The Tour rarely makes much of an incursion into foreign territory. A day outside of the Hexagone and that is quite enough. Today, the Tour makes its way back into France with the rather rudimentary cut-through Belgium via Brussels and the Flemish Ardennes. None of this should be too testing, and one man who is doubtless desperate to see home soil is Marcel Bidot, technical director of the French team and a man without a car.
Bidot has spent the morning at the police station, giving as many details as possible about the stolen team car. Yes, officer, the team radio was in it. Insurance papers, too. Glove box. A yellow hat, on the passenger seat. You’ll recognise it, it’s a Peugeot with Tour de France written all over it. There won’t be many of them.
The morning wasn’t supposed to pass like this. Bidot had intended to spend an hour with Darrigade, his yellow jersey. Here’s our strategy, he was meant to be saying, plotting out in detail the points at which a Belgian (most likely) would make a break, plotting out how Darrigade and his teammates would control the peloton and control the gaps. A defensive day, not an attacking day.
The car was found just before the départ, minus its race radio. He would have to borrow one from the 4CV, just to stay in touch.
Bidot was right about the Belgians. They would rightly have been disappointed yesterday not to have someone like De Bruyne alongside Darrigade, but then again, Darrigade would never have let De Bruyne go with him.
De Bruyne, De Bruyne
Fred De Bruyne is this year’s revelation. He started the season winning Paris-Nice by a huge winning margin and followed up with Milan San Remo, beating the Italian favourite Magni by nearly a full minute. As if that wasn’t enough, he then took Liege-Bastogne-Liege, La Doyenne, in the sprint against Van Genechten. It was a formality in the end, his opponent acknowledging he didn’t have the legs to beat the new king of the Classics.
In fact, it’s De Bruyne who makes the first move as the peloton crosses Wallonie, and Marcel Bidot is relieved to see André Darrigade not attempt to bridge the gap. Instead, he sends the Breton Malléjac to monitor the Belgian classics man. Slow him down a bit.
Bidot trusts Malléjac, which puts him in a team of one after last year’s shenanigans on Mont Ventoux. Doped up to his eyeballs, Malléjac collapsed 10km from the finish line, one foot still pedalling, sweat lashing from his ashen forehead. In the ambulance, having been given oxygen and having had his jaws forcibly prised apart to take water, it took him 15 minutes to regain consciousness and when he did, he fought Dumas, the Tour doctor, claiming he’d been drugged against his will.
Bidot believes his rider.
Malléjac – today of sound mind and body – and de Bruyne are joined by two of the Bretons, Pardoën and Morvan, as well as Jempy Schmitz, the man Roger Hassenforder calls the camel due to his hunched back.
The question is – as the riders pass through the Flemish Ardennes – how far does Darrigade let the breakaway get? At one point, it’s 6’30”, which is when Darrigade yells at his teammates Forestier and Mahé to do some work off the front. Even the Italians are putting in a shift.
Few Italians ever make it to this part of the world where Classics are contested by a field made up of 90% Belgian riders. Too grey, too dark, too… northern. But watching Fantini, Nencini, De Filippis, and even the invisible man Fornara, you’d think they were regulars, as the bumps shake the peloton to life.
Darrigade is getting a ride home. The gap is coming down steadily with Malléjac putting the brakes on the breakaway and the combination of France and Italy putting their collective hammers down at the front of the chasing peloton. A classic stage in Classics country, then. André may even have hopes of a stage win.
The border, when it comes, is open and the riders are waved through by border guards and customs officials of both colours. The bare, pot-holed roads of Belgium are immediately replaced by lines of poplars, smooth American-financed tarmac and the reassuring hum of wheels on pliant ground. There are nods and satisfied noises among the 80 or so riders now swooping on De Bruyne, Malléjac and the rest.
A moment of reflection
And – for those of a romantic disposition – a moment of reflection.
It is at precisely this point, carefully orchestrated by the organisers, that the Tour passes the milestone of 200,000km. Battle-worn old journalist Gaston Bénac, today in a 2CV that has taken a battering on the shelled-out roads of Belgium, breathes a sigh and raises an imaginary glass to the men of Tours gone by.
To Eugène Christophe and his broken forks, to Rene Vietto and his sacrifice. To Coppi, Bartali, Bobet… ahhh, 200,000km dear boy, he turns to André Chassaignon. 200,000km, dear boy.
200,001km now, old man, retorts Chassaignon, notebook poised at the ready, wry smile on his face.
De Bruyne takes one last look over his shoulder. The team cars have pulled out, which means the peloton is closing, but these roads are familiar. They lead to the velodrome. There’s a last patch of cobbles – easy ones – and Malléjac’s feet are stiff. De Bruyne knows that’s a sign of tiredness and puts in one final effort to beat off his man. Pardoën and Schmitz attack Malléjac, which brings one last thrashing of the pedals from the Breton. De Bruyne enters the velodrome, which is full of Belgians, of course it is, it’s always full of Belgians. A roar erupts; he takes the first bank and Pardoën is closing in. Down the straight, he takes the racing line to the next bank and looks over his right shoulder. No one there.
The battle is for second place.
De Bruyne lifts his arms aloft, and in doing so, catches a glimpse of the peloton rounding the first bank. It’s another win. He could get used to this.