Dangermen from the Duchy French Fractures 40 Degrees in the Shade Classement
Il suffirait de presque rien, Serge Reggiani
Dangermen from the Duchy
Luxembourg’s team manager Nicolas Frantz has quite the opposite problem to his French counterpart Bidot. In Charly Gaul, he had one of the favourites of the Tour, and in his Luxembourg team he had a band of mercenaries willing to give their all for the shared proceeds that would doubtless come from a Gaul victory. Or at least, that is what they were assured when they signed up. Of course, putting together a team for Luxembourg is the devil’s own job, and there are quality riders without a team, if you look hard enough.
The Portuguese rider Barbosa had been seduced by Gaul’s Giro victory. A Tour slogging on his behalf would make him rich, if Gaul could reproduce such form. Brian Robinson was just glad of the ride, the British team having been disbanded since last year’s derring-do adventures, and for Robinson, a glittering future would surely await as the manufacturer team managers take note of his own performances, Gaul or no Gaul.
The problem for Frantz is that there really is no Gaul. Of course, he’s there in person, but the Gaul we all knew from the Giro is no longer with us. The Gaul that has come to the Tour has spent the first 9 stages of this race languishing ten minutes behind the peloton, accumulating losses that in a casino would have seen him bankrupt. He had played all his cards running up over an hour’s deficit on the leader, and when Stan Ockers read his face on the col de Soulor yesterday, word got round quickly that Gaul was a busted flush.
And so the band of domestiques were set free, starting with the Portuguese Barbosa, part of the initial breakaway that had eight minutes over the peloton at Sainte-Marie-du-Campan. It was around this point that his teammate – and native Luxemburger – Jean-Pierre (Jempy) Schmitz decided he would bridge the 8-minute gap. He would have seen the blackboards, so what made Jempy Schmitz take up the challenge? Perhaps he was feeling good, perhaps he just thought to himself – why not? What do I have to lose?
By the time Barbosa and company had reached the foot of the Aspin, Jempy Schmitz had bridged that gap. An effort so deep that you would have forgiven him for taking it easy up the Aspin. Not today.
With Barbosa and Schmitz taking the leaders with them at the foot of the Aspin, you may have been forgiven for thinking that this was ‘classic race tactics’. The very idea of putting two teammates in the breakaway ahead of two of the biggest climbs of the Tour, the Aspin and the Peyresourde, is good old-fashioned Tour thinking. There were some grumblings in the peloton once word got around that two of Gaul’s teammates were in the breakaway and that they were digging deep to widen the gap between themselves and the rest of the riders.
Mark Gaul, they said, he’s up to something. He’s got the legs today, just watch him bridge that gap.
But Gaul didn’t have the legs. This wasn’t “classic Tour strategy”, and this wasn’t classic Gaul. This was exactly what Nicolas Frantz had realised yesterday and exactly what he’d told his team. If you can get in the breakaway today, do it. If you feel good, go hard and go deep. And then, if you’ve got a big enough gap on the peloton, enjoy yourself.
That’s all there is left to do.
Well, there’s that and the St. Raphael Trophy for the Grand Prix de la Montagne. Valentin Huot leads that one, for now. There are points available if you’d like them.
Jempy Schmitz wanted them more than his Portuguese teammate as he followed De Fillippis over the top of the Aspin, Barbosa lagging behind. The two worked in tandem on the descent before the Italian’s back wheel juddered and slid out of line with the front wheel. De Filippis, in an instant, was off the road – safe, thank heavens – but out of the running. Jempy looks his teammate Barbosa in the eyes.
You coming? Because I’m going for it.
Barbosa shakes his head. You go. Do it.
And out of his saddle, Jempy Schmitz enters the valley and breathes the clear air, several lungs full, and thinks to himself – I still feel good. How do I still feel so good?
Further back down the road, while Schmitz was dancing up the Peyresourde, the man in yellow was finding the day somewhat less easy. Having already dropped behind his teammates on the first hairpins of the Aspin, it took Barbotin and Geminiani to pull André Darrigade up almost by his hair. I dug too deep yesterday, he moaned, I’ll be alright if I get over the Aspin. I’ll be fine. Drag me to the top, I’ll catch them on the way down, just you watch. Just you watch.
And drag him they did, descending as the French expression would have it, ‘à tombeau ouverte’. In between the feeding station and the foot of the Peyresourde, Barbotin and Geminiani had selflessly reintegrated the yellow jersey back into the peloton and it was smiles all round. André, dear boy. Don’t go missing again.
Gilbert Bauvin glanced back over his shoulder. Shit. He’s back.
If fractures were beginning to appear in this French team, it was Gilbert Bauvin’s ambition that had caused the first fissure. Bauvin could climb. By reputation, he could climb far better than Darrigade and if André couldn’t keep up with him over the Peyresourde, he’d be the top French rider. Or at least, the top French Team rider. There’s always Laurédi, for as long as he carries on.
Annoyingly, Bauvin was right. Darrigade’s personal struggles continued on the Peyresourde. The tandem of Barbotin and Geminiani pulled back from the assembled tricolores to sit in front of the yellow jersey giving him a slipstream to ride into. Marcel Bidot, leaning out of the team car, took turns in encouraging Darrigade and then moving ahead to encourage Bauvin.
Darrigade sat on and watched the backs of his rivals. Walkowiak, Adriaansens and Laurédi had all been and gone. Ockers and the other kings of the mountains too. He could feel yellow being ripped from his shoulders, and the peak of the Peyresourde couldn’t come soon enough. Limit the losses, shouts Geminiani. Don’t give up, shouts Barbotin. The worst that can happen is you lose a handful of minutes.
A handful quickly turned into 15 as Darrigade’s personal torment continued, slowly.
40 Degrees In The Shade
Further up, Jean-Pierre Schmitz’s day was improving with every pedal stroke. Jempy Schmitz loved the hot weather, and he was getting plenty of it today. 40 degrees in the shade – at least further down the mountain – and the Luxembourg rider was soloing to victory, his breakaway colleagues unable to maintain the pace of the Peyresourde.
This isn’t a mountain that inspires fear in men, although it ought to. The rolling greens lull a rider into a false sense of security. Gusts of wind and burning sunshine in the open can punish the unaware. Never does the Peyresourde offer actual respite. While you’re admiring the rolling green moss and the landscape ahead of you, the gradients have randomised themselves, turning from 5% to 15% and back down to 3% before ramping up again. There is no consistency to the Peyresourde, contrary to appearances.
The closer Jempy Schmitz gets to the top and the hairpin bends, the more the effort starts to tell. The descent is a welcome relief.
And now, as the flamme rouge approaches, Jempy Schmitz arches his camel back and digs in, the descent down the Peyresourde having recharged his batteries sufficiently that he’s able to find the legs for a sprint, not that a sprint is required, but Jempy Schmitz hasn’t yet worked out that he’s going to win. He’s been studiously ignoring the blackboards which consistently give him over two minutes ahead of the chasers, he’s been studiously ignoring the lines of girls in skimpy summer dresses, their low-cut tops, their unfashionably high hem-lines, their coquettish smiles. He’s tried as hard as possible to ignore the crowds five-deep, running alongside him, moving out of the way at the last second. He’s been in a world of his own, racing ahead of imaginary figures far closer than Picot, Ruiz, Morvan, Van Genechten and Huot actually are.
Schmitz has pulled off one of the most incredible Tour victories of all time, not just in his career, but in any career. From 8 minutes back just 50km into the stage, he rallied to the foot of the first climb and was a match for everyone but the Italian De Filippis. When his opportunity came on the descent of the Aspin, he took it with both hands and increased his lead on the way up the Peyresourde. The flamme rouge is the first moment Jempy Schmitz, this discreet, quiet and honourable 24-year-old, realises that he’s going to win a stage.
He looks up, finally, and takes it in. Luchon, this mythical stage finish town, lies at his feet. He holds his hands to his face in disbelief, crosses the line and falls into the arms of anyone who will hold him.
A little over 6 minutes later, his team leader Charly Gaul crosses the line, arms splayed over the top of his handlebars, relief etched across his face as another day is crossed off this awful Tour. But when he realises that Jean-Pierre has won the stage, his eyes light up and a huge, beaming smile cuts across his face.
“You little beauty,” he exclaims, wrapping his arms around Jempy’s shoulders.
It would be a further 9 minutes before the appearance of André Darrigade, a 9-minute wait during which Jan Adriaansens, the young Belgian rouleur, realised that he would be wearing yellow tonight. If his hopes had increased exponentially thanks to the misfiring Darrigade, then think of Laurédi, Bauvin and Walkowiak, three men whose positions in the general classification had bounced upwards and whose gaps had reduced significantly. This Tour of surprises has given us a multitude of unfashionable, unfavoured riders each with claims, and each with opportunities in the coming days.