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Mountains of suffering: Stories of pain and pleasure in the Tour’s high peaks

The high mountains of the Tour de France deliver both ecstasy and agony to the peloton. We spoke to the riders to hear their stories of triumph and woe on the race's highest roads

PAU (VN) – The sight of climbers flying up the mountains can be beautiful, graceful when at its best. The peloton’s best climbers can even make racing up the highest peaks look easy.

However, not all members of the peloton enjoy those soaring climbs.

As the Tour turns towards Saturday’s 14th stage from Tarbes to the iconic Col du Tourmalet, ahead of the peloton is a menu of climbs that has left organizers proudly labelling this Tour “the highest ever”.

The next two days through the Pyrénees and three in the Alps will push the overall contenders to their brink as they fight for victory, or their best possible overall result. But for the domestiques or sprinters, the next week makes for a harrowing punish all the way to next Sunday’s finish in Paris.

So, we set out to tap into the mindsets of riders who have ridden up, up and up ‘Struggle Street’ in previous Tours. We spoke to Italian Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott), Dutchman Koen De Kort (Trek-Segafredo) and Australian Simon Clarke (EF Education First). And to go down ‘Memory Lane’ we added Australian Matt Wilson who rode two Tours and is now a sports director with Mitchelton-Scott.

Photo: Tim De Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

“Kind of a masochistic sport”

Matteo Trentin laughs when asked about his best moment in the mountains of the Tour de France.

“I have never really had good moments in the whole time to be honest,” Trentin said.

Cyclists race thousands of kilometers across all types of terrain, and often its the most recent memories that are the strongest. Trentin references Thursday’s 12th stage of this year’s Tour, 209.5km from Toulouse to Bagnères de Bigorre in the Pyrénees, as a particularly pleasant day in the mountains.

“It was probably one of my best stages in terms of performances,” Trentin says.

Trentin rode in the lead break that stayed away to the finish. He placed sixth on the stage that was won by his British teammate Simon Yates who escaped nearing the end along with Spaniard Pello Bilbao (Astana) and Austrian Gregor Mühlberger (Bora-hansgrohe) who finished second and third respectively.

What was Trentin’s worst day in the mountains? It came when he was riding for the Quick-Step Floors team in the 2017 Tour, during stage nine from Nantua to Chambéry in the Alps.

“I finished out at the time cut,” Trentin says. “I crashed on the first in the first downhill and I was completely alone into the finish. So that wasn’t a nice day.”

Trentin found the strength to finish, despite the crash. And even though he was time cut, there was a certain enjoyment in riding to the finish.

“Like cycling is a kind of a masochistic sport, where people are bleeding, hurting themselves and all this,” he says. “But we like it.”

Photo: Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

“I got to feel like a real climber”

At first, Dutch rider Koen De Kort is at a loss to pinpoint a great day in the mountains of a Tour. “I haven’t really had any real amazing mountain days,” he says. But his memory flickers like a light bulb, and he recalls one special day.

His cites stage 12 of the 2017 Tour when he was riding as a Trek-Segafredo teammate with Spaniard Alebrto Contador. Contador finished 14th on the stage from Pau to Peyragudes that was won by Frenchman Romain Bardet. The day included six categorized climbs of which the last went to the finish line. De Kort placed 49th, 14:59 down.

However, De Kort got the rare chance to experience racing alongside Contador and his rivals when the stage was reaching its crescendo. “I was in a breakaway and waited for him,”De Kort says. “There were probably 15 guys left in the first group. I stayed with them for a little bit. That was cool. I got to feel like I’m a real climber.

“But I was a sprinting, just trying to hold the wheel. So, I thought, ‘This is how fast these guys go [when climbing] … at my sprint speed.”

De Kort can’t help but be a little cheeky when asked about his romance with the mountains.

“It’s been said before. I think I’m a great climber,” he says. “I’m just not very fast.”

Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

“It’s demoralizing how fast they go”

Simon Clarke is a rider with all-round assets, and his ability on the smaller mountains and hills is one of them.

The Australian showed that on Sunday’s 12th stage from Toulouse to Bagnères de Bigorre where he featured in the main break – a fitting time to showcase himself too with the stage falling on his 33rd birthday.

Clarke loves cycling in mountains, just not in the Tour. “Outside of the Tour, I definitely love them,” he says. “But the level [of racing them] in the Tour is so high, it makes you question whether you’re that good at climbing. I consider myself by no means an out and out climber, but I am not a bad climber.

“It’s demoralizing how fast they go in the Tour. I’ve always been hesitant trying to climb with these guys at the Tour.”

Asked for his best memory of climbing in the Tour, Clarke cites stage nine of the 2013 Tour in the Pyrenees from Saint Girons to Bagnères de Bigorre.

“I went away on my own on the descent of the Col du Peyresourde and then rode the next climb on my own,” he says. “Then from advice from the team car, I waited for the break and we raced up the last climb [to Hourquett d’Ancizon] and got caught by the GC group halfway up.

As for his most punishing day in the mountains of the Tour, Clarke laughs. “I’ve had a few bad days in the mountains, particularly if I go in the breakaway the day after I’ve been in the breakaway,” he said.

One particularly painful day stands out in Clarke’s mind.

“In 2014, when Vincenzo Nibali won, I spent the day in the break late in the race, and the next day I really suffered,” he says. “You’ve got to play your cards carefully, and be aware that the next day you will pay for it.”

Photo: Tim De Waele/Getty Images

“They were all epic for me”

Matt Wilson rode two Tours – in 2003 and 2004 – as a member of the Fdjeux.com team.

The Australian did not finish his first in 2003 due to an asthma attack the day after the rest day in Toulouse, leaving him to finish out of the time limit on stage 11. In the 2004 Tour, he placed 144th from 147th finishers.

As with so many riders like him, he is for recollection of a mountain stage being memorable for any good reasons.

“Some days are just worse than others. They were all epic for me,” Wilson says “Back then U.S. Postal was on the front riding a tempo that was 10 per cent faster than I can ride. As soon as the mountains started, I’d be in a gruppetto in survival mode with five or six guys. It was just a ‘sufferfest’ and it was a race against the time delay clock.”

Wilson has no trouble recalling his worst day in a Tour mountain stage. It was in 2004 and the 15.5km stage 16 time trial from Bourg d’Oisans to the top of l’Alpe d’Huez in which he could not rely on a gruppetto to save him.

“The team gave me a schedule that I needed to ride to you in order to make the time cut,” Wilson says.

But there was one problem. The schedule he was given was based on the then record time for the climb of Italian Marco Pantani. “I went as hard as I could,” says Wilson.

Then came another problem. “Lance Armstrong broke the record,” says Wilson.

“I made the time cut by five seconds. I finished third last and the two guys behind me got eliminated.”

It was a painful day, but Wilson survived.