Analysis
Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

The Tour’s longest day used to bring antics and fun. And now? Suffering in the sunshine

Decades ago, long stages could involve distracting shenanigans. Nowadays, it's serious business.

CHAMPAGNEY, France (VN) — The longest day of this year’s 106th Tour de France is upon us. Friday’s stage 7 from Belfort to Chalon-sur-Saône in the Jura will cover a punishing 230 kilometers.

In an age of supposed “marginal gains” and precision-driven racing, it is easy to forget that there was a time when the longest stages at the Tour de France prompted the lighter side of the peloton as it meandered toward the finale. Riders would pose for photos and pull practical jokes on each other during the hours-long slogs under the sunshine. Eventually, a breakaway would stay away, or the sprinters would fight for the win.

Everyone agrees that those carefree moments are long gone.

“I don’t think there are any funny days in the Tour anymore,” said Mitchelton-Scott head sports director Matt White. “Cycling has changed a lot. Before on those [long] days it was pretty relaxed.

“Riders are a lot more stressed for the whole race. Even on those flat days they are nervous all day.”

The era of Tour de France hijinks go back even before White’s career as a professional cyclist from 1996 to 2007. There were times when riders would get up to all sorts of things to amuse themselves on the long, hot, and slow stages of a grand tour; and in turn, entertain spectators who had waited for so many hours to watch them pass by the roadside or on television. Some would don odd items of clothing from fans, others would take a baguette or a drink; or even play up for photos on the road.

Adam Hansen dons a few articles of clothing that were not part of his team kit at the Giro. Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Even within the peloton, moments were seized. It was said one cyclist, to put a cat among the pigeons in the peloton, would try to scare riders by leaning down and scraping a Coke can on the ground.

Retired Australian rider Phil Anderson once told me of one day in the 1980s when the peloton feigned a mass crash in the Tour, with riders from the front to back rolling slowly to a halt and quickly placing themselves on the ground, prompting the following team cars to come to a halt and a mad flurry of team sports directors and mechanics to rush out in panic for what they thought had happened.

One of the most memorable antics came during one of the Tour’s most brazen and successful solo attacks. In 1991, Frenchman Thierry Marie, riding for Castorama, set off alone on a hot summer’s day 25km into the 259km sixth stage from Arras to Le Havre to win the stage and take the yellow jersey. His attack was the second longest escape in the Tour since Albert Bourlon’s 253km assault in 1947.

Marie even began to sing Norman songs out loud before an adoring French television audience to keep himself occupied and his tortured mind focused on something other than his pain during an escape that saw his lead reach 21 minutes before he finished with 1:54 in hand.

Marc Sergeant, manager of the Belgian Lotto-Soudal team, remembers that day well. The Belgian was in the peloton behind, riding in the Tour for the Dutch Panasonic-Sportlife team.

“He was singing … I couldn’t have done that. I wasn’t breathing that good,” joked Sergeant. “It was a strong ride though. Those are the moments in cycling that are special, the ones you remember.”

On long stages, the fans can entertain the riders just as much as the riders can entertain fans. Photo: Tim De Waele/Getty Images

The ice cream man

Tour history, if not the annals of grand tour history, is littered with such anecdotes that, when recalled in the years after, always conjure smiles from those telling them, and those listening.

However, as White said, times have changed in cycling, and sadly left in the wake of that change has been much of the ‘fun,’ in a major race like the Tour, especially when it comes to those longest of days.

White’s lament on Thursday still reminded him of his racing days when some skylarking in the peloton was still deemed acceptable. He recalled one memorable long stage in the 2006 Giro d’Italia.

The break of the day had gone. White was in the peloton. There was 100km to go, so he dropped back to his team car to ask his mechanic for some spare change.

“All he had was five Euros,” said White who still took the money and peeled off from the back of the slowly moving peloton and rode towards a roadside bar, unbeknownst a TV camera crew was in tow.

Upon entering the bar where the locals were watching the Giro on television, White said: “They looked at me.” But then he still asked the owner, “How many ice creams can I buy for five Euros?”

“The owner said ‘two’ and then, watching the television, they all realized where I came from.

“Then the owner said, ‘No, no, no.’ She went downstairs and came back with a box of Magnum ice cream bars.

“I went to give her the five Euros, but she said, ‘No, they are for free.’ I put the Euros back in my pocket, and off I went, back to the group with the Magnums.

“I went first to my Aussie mates [with the ice creams], then my teammates … then people from everywhere trying to get a Magnum. Then I gave the five Euros back to Craig. It cost me nothing.”

Nowadays, riders don’t stop for ice cream on long stages. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Don’t skip breakfast

Such antics are unlikely to feature in Friday’s seventh stage from Belfort to Chalon sur Saône, even if it creeps toward the seemingly inevitable bunch sprint. As Norwegian sprinter Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates], who won the final stage of last year’s Tour in Paris, conceded of the possible lead-up to that moment: “Sure, it can be boring… like when you watch TV, it’s sometimes boring.”

However, the punishment of any long stage is not just the boredom. The riders are still being taxed by the distance covered. And for those on the brink of exhaustion, or those who are ill, these stages are a struggle to finish.

Andy Schleck, the 2010 Tour champion from Luxembourg, is quick to point that out, explaining that it is “not necessarily the number of kilometers that make it the ‘longest’ day in the Tour.”

When pressed for an explanation, Schleck turns back the calendar in his mind to July 14 and stage 10 of the 2008 Tour from Pau to the Hautacam in the Pyrénees. At 156km, it was a short stage — except for him.

Schleck, racing the Tour for the first time, had been setting tempo on the Col du Tourmalet, to the point that Spanish star Alejandro Valverde was dropped on the iconic climb. Schleck was riding strong, igniting hope for what his potential in the Tour would become someday. That is, until he hit the slopes of the next and last climb to the finish at Hautacam, where hunger flat suddenly struck and ruined his race.

However, from his pained struggle to the finish, which saw him unable to continue with the overall contenders, came a sporting gesture that would leave an indelible mark.

“It was my worst memory. I lost eight minutes in four kilometers of climbing,” said Schleck. “I had dropped Valverde on the Tourmalet. Then when he came up to me, he didn’t just pass me. He took me by the shoulder and fed me. He gave me all he had and said, ‘C’mon, eat this.’ That is the class of the rider he is. And just before, on the Tourmalet, I was putting the tempo and he was getting dropped.”

Andy Schleck suffered his “longest day” at the 2008 Tour, when he failed to eat a proper breakfast and bonked on the climb to Hautacam. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

From the nightmare, Schleck can now reflect on the lighter side of his demise, at least nowadays. “It was my first Tour. It was a learning experience. It was my own fault,” he said of his ‘longest day.’

The source of Schleck’s error was at breakfast, and what he ate — or rather, what he did not eat. His penchant for “a baguette with butter and Nutella” horrified his sports director Bjarne Riis. Schleck said Riis was a stickler when it came to nutrition, especially for breakfast.

“He was really strict with what you eat, that [you must] eat your rice, your omelette…,” Schleck said.

On the morning of the Hautacam stage, Schleck was eating his baguette with the fixings, which he believed was “okay if you eat the rest,” referring to Riis’ recommended rice and eggs diet.

“He gave me a lot of shit for that. He took the baguette and said, ‘What are you eating?’ and threw it,” said Schleck. “I am very stubborn, so I ate another one, and ate another one, and didn’t eat the rice and the omelette. It was to say, ‘Fuck you, I eat what I want.’ And I paid the price.”

At least now, Schleck can laugh about it.

Here’s hoping that by nightfall on Friday someone else can laugh about something else that is funny.

We all need a laugh on the Tour, now and then — riders included.