he turned me inside out, that lad, all 61kg and veins the like of which you only find on a horse’s cock streaming down his legs, raining down lashings of misery with an almost possessed concentration, whipping the pedals with a ferocity that had me gurning the whole way up the climb. it wasn’t long but it was plenty hard. 1km at something like 12%. he threw it all at me, everything he had, but, thankfully, it wasn’t enough to break me…
with a slender 14 seconds lead over the Japanese rider Kyosuke Takei and 22 over Peter Pouly, the final day of the 2013 Tour of Friendship was going to be challenging, to say the least. i had a few factors in my favor though, that might just help me swing it.
first of all, neither Pouly or Takei had teammates, though there were two other Japanese guys in the Open category that might help Takei, if it came to it. second, the stage was only 85km, meaning there would be less chances for them to attack me. thirdly, the parcours looked, on paper, to be not too hilly, maybe a max of 6% on a long drag that we’d cover twice, then a finish that was relatively flat on the run-in, also suiting me.
finally, there were the offers of help from no less than three guys on different teams, though i figured that at the end it’s probably be a three-way fight to the line by me, Pouly and Takei anyway. with 10 seconds on offer for the win i couldn’t afford to leave anything in the hands of others.
so, we start, hot from the off. no change there then. kind of getting used to the heat by now but sick of the wet feet, they’re dead white after the stage, like someone else’s stuck on the end of my otherwise brown legs, some old tramp’s dead, manky feet. so many water bottles thrown over my head and even more over the countryside, hundreds, thousands this week, one of the real contradictions of our sport. not that i care much now, it’s just survival, watch the potholes, clear the debris by the edge of the battered road, watch for those attacks.
i can’t let anything too big get up the road so i have my remaining two guys chase down an early break of about 8, but my guys are so tired after the week of racing, they’re maintaining the gap and so eventually i put in a spurt that brings it all back. i’m not in the mood for talking today, a good sign. i’m on it, i’m feeling the flow. got to minimise the movements, protect the power, cut down on waste, keep the shoulders relaxed and the head clear and down, keep the pedaling smooth, preserve every possible watt of energy for the attacks that will come, are coming.
15km in and we hit the start of a long 16km hill, a drag, it looks, on paper, but it’s obvious the profile was wrong. this is one of those rollers that paradoxically has no downhills, just false flats in between vicious little growlers, leg-sappers where Pouly will surely be compelled to attack. but first off i see Takei sidle up to one of the Japanese riders at the front. i soft pedal to within 2 meters and hear Japanese.
now maybe it’s cos he’s tired of maybe he just forgot, the force of habit, but i speak Japanese and hear every word.
‘you go on the approach just ahead, then i can try on the up and down, he will be tired.’
i wonder for a second if it’s a false play but then, sure enough, the Japanese guy goes. he;s way down on the GC but i don’t want any help for Takei up the road so i follow. legs are good. breathing long and deep. bike feels great. i catch him then Takei launches a hard attack on the right, i have to ask another rider to let me through, but it’s all calm, i know i will get him back, the guy moves and i put in ten hard strokes and i’m on his wheel. he goes again and again but never gets more than 3 meters.
then he heads back, he’s done. his confidence blown, i can feel it. then suddenly a lightning blur from the right once again, this time the green of Pouly and it’s serious, very hard up the 6% incline, and i look up and that gradient is rising way up beyond the race book’s poor estimation.
i force my way onto his wheel and he turns to see me then clicks into a harder gear and goes again, i’m burning now but amazed by his style, a pure climber – this guy has the amateur record up Alpe d’Huez, and though he’s a banned doper he has obvious ability, 5-time French MTB champion, holdr of the KOMs on various well-known monster climbs, and a soaking wet 61kg compared to my 77 – anyway he’s turning the screw and i am forcing i don’t know how many watts to get over this critical point with him.
i do it though. i hear him breathing hard. he turns to look at me again and through the pain i flash a big smile and ride alongside him, concealing my hurt and man does it hurt right now, and i say-
‘hey, how you doing?’ all casual as you like.
‘beautiful up here, huh?’
‘ah… unh’ is all he can manage.
i drop back behind him and the mask falls and my face contorts again, and thank the cycling gods of Coppi, Anquetil and Merckx that there are no more killer hills on the horizon. i had to sow the doubt in his mind for the second loop up that nasty climb, because if he attacks like this again i am not so sure i can hang on.
we’re alone, together, up the road with no one in sight behind. he flicks an elbow. i see it and smile to myself. flicks again. turns.
‘come on, come through, the Japanese guy, you can get away, he is second….’
‘i don’t have to worry about him, Peter. i just have to watch you.’
‘we work, i just want the stage.’
‘and if i blow on the second loop? you going to wait for me? no. up to you, you ride or we sit up.’
he starts to ride, much to my surprise. he’s forcing a gear that i can’t quite believe is coming from a guy so skinny, and he does it for about 8km until a small select group comes up to us, including Takei. we come back to the hills, second loop, and Pouly goes again. this time it is easier to follow, and Takei can come too, we go over the rise 200m ahead of anyone else and we are off, 25km to go now to the line, one long descent then 10km of flat.
‘come on, we work,’ says Takei, ever hopeful.
i shake my head. it would be better if they’d been dropped obviously, but i have them right in front of me and that is where i intend to keep them. i can sense that the fight has left them, they’d given their all and i was on it each time. it’s a strange thing maybe to admit to, but i feel a control over them, a power. it starts in my skull and flows down to my feet and suddenly my legs feel amazing, i forget the heat and the bike is almost a part of me. i have to grab myself to remember that there’s still 20km to go, can’t get complacent, but just for this moment it’s an incredible, strange and slightly disquieting sensation.
never had that in any race before.
Takei says ‘ok we work, Peter wins, i am 2nd, you third.’
‘no, i’m second. i need those 5 seconds, just in case.’
he looks at me then nods. ‘ok, you 2nd.’
i just am not sure if i should trust Peter though, his attempts to get me to ride may have been amateurish but they revealed his desire to fight for the win, for sure. with 5km to go i’ve still not done a turn the whole break, and i feel good enough to go. i ask them what they want to do but they seem too tired to be bothered to reply.
i don’t think i’ve ever concentrated as much on the bike as i do now, looking beyond Takei’s shoulder and watching Peter’s right hand like a hawk. one little flicker and i will go. but then with 800m to go Peter turns to offer a hand to Takei then to me, and the tension dissipates.
we trundle over the line with barely an inch between us.
and that’s it. i’ve won.
i get a big bear hug from my manager, Brandon Teo, and handshakes from the guys at the line and after a minute or maybe more the others come in, and there’s more handshakes and a beer and then it’s off back to the resort, just a short ride away.
it’s not a major race but that’s to take nothing from the guys, it was one hell of a fight with the quality of field, the route and of course the heat and it ranks up there with my most satisfying wins. hanging on to Pouly up the climbs the final day and losing just ten seconds to him over a 6km climb the day previous were similarly pleasing!
so, thanks for reading, thanks to all the guys who rode and the new friends i made, guys like Michael Troy, Dave Christensen and Matt Kinch, and to the old friends i met up with again, to my sponsors 720 Armour, Extreme Endurance, Specialized and most of all Lapierre and James Murray, and of course, to my teammates Michel Velasco, Siong Chen and Tong, and to Brandon Teo, The Big Boss.
as ever, people, do crank on!
oh, and the t-shirt of the week was…