Most wipe their podium-lipstick kisses off immediately. Not Sylvain Georges (Ag2r La Mondiale). Hours after he earned them, there they were, two pink marks on his cheeks, for all of California to see.
Georges streaked beneath la flamme rouge all alone – after managing to drop the last of the other riders in his 7-man breakaway at 48km to go – with only a minute left on the unbridled peloton. The gap had been more than 4 minutes with 20km to go.
By the time he rolled over the finish line, his body folded and weaving on the bike, he’d held off the wolves by just 28 seconds. He’d been on the sharp end of the 186km race since the 1.5km mark. He’d survived more than 10,000 feet of climbing. And he did the last hour of it alone.
After the win, sitting in the sun with those lipsticked cheeks, Georges said that as he came into the finishing straight, he thought of just one thing.
“I thought of my mom,” he said. “My mom is currently battling cancer. And she’s sick. All I could think about as I made that last corner was my mom. When I made that last corner, and the fact that I could win for her today, it really puts a deep emotion with it.”
It was a remarkable win for the Frenchman and marked the biggest of his career, hands down. He’d won four races as a professional previously.
But this one puts him squarely on the professional cycling map: His Wikipedia entry? It includes Friday’s results, and that’s it.
“Yes, it’s the most beautiful win of my career. My 5th. It’s a beautiful race with all the big teams. The big leaders let a breakaway go. At the second KOM I tempted fate and was able to hold it to the end,” Georges said. “I didn’t think that the big leaders knew who I was.”
They know now. After it was over, race-leader Dave Zabriskie said he wanted to give the French rider a hug for his efforts.
The win wasn’t without its pains. “Cycling, for me, wasn’t a beautiful thing [today]. It was a very painful thing. It’s two time trials,” Georges said of the Bakersfield effort and the solo breakaway.
Georges flew from the peloton with six others at the 1.5km mark. They built a sizable gap as the peloton rolled easy from the start, anticipating the stage’s mountains. The day saw 19,000 feet of climbing over its 186km from Palmdale to Big Bear Lake. On a climbing stage, it’s feasible to think a break could stay out, but this stage ended with 16km of a mostly flat run-in toward the finish line. Flats, especially near the finish, spell doom for those in the break. That’s where Georges had to dig deep.
“I was never alone out there. I knew that I had my friends and family watching on TV. And my director was always encouraging me. Even if it was hard out there, I worked hard to stay concentrated. But I was never alone,” he said.
As a spectator – I sat 30 feet behind Georges all day in the SRAM neutral support car – it was magnificent to behold: one rider’s match burning all day, burning right down to his fingertips at the finish line.
The win offered a rare moment of fire in an Amgen Tour that’s been unanimated thus far.
Georges pedaled alone for the final 48km of the day, up the summit of the Big Bear climb and around the lake’s rollers and then finally – finally! – across the finish line. He made it only a few meters past the line before coming to a stop, heavy with fatigue. He called the last 15km the hardest of his life.
“Since I’ve been on the French national team, I’ve worked on my position for time trialing and specifically the road bike,” he said. It paid off.
It was one of those rare moments in which raw output merges with fluidity. Throughout the day, Georges, 28, held his form on the bicycle; when he stood to pedal he stayed low over the saddle, and he used every bit of the road in the last 20km to iron out the corners. He found a may to merge searing pain with panache.
When the Garmin-Barracuda train came forward to drive the chase there were snags in communication. They weren’t exactly sure how much time Georges had, but were driving hard regardless.
It was no matter. The peloton tore into the Frenchman’s lead once it hit the Big Bear Lake. What was 4 minutes or so when he hit the lake quickly dropped to 3, then just two, then under a minute.
It’s always startling how quickly a hard-charging main field cannibalizes breakaways in the final 5km, and this appeared to be no exception.
Except, of course, it was.
“It’s top. It’s top because I won today in the ProTour race for Ag2r La Mondiale, who needs these wins. In addition, Sébastien Hinault, he also won today. Sébastien is a mentor on the team. For us both to win on the same day is really a special thing,” Georges said.
Ag2r La Mondiale took its first and second wins of the year on Friday. Hinault won stage 3 of Circuit de Lorraine, from Pompey to Neufchâteau.
Georges it seems, in such glorious fashion, was just doing his part.
“I wanted to do something to prove, not in such a way to mark my territory, but to show the team I’m here to ride. I’m here to win races. And that’s what I’m going to continue to do.”
And after Friday’s ride, the peloton believes him.