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By Tyler Hamilton, Phonak Hearing Systems Pro Cycling Team
Sorry for the delay in getting this update to you. Last night was pretty emotional for our team. In fact, the last couple of days have really put everyone to the test. And I don’t just mean us, I mean everybody in the race.
Tuesday’s stage from Waterloo to Wasquehal didn’t make any liars out of those who predicted carnage by the conclusion of the day. I don’t know if I’ve ever ridden in a peloton as aggro’ as the one that headed into the first section of pavé. The fight for position started 40km in advance of the cobblestones, which meant we were going all out for nearly an hour before we reached the pavé. I can’t believe there weren’t more crashes given what the fatigue rate must have been by the time the bunch was hurdling single file across the dusty section of cobbles.
At least five GC contenders were caught in or behind the major crash of the day that wound up complicating Iban Mayo’s Tour de France ambitions. I really felt for him after the stage. With a year’s worth of training and sacrifice invested in readying for this race, he lost nearly four minutes due to an obstacle. That’s tough to take when you’ve conditioned yourself to compete in an event of endurance.
The situation reminded me of the 1999 Tour when the peloton hit the Passage du Gois, a seaside road that would be submerged under water during high tide. We rode through at low tide, but the pavement was slimy and slick, and half the peloton went down or got caught behind those who crashed. The second group lost six minutes that day. Alex Zulle was among them. He wound up losing the Tour by 6 minutes and 40 seconds that year.
Our team was happy to have made it through stage 3 relatively unscathed. My teammates rode incredibly well tactically and showed an impressive amount of strength. They took great care of me, and I was enormously grateful during and after the race.
We headed into the next day’s team time trial with big ambitions. We have a lot of solid time trialists on the team so we were expecting a lot from ourselves. In addition, we had strong men like Nicolas Jalabert who knew that this would be one of the key days where he would be making a significant contribution.
The weather couldn’t have been worse. It was pouring rain as we headed out of the start. The only consolation was that just about every other team had to ride under the same conditions. We had previewed the course and had done our homework. I knew we had a tough day ahead, but I was feeling a lot of confidence in the guys around me. Everyone was hungry.
And then all hell broke loose. We had three flat tires inside the first 20km. At the 10km mark, Nicolas Jalabert was the first victim. He flatted but we decided to keep going and he wound up riding the final 50-plus kilometers by himself. Then Santos had a mechanical problem, so we lost him. Then Gutierrez flatted, which meant we had lost three critical guys pretty early on. We made the call to wait for Guti’, even though we knew it would cost us 30-45 seconds or so. But we really didn’t have a choice since we were down to six guys and had two thirds of the race to go.
Eventually Santos would chase back to within striking distance of us so we slowed up again and waited for him. At this point, we were feeling like the additional 25-30 seconds we were giving up to do so was insurance for what could lay ahead. It turned out to be a wise choice because we lost Perez and Pereiro to two more flats.
It was chaos. We were down to five guys, the minimum amount needed at the finish, and we still had a lot of ground to cover. At that point, I thought we were riding for pride. I don’t think there was a single guy on our team who didn’t roll into the finish devastated. It was an awful feeling considering our ambitions for the day.
We all boarded the team bus suffering from equal parts of frustration and sadness. Everyone on the team was deflated. From the mechanics who wanted to know what went so wrong, to the support staff that watched the race play out on television, to the riders themselves who felt like a big opportunity had just slipped through their fingers.
But then at the end of the day, we had to feel good about finishing second. On an afternoon when it seemed as though the fates were stacked against us, we managed to limit our losses. And to later realize that we actually got faster as the stage went on, and had made up as much time as we did with only five guys left, meant that we fought a good fight.
I’m really proud of this team. These guys are riding with a lot of heart. No one gave up in stage 4, and for me, that kind of commitment is just as important as winning. These guys care a lot about what we are trying to accomplish here at this year’s Tour. Their efforts on the road and the emotion they showed after the stage proved it. I’m in good hands.
Thanks for reading.