Commentary: The beauty of defeat at the Tour de France
Jasper Stuyven rocked back and forth as he pedaled up the final pitch of the Cote de la Croix Neuve, the final pitch of the 188km stage across France’s Massif Central. Stuyven rode at a rate that was much faster than you and I could sustain on such a steep itch. Alas, it was not fast enough.
Within sight of the climb’s summit, Stuyven was caught by Astana’s Omar Fraile, perhaps the best climber from the day’s breakaway. Stuyven grimaced and gritted his teeth as he tried to match Fraile’s pace. It was not meant to be, and Fraile surged away, crested the hill, and descended toward the stage win and a place in the Tour’s history books.
Stuyven was understandably crushed by the near miss. In his post-race interviews, the Belgian struggled to find joy in the situation.
“I think if [Fraile] would have passed me maybe 200 meters later I could have stayed with him,” Stuyven said. “It’s really disappointing but what can I do? It was just too steep and too long.”
Could he have done something differently to preserve his lead?
“Maybe I could have lost another five or six kilos before the Tour,” he said. “I’m one of the heavier guys in the peloton and it’s hard for me when it gets steeper.”
In cycling, we often laud the victors while the defeated fade into history. That won’t be the case for me with Jasper Stuyven on stage 14. Stuyven’s defeat was one of those dramatic, edge-of-your-seat moments that only cycling can create. His 40km solo breakaway came after an entire day spent on the attack. At one point he owned a two-minute advantage on his chasers with less than 10km to go. But with the big climb looming, everyone knew his survival was not guaranteed.
No cheering in the pressroom, be damned. As the chasers bore down, I found myself urging Stuyven on. Others did too—I heard more than a few “come on!” whispers from the journalists. It’s human nature to cheer on the doomed break, right?
Stuyven was worth our cheers. It was Belgium’s national holiday, for starters, and one of the brawniest Belgians in the WorldTour peloton was battling an impossibly steep climb. Had he been born in Iowa, Stuyven the linebacker would have terrified quarterbacks all across the Big 10. But Stuyven comes from Leuven, in southern Flanders, where strong, athletic kids like him either play soccer or race bicycles. He’s at home on the Oude Kwaremont, not the Alps. So come on, Jasper, dig deep and make it over that climb!
The fight was pure entertainment, even if it ended in defeat for the hero.
Cycling has too many heartbreaking near-misses to remember, and Stuyven’s loss brought back images of some of the greats. Mara Abbott in Rio. Jack Bauer in Nimes. Jens Voigt in Colorado Springs. Just three stages ago Mikel Nieve almost stretched a solo breakaway into victory atop La Rosiere, only to be passed in the final meters by his ex-teammate Geraint Thomas.
In his post-race interviews, however, Stuyven sounded crushed. Journalists asked him if an earlier attack would have made the difference. No? Then what about a later attack?
They asked if he regretted his move.
“There are only one or two chances in a grand tour for a rider like I am to win,” he said. “The other chance was [stage 9 to] Roubaix, and then today I made another chance out of it.”
One journalist told him he should be proud of his effort.
“Or course there are a lot of guys who will say that I have to be proud and that I was strong, but at the end of the day I have been riding strong all year long, and no victories,” Stuyven said. “I’ve been riding strong races and so far a victory hasn’t happened.”
I hope there is wisdom to be gained by such a disappointment, and perhaps after some reflection, Stuyven will come to appreciate his ride. He gambled and lost, but he still played his cards, and fans appreciate the risk. His was a beautiful, wonderful defeat. He entertained us and thrilled us, and I’m guessing made new Jasper Stuyven fans out of more than a few viewers.
His Trek-Segafredo team manager Luca Guercilena agreed.
“Sometimes the way you ride is more important than the result itself and this is one of those cases,” Guercilena said. “You attack with from a breakaway of 30 and be by yourself for 40km and fight against a headwind and a bunch of riders chasing you, and give everything until 1km to go, and finish 3rd. I think that is something nice to see.”
It was nice to see. Maybe someday Jasper Stuyven will see it that way too.