two ahead of Alejandro Valverde, but it was immediately apparent that he was on course to move up a place in the standings.
His shoulders lilting slightly with each revolution of the pedals, the former mountain biker is not exactly a stylist, but there was substance to his performance. After 10 kilometres, he had already overhauled Pinot in the virtual classification, and he was 12 seconds clear by the first intermediate time check.
After 30 kilometres, however, Péraud's progress was suddenly interrupted by a rear wheel puncture. He coolly cast his bike to the side, and the only sign of stress was a handclap of dissatisfaction as he waited for his spare machine to be unclipped from the roof of the team car.
"I had the intermediate times so I knew I had an advantage on Pinot," he said. "It was stressful but I needed to stay cool, and I reminded myself that there was still a lot of the course left and there would be time to find my rhythm again."
And the ironic handclap? "That was the energy of despair," Péraud said apologetically. "It was nobody's fault."
In the end, Péraud recovered sufficiently to place seventh in the time trial and seal second overall, 7:52 down on Vincenzo Nibali but 32 seconds clear of Pinot. Yet for all of his tears, the former mountain biker admitted that his silver medal in that discipline at the 2008 Olympics remains his greatest achievement.
"It's still the Olympics, because it's the event that always made me dream, with the Coubertin spirit and everything else," he said.
Péraud was quick to point out, however, that he still has dreams to come. "I can retire now," he joked. "No, I still want to discover things. I've never done the Giro, for instance, but I think I have two years left in front of me to do it."
Asked why he had been moved to tears on the finish line, Péraud said simply, "It was a big effort, and when efforts are rewarded, you feel emotional."
His voice began to waver once again, and when a question on the strength of his team followed, Péraud was unable to complete his response. "I'm proud of this team, who brought me to here," he said, eyes glistening.
Péraud covered his face with his hands, and then shook his head in apology. No further questions, and, at least at that moment, none required.
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