Yesterday, the combination of De Bruyne and Mallejac dug in deep for what, 43 seconds? Anyone tempted to break away while André Darrigade is directing the peloton knows that you need more than a handful of men, and you need more than a little luck.
Today’s break is nine-strong, and includes: Mahé, Padovan, Huyghe, Barbosa, Chaussabel, Le Ber, Van der Pluym, Frei and Desmet. Something of a multi-coloured, multi-cultural breakaway if you want. French, Breton, Dutch, Belgian, Portuguese (Luxembourg, really), Swiss, North-East-Centre and South-East.
An in variety comes strength, thinks André Darrigade as he leans in to Marcel Bidot’s car window and hears of the men in the break. Only the Spanish would be inclined to ride with him, and what’s in it for them?
André tries to strike a deal with Lorono and Bahamontes. Will you ride, he asks. I’ll lead you out, he offers. They shake their heads. Not doing it.
The breakaway of nine is applying the pressure by relaying constantly at 50km per hour. Behind, the peloton is slipping badly. Blackboards inform the break that they are 5 minutes ahead, and soon 6, soon 10. Soon they are an enormous 20 minutes ahead of the peloton and not a single man is letting the pace drop.
Darrigade’s worst fears have been realised. With a rider from every team in the break, their teammates are sitting up, joking around, laughing. He glares and they laugh back. No one will work. André has missed his chance, and the yellow jersey is slipping from his back with every pedal stroke. What a shit day, he thinks, as the flat marshlands of Picardy and the Pas-de-Calais roll by in a never-ending glut of glumness, of wet greys and murky greens, and the rusty red-brick façades of Abbeville suck the life out of Darrigade and the peloton.
Three Virtual Yellow Jerseys
The mind of a bike racer is constantly shifting. There is firstly survival. Am I going to hit a pothole? Am I going to make it round this corner? Can I reach within the time limits today? Within each rider is a pessimist that needs to be controlled – or best of all – ignored.
Then there is the immediate. Am I going to be overtaken? Have I worn this man down? The immediate is all about reaction and gut feeling.
And then there is the optimist. Will I win this race? How many minutes do I have in hand? The optimist is not within every rider. There are those who doze at the back of the peloton every day, drinking sugared beer and eating more than is healthy. Their only ambition is to reach the destination before the cut-off. An optimist, however, is always jockeying for position and thinking about how to find an edge.
Three men are in the optimist phase right now. Desmet, Huyghe and Mahé have all worked out that one of them will be wearing the yellow jersey this evening, and as they relay, the virtual yellow jersey changes hands.
Gilbert Desmet is a young Belgian rider from Lichtervelde. Fast, and suited to the narrow, cobbled uphill finish in Rouen, Desmet is a danger. He has made his name in kermesse and criterium racing in Belgium, touring his native country from a young age with his bike and pitching up at any race that would have him. He is still young and he is still inexperienced, however.
That is the thought of François Mahé, a Breton riding for the French national team. He finished 10th last year, so he knows what he’s doing. The man from Morbihan knows what it’s like to wear yellow, which is more than can be said for his two breakaway compadres.
Camille Huyghe has had the honour of going past his home town Auxi-le-Chateau, if not quite through it. A few banners and a handful of runners alongside him were enough to keep him in good cheer. The man from the Nord-Est-Centre team has no huge ambitions, and the thought of yellow frightens him as much as it excites him.
Huyghe is not an optimist.
Immediately, Claude Le Ber launches an attack off the front. We’ve hit that climb in Rouen, which is cobbled and slippy. Le Ber is large, and adept at this kind of climb. Padovan follows, the Italian perhaps not so adept at these climbs, but he knows the descent to follow is far easier. The three virtual yellow jerseys eye each other up, and Camille Huyghe turns optimist and makes his move.
Desmet and Mahé are caught in the immediate. Instinct takes over and as one they follow but Huyghe is fast. Faster than they had thought. Why did nobody tell us about this fella?
Padovan edges ahead of Huyghe as Le Ber falls away. Too big.
Huyghe edges ahead of Padovan, but suddenly drops back, beyond Le Ber, past Desmet, past Mahé and even Barbosa. He curses his luck – a flat tyre, just 1000m from the finish line, right underneath the flamme rouge. Nobody looks back, they’re all caught up in the immediate as Camille Huyghe sits on the pavement and waits for his support car to turn up and replace his wheel. He’s not changing anything himself today, he’s done his work.
Padovan takes the victory at the line, and it’s Gilbert Desmet who takes yellow, ahead of a frustrated Mahé.
Around 20 minutes later, when Desmet and Mahé have long since had a wash and something to eat, André Darrigade crosses the line, shaking his head and muttering curses at the riders who have done nothing to help him today. He’ll remember them, each and every one of them.