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Tour de France

And the band played on: Jack Bauer nearly wins stage 15

For a rider like Bauer, there are limited chances to be perfect on the grandest of stages. He came very close on Sunday

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NIMES, France (VN) — The band didn’t miss a beat.

The brass pitches rattled off the back of the team buses and into the beers of those on the street corner. The air was light and clean after the rain, and the town of Nimes was in merriment. A race, a winner, drinks, soft light.

Twenty feet away, the Norwegians were yelling and chanting at the Katusha bus for Alexander Kristoff. Their man had won his second stage at the Tour. They overlaid their cheers with the band on the corner in spikes of a misshapen sound.

Just beyond all that, the halo of reporters muffled Jack Bauer’s New Zealand accent as he explained what it was like to almost win a Tour de France stage. What it was like to be caught just meters short of the finish in Nimes.

Almost. After riding a two-man breakaway with IAM Cycling’s Martin Elmiger through the wind and the rain and the slick roundabouts that made chasing them down hard.

“It’s one big black cloud. I had a bit of a moment there on the finish line. And the final meters of a stage like that after such a big effort over the day, over so many ups and downs,” he said. “And last K, I knew I believed … And I thought I’d won the stage, yeah … When I realized that I didn’t, my world came crashing down for a minute. But that’s bike racing.”

There are about 170 riders riding thousands of kilometers over 21 stages in July. Thousands of bottles, hours of radio-relayed numbers and commands from directors. It’s full-gas all day. There is one winner. For a rider like Bauer, there are limited chances to be perfect on the grandest of stages; a helix of factors twisted together on Sunday to give him this very shot.

It didn’t end with his arms up, it ended with him in tears, as it often does in bike racing, a cruel sport with harsh margins and ample what-ifs. The deer of the breakaway were slashed in the haunches again by the wolves of the peloton.

“It’s a childhood dream to win a stage at the Tour. And for a person like myself, I’m normally a domestique. It was my first chance to actually be up the road,” he said. “I really gave it absolutely everything. As you could see from my meltdown at the finish line I was pretty disappointed to come away empty-handed.”

This is a sport of narrow margins now more than ever; tissue-thin planes separate winners from losers. It’s harder to win every day now, every year now. Just ask the man who finished second.

“Times are changing. Every year there’s two or three teams less. Don’t understand me wrong, but there’s no shit cyclists anymore,” IAM’s Heinrich Haussler said at the bus. “The riders are going to be more versatile these days. It’s not like five or six years ago where a climber was just a climber. Or a sprinter was just a sprinter. I mean you look at some of the other stages, 30, 40 guys making it to the finish and it’s, you know, there’s still three or four sprinters there. You’ve got to be able to do everything these days. It’s just really hard.”

The Tour is the sport’s overall apex, and there are so many men with so many chances to take a stage win. Win here and it’s something that goes next to a rider’s name for all time, in France and beyond. Those opportunities are fought for before the TV cameras click on. So Sunday into Nimes, Bauer knew exactly what he had on the line. After 200 kilometers away, he dug deep. Deep in those last 400 meters, his last-ditch moment. It was enough. It had to be enough.

“I really made sure that I knew in my head that this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance, and not to muck it up, you know? Lay it all on the line. And I did that. It didn’t really work out, but that happens so much in sport,” he said. “There can be only one winner. It’s a little bit harder in cycling when you have, say, 200 people in the peloton. But I’m not going to say that’s going to be my only opportunity, but it’s definitely one of few.”

Bauer’s director Charly Wegelius appeared hollowed out but by the near-miss. A former racer himself, Wegelius knew what was on the line, too. Asked why bike racing was so cruel, he was to the point. It seemed he had no choice.

“It’s terrible. Heartbreaking,” Wegelius said. “I don’t know. Yeah. I don’t know. They could have just put the finish line 20 meters earlier and it would have been fine.”

As the team buses undocked, the band on the corner played on. It always plays on. Different men dance their turns with it every July. And no matter whose turn it may be, the music always remains.