Monsieur Allard has had a quiet Tour thus far. The Head of the Tour de France organising committee received a visit last night from the Spanish team director who complained vigorously about the St. Malo velodrome, which he claimed was responsible for several injuries in his team notably Miguel Poblet who took a heavy fall on the ash.
He shrugs quietly at Senor Esteve and smiles. “Sir, if your men can’t handle a few cinders, what hope do they have of finishing this Tour? You may as well ride down to Bordeaux, cross the border and go home.”
The Spaniards have returned, tails between legs, to the peloton where they belong. Monsieur Allard has other worries.
One of the responsibilities of the organising committee is to ensure that the Tour aligns itself with train timetables. To ensure that the riders are able to cross through Vicomté-sur-Rance, Monsieur Allard has recommended that the riders depart 10 minutes early. Why, who would want to disturb those hard-working people at the SNCF who have far more complex timetables to manage?
Today’s breakaway is a yellow jersey breakaway. In this most frantic of Tours, it’s perhaps not a surprise to see André Darrigade pulling hard at the front alongside Frei, Lampre and Impanis. After just 18km, the three have taken a minute on the peloton who have barely registered the breakaway at all. They just let them go with a sigh.
The riders have approached Vicomté-sur-Rance at speed, but are alarmed to hear the clanging of bells and see the barriers starting to fall. Darrigade charges ahead, the others in hot pursuit, and they make it across the barriers in time – just.
Monsieur Allard, following behind in a 203, is horrified. This wasn’t meant to happen. He leaps out of the vehicle and runs up the control tower.
“What the hell is this? We brought the stage forward ten minutes so we’d avoid this train!”
The guard stares open-mouthed at the intruder.
“But… but… we put the trains back ten minutes for the Tour!”
Allard has lost the power of speech. Not once did he think to consult the SNCF about his decision to bring forward the départ this morning. Not once did the SNCF think to consult him about their decision to move train times back.
The peloton arrives a minute later to witness the train passing, and it’s an opportunity for photographers and fans alike to get a glimpse of their favourite riders. Monsieur Allard is berated by the French team as he sits, head in hands, at the side of the road, wondering just what he’s done to deserve this, and just how many more level crossings he has misjudged on the route to Lorient.
In all, the peloton has lost a further 25 seconds to the Darrigade breakaway, and more if you count the time it takes them to get back to full speed.
Perhaps it took Monsieur Allard’s oversight to shake the peloton into some kind of reaction. You may argue that were it not for the level crossing, then the Darrigade breakaway might have achieved more than just a minute and twenty-five seconds. Almost immediately, riders started putting in Darrigade levels of effort. Brankart’s frame breaks as they ride through Dinan. François Mahé punctures and several other riders make silly mistakes and cause minor crashes in their pursuit of Darrigade and his hangers-on.
The riders barely have time to admire the viaduct over the Rance. Shame.
The trouble with Brittany is that the scenery can trick you. One minute you’re riding on wide coastal roads, with the wind at your side knocking you inland, the next you’re riding up narrow roads lined with high hedges, bracken knocking you in the face if you’re not careful. Darrigade and company have negotiated this with ease, but a peloton of nearly 100 riders is taken by surprise. Even the Bretons.
Someone at the front cuts across and there’s a clash of wheels. It’s not just a few riders who take a fall, it’s most of the peloton. In seconds, riders are down and riders are up, hauling their bikes to the side of the road. Team cars are beeping, mechanics leaping out of moving cars trying to find their riders. Him, not that one – sort him out first. You – your wheel.
It’s chaos. And André Leducq is loving it. He turns to Gaston Bénac, his back-seat companion in the Miroir des Sports car.
“Ah you see, THIS is the Tour de France!”
Bénac nods in appreciation, before realising that lunch has been delayed a further ten minutes because of this hold-up.
“Driver, step on it – through the middle,” he yells, as riders are cast aside for the journalists’ 203. There is a certain code de la route which states that the middle of the road is no-man’s land. The right-hand side is for the technical directors and their teams. The left is for the mechanics. The middle is purely for overtaking as and when required. Not for Gaston Bénac’s lunch.
The Coming Together
The other thing a rider must know about Brittany, aside from the confusion of hedges and narrow roads, is that the weather can change at the drop of a hat. One minute, the riders are threatened by heavy, grey clouds, and then next, by the time the breakaway reaches Duguesclin, the sun breaks out and the town is bathed in a yellowy ochre that seems to celebrate the yellow jersey. A premonition of a Darrigade victory?
There are movements behind to put paid to that premonition. The Bretons are having none of this. Caput, Le Ber and Audaire have taken two tricolores, Lily Bergaud and René Privat with them. Fred De Bruyne doesn’t want to miss out, either. Behind them, Roger Walkowiak leads a group of 7 which includes 2 further Bretons, Picot and Thomin.
The first group has caught up with the Darrigade group, who assure them that there will be no letting up in terms of pace. The second group have them in sights and within a handful of kilometres, font la jonction, as the locals say, and reform a mini peloton. There’s still 100km to go, and most of Brittany to cross.
Darrigade punctures, but Bergaud is on hand to give him his spare wheel, and Bergaud sits by the roadside and waits for the team car to catch up. His duty is done, and the yellow jersey leaps back into action and wastes no time in catching the mini peloton, minus his teammate.
For the rest of the stage, then, there is a tacit agreement that the winner will come from this group. No more attacks, no more silly breaks, we’ll decide who wins at the velodrome. The Bretons are confident and act effectively as Tour guides for their compatriots, who need no introduction to Brittany, but take it in good humour, allowing the various Ouest riders their opportunity to ride through their home towns ahead of the pack to soak up some Breton adulation.
The truce is broken 18km from the finish in Lorien when Le Ber decides that he’s going to make a break for it. His attack fizzles out, but the riders are on edge as they approach Lorient. I thought we had a deal, yells De Bruyne, as he and Impanis attempt an attack. “Idiots,” he shouts at the Bretons, who respond in kind by attacking him.
Lorient is awash with Breton flags and Breton pride, crowds ten deep lining the streets. The velodrome is a sea of black and white stripes – surely a Breton winner, they think. A choice of four, three if you discount Le Ber who bust a flush too early, not that they know that. Thomin, they think – it’s Thomin the country boy – allez Jo-Jo they shout as one.
But it’s Fred De Bruyne who nicks it on the line, and the Bretons’ run of luck comes to an end. André Darrigade doesn’t participate in the sprint, he knows his yellow jersey is safe, with blackboards putting the peloton at 11 minutes back.
And quietly, in the pack, a certain Roger Walkowiak takes the same time as the Belgian sprinter and the yellow jersey. Nobody pays any attention to the man in the violet jersey, with his innocent face, rosy cheeks and wiry hair. And nobody notices, when they read the General Classification that evening, that Roger Walkowiak is now 5th in the Tour de France. They skip over his name because a) it’s hard to pronounce and b) they know it won’t be there for much longer. It is quite possible that Roger Walkowiak, the Invisible Man, agrees with them.
But they’re just thinking of Darrigade, and how easy he made it all look, and André himself is thinking of holding on to yellow through the Pyrenees and maybe over the Alps. At least, with a succession of flat stages before Luchon, André will be able to wear his yellow jersey as the Tour passes through his home town of Narrosse. And beyond that? Perhaps, he thinks. Just perhaps he could win the Tour. Your sprinter-routier has ambitions…