Tarbes, July 22
Like kids the first day back at school, they arrive in droves, some laughing, some frowning, but all talking about the mountains with some trepidation. Mountains that embrace the sprinters when the clock strikes 11 but spit them out at the start of the evening, with legs as leaden as a ship’s anchor! Mountains that invite in the climbers and play with them, make fun of them, leaving them to curse in a loud voice, humiliated — but only for a while, because their anger subsides as their muscles stiffen.
What time is it now? Two o’clock? Three o’clock? It must be 3 because they’ve already scaled the Haut-de-la-Côte, Mauvezin and Capvern-les-Bains hills and climbed the Col d’Aspin, which is much tougher than expected. It’s on the Aspin, 70km from home, that the best riders dash away, giving themselves a last chance to either win the Tour if the time gaps are tight, or to save their honor if that’s all that remains. As for the others, they struggle and wear themselves out, whether well back or close to the leaders. For the sprinters, they say, the day is tough: That’s the rule of the game. And for the climbers who fall to pieces, climbers on their last legs, it’s become what it never should have become: a trap, a defeat, an emotional and physical torture. “I’ve never suffered so much,” they shout on crossing the line. Listen to this: This evening, at Luz-Ardiden, there will be many who will complain like that.