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Tales from the Tour peloton, February 12, 2005

Neil Stephens analyses the Tour - Part II

From Briançon to Paris

A veteran of seven Tours de France, Australian Neil Stephens has a very good idea of what it takes to complete La Grande Boucle. Now employed as a Tour guide and Professional Cycling Coordinator within the Australian Sports Commission, 'Stevo' provides Cyclingnews with his unique take on the 2005 race route, spiced with plenty of his own experiences of Tours gone by. The first part covers stages 1-11, while the second part covers stages 12-21.

Neil Stephens

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Neil Stephens (Stevo) retired in 1998 and now lives in Northern Spain with his wife and two children. He is still passionate about cycling and works for the Australian Sports Commission as the Professional Cycling Coordinator, helping young Australian cyclists achieve their dreams

He also works exclusively with Bikestyle Tours (www.bikestyletours.com), telling yarns (stories) and riding with clients on their trips to the major cycling events around the world including the Tour de France.

Stage 12 - Thursday, July 14: Briançon - Digne-les-Bains, 187 km

Another hard day and with a couple of days of mountain stages under the belt, I think you will see a lot of riders having a hard time today. To make things worse, today being Bastille day (the National day for the French) every French rider with any sense of National pride will attack, hoping that he will have the nation on its feet as he takes out the stage victory on their special day.

Truth is that every time one French rider attacks, another one gets jealous and chases him down. Result, nine out of ten, a non-French rider takes the stage win on Bastille Day.

Stage 13 - Friday, July 15: Miramas - Montpellier, 162 km

Not much to say about today's stage except that it should be a long suicide break away or a bunch finish. Montpellier is also the place where I pulled out of the Tour in 1993 with gastro. Yeh, I haven't got much to say about Montpellier!

Stages 14/15 - July 16/17: Ax-3 Domaines and Pla d'Adet

After an all too brief respite, the boys are back into the mountains again. Due to the accumulated fatigue and the fact that there is still more than another hard week of racing, this weekend (Stage 14 and Stage 15) is crunch time for a lot of riders.

You tend to find that at the top of the GC, energy levels are now pretty depleted and sheer desire does not get you through. Three or four from the top ten will lose out and through the whole pack, around 20-30% won't have a race number on come Sunday night.

On the positive side, the Pyrenees is a great place to ride a bike, both in the race and for tourists. Apart from the fact that it is a very scenic and bike friendly place, it is also the French-Spanish border. Maybe it is because it is close to my European base but the orange wave of the Euskaltel team and the rest of the Spanish and Basque supporters bring the Pyrenees alive. If you don't mind sitting in the traffic to and from the race, it is The place to be.

Stage 16 - Tuesday, July 19: Mourenx - Pau, 177 km

At the risk of being vulgar, this is the Tour's final kick in the guts before sending the riders on their way to Paris. That in itself is the riders' only saving grace. As this is the last week, the riders can see (or feel) Paris in the distance. The bulk of the GC will be pretty well decided and most riders will just want to hang on to what they have got. Most of the riders will limit themselves to helping out any teammate that they may have up in the GC battle and then limit themselves to getting to the finish within the time limit.

In 1996 we rode a similar stage, which started just out of Pau and finished in Pamplona. In this case the stage was 262 kilometres with seven categorized climbs. The stage was taken out by Laurent Dufaux and was the stage that put the final stamp on Bjarne Riis' 1996 victory.

I was foolish enough to go after the 10,000 French Franc prize at the top of the second climb. With a rush of blood, I took out the prize but then foolishly soldiered on to stay away until the Riis/Dufaux bunch caught me on Col du Larau, a mean climb with some sections of 25%. Needless to say they blew straight by me and I just hung on to the coat tails of the Indurain/Olano bunch that came through a few minutes later.

Three things stuck in my mind about that day:

a) It was the hardest day that I had in my seven years of riding the Tour.
b) How could I be so dumb to stay out there all day?
c) The dignity of Miguel Indurain as he rode in to his hometown, knowing that after a five year reign, he was not going to win the Tour de France. As I groveled my way over some relative molehills coming into Pamplona, he pulled up beside me and said, "Dig in Neil. It finishes just around the corner." With that he gave me a little push but I think it was the awe of the legend that helped me not lose contact with the group.

Stage 17 - Wednesday July 20: Pau - Revel, 239 km

After the aforementioned day into Pamplona, I nearly had to pull out on a day like today, with Paris only a few days away.

So far, most of the sprinters teams had a few days to show their stuff before heading over to Mulhouse, then they have tried to hide as they made their way through the Alps, then had a bit of a hit out into Montpellier before going undercover again for the Pyrenees and now they have only four days of possibility to bring a stage win their way.

Unfortunately for them, there are also the opportunistic riders who need to attack and go for the long breakaway. What that means is that the leaders and their lieutenants, who have done battle through the mountains and have come out more rung out than grandma's washing, are about to be dragged around by the rest of the peloton. The teams with the riders in the top ten will try to let the race be controlled by the sprinters teams and only get on the front if they really have to. They will bide their time and wait for leaders to go head to head on Saturday's time trial.

Stage 18 - Thursday, July 21: Albi - Mende, 189 km

Winning in 1997
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What can I say about Mende? A stage to Mende in 1995 was the summary of my career and my favourite Tour stage of all time. How can I say that, knowing that I won a stage in 1997, you all ask?

In all reality, in '97, I got into a break, played my cards right and Lady Luck shined upon me. The Mende stage on July 14, 1995 was a no holds bared battle!

My job for the day was to stay with Alex Zülle all day (he was 2nd overall on GC) and make sure he kept out of trouble. Straight after the start, there were a few attacks and I could sense that there was something wrong. On the drag out of town I said to Alex that we should move up. He said that he was fine where he was but I insisted and I rode him up to the front.

On the way up the bunch, I noticed that Abdujaparov (Second to Jalabert at that stage in the green jersey competition) was in trouble and starting to go out the back. With the first PMU sprint (for points in the green jersey) only 20km away, I told Jalabert of the situation and he decided to attack. He went up the road on his own but as he was also fifth on GC, we (the ONCE Team) did not want to leave him out there by himself, so we began to attack. Eventually, fellow teammate Melchor Mauri got away with one other and joined Jalabert.

The Banesto Team of Miguel Indurain was in complete disarray, as half the team had gone out the back and we now had two riders up the road. the Banesto team car pleaded that Miguel keep his cool and wait for his teammates to rejoin the main bunch.

As this happened two more riders attacked and I covered it. These two Italians could not believe that another ONCE rider was on their wheel and told me we should be happy that we already had two up there. My response? "You guys can stop if you like," which they didn't. We were soon a break away of six, three ONCE riders, one of which was fifth on GC.

That was when the hard slog began. Us up the road and the bunch in disarray behind us. Not only the three of us teammates but also the three other riders really put in and at one stage Laurent Jalabert was the leader of the Tour de France on the road.

In the closing kilometres of the stage, the bunch started to peg us back and I lost contact with my fellow break away companions but the final climb up to the airfield just outside Mende, was enough to give Laurent a launch pad to take the stage victory, move up to third on GC (he would eventually slide to fourth) and solidify his Green Jersey.

All on 14th of July. Bastille Day!

Stage 20 - Saturday, July 23: Saint Etienne ITT, 55 km

With the exception of the famous Lemond/Fignon battle way back when, the winner of the Tour is already decided before the final time trial. Sure the race organizers and the press try to set the stage but I suppose it is their job. There will be, however, several changes in the top ten, so there will be a whole lot of mini battles on this day.

Back in '97 we rode a time trial around the St Etienne region. I remember that it was a very solid course and the fact that Ulrich, who won that day, rode the first half on his normal road bike, before changing to his TT bike after the biggest climb of the course, is testament to that.

My best memories from St Etienne are once again from the Tour of '92. We (ONCE and Jalabert) had had a Tour long battle against the Lotto team of Johan Museeuw for the green jersey. One day Laurent would get a couple of points up one day and Johan would get some back the next. As time would tell, Johan was a bloody hard nut to crack!

On the road to St Etienne we were given instructions by Manolo Saiz to "thin it down" as much as we could. One by one, my teammates gave it their all and Johan seemed to hold on tighter and tighter. Eventually it was up to me and I could not help but feel the pressure of the whole team on me, as it was only Laurent and myself left from the ONCE outfit. As if my prayers had been answered, Johan started to show signs of cracking. This gave Laurent and myself renewed energy and we lifted it another cog. By the time I was out of steam, there were about 25 of us left and Laurent did what he did best, attack!

Although Franco Chioccioli went on to win the stage, Laurent got enough points in that stage to leave Johan out of the green jersey equation. A month long battle that ended on the last climb into St Etienne.

Stage 21 - Sunday, July 24: Corbeil-Essonnes - Paris (Champs Elysées), 160 km

After dragging your butt around for what seems like an eternity, you finally arrive in Paris. It just does not seem fair that millions of tourists can get to Paris each year without having sweat a drop and the Tour riders have to go to hell and back to make it there.

But "Oh what a feeling!" I started the Tour seven times and made it to Paris on five occasions but nothing will replace the memories of the first time I rode on to the Place de la Concorde. The day always starts with a festive atmosphere. For years guys like Eros Poli, a 6'4" Italian, would find the smallest guy in the bunch and swap bikes. One day it started to rain and we refused to come out from under a bridge. Champagne toasts, etc.

As we approach the outskirts of Paris, that all goes by the wayside and the serious business of bike racing takes the floor. Traditionally the Tour leaders team leads it into Paris and the battle is on. As you sweep through the streets toward the Champs Elysées, tension mounts and comes to a head when you are presented to one of the most famous streets in Europe.

On that day back in '92, I don't know whether it was the fact that it was my first Tour or the fact that for a theoretically mediocre team we had achieved so much, but my goose bumps did not go away for about five laps. The roar of the crowd (who had been waiting for hours) the rush of emotion and the knowledge that a month full of very high highs and some terribly low lows was about to end.

I used to say to people that I did not care if I never rode the Tour but now after having done it I say, it doesn't matter if you do the Tour once or ten times, to have done it once is magical.

Enjoy it!

Also see Part I: From Fromentine to Briançon

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