It is 22 years since four members of the same team were eliminated on the same stage: Lotto, stage nine to La Plagne. Such is the fate of the stage-four winner, Arnaud Démare, suffering from stomach troubles and unable to eat solid food. With him go three of his team-mates who have tried to nurse him through the stage. “You don’t leave a leader all alone in the countryside,” says Mickaël Delage. “He wins for us, so we lose together.” No coincidence that they ride for FDJ, run by the most traditional manager in cycling, Marc Madiot; this is old-school stuff, domestiques sinking with their leader. It’s none the worse for that.
No press conference from Chris Froome the day after one of the most eventful stages in Tour history; the three-times winner limits himself to speaking to broadcasters rather than giving print journalists the meagre 15 minutes Team Sky usually find when they are in the lead. I can’t remember a Tour in the 27 I have covered where the yellow jersey has not spoken to print media on a rest day. Those wanting an explanation might find it in that the day before German television ran a six-minute documentary on the Wiggins TUEs and the Jiffy bag affair. This might have led to (drum roll) – questions. But it might not, as ARD uncovers nothing new. In any case, wasn’t it Sir Dave Brailsford who told MPs last December that he and his team would be open and transparent?
Obligatory gift update: this has been a mixed Tour cadeau-wise, but Chambéry came up trumps with alcoholic miniatures, a box of pasta and an Opinel penknife. Périgueux – a fine city – provides a fine bottle of local red, prompting the old Tour question: what will the vin rouge taste like after two weeks being shaken up in the back of the Mercedes, where temperatures on sunny days in exposed Tour parkings can reach a zillion degrees? Some time in August we shall find out, with fingers crossed.
The stage evokes the late Luis Ocaña, winner of the Tour in 1973, whose funeral took place at the cyclists’ chapel at Labastide-d’Armagnac, site of the feed zone. Ocaña was Spanish but spent most of his life in France’s south-west: the stage uses his training roads and visits Aire‑sur-l’Adour, home of his first cycling club. On Thursday, the serious action starts on the Col de Menté, where Ocaña crashed out of the 1971 Tour in a thunderstorm, ceding the race to Eddy Merckx a few days after putting the Cannibal to the sword at Orcières‑Merlette. The Tour has many tragic heroes (see Thursday), but few whose tales hold more pathos.
Five hundred kilometres away from the stage finish, a large group ride up Mont Ventoux to mark the 50th anniversary of Tom Simpson’s death, including Sir Bradley Wiggins. They all wear special jerseys in the black-and-white chessboard colours of Simpson’s Peugeot team, with, on the back, the words that have become synonymous with his passing, “Put Me Back on My Bike”. It is entirely in keeping with the ambiguities of the Simpson story that he may well not have said those words, given that the Sun’s man on the Tour, the late Sidney Saltmarsh, maintained that he made the quote up. Even so, they remain an indelible sporting epitaph.
It is five years since the Tour last visited the super-steep “Wall” at Peyragudes and that was marked by a bizarre episode when carpet tacks were strewn on the road at the top of the descent, causing 61 punctures in the peloton and widespread panic. As for who did the deed, that remains a mystery despite a police investigation. Some blame protesters against the reintroduction of bears, out to discredit the village of Massat, the only pro-bear community in the Pyrenees. Today, 550 gendarmes – in grizzly mood no doubt – will ensure the climb is closed to the public, which is rare indeed for any ascent on the Tour.
As one sprint finish follows another in the second week, L’Equipe resorts to a lengthy analysis of dossards, the race numbers worn by the riders and used to refer to them on Radio Tour when they puncture, crash, or escape (quicker to say and easier to hear than names). No92 is the dossard that has abandoned most often; No31 the one that has won most often in breakaways; No213 is the one that finishes lowest down the standings. This year, Edvald Boasson-Hagen is No92 – he’s still in the race. No31 is Contador, so a fair tip; No213 is Brice Feillu, currently lying 20th and bucking the trend. The one race number every fan knows is No51 – traditionally, the “winningest”. It’s 39 years since No51 won but this year the wearer is Fabio Aru. Watch this space.