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Tour de France: Leaving it late

Tour de France Week 3
Felix Lowe
20 Jul 2016

Long may Grand Tours be decided with the very last turn of the pedals, says Eurosport’s Felix Lowe.

The hallmark of the best football sides, so they say, is their ability to score an injury-time winner. Well, Vincenzo Nibali achieved cycling’s equivalent in the Giro d’Italia in May, securing an unlikely victory with practically the last kick of the game, as it were. Nibali’s Astana team have some form here: Fabio Aru produced a similarly late show to win the 2015 Vuelta on the penultimate stage last September.

Both those races were won by 50-odd seconds. In fact, the Vuelta’s largest winning margin in the past five years has been just four seconds greater than the narrowest in the Tour – when Chris Froome denied Nairo Quintana by 72 seconds last July (which clearly says something about the formulaic nature of the Tour). Look back through history and you see there have been as many final-day victories in the Vuelta as there have been in the other two Grand Tours combined.

As for the Giro, while three different riders held the lead in the final four days of this year’s Corsa Rosa, the recently completed 99th edition was not as nail-biting as Ryder Hesjedal’s almost 12th-hour win in 2012, when he leapfrogged Joaquim Rodriguez in a final-day time-trial in Milan.

Only the second man to win the Giro on the last throw of the dice, the Canadian followed in the helicopter-assisted tyre tracks of Francesco Moser, who pulverised Frenchman Laurent Fignon at the time-trial in the final stage back in 1984.

Poor, poor Fignon – to lose one Grand Tour on the concluding TT is bad enough, but five years later lightning struck again when Greg LeMond’s tri-bars proved eight seconds more aerodynamic than a French ponytail on the Champs-Élysées.

Go back to 1968 and Dutchman Jan Janssen performed a two-wheeled Indiana Jones-style hat grab by winning Stage 22b (a windy time-trial into the Vincennes velodrome) to prise the yellow jersey from the shoulders of Belgian Herman van Springel, who had been sitting on a 16-second buffer following the morning’s Stage 22a.

Janssen wasn’t the first to win the Tour without once pedalling in yellow. Rewind another 21 years to the unlikely victory of foul-mouthed debutant Jean Robic, who attacked on the final stage to Paris to condemn overnight leader Pierre Brambilla to a 13-minute swing atop the standings.

Gnomish Robic – a man as cherubic as a gargoyle whose anachronistic penchant for helmets earned him the nickname Old Leatherhead – distanced an ill Brambilla on the only climb of the day. Having promised his new wife a yellow jersey as a wedding present, Robic built an alliance (allegedly via a 100,000 franc bribe) with fellow escapee Édouard Fachleitner (a shepherd by trade who spoke to his dog each night by phone).

Long story short: Robic and Fachleitner took the top two steps on the final podium, with Brambilla dropping to third. The Italian – a renowned masochist who would hit himself with his pump or empty his bidons as a punishment – was so disgusted he buried his bike at the bottom of his garden.

At the time of writing, the 2016 Tour has yet to roll out of Mont-Saint-Michel for the opening stage. Perhaps it’ll be a close contest, but given the nature of what’s now a processional final stage to Paris, it’s unlikely we’ll ever see another display as audacious as Robic’s. 

Asked later by fellow cyclist André Brulé why he buried his bike, Brambilla joked that the wheels had wooden rims and he wanted to grow some poplars. ‘Just as well you didn’t plant your water bottle too,’ Brulé replied, ‘or you’d have grown a pharmacy.’ 

Now, I would end on another football analogy – but as we know, there’s no doping in the beautiful game, is there?

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