17.35, The Autobus Arrives On Time
On the legendary stage it was an autobus in the grand style: no fewer than 97 were in its ranks on Saturday, seeking to reach Les Arcs within the time limit - a record number. How many will be in it today to do the same thing on the way up to Sestrieres?
"Too early, much too early!" Eros would have lost his temper were he not so polite [an untranslatable play on Eros Poli's name -- poli is French for polite]. "I told them we were climbing too quickly -- that we were going to arrive well before the time limit." Poli, the big, strapping guy from the Saeco team, is an unhappy driver of the autobus. Coming in 37 minutes after Leblanc at the summit of Les Arcs, not the 48 minutes allowed, he is aware that whenever possible it's always advisable to roll along as economically as you can when your climbing's just so-so and you want to finish the Tour. "Me, I've always finished the big Tours I've participated in," says Poli. "Without ever abandoning, without ever finishing outside the time limit." It's a palmares that commands respect. And one that has thrust him into the role of autobus driver. "Particularly as I'm always in the back part of the general classification."
There's a race going on at the back as well, a race against the clock, with its tacit rules and unknown stars. And when it's a matter of avoiding arriving outside the time limit (generally fixed at the winner's time plus 15% on mountain stages) all those who are going to suffer turn to Eros, the driver.
"As for me, I don't do the driving, I ride alongside him," explains GAN road captain Francois Lemarchand [a team's road captain coordinates strategy, passes on instructions from the directeur-sportif, etc] . "Poli is the best at the job. When you are with him you feel reassured, you don't risk anything. The Italians are strongest in this sort of operation. In the Giro when the peloton gets to the foot of the first climb, those who aren't going well shout out: 'Grupetto! Grupetto! At this signal, the non-climbers ease off a little, build up a tempo and a little packet of riders detaches itself at the back: the grupetto is formed. If you stay inside it, you are sure to get in inside the limit. It's tremendously well organised."
In the Tour it's more spontaneous, less institutionalised. The riders try to go as far as possible, to cling on [to the pace] and only resign themselves to collaborating with each other at the last possible moment. Around Poli, the master at the wheel [ie steerer, helmsman}. "In that sort of situation, as on Saturday on the [col de la] Madeleine, they are scattered all over the place," explains Poli. "Then the guys rally around me. First and foremost because I'm easy to pick out with my 1.93m height [6 foot 3 and a quarter]. But beyond that because they know I'm always well informed about the elimination times, the distance still to ride and the weather conditions and that I'll quickly calculate what average speed we need to keep up, tracking it on my bike computer." Eros is a jewel, isn't he?
Eros Poli has taken on the role left vacant by the retired [Gilbert] Duclos-Lassalle, who had authority for the last few seasons. But Duclos' methods are worth sticking to: "Keeping your ears open to everything -- to the spectators' transistor radios as much as to the information coming from the directeur-sportifs. It's necessary that you don't slacken the pace, but without putting everybody into the red zone. Knowing that the good riders will be clmbing the big cols at an average of around 23kph, you should always stay at between 15 and 18kph on the computer. It's also the role of the autobus driver to urge the riders to keep up a good pace in the valleys, becuae it's there you can limit the damage, and make up a little time."
But the driver is also the controller [maybe the ticket collector, ticket inspector]. "The principle followed is not to abandon a guy until he is truly overcooked. You lift your foot for a moment [as so often in cycling the allusion is of course to the accelerator pedal on a car], if necessary, you give mutual encouragement and sometimes we'll push someone along inside the bunch out of sight of the race commissaires." On the other hand, no gifts are given "to those who don't respect the autobus," notes Duclos -- they'll only do it once. "When the driver hears a shout he turns round. If it comes from a bloke who once shot off from the autobus to gain two minutes on the line or who wanted to push the pace higher than was reasonable, there's no question of the autobus waiting for him. On the contrary, thre's a tendency to accelerate in those circumstances..."
Yes, the autobus respects itself. "One day or the other everybody ends up getting aboard it. From the least important rider to the greatest champion, nobody can assert that he'll never seek refuge in it." explains Lemarchand. Yesterday it was Chiappucci, Richard, Bourguignon, Breukink, Lanfranchi... And today?
Lemarchand: "The bus is open to everybody. Saturday it was a five-star bus. Another time, if you are going badly, it might prove perhaps to be an unsettlingly ramshackle vehicle. You'd do best to avoid getting on it from the morning [ie early in the stage], at the foot of the first climb. That's dangerous." Poli elaborates: "Especially if it's not got many riders in it" -- he recognises that numbers mean strength. There's only one way to escape it: go up a gear and pull yourself away from the start. "Give or take one tooth we use the same gearing as the leaders," Lemarchand continues. "I have a 39x23 but only for security. I rarely use it."
Francois looks gloomy [? literally he has gloomy eyebrows!] "The mountain means fear, fear of elimination, the fear of losing pace in the last kilomete of the climb and losing the thirty seconds that's going to put you out of the Tour."
And when you are grabbing onto the green jersey as if it was your overcoat, it's frankly anguish. Fred Moncassin experienced it. "I was in the last grupetto, which wasn't going all that well. Serge (Beucherie) [GAN deputy directeur-sportif] told me there was another, more solid one 3.30 in front of us on the summit of the Madeleine. Then I jumped clear as fast as I could on the descent and caught up with it just before the feed. When I saw what a smart set it had in it, I didn't worry any more."
Well, not until the next day.
Most of the punctures, apparently caused by nails on the road, occurred near the Col de la Chaux mountain pass, some 125 kms into the 202-km 11th stage from Gap to Valence. The caravan, rolling ahead of the riders, was then slowed down by a protest staged by a shop owners' trade union.
The organisers blamed the trade union for the punctures. ``It looks like the CDCA (Confederation in Defence of Shop owners and Artisans) have turned the threats they made a few days ago into action,'' the statement said.
He seized his chance by breaking from a group of eight riders who had just entered Valence to cross the line narrowly ahead of Spaniard Manuel Fernandez Gines and Italian Alberto Elli. ``I'm surprised but nobody expected me to attack in the last kilometre and that made things easier for me,'' said the 27-year-old, whose full name is Jose Jaime Gonzalez Pico.
The pack came in two minutes and 51 seconds later with German Erik Zabel taking the sprint for ninth place to hold on to his points classification leader's green jersey.
The first stage after Wednesday's rest day brought no major changes overall and Riis remained 40 seconds ahead of second-placed Russian Evgeny Berzin.
Tony Rominger fell in the last descent, 20 km from the line, and hurt his right leg. But he was able to finish and retain third place overall, 13 seconds behind Berzin. ``I've had problems with my wheels all day and eventually I fell,'' said the veteran Swiss. ``It's a bit painful but I'll be all right.''
The stage, taking the riders from the Alps to the Rhone valley through the Vercors mountains, really came to life in the first climb -- the Col de Cabre pass.
Frenchman Laurent Brochard made the first move followed by three other men. They built a lead of up to five minutes and were joined by other riders including Gonzalez.
His win was good news for Colombian cycling, which has fallen on hard times since Lucho Herrera's moments of glory in the 1980s. ``I'm happy because cycling in my country is not doing all that well,'' said Gonzalez, who was 15th in the road race at last year's world championships in his home country.
The stage ruined the hopes of Max Sciandri, a member of the British team for the road race event at the Atlanta Olympics.
Sciandri, who has been suffering from a knee injury, pulled out before reaching Valence.
Several riders and vehicles from the publicity caravan suffered punctures, apparently after hitting nails on the road.
Most of the punctures occurred near the Col de la Chaux mountain pass, 125 kms into the stage.
The caravan was then slowed down by a protest staged by a shop owners' trade union. Tour organisers later blamed the demonstrators for the punctures.
Friday's 12th stage is over 143.5 kms to Le Puy-en-Velay through the mountains of Ardeche.
In doing so, he would then emulate the great Bernard Hinault, the last man to accomplish the feat.
Rominger, born in Denmark, has won three Tours of Spain (92, 93 and 94) and the 1995 Tour of Italy, but second place in 1993 remains his best Tour de France result to date.
The 35-year-old Swiss rider won the King of the Mountains jersey that year, two wins in the Alps assuring him of the title, but an abandonment and eighth place in the two Tours since then suggested he had been broken mentally by five-time winner Miguel Indurain of Spain.
However, it is Indurain who now appears to be in his thrall after his disaster on Saturday when the Spaniard was left trailing by Rominger, yellow jersey leader Bjarne Riis, Russia's Yevgeny Berzin and Spanish world road race champion Abraham Olano.
Rominger denies that what happened on Saturday was a way of paying Indurain back for the previous years of frustration.
"I was the first to realise that he was struggling and Olano came up to increase the pace. However, it was not personal because of what he has done to me over the last few years. If it was Berzin I would have done the same thing," Rominger said.
Contrary to popular perception Rominger, currently third going into the 11th stage 53 seconds behind Riis, enjoys a close relationship with Indurain on the Tour.
"I respect Indurain enormously and he is a truly great champion. However, I appreciate him as a man as well. We talk a lot when we are cycling together in the peloton and nothing that has passed before has led to our relationship deteriorating," Rominger said.
The great Swiss rider, who realises this could be his last serious attempt at winning the big one, does not think that Indurain can regain all the ground to win a record sixth Tour.
"He's a hard man and sure he can finish on the podium but I think it's beyond him to regain all the time on the guys who are leading. Its hard to imagine all the top seven cracking ... maybe four or five but seven that's impossible," predicted Rominger.
Rominger, who met his wife when they were stuck side by side in a traffic jam in the Gothard Pass, has based his whole year round the Tour and his strategy has been to track the main contenders Indurain, Riis and Berzin.
"To be really confident of winning the Tour I have watched Indurain and Riis every day, and one mustn't forget Berzin. I would really like to gain another three or four minutes in the Pyrenees before the last time-trial in Saint Emilion on July 20," Rominger said.
Rominger, who prepared for the Tour with Olano in Lanzarote, respects Riis but believes that holding the overall lead is an exhausting experience.
"I should know how exhausting it is as I held the leader's rose jersey in last year's Tour of Italy for three weeks. You have to react to every attack as its against you and mentally as well as physically it's exhausting," Rominger said.
Rominger, financially secure after several profitable years with a Spanish team, is phlegmatic about what it would mean were he to win the Tour. "I suppose I would be a little more famous, but I wouldn't earn that much more money," Rominger said.
For a man who stated at the beginning of the season that his season was 'The Tour and nothing but the Tour' it rings a little false.
Should Rominger achieve his dream expect an unrestrained Swiss celebration on the Champs Elysees come July 21 -- no one will begrudge him the title.