The last time I checked, it was Pellizotti who had spent the most time in breaks; wearing on for 500 kilometres – the hair may be a bit girlie, but 500 kilometres ‘up the road,’ certainly aren’t. Today is the last chance for the baroudeurs; and the last chance for teams to save the day.
For big budget squadra like Rabobank, F des J, Lampre, Milram and, in particular, the Belgian teams, Silence and QuickStep, it’s been a disaster. Evans’s collapse and Boonen’s exit are nothing less than disasters; if you consider the budget and weight of expectation upon these teams. Bourgoin-Jallieu doesn’t make the Rough Guide to France, but at the end of this day, it’ll be forever etched in the mind of one man – the man who wins, when this stage finishes in Aubenas in around four hours time.
Bourgoin-Jallieu is a world leader in solar panel manufacture – says the road book. There’s not much to photograph – but we took one for the girls, just outside town.
Within a few K the hills start, not steep, or long but sore on legs still numb from an hour of big gear pumping around Lac D’Annecy, yesterday.
Over the top, it’s classic breakaway roads, narrow, twisting, rolling through fields of sleeping sun flowers, maize, newly harvested wheat, the villages are small, the fans warm, happy, friendly.
Into woodland, now – still rolling, lush, ferns soften the edge of the forest.
Policemen wait patiently at every junction, no matter how small.
An old Route National now, tree lined, dangerous if you run off the road, but little changed since the days of Napoleon, there are straights, but no too long, so as the bunch can see the desperados.
Logs dry in the 28 degree heat, getting ready for shorter days when there are no pique-niques.
But there’s a long straight, with a mini Bert fan well to the fore; and there’s the PMU sprint.
The car computer says 30 degrees and the back of the tractor is just fine for race watching.
No pics on the cat 4 climbs, the VIP cars are harassing us – there’s choppers to fly and champagne to drink !
The baroudeurs will ride through the PMU and GPM; don’t disturb le rhythme, there’s a long way to go, boys.
Roybon; and there’s Liberty, did they cast that just for Lance?
The race is catching us, the cop gestures; “allez!” best push on for ten minutes.
Rolling again, through the trees, the middle of nowhere, but alive with fans.
Over to our left, the Alps wait for next year.
We’re dropping, dropping to the only sizeable town on the entire race route, Romans-sur-Isere at half distance. A great road for an echappe, sinuous but not too technical and well surfaced.
Who’ll be in the group? Chavanel? Dumoulin? Flecha? Moreau? Casar? definitely a Katusha and maybe a Skil? Rudi Kemna wants, “bravura!” Martin has just reminded me.
The crickets chirp, the sun bakes, the fans bake, the road rolls, the smell of lavender wafts into the car – 33 degrees, now.
Romans; the home of French shoe making – wow!
The feed, we stop, looking for Craig at the Astana car, he’s not there, but we get the juice anyway; “20 guys away, Popo is there, Evans, Chavanel, a few Caisse; it’s gone three minutes; B box and Rabobank are chasing because they have no one.”
Long, long, wide, smooth straights now – not good for our boys.
The parcours dives back into the scenery; the sun flowers have woken up to watch the coureurs pass.
Now we know why B box are chasing; there’s the fan club.
Twisting, turning, but no hills, this is good territory for the echappe.
But there’s more of that wide flat tar, past a retail park, an industrial estate – the guys are giving a demo of how good the cherry pickers are for race watching.
Across the sluggish Rhone, into the Ardeche; but it’s not rugged yet – wide, fast, open, along the river bank, a break would get swallowed up, here.
A right, Le Pouzin and crazies have strung a wire across the gorge; they’re dangling high above the road as the road climbs.
The locals have made the effort as the second hot spot looms.
We’re on the approach to the climb, now – the cat 2 Col de l’Escrinet; 14 K in 35 degree heat with a strong cross wind.
The plan was to stop in Privas but all the side streets are locked down tight and the cops are urging us up the road because the race is just ten minutes behind.
If the break is still alive, then I hope they’ve saved something, this is a toughie, up the gorge it grinds.
Helicopters, motorbikes, cars – two riders only.
The champion du monde, Alessandro Ballan and Laurent Lefevre for B box – the boys in blue are keen today; and Lampre are just plain desperate.
It’ll have come together on the flat roads we’ve just driven, that wasn’t too hard to read.
Talking of coming together, the two escapees will be caught – the descent is too quick.
The bunch hasn’t been flying; if it was there wouldn’t be 50 guys in it – Contador is near the front, alert, ready.
There are stragglers, then another big group – cruising.
Then another, with a chatty Rabo quartet at the front.
And that’s it, the broom wagon, no one off the back – that tells it’s own story.
“Le meilleur sprinter de la planete!” says the man on the radio; we know who that is!
“Cinqieme victoire de la Tour de France pour Markk Cav-en-deesh” says Daniel Mangeas as we drive through the finish.
Ah well, even le Tour gets it wrong sometimes!
And there’s Cedric Vasseur; “ca va, guys? Yes a surprise, but maybe the baroudeurs win on the Champs Elysйes, on Sunday?”
Au demain a la Ventoux.