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Dirt Dispatch: The red number

Every year at the Tour de France, one rider is awarded the prize for being "most combative," but what does that mean?

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The Dirt Dispatch is a woefully infrequent opinion column written by VeloNews web editor Spencer Powlison about mountain biking, cyclocross, and much more.

I now understand the red number, the dossard awarded each day to the most combative rider in the Tour de France. I’m not being glib — yes, I knew what that minor prize meant — but it took a huge day of riding over Colorado’s Continental Divide and an ill-fated mountain bike race to truly understand it.

As funny as it sounds, an off-road race in the high mountains of Colorado helped me understand an esoteric, jury awarded prize in the world’s biggest cycling race.

The idea was to get up early, ride over Rollins Pass, a now-defunct road topping out around 11,500 feet, drop into Winter Park and breeze into the start of a cross-country race.

Despite all of our best, Strava KOM-busting efforts over the pass, we were late for the start … Really late.

When we crested the high-alpine ridge, flanked by the Divide’s beautiful peaks and ridges that crisp, clear morning, it was about 9:30 a.m. Thirty minutes until the start. So, we pulled out all the stops, bombing the forest service road, team time-trialing the valley road, texting ahead to ask my friend Brady’s dad to pick up my number. I even convinced a stranger in a truck to give me a tow up the dirt road to the start. He was fortunately quite steady at the wheel.

But it wasn’t enough — I missed the start by 10 minutes. No matter, I grabbed my number, ditched my pack and hit the gas. About eight miles later, I had a flat tire. Did I have a tube? Yes. Did it fit the wheel? No. There was nothing to do but ride the rim down. And when I saw the Cycleton bike shop’s neutral support tent at the bottom, there was nothing to do but get a tube and ride on.

I had several opportunities to pull the plug on this race. Maybe I should have. I also could have just ridden the course easy. But I didn’t. I raced it as if I were in the front group. In part, I felt like I owed it to my friends, Brady and Mitch, who buried themselves to get me to the start as fast as possible. I was, perhaps, also spurred on by the promise of New Belgium kegs at the finish.

Yes, the red number for combativity has been awarded to champions. In the prize’s 63-year history, Eddy Merckx won the title four times, and I’d say it’s unlikely that he missed a start in those years. No disrespect to the “Cannibal,” but my newfound appreciation for the red number centers on riders who fight on, in the face of hopeless odds, those who often did not win.

Jacky Durand is, to me, one of the best modern examples. Despite misgivings about the rampant doping in that era and the French Senate report that implicated him based on re-tested 1998 Tour samples, he was a fighter. And there’s no way to dope your courage (well, I suppose alcohol can help sometimes).

In 1999, Durand won his second combativity title. He also finished dead last, the lanterne rouge, in that Tour de France.

As I bounced my way along the rocky trails of the Fraser Valley toward the finish of the 26-mile race, in a last-place position far more ignominious than Durand’s at the final Tour of the 20th century, I thought about courage. I thought about fighting on, doing something pointless and seemingly insignificant, like racing a race that was already lost.

I can’t say why I kept riding, kept racing, kept pushing myself, full-throttle. But I can say that it felt right. And all of the other riders around me, from other age and ability categories, were pushing just as hard. And I think they too knew that it was worth it.