July 25, 2017
Tour de France: The Final Countdown
Twenty-one days. A few rest days scattered here and there to provide that, “Oh well, I’ve come this far. Might as well keep going” state of mind. Those who are injured sometimes refuse to accept it—how can the quest be over—before the injury wins and their Tour de France dream is dashed on the rocks of reality. Those who are left don their Lycra and fasten their helmets, day-after-day-after-day, to roll out and see who’s holding the fireworks. In the final week, the fuse is once again lit. With a rest day in their legs, the peloton twisted the throttle all the way to “drop mode” for Stage 16, setting a blistering pace. Unfortunately, that left Quick-Step’s Marcel Kittel in a bit of difficulty as contenders chipped away at his Green Jersey points. In a full-on hard charge to the line (of which he played no part), Kittel lost a few more of those points to his rivals. But it didn’t matter—the coveted sprinter’s jersey remained firmly on his shoulders as at the end of the stage. He, no doubt, dreams of holding it all the way to Paris.
But the thing about the Tour de France is that it doesn’t play favorites. It doesn’t care what you want, really. Kittel may have started the day in Green, but Stage 17 turned out to be a bit of a shit day for the perfectly coiffed German. And while we may have been expecting fireworks on the climbs—this stage was stuffed to the gills with gains, including the mighty Galibier—we didn’t expect a small crash to blow Kittel’s dream to smithereens. Taken down by a fall just 20km into the stage, we watched as he valiantly tried to get back in the groove. His goal was clear: stay and finish with the grupetto. But then came the tweet from Quick-Step that ended it all: “Green jersey @marcelkittel, and winner of five #TDF2017 stages, has stopped at the top of Col de la Croix de Fer.” He abandons and the glory of finishing on the cobbled streets of Paris, of riding over that line with the Green Jersey all his, fades from view. Meanwhile, a former ski-jumper wins the stage, so as one TDF dream ends, another comes true.
And then we arrive at Stage 18 and the Col d’Izoard. It is, in a word, steep. The dramatic mountaintop finish caps the last day in the mountains for the Tour and provides what might be the last opportunity for GC contenders to snatch that Yellow Jersey away from the man who just can’t seem to let it go. The col is 14km long and averages out at 7%, which guarantees suffering for everyone. There are attacks and fireworks aplenty, and sudden surges as people are gapped. Finally, one man launches off the front for a solo victory. Cresting the summit, he's totally alone and silhouetted against the sky. His face shows no sign of the suffering—just sheer elation at having not just won, but securing the Polka Dot Jersey for the 2017 Tour de France once and for all. He just has to make it to Paris in one piece, a mere three stages away. The countdown continues.
Stage 19 is the longest of the Tour, with 222km of lumpy-to-flat terrain to contend with. It’s a long, hot stage that sets a searing pace in the French sun. A large break forms, breaks up, and reforms until finally, near the finish, two riders break free. With 2km to go, a sudden attack jerks ahead and is unmatched. Another stage, another solo finish.
Speaking of solos, Stage 20 sees the ultimate solo event, the Individual Time Trial. Starting and finishing at the velodrome in Marseille, riders head out for a 22.5km loop of the town. With the Yellow all but sewn up, this is a race for glory and a young Polish rider, Maciej Bodnar (Bora-Hansgrohe), sets the standard early. As he sweats it out in the hot seat, he is left to watch rider after rider—previous TT world champions included—fail to beat his time. Finally, it's all over and Bodnar wins the TT by one second to get his first ever Tour victory. There's another victory this day—the Yellow is secured. Although there is one final stage to go, it’s pretty much all over, bar the shouting.
The last day of the Tour is like one long victory parade followed by a sprint to the bar. It started as this day most commonly does, with laughter and celebration and the sight of men on bicycles drinking champagne out of plastic (presumably) flutes as they roll through the French countryside. The pace is moderate and sleepy—well, for them anyway—and it isn’t until they reach the Champs-Elysées that there’s a murmur through the peloton that maybe they should settle down and do some racing. It’s a sprinters stage, and with 5km to go, Quick-Step’s Zdeněk Štybar lights his afterburners and attacks. But he's ignited too soon and is caught with 2.5km to go as all the sprinters mob the front. The race comes down to a neck-straining traditional hard man sprint and then, finally, the Tour de France is done.
The Tour de France is a long slog for everyone, but hard not to love. With all the drama of this year, it would have been easy to just give up on it altogether. But it’s the fireworks we love. It’s the fireworks we can’t take our eyes of as we oooh and ahhh the festivities. Each stage is decided in a flash of glory. A man surges to the front and claims it, sometimes with an impressive solo with no one around, other times with a well-timed bike throw or sheer brute strength and determination. Fireworks. A rider, bruised and battered, rides because he does not want to give it up because the Tour is the Tour. Another is ejected, causing us to shake fists at the sky and choose a side. Fireworks. A thin and wiry man attacks on a climb so steep other riders seem to go backwards on it. Fireworks. We’re already counting down the days to next year, when the fuse is once again lit and we get to do this all over again. Why? Because Fireworks.