By Rupert Guinness
The last image I will have of Nick Gates in the Tour de France was of him wiping his nose and then dropping his head as we drove past him after 22km of today’s 16th stage. As he pedaled with his shoulders stooped through the green forest lining the road up the Cat. 4 Côte des Crêtes, you could tell that he was right on the brink of abandoning.
It was the second time the Australian had been dropped in the stage, the first being on an uncategorized rise soon after the start. He managed to get back on the decent, but….
Seeing riders like Gates suffering and facing the daunting challenge of what lay ahead if they were to finish isn’t pleasant. Knowing them, as I do Gates, makes it even worse.
Knowing that he is a hard toiler who doesn’t give in easily, makes me feel for the suffering he must have been carrying as an extra load when he rolled out from Pau this morning.
To see him fall four days short from finishing his first Tour seems almost unfair. Of course, it isn’t — sport is sport and were it easy it wouldn’t be the attraction it is.
But the last few weeks haven’t been easy on Gates, a solid domestique from the town of Taree on the north coast of New South Wales, Australia, who rides for the Belgian team, Lotto-Domo.
You see, Gates wasn’t even meant to be at the Tour. Having raced all but the last three days of the Giro d’Italia when he was eliminated on the big mountain stage with 40 others, and then finishing the Tour of Switzerland with only 10 days off in between, he was meant to be back at his home in Belgian preparing for the second half of the season.
His selection was a last-minute call-up. But given the chance to help Australian teammate Robbie McEwen defend the green jersey as best sprinter, he soon knuckled down to do his best. And he knew as the battle with Baden Cooke resumed, his best would soon be in need.
That is, until he finally came to a halt, dismounted and stood beside his bike before indicating to the cars that followed slowly behind that he could not pedal any farther.
Later, Gates was like any rider who abandons — spent and distraught. Seemingly lost, as he came to terms with what he had just done, whether it was the right thing to do or not.
Gates was quick to add that it was not due to him being unable to climb the mountains that he abandoned though, rather that he just couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t since Tuesday.
“Disappointment would not come near to describing it,” said Gates of his decision, adding that his next plan was to take the “first flight home” to his base in Belgium. “I’m devastated. I might as well not have started, getting that close to Paris and with all but the last mountains out of the way.”
News of attacks being fired one after the other from the pointy end of the pack sounded warning for anyone who had failed to recover in the rest day to be prepared for the worst.
The flighty start even caught out the day’s eventual winner, Tyler Hamilton, who admitted that he erred by positioning himself at the rear end of the pack as it split under the early pace. But Hamilton was left smiling with his win, unlike an exhausted Gates who told friends 24 hours earlier, late in the rest day, that had they been racing, “I’d still be out there.”
Gates was not the only rider to abandon Wednesday. Dutchman Remmert Wielinga (Rabobank) was already out the back before Gates, on the rivet and also riding toward inevitable abandon. A classy rider who rode a solid race in this year’s Dauphiné Libéré, Wielinga was suffering a fever so bad that on the rest day he didn’t even get out of bed.
The look of his face contorted in pain as we drove past him after only 9km was like an advertising billboard pleading for an end to his agony. Finally, he answered it himself.
Thursday, when the Tour continues toward Bordeaux, the mountains will be long behind the peloton that now numbers 149 riders. All the agony, suffering and self doubt will be erased as riders start thinking about imminent celebration for their feat to finish.
For Gates, Wielinga and the 47 other riders who have left the Tour this July and will not be able to share the joy of those left in; all that awaits is a year ahead in which they must rekindle the dream once again.