Cycling in Sydney Australia
Stage 15 - Ascent of Le Géant de Provence
LEFT: Mont Ventoux, Le Géant de Provence, capped in shattered white limestone rock, looms over the Gorges de la Nesque in southern France
AT LAST, the big day was here. That mythical legendary, extraordinary, hyperbolic stage, the name of which we cannot speak. Well, Tommo had been unable to say it very easily, though he must have been practising overnight since he managed to say "Mont Ventoux" first go without tying his tongue in a knot and getting it tangled with his microphone as he did yesterday.
Dave ‘Macka’ MacKenzie took us on a breathless ascent of the “giant of Provence” on his unladen, lightweight bike. Oh, OK, it had a tiny camera mounted on the handlebar and he was miked-up, but where was the 20+kg of panniers and camping gear which your correspondent lugged over the same route 14 years ago, while still managing to beat a bunch of aged French pensioners on over-geared bikes to a podium finish on the summit, eh? There was lots of hype: about 10-per-cent gradients; air getting thinner (hey, it’s only 1912m and that’s only at the top); lack of trees; rocky, lunar landscapes; heat; and how he wouldn’t normally stop but “here is the Tom Simpson memorial”. Any excuse, Macka? And how come H-K and Scotty weren’t racing you up there?
The hype continued when the stars of the commentary team took centre-mike. “The Mont Ventoux is a sacred mountain almost,” (Only, “almost”, Paul? That’s rare understatement!) “and everybody, every big champion wants to win here. I mean, when you look at the names of people who have won at the summit of this mountain, it’s a who’s-who of professional cycling,” Paul told us in reverent tones.
The pace of the race was ridiculous, this afternoon. “That’s incredibly fast. Showing no respects for Mon Ventoux today,” Phil summarised, with his own little stumbles over the mountain’s name, and the English language, indicating just how hard the stage was proving to be. He wanted to explain, as well, that the top of the mountain wasn’t necessarily the end of the race today. “The top of the King of the Mountains line, by the way, is not the top of the finish, and you go ’round the corner to cross the finishing line, so it’s not quite the summit of Mont Ventoux.” Well, that was very clear, thanks.
Lots of talk about hammers and “nailing it back” while the climb to come seemed to be getting longer the more they mentioned it, creeping up from 20 to 21 kilometres. Meanwhile it was again the “Spanish Armada doing all of the pacemaking” at the front of the peloton. “They’ve had a great season, this team, Paul, and this is the icing on the cake until it all went wrong with Valverde a couple of days ago…” Hmmm, yes, this is, um, er, wasn’t it?
Better go for some more Ventoux-hype now, chaps? “I think it’s really the most difficult when you climb out of the treeline up here in the last five or six kilometres-to-go to the top and you reach the area which the French call ‘les kie-asses’ or ‘the rocks’” (Oh, that’s the same as in English!) “coz it’s just white rock here and it reflects the heat and makes it very difficult to breathe,” said Paul, explaining why Macka had found the climb so hard. “Yep,” agreed Phil. “It’s been traced back, uh, 95 million years, uh, the rocks on the top of Mont Ventoux, so that has some stories to tell us, I would say,” but, disappointingly, he said nothing more about those stories, instead focussing on the bleedin’ obvious. “Forty-point-nine kilometres to go now, inside 50-to-go now…” Actually we’ve been inside 50-to-go for the last nine-point-one kilometres, Phil. Those d@mned decimals must be the work of the devil, or at least of the French with their equally-d@mned metric system, don’t you think?
Suddenly there was a “precarious” bidon dropped on the road in the middle of the main field. “…If you are not paying attention, if you hit that bottle at a wrong angle, you really go down quite sharply,” warned Paul, not explaining the correct angle to run over an unleashed bidon, or even how to measure it, despite Phil agreeing that it could cause a serious accident. I guess we just have to google all this extra essential information that the team doesn’t have time to dispense, despite finding time to repeat themselves frequently on their pet topics.
Pet topics like how the bunch is shaped: “You can see the main field stretched all over the main field, er,… all over the main road now” while a very compact bunch pedals slowly past the sprint point, albeit using the whole width of the rather narrow road, “as they wait for the last moment to get themselves sorted out for what will be a massive ascent of the Mont Ventoux.” Peloton procrastination apparently takes precedence.
And pet topics like the size of the crowds which have come out to watch the Tour de France go past. People turn out "in their thousands", or "tens of thousands", or even "hundreds of thousands", to stand by the side of the road and “for your information, these roads were closed to traffic this morning at 8 o’clock, so anyone who’s got here has had to leave their cars a long, long way away and actually ride their bikes or walk to a point out on the course like this.” Geez, Paul, such dedication. It must have been sheer hell for them.
Soon, the climb, and the clichés and commentary confusions were coming thick and fast from each of our stars:
“He’s looking to write his name into the history books today.”
“Richie Froome … taking-on-board that energy gel.” (They don’t eat in Sky and everyone is surnamed Froome, to confuse the enemy, I guess.)
“He’s given 110 percent.”
“Richie Porte, keeping the tren high…” (Er, the what?)
“This is Robert Gesink going backwards.”
“Is Valverde cracking here? Because the gap is opening up.”
Then the truth came out. They are both on the turps: “We are having a serious distillery here…” according to Paul.
“Contador is cracking now.” But it was someone else.
“But this man, now, is on his own… No, he isn’t!”
“He’s free to fly now.”
“Contador has gone as well now,” said Paul. “Contador has cracked, said Phil” And he had, this time, it seemed.
We were left with “a British Columbia tandem on Mont Ventoux.” And I had thought the Canadians were out of this race. It was surprising, too, that a tandem was climbing so well; they are usually slower up mountains, though it depends a fair bit on the riders.
“There’s still a long way to go…”
“This white rock has stood here for 95 million years…”
“He’s finally cracked … he’s popped off the wheel of Chris Froome…” Come on N.A!
“For seven days Richie Froome has led the Tour de France…” Or is it that everyone on Sky is called Richie? To confuse the commentators, I guess, Phil.
LEFT: A poster on the building at the summit of Mont Ventoux.
A Brit, albeit “a Kenyan-born, South African-educated” one, was about to win and Phil was very excited: “Now he’ll see the finish and it’s up a hill!” (Where else would it be?!) “As he comes ’round the corner… picks up the tail wind… climbs and crawls and grabs his way towards the line…” (I thought that would be a more apt description of his pursuers’ style in his wake.)
Tommo summed up in his inimitable manner. “Chris Froome may have travelled to hell and back but, uh, today, uh, he just, uh,…” (That look of confusion again. ‘Where was I going with this?’ he seemed to be thinking.) “…capped something special on his CV in what’s been an incredible career.” Scotty was smiling nervously beside him, hoping Tommo wasn’t going to lose it totally again. Tommo was not being helped by the crew in charge of video replays and was soon again struggling like the riders on the big V: “Yes, we saw some riders struggle, uh, today, um, aaand, among them…” (long pause in which Tommo inserts tongue firmly into cheek, literally) “…let’s have a look at the overlay now as we take a look at the overlay, we saw a few riders struggle… Andy Schleck struggled, Cadel Evans has just crossed the line a few moments ago… and we saw many riders struggle.” Surely, barely as much as you struggled with that one sentence, I’d venture, Tommo.
But what of Froomy’s performance? Scotty had just finished a long story about how “clean” the maillot jaune wearer is but Tommo wasn’t convinced: “Well, Scot, it’s understandable that the accusations are flying thick and fast already. He’s just crossed the finish line here on Ventoux wearing the yellow jersey and the sceptics are out to get him.” Can Tommo, himself, outdistance a few sceptics and cross the finish line to take commentary honours this year? I hesitate to mention that there is still a long way to go.
I had been wondering what had happened to Rupert Guinness in this Tour. He never seems to make it on-screen to figure in the Commentators’ General Classification, so it was a relief to get a glimpse of him in his trademark garish Hawaiian shirt in the front row at one of the post-match pressers. Truthfully speaking, the momentary shot of that shirt was as much as I could take. But I digress…
Phil had launched into controversy immediately in Tommo’s intro segment saying: “The doping era finished around 2005 but [he whose name cannot be spoken typed] confessed only this January.” But, Phil, I seem to recall the odd Tour “winner” being stripped of victory since then, so that is a pretty big call, especially from one who stated categorically that he believed in the innocence of Lance. [Oh, d@mn, I shouldn’t have typed that name; I meant Voldemort.]
Meanwhile, Tommo thought he should watch his words when discussing Aussie riders’ performances, probably to avoid facial rearrangement after the Tour. “It’s been an… [wincing facial expression] up-and-down Tour de France for Richie Porte… more ups, I dare say, than downs but let’s have a listen…” Hmmm, I’m not sure you’ll get away with that sort of faint praise, Tommo, you may be damning yourself, but we’ll be watching with interest at the finish line.
Undeterred by perhaps getting Aussie noses out of joint, Tommo decided to offend an even bigger target. “It’s been a terrible Tour de France for the French…” he asserted with a smug grin, leaving himself open to a future pelting with frogs, or worse, if his hosts were watching. That would be “shocking”.
Compounding the “terrible Tour de France for the French”, H-K horrified all the residents of the start town, Vaison-la-Romaine, calling it “Vay-sonne ar lar Rowe-mayne”. She was very close to being run over by the passing Calypso-car – the driver had probably heard her – but she continued into a weather report, before throwing to Macka, “out on the course”. Dave was on the lower slopes of the Col de Manse to remind us of the 2003 incident when Voldemort had dodged the shattered pieces of Joseba Beloki lying on the tarmac, ridden across a fallow field, then “he jumped back onto the road … and he went on to win the Tour de France.” Or, “lose”, as it transpired.
As racing started, I was soon wondering “Where’s Anybody today?” So was the Dutch champion, thought Phil. “As Johnny Hoogerland looks for Anybody gonna take him on… well, I’m not sure Anybody is… and they’re not… as he comes up to the summit.” Anybody was a somewhat distant second over that pass.
Paul wanted to have a bit of a dig at the French for their lack of success so far in this Tour, and at Australia over the cricket, it seemed. “Well this has been one of the best Tours for France, er, for Germany for recent years. They’ve, uh, got five stage victories, with 10 riders at the Tour de France. Great Britain coming up next with four victories, Australia with two… France, for the moment, Phil, with 42 riders on the start line, have only got zero victories to their credit. Not too good... That’s why there are so many Frenchmen in the breakaway today, to try and, as they say in cricket, break their duck.” Yes, the Aussies are still on a duck in the cricket, aren’t they, Paul? You did that so subtly only the paranoid would have noticed.
As we returned to the Gorges de la Méouge after an ad break, I thought Phil must have spotted another of his nuclear installations – last year it was a “nuclear train” – and that one of the riders had been enlisted in its employ, as he was explaining “…and it’s a real chase to get back with all that ‘heavy water’ and it’s all downhill.” Was that a dig at the nuclear industry? Otherwise, why might it be harder to ride downhill with deuterium oxide? The mystery was never solved because Paul gave us another geography lesson on “this beautiful part of France” (who’da thunk?), repeating for at least the third time that these lovely gorges are seven kilometres long, then spotted the chooks down the back, at the “arriere du poule-eton”. Part of the road was brand new, apparently. As the riders approached a short, fairly ancient-looking tunnel through a ridge, Paul told us: “It’s amazing that they had to chisel that passage for the race right the way through the cliffs there.” Yes, and it would have been even more amazing if the race organisers had had to use chisels to do it.
Time to have another dig at the French, P and P decided. “Voe-clair, this is the man who’s famous for his funny faces,” Phil laughed. Paul could hardly contain his mirth, either. “Looking at Thomas Voeckler there again, he was looking to get himself into the, uh, the Ministry of, uh, Funny Looks,” while Paul was trying to get into the Ministry of Mangled Metaphorical Messaging. He’s a shoo-in.
I knew when the camera focussed on Froomy’s elliptical chainrings that Paul would regale us with another of his trademark tortured technical explanations, and I wasn’t disappointed. “The idea of that is to eliminate what the riders call the top-dead-centre. When you get the crank up to the top of the revolution, it’s a little bit of a, uh, loose spot, so that eliminates that and allows you to pedal a little more smoothly.” A “loose spot”? Phil explained less technically: “Throws itself over the top, I suppose.” Yes, lemming-like, I suppose.
The climb was taking its toll and some riders weren’t sure which way was up. “Navarro has cracked. He’s going the wrong way, backwards, at the moment,” Phil told us. Phil, himself, wasn’t sure which way the race was going: “It’s far from decided this stage, it’s completely imploded,” (So, the riders are getting much closer together?)”…and they are continuing to implode, as well.” What, implode together all over the Hautes Alpes? Meanwhile Paul was noticing that the peloton was “shattering” and getting “smaller and smaller” all the time. Were they both watching the same race? Fahgeddaboudit.
Time for some dodgy arithmetic. “Take your hat off to Saxo-Tinkoff. They’re using their two men to go one-on-one with Chris Froome,” Phil calculated, inaccurately, “but, so far, he has the answers,” even if Phil didn’t. Paul had one of his not-so-clear insights into the significance of the Movistar stage win: “We’re not really surprised about this because this team looked like they were going to be very, very omnipresent” (So, not just a little bit everywhere, then?) “throughout the whole of the Tour de France and that, I think, Phil, is recompense for standing at the side of the road.” (So, they have been stationary, watching the race up till now? I’m confused.)
It could get more confusing because, at the finish line, Tommo says he is with Macca. Not Macka, though. (It’s Scotty, not Davo. Perhaps if everyone was called ‘Bruce’…) Tommo continued with Paul’s theme of omnipresence while managing a bit of subtle product-placement: “… Movistar, well, they’ve really been involved in this race, virtually from the Go-Get…” Tommo moved on to how he felt about Cadel’s performance but “we shouldn’t discount the fact that Cadel has done so much for Australian cycling” then acted as if he was a has-been. “When you look back at his career, Scott, world champion, two times runner-up at the Tour de France, winner of the Tour, and, of course, multiple stage winner, um, he has left his legacy, and of course third place at the Giro and third place at the Vuelta…” Yeah, he’s just been a total disappointment and let all Australians down by losing time in this year’s Tour, hasn’t he? So Tommo had a good day, getting the entire population of France off-side along with just about the entire Australian contingent in the Tour.
After it all, I, too, am disappointed. Disappointed that, despite there still being a long way to go, every day there is a little bit less of a long way to go.
Contre la montre, ‘race of truth’, or ‘time trail’ as a certain live-blogging journalist would like to pretend someone else called it, the time trial is the ultimate challenge for the riders. It’s just them, alone, out on the course, riding against a relentless clock, and there is nowhere to hide. Everything they do is on display in front of the whole audience. It’s almost as bad as being a commentator.
“This will slow him down quite a fraction,” thought Paul, as Arnold J. tip-toed on a rain-slicked descent.
“This is the first time the Tour de France has seen the rain this year. Twenty-eighth time for Philippe Gilbert.” That should make the Belgian a great rain-rider.
“… They’re isolated rainstorms but unfortulated this one is isolated on the descent and that’s what’s going to make it very tricky and treacherous.” That was a new word from Paul where he would have normulated used “precarious”. Progress!? Not really, he was just saving that until the rider crossed the finish line.
“Andy’s taking no chances down here. This will cost him,” Phil calculated, discounting the potentially higher cost of the rider crashing and breaking every bone in his body.
“He will be once again the Saint Bernard for Chris Froome … because he’s the man that saved the day on the road down into Gap” was Paul’s amusing image of Richie, as Porte-pet of the Froomedog.
“He takes the dive into the corridor of noise as he launches himself…” Phil offered, again leaving himself open to being trumped by Paul putting a roof over it and making the corridor a tunnel. Paul showed mercy on his team-mate, treating us instead to an economy-of-words failure over the injured J-C Peraud: “… questions being asked. Will he be able to carry on, especially with the tough nature of the rest of this event?” Did you mean “can he finish this hard race”, Paul? I reckon the ”tough nature” of the man will out. Unless he crashes again.
Oh, he did. “That was very, very tough for Peraud,” sympathised Paul as the hapless rider lay, in agony, on the road. “It was nice of the French television to throw that one at us,” Paul continued, surprised at the sudden insertion of the violent replay into an otherwise peaceful telecast. Phil just seemed to be pleased they’d seen it: “They found the pictures, at least. That’s all that matters… and what horrible pictures they were … you cringe with the pain that man must be going through,” he continued, trying to sound less happy.
Phil had another of his graphics-reading failures as Valverde blitzed the time trial course. (I can identify with his difficulty. All those darned numbers just look so alike.) “As he comes up he has slowed down on this second… no, he gets it! Boy, look at that!! Fifty-nine hundredths of a second…” “Very, very close indeed…,” Paul agreed before they both realised their mistake. “Woah, well, I tell you what, Phil…” “It was a full minute,” Phil instead told Paul what. “Oh, my goodness me, I was only looking at the seconds… it’s a full minute for Valverde,” he continued, seemingly forgetting that full minutes have a whole lot of seconds in them.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen Cadel Evans ride an individual time trial like that for many, many years.” Nor has anyone else, Paul.
Phil had recovered his graphics-reading ability by the time Contador came home: “He’s coming up to the line. He gets it by… goodness me… seventy-two hundredths of a second to the good. That will be rounded out to one second…” So, the full second. You beauty, you have your mojo back, Phil.
Bauke Mollema had a “moment” on the Peraud corner, as well. “Actually, that was his own fault, Phil. He was going too fast…” Yeah well, Paul, that’s the thing about the individual time trial – there is no-one else to blame if you do something dumb. OK, maybe Vittel could be implicated – Mollema ended up hitting one of the product’s banners, so perhaps some of the product had been spread on the road, too. “Well, he’s riding very, very fast despite that little boost in his adrenalin…” Paul judged. Of course, adrenalin does usually hinder your athletic efforts… not.
What is Contador’s plan? “We’ve spoken about the fact that he’s a fighter, he will never surrender,” Tommo said to Tanny in Churchillian tones. “Do you think that will be the case tomorrow and the next two days?” Only if “never” doesn’t include the future, Tommo. Tanny says el Pistolero is going to “not just throw, ah, caution out the door but he’s going to flush it down the toilet basically and put it out to sea.” Nice. I’ll be nailing my buttocks to the chair again to see that one
“Leave the guy alone”, Tommo begged at the end. Never, but only until tomorrow.
Double cliché day had arrived at last.
“Nobody conquers dee Alpe.” Shuddup Legs.
“That’s the amazing thing about Alpe d’Huez. It’s an unforgiving climb.” Paul.
“Only the Alpe decides who shall be king.” Phil.
“This is cycling’s Mecca, if you like.” Tommo.
“And to mark the Tour’s Centenary edition, Alpe d’Huez wil be climbed, not once, but twice today. It’s mindboggling, isn’t it?” hyped Tommo. Maybe my mind has been boggled as much as it can be already because I, like the riders probably, have so often heard that this was coming that I am no longer surprised, shocked or even horrified. But, of course, I don’t have to ride up it, any more than Tommo does.
What hadn’t been mentioned was that the scene of yesterday’s, and 2003’s, carnage, the Col de Manse was again on the menu. No real drama today, fortunately.
The sights along the way absorbed Paul’s attention. He was captivated by the admittedly impressive disused railway viaduct of La Bonne. “The line was operational from 1932… though it was actually only used for… [long pause for calculation] …30 or 40 years because it was decommissioned in 1952.” That was a pretty short three or four decades, Paul.
Foodies would have been disappointed that Gateau’s segment had been ditched tonight but my ears pricked up when Paul seemed to indicate that the riders were filling the gap by making dessert: “Now, the plan is to have two riders from Team Saxo-Tinkoff ahead of the race, I believe, when Alberto Contador and maybe Roman Kreuziger try and make a roue, uh… move to make Chris Froome crumble…” Mmm, apple crumble, I hope, my favourite. Gee, how thoughtful of the boys! Unfortunately, we heard no more about this generous offer after the ad break.
Much hilarity in the comm box, well, Phil was laughing anyway, as Paul pointed out the church of Saint Benoît in a picturesque village the peloton was traversing. “You don’t know much about that one, do you?” Phil chuckled, hardly able to contain his mirth that Paul had apparently lost the cheat-sheet which gives him chapter and bible-verse on all the religious icons of the regions the race enters. “Well, at least you got the name right.” [It was on the TV screen.] “That’s all that matters.”
Phil needed his own cheat-sheet. Recalling his memorable journey to the spring of the famous Perrier water, he wanted us to know it wasn’t in the differently-spelled village the breakaway was just leaving. “I’ve been to the source of the drink, ‘Perrier’, where they bottle the spring water. It’s down in the south… around the uh… far south of uh… of France.” Yeah, that was it, of course, France. I love it when we learn stuff from these guys. Stuff-all, actually!
Paul treated us to another succinct – (Hah! As if!) – explanation of the hazards of descending down mountain roads. “…when you think you’re in a dry situation, like the road here is quite dry, then you come ’round a corner, then there’s a patch of moisture across the road and, if you haven’t adjusted your speed correctly coming into that corner and you’re, uh, moved over slightly, that’s when you can sh…” [Sh!t yourself?] “er, find yourself getting into a crash.” So, leaning your bike on an unexpectedly damp road can be dangerous, Paul? More news!
Soon we were learning new stuff. France has trumped the Amy Gillett Foundation’s ‘Give Cyclists a Metre’ campaign. Signs on this pass indicated that drivers should give riders 1.5m when passing. “That’s five feet by the way,” Paul translated, for Phil’s benefit. But Phil is right up-to-date on the metric system now. “Sorry?” he responded, as if he’d forgotten all about feet. “…To put it into old money,” Paul explained using a currency he thought Phil might know about, as the riders passed, unremarked, the sign marking half-way to the north pole.
Macka was standing at the top of Alpe d’Huez, “uncharted territory for the Tour de France, the first time in its hundredth year history, two times up this great Alpe.” So, despite all the other times it’s been up here, even if only once each time, it’s not on the maps? Never mind. There is lots of descending down to come. “Take a look down the valley there. This is where the race will continue on over the mountain, it’ll drop down, descend, and then up the Col de Sarenne, then this nasty descent that we’ve been talking about … The riders, the leaders, they’ll be hurtling down that dee-scent up to 80, 90 kilometres an hour.”
Soon the riders were turning onto the bottom of the descent up to the famous (but still uncharted, according to Macka) Alpe, riding through “this incredible crowd who’s waited here for a week.” Or possibly longer, I’d say, Phil. A lot of the people leaning on the barriers, often one-deep in places, probably live in the town. Paul fired up the “tunnel of noise” cliché while Phil reminded us, yet again, that the Tour has never before climbed the Alpe twice in one stage. Not content with saying it once, he said it yet again again. I wish I could say it was the first time in 100 Tours de France that he, or Paul, has done something like that.
“Now, Paul, climbers like to climb at their own speed. They don’t really want intruders of other riders dictating to them, do they?” “No, definitely not. In a race like this, the most important thing is, uh, to ride at your own place…” Paul added, clarifying exactly what was most important – not – while disappearing off on another tangent about how “Sky haven’t yet crumbled”. Indeed, and I am still waiting for that dessert, too.
Pierre Rolland, Paul told us, “must be itching to have a crack … He wore the King of the Mountains jersey … then all of a sudden he crumbled” [So he’s had dessert?] “in the second week but, who knows, having won here in the past, before” [The ‘past’ is ‘before’, now?] “can really boost his morale.” I know my morale would be boosted by just getting some of that promised but elusive dessert.
I finally spotted the rider with number 13 on his back – one of Sagan’s team-mates with “Snake” in big letters on his knicks. He was having a bet each way – only one of the two number patches was upside down. Meanwhile “Riblon just doesn’t want people breathing down his ear when he’s tryin’ to climb Alpe d’Huez.” When does he want that then, do you reckon, Phil?
Paul suffered geographical confusion again. “He needs to get that gel on board before he gets to the final slopes of Alpe d’Huez… We actually don’t go back into the Grand Bornand, we turn just short of it…” Unusually, Phil corrected him – “Bourg d’Oisans, we don’t want to go to the Grand Bornand today” , but Paul was still confused. “Huh?” he grunted. “You said ‘Grand Bornand’,” Phil laughed. It was race-radio’s fault, Paul claimed.
There were groups of riders all over the Alps now but, strangely, while there was “lots of chaos” no-one had “exploded” or even “imploded”, yet. There hadn’t even been any cracking. There had been some crumbling, of course, but I was still waiting for my crumble as they turned down the valley road for today’s second visit to Bourg d’Oisans. There would be cracking after that, I felt sure.
Of course, “the weight of the yellow jersey on a man’s shoulders is very difficult to understand,” Paul thought we should know, but I am not sure I did understand. Was Froomy cracking? Er, no, he seemed to be attacking. Soon, a shot of leader Jens “Shuddup Legs” Voigt, out the front of the race alone on the climb. “He just plods on…” said Phil, inaptly.
The excitement was getting to both Ps now. “Krutes-igger has cracked,” shouted Paul. “Kroytes-inger has gone for sure,” Phil told us, as the camera showed us both riders with the same number “fighting for survival”. Then it was “Garderen getting to the slightly easier part of the climb now so he can put up his gearing a fraction.” Would that be “change up one gear”, Paul? Phil tried a tortured metaphor but, unsurprisingly, seemed to lose his way. “Contador’s played cards today but he hasn’t been able to put those cards and win the hand.” Paul went back to a favoured metaphor of his own, comparing Froomy to a diesel engine, which then nearly ran over a small, fluffy, unleashed child running out into the road. “The Alpe is declaring its colours and showing us the strongest riders in this year’s Tour de France,” garbled Phil.
Then it was Phil who really cracked as Froomy had a hand up for assistance. “Hand was up there from Porte.” (Well, it is hard to tell them apart; they are always riding together, they are in the same team, one is wearing black strip with a blue helmet, the other is in that funny yellow jersey and a yellow helmet.) “Has he got a flat tyre here? Surely not! … That’s a soft, black tyre, Paul. I can’t believe that” (Indeed, surely it is unprecedented for a leader in the Tour to have a flat?) “A soft back tyre for Richie Porte. Surely the Lady Luck has not deserted this man here on the top of the Alpe.” Paul was trying to squeeze a word or two into Phil’s panicked rant… the words being “Chris, Chris Froome”. It turned out the problem was glucose debt in the fuel tank not oxygen debt in the “black tyre” which was “even worse” but an energy gel “taken on board” could at least address the problem without a stop being required.
The team was working better now. They’d shown they could swap turns with commentary corrections. It would come down to a fight for supremacy on the summit of the Alpe. “…Just the way he’s pedalling” (er, around and around?) “he’s found something very special over this last one-and-a-half kilometres. He’s gonna walk away with this,” Paul declared, but Phil corrected his inappropriate metaphor: “Or even ride away with it.”
“This guy is gonna go faster and faster. He’s no longer pedalling as a human being now, he’s on top of the world.” Phil was on fire.
Paul was left to take it into the finishing stretch. “The famous left-hand bend is just coming up.” Is that all you got, Paul?
Phil had a final scoring triumph, garbling the name of the French winner, the man who had given the French “reason to smile again” in this the 100th Tour. No doubt the smile was wiped from the nation’s collective face as “Christophe Riblenne comes home on the top of Alpe d’Huez.” Paul had a different version of the bloke’s name, calling him “Rablon”. Honestly, how hard is it to read “Rib-lon”? Tommo can do it.
But Tommo was soon having more trouble with his English, telling us “Cadel has certainly had a disruptive Tour de France…” and, as we waited for the yellow jersey presentation, “We’re not going to see this… uh, we haven’t seen this for the first time and, I dare say, we’re gonna see this for a few more days before this Tour de France runs out…” So, we’re not gonna see it, we haven’t seen it and we are gonna see it? Gotcha. “Apparently there may be a problem with the weight” of Bertie Contador’s bike. “And, obviously, there has to be a limitation to how heavy the bikes are, right?” No, wrong. It’s on how light they can be.
Of course, little guys like N.A. Quintana don’t have a weight problem, do they Tommo? Because they are light they go uphill fast and we hear all the time from Phil and Paul about N.A.’s high-altitude breeding, “and from Matt Keenan about the, uh, the fact that he, uh, drove a taxi at the age of 10…” Yes, that must really be helping him cycle up hills, Tommo. But why does the normally sensible Scotty think N.A. must know how to “hotwire” a car? I don't know how to hotwire a car. Does Scotty know how to hotwire a car? Someone tweet him the question and report his response, please.
“It’s another big day in the mountains.” If I had a dollar for every time that has been said in Tour commentary, well, you know…
Paul knows history-in-the-making when he sees it. “He’s looking to write his names into the history books of heroic breakaways in the Tour de France…” Yes, this rider’s so epic he’ll get both his names in there, “Ryder” and “Hesjedal”. Paul also knows why Cadel has had a less-than-epic Tour. “A lot of riders who rode the Giro d’Italia, Phil, are actually paying for their efforts in the Giro because… it was so cold, so much snow, so much rain… and you know, that leaves a… a real trace on the organ, oigan… on your organism and… as you get older as a professional cyclist, it’s a little bit harder to recover…” Makes me glad I never contemplated a career in the pro peloton – I wanted to retain my organism’s ability to recover into its old age.
There were repercussions for the Sky twins, Richie Froome and Chris Porte (or some combination of those names), of yesterday’s breakdown of the team car when water from the drink cooler fouled the electrical system. My mind boggled somewhat as to the repercussions of a similar disaster in the comm box. Phil lives “in fear of drinks falling into our computers at the commentary position which is quite a busy little house, uh, during any stage of the Tour de France.” I guess a sensible precaution would be to set up your “distillery” in a remote location, then.
Phil solved one of the great mysteries of this Tour: The meaning of the words “Snake” and “Bull” on the shorts of Sagan’s Cannondale team. “They’re actually the names they’ve given the saddles that they ride… so there’s no need to send me any more emails on that subject, ha, ha.” But this only raised another question. What did people think they meant, ha, ha?
Phil indulged in some bird watching as riders tackled the next col, identifying a “black kite” circling majestically. “Well, thank goodness it’s not an alpine vulture waiting for riders to drop off the back of the main field this afternoon,” Paul chimed in. Yep, and at least it’s not a magpie…
Speaking of things deadly, the leading team faced mega-death, it seemed. “They’re really losing a bit of, uh, impetus in Team, er, Saxo-Tinkoff. They’ll have to conce… I think they, Phil, they’ll just have to concentrate on keeping Alberto Contador in second place in the overall standings and, uh, not think about that team classification because it’s actually turning out to be an assassination for the team.” “Yes”, said Phil, apparently actually understanding what Paul was trying to tell us or, at least, pretending so.
Then Paul tried to explain Pierre Rolland’s descending style. “Ooh, he went into that corner too fast and had to change his… er, corn… line around that corner. He’s not a great descender and he has to, er... You see how he gets his leg out and that’s because he’s actually a tall rider. Some of the better descenders are slightly smaller, compact riders. Still, he’s got a good tempo going.” Even if he does end up in a wall, eh? Phil had clearly not been listening to the last bit (who could blame him?) and took the opposite view. “He does take one or two risks on these corners but he is a good descender.” “He’s got to take the risks,” agreed Paul, not bothering to defend his earlier opinion because we were getting “closer and closer nearer” to the final climb of the day.
So Rolland can’t descend, but he can. How is he as a climber, Paul, especially now that he’s grabbing all the climbers’ points? “He’s climbed up all through the day. He said he wasn’t interested in the King of the Mountains, then he said he was, then he’s changed his mind again.” So he’s not interested now? “When he came out this morning and he saw the two big outside categorised climbs in the first hundred kilometres of the stage, he thought, ‘I’m gonna have me some of that.’” I’m just glad he finally overcame his persistent procrastination.
Phil clearly thought, “I’m gonna have me some more of that procrastin-action”, as he saw Froomy: “Chris Froome showing no signs of distress. He always looks distressed but the way he is hanging on in there, his head on one side, he doesn’t seem under too much pressure just yet.” Is the Froomedog’s tongue lolling out, Phil?
Paul summed up his feelings about those bizarrely-misshapen, elliptical chainrings: “I have to say, if I was riding one of those, it would drive me nuts.” Phil concurred: “You can’t look down at it. [You’d] feel a bit ill, I think”.
“These riders have a whole new ball game on their hands,” Phil metaphorised as rain hit. “We’re seeing the Alps bite back at the Tour de France this afternoon,” he continued, in similar vein. Paul tried but failed to match him with Michael Rogers “bringing out the big ammunition” (Er, that would be “guns”, Paul) to keep Bertie in second place in the race. Phil was warming to his task: “…the riders who are fighting out the podium in Paris, they’re all huddled together for warmth” (Kinda like penguins?) “and they don’t seem to want to come out to play” and “The road will be glacial on the descent down to the finishing line today.”
In the race to the finish, the tactical moves were coming thick and fast in the commentary box. Paul decided to go for understatement in an attempt to regain the upper hand: “…this wet dampness on the road could make one or two of the corners a little bit tricky.” Phil was undeterred and stayed on the hyperbolic route: “It doesn’t look to me like he is showing any respect at all to the glacial surface of the slope.” “He will go down here flat out, full bore ‘round all of these corners,” Paul insisted. It was a “fast and rapid descent” he later summarised typically un-succinctly. “I hope he comes out the other side,” said Phil, doubtfully. “They [the peloton] haven’t gained hardly anything on the lead rider at all,” Phil told us, throwing grammatical nicety to the four winds. Paul was forced to take his hat off again. (But has anyone ever seen him wearing one?)
Unusually, Matt Keenan popped in at the end to give “expert closure” to the stage. Why did he need to mention Voldemort? He also gave us a dose of the bleedin’ obvious as Froomy took the podium for the polka-dot jersey presentation “not something he has targeted. It’s just been by virtue of the fact that, so far, he’s been the best in the mountains.” And here was I expecting to see the worst in the mountains getting the prize.
Finally, we had Tommo, musing on the mindset of riders at the back of the race in the big alpine stages: “As we take a look at Peter Sagan now. He’s finally arrived home with the ‘grupetto’, the ‘laughing group’ they call them but Peter Sagan is not crying, that’s for sure…” Huh? Who suggested he was? “He’ll be laughing all the way to Paris.”
As will we, with more great moments in commentary like these. À bientôt.
Yesterday apparently wasn’t memorable, at least not for Tommo, because wet conditions "marred" it. Rui Costa has probably completely forgotten his solo breakaway to win. I know I had. As for what’s coming, well, we dunno that either. “I think the organisation have put together a very unpredictable Tour de France and, if you want me to predict what’s going to happen today, well, I’m not going to,” said Paul, as I sighed with relief at the time and bs that would save. Tommo knew why Paul wasn’t predicting the future: “Because you probably don’t know.” No probably about it, Tommo, though Paul looked like he might have something to say on that score, except Tommo gave him no opportunity.
Time for Gateau, thank heavens, because we have gone hungry for the last few days. Did I hear GG say that “the pristine water of the lake comes from the melting snow of the Halps”? Who said Gateau is putting on zat outrageuse French aczent?
Tommo couldn’t resist his own prediction as racing started: “This is Stage 20 of the Tour de France. It’s gonna be a cracka. There must be fireworks…” Light blue touchpaper and stand well back, Tommo.
Suddenly, a picture of something everyone had been hanging out to see, at least so Paul thought. ”There you can get a chance to see that, uh, special tape there on the back of the calf muscle, of Pierre Rolland.” Sure enough, the Frenchman sported a mass of high-visibility yellow tape all over the back of his leg. Of course, we’d have needed X-ray TV to see even fluoro tape on the front of his calf muscle. Phil made me fantasise about Devonshire Tea, again, when he told us that Jeannesson was safely “e-scone-ced” in the peloton.
Many people probably confuse Phil with Paul but you don’t expect them to do it themselves. Paul had a serious brain-fade, reminiscent of Virginia Trioli famously introducing herself with “I’m Michael Rowland” on ABC breakfast TV. (Well, it was early in the morning.) “The Green Jersey competition, Paul, uh, Phil-I-have-to-say, is pretty much locked up.” “Thank you very much, Phil-I-mean-Paul-sorry-yeah,” responded Phil, not wasting an opportunity to stick the knife in.
This is a beautiful part of France. Oh, you knew? “Beautiful forest scenery. We’ll see this basically, ah, a lot today, especially as we get up on the finishing climb towards the finish,” Phil emphasised unnecessarily. “This is probably one of the most wooded climbs I’ve ever been up in a race like the Tour de France,” reckoned Paul, exaggerating “a little bit” I thought, and expecting “a little bit of picture break-up”, an inaccurate prediction as I predicted.
Suddenly, drama. “He’s broken his chain,” exclaimed Paul, twice, since it was so surprising, “and that you don’t see very often in this day and age. “Bullsh!t,” I could almost hear Phil thinking. “Those chains are pared down so thin now, er, and the breakage of chains is much more common than it used to be in the old days, that’s for sure.” Phil has a longer memory of the old days than has Paul, of course.
“This has been a long, hard Tour de France,” Paul reminded us, getting it barely half right. It’s been no longer than any other recent edition, either in distance or time, but it may have been harder. Phil explained that despite this hill being hard, “This isn’t the climb at all … it’s a small, little climb which takes us to Saint-Jean, the town at the base of the climb.” So, this is a tough climb down? Shortly afterwards, “Officially, we’re on the climb, Paul, but it takes a little while before we start to actually start the climb on the steep sections.” So, how long before we start to start the finishing climb to the finish? “It’s a very long climb…” was all Paul could offer. Later, Phil let us know that “It’s still a long way to go.” But it was different to every other long way to go because it was “not a long way in distance but, with the two climbs, it is a tough journey to the finish, today.” So, it’s not a long way, according to Phil, but the climb is very long, according to Paul. Everything’s relative, I suppose, but nothing really matters more than that the silence is filled in.
Phil spotted big Jensie “Shuddup Legs” Voigt going forwards off the front again. Jens “boosts the viewing figures in Germany because he has a family of six children who all watch Dad in action.” Seems like a slow way to boost the ratings significantly but Jens never quits at anything he does.
Has TJVG been trained by Eddy “The Cannibal” Merckx? “Here come those four riders,” Phil estimated, as TV showed a bunch of five, plus the BMC strongman, “and Tejay van Garderen is starting to eat through them now…” How many other riders can TJ “take on board”?
Jensie was still powering up the hill, “rising,” Paul insisted, “to the accolades of the crowd who are, uh, not partisan at all, they will cheer any professional bike rider who comes around”, when he saw something: “You see how Jens Voigt just looked over a fraction there… Oh, that was a good one…” Paul, too, had seen something but it was completely different. Jens was looking elsewhere and must have totally missed the clever, non-partisan play-on-words of a sign atop a roadside pole: “Ici c’est le pays du FROOM’age” equating Froomy, the race’s big cheese, with the local Emmental. We still have no idea what fraction Jensie had been perusing. He had more important things on his mind now, thought Phil, contemplating what was over the summit: “It’s a good downhill descent now…” which meant the last uphill descent of the day was just across the valley. “He’ll descend all the way down to 680 metres.” Phil just can’t get enough of that descending down action.
Paul gave us a geology lesson which indicated he is slightly better as a cycling commentator than as a geologist: “[The lake] was formed around 19,000 years ago with the retreat of the great alpine glacier in the Quart-enry period.” Close… but that would be “Quaternary”. Maybe time to get the optometrist to check your prescription, Paul.
Perhaps so as not to wear out one good redundancy, Phil whipped out another: “They visibly look to be going very, very quickly…” I would have found it hard to believe that if I hadn’t audibly heard him tell me. Suddenly, yesterday’s black kite was back, hovering “looking for prey” in the same way the peloton was trying to hunt down Jens. No vultures or even magpies today, at least. But, Paul understated, Jens was going to put them “into a spot of bother” this afternoon.
Suddenly Tommo’s prediction came true. Jens was “the man who lit the blue touchpaper to start setting off the fireworks here this afternoon,” hyped Paul, falling right into the trap Tommo had set for him at the start of the telecast. Game and set to Tommo?
Paul had news. Colombia has television. N.A.’s family is at home watching him live, Paul let us know. Isn’t technology just going global? Phil told us for about the fourteenth time on this stage that Chris Froome is going to win this Tour. Now “he could walk to the top” [still 3.9km] “and not lose all of his race lead.” (I’d like to see him do that in his cycling shoes.) But Paul thought he was “in a spot of bother”, as was the bloke on whose wheel the Froomedog was riding, not Richie “Saint Bernard” Porte for once.
N.A. has done it. Colombia must be going off! Stage win for the pocket-sized Quintana, polka-dot jersey, white jersey, second on the Paris podium. Watch out next year Froomedog!
Phil was excited, too. But “you gotta feel sorry for Valverde, he lost 10 minutes in the crosswinds when he had a broken wheel, it was the time when Contar, Contay… Contador” [Got it!!] “took time away from the yellow jersey…” Green-jersey holder Sagan had trouble containing his own excitement, crossing the finish line pulling a mono then flicking out his rear wheel, seemingly almost bringing down one of his own team mates. Now that would have added to his reputation after the podium pinching incident.
“The sport needs personalities,” Tommo reckoned. As does commentary.
There’s not a long way to go now…
“It’s been a three-week endurance test.” Tommo finally got something right. Oh, OK, a second thing, after his prescient prediction of fireworks yesterday. It certainly has been a test for your mousing hand, scrolling down through each stage to get to the current one. But, my dear dedicated reader, you stuck it out and you made it. I can’t believe that we are here together already to witness Great Moments in Commentary on the ultimate stage of the 100th Tour de France in 2013.
It’s been a Tour of metaphors. Keeno came out with a great one, painting the Froomedog as a gymnast, perhaps a trick-cyclist but a non-cheat: “Chris Froome has ‘stuck the landing’ on the doping issue.”
It’s been "20 days of the most enchanting gourmet experiences all around France,” summarised Gateau. Well, it’s all fine for you, GG, but I, for one, am still waiting for that crumble from the other day.
“The sun has been shining virtually from the Go-Get on this year’s Tour de France,” said Tommo, slipping in his sponsor’s name again. (There are rules about sponsorship disclaimosure these days, so be careful with the cash-for-comment, Tommo.)
Forget snakes on a plane, it’s scorpions in a tent which explain why Froomy is tough enough to win the Tour, Paul suggested. The Kenyan rider, who, Paul told us, “really does feel that he is an African” but just happens to have a British racing licence, used to go on safari and camp in the African bush. He was adept at catching scorpions but not so diligent at keeping the lid on the container when stowing it in the tent. Remind me never to go camping with him.
It’s been a Tour of clichés, endlessly repeated by our commentary stars. “This is a beautiful part of France,” Phil noted once more, as the riders passed yet another ancient bl00dy chateau. It would be far more notable if we were in an ugly part of France, Phil, but I have never heard anyone call that one. I have a theory, though, where it might be: Wherever all the camping cars go when the Tour hits Paris “because you never see them” there, thank heavens.
Phil was getting sick of chateaux, too. The Coubertin chateau, though “very avant-garde” when built in the 17th century, according to Paul’s script, just didn’t cut it these days. “It’s, uh, a bit lacking in the front, I think… Don’t you think it’s a bit flat?” complained Phil, sounding a bit like a hairdresser. “Yeah, it’s a bit boring really, I suppose, not like some of the ones we’ve seen in the Loire Valley…” Paul apologised. I guess they’ll just have to keep looking for one they like within their budget.
Fortunately “there’s been a crash”, so the topic shifted back to that novelty, the Tour de France, and how dangerous it can be, even on the last stage. But it was soon back to charming little stories about the novelty for Froomy of pressing buttons for permission to cross the road on his first visit to England, at age seven, and of Paul’s young son discovering elevators at Manchester airport, something utterly unheard of in Uganda where Paul lives. Suddenly, Phil noticed again that “this is a beautiful part of France” despite the “traffic furniture”.
It’s been a Tour of economy-of-words failures. Perhaps our favourites get paid by the word. “…And he’s another boy of the future, of the generations that will carry the Tour de France through the next years to come.” Er, you could have stopped after “the future”, Phil.
“Oh, this’ll be good,” I thought, as soon as Paul began to say: “Now, Phil, I know you love it when I come up with useless information…” “No, I don’t,” Phil assured him, but Paul, as I expected, was undeterred, proceeding to read out statistics about the Eiffel Tower. “There’s nobody who can pick it up, so how do they know how heavy it weighs?” Phil wanted to know. (I reckon Jensie could pick it up.) Soon they were arguing about the controversial glass pyramid at the Louvre. “It was designed by a Japanese architecture,” Paul asserted. “Well, you can’t argue with that,” said Phil, though he was clearly spoiling for an argument, even if only the five-minute one. “…I think he was Chinese-American but, anyway…” he argued, anyway. I thought Paul was licking his wounds but he came back soon after, amid a rustling of papers: “I just remembered who the architect was actually, Phil, the architect was Ieoh Ming Pei…”
It’s been a Tour of redundancies, repetition and the bleedin’ obvious as well. “It is quite a steep climb this … and it steadily is uphill,” intoned Phil, reminding us that climbs are uphill, particularly the one on the Champs Elysées. Paul wanted to make sure we knew where the sun was, though the lengthening shadows gave a strong hint. “The sun is still perched up there in the sky over down towards the west,” he told us un-succinctly. Who would have guessed? Shortly after, Paul had another go at the story of the Louvre pyramid, this time getting the architect and his nationality right first go, and sounding very knowledgeable to those who had just come in.
The cameramen who follow the Tour all over France must be fit, carrying all that extra weight and zipping back and forth through the peloton. We had a shot from one of them, “standing up on the pedals, shooting down onto David Millar,” Phil told us.
In his excitement with under 20km to go, Paul was confusing his rights and lefts: “You see how everybody tries to ride down that le… that the right side of the road there… the left hand side of the road there…” while Phil was mixing up his suns and moons: “As we look at the sun…” [never a good idea unless it’s on TV] “…about to go down… or the moon about to come up.” French TV must be using those new-fangled over-the-horizon cameras? Except it was way up there in the sky. Paul had forgotten all about the moon. “I wonder if they organised that beforehand,” he pondered. Yes, ASO had put in a special moon order for the 100th Tour. “The Tour de France organisation don’t miss many tricks, I must say,” Phil concurred.
Paul always talks about “setting the pacemaking” but tonight it was Geraint Thomas, he of the fractured pelvis, “making the pacemaking”. Sigh. No-one ever just "sets the pace".
Next it was Phil’s turn to get the left-right thing wrong. There was a carful of Tour legends. Eddy Merckx was in the right hand front seat, “in the driving seat, as he always was”. No wonder Sherwen always does the driving for the commentators because Phil doesn’t remember that the driver is in the left front seat on these funny Continental cars, although Paul seems a little bit vague about which is the side of the road to ride or drive on.
The race was over, and who would have predicted Marcel “Kitty” Kittel taking out another stage. Great Britain had won the Tour with a Kenyan, helped by a Tasmanian. After coming nowhere for the first 98 editions, Phil told us, the Brits had done it again after last year’s triumph of a Belgian-born rider with an Australian father. (Yeah, I know. We’d claim them too, if they happened to have Australian racing licences.)
After last year’s Aussie-interviewing debacle, Tommo avoided talking to Matt Goss but insisted on putting a few “Dorothy Dixers” to Simon Clarke before moving on, oh-so-chummily, to hard-man Richie Porte. He suggested that Froomy’s roomie might have teared up as the team crossed the finish line together. Richie firmly dismissed this: “No tears.” “Tears of emotion, then,” insisted Tommo, pushing his luck big-time. No tears, Tommo; which part did you not understand? Richie had some words of warning about people who watch the race on TV, cast aspersions on riders’ abilities and who can’t ride bikes themselves. Getting a bit close to home, Tommo.
All that remains is to award the jerseys in the Commentary Competition. “There’s a lot of jerseys to be presented,” Tommo said, sounding hopeful that he might have won one.
Indeed, I think Tommo has earned this edition’s commentators’ Green Jersey for consistency in mangling the French language, mispronouncing rider and town names, and persistently making annoying, inaccurate and/or ridiculous comments.
The White Young Commentator’s Jersey goes to Kate Bates solely for her outstanding effort on the “Horse-cat” climbs.
Most Combative Award goes to Scotty McGrory who battled on at every finish line stand-up, managing to keep his act together while Tommo was losing it right beside him. He made only one slip in the event, venturing into the somewhat bizarre by suggesting that N.A. must know how to hotwire cars.
Phil gets the Polka-Dot Commentary Jersey for managing to complete yet another ascension up and descension down all the Tour’s mountains with skilful use of metaphor, reduncancy, cliché, exaggeration, mispronunciation and confusion.
Paul, of course, again takes the Yellow Commentary Jersey, for his sheer volume of output in all categories, not least of which included constant, continuous, interminable, incessant, never-ending repetition.
It’s been a long Tour and we are left only to wonder if they can repeat it all again next year. My prediction: They can!
I hope you enjoyed the ride. Until next time?
Great Moments in Commentary © Neil Alexander 2013