Breaking away on the Champs-Elysées

The final stage of the Tour de France is mostly ceremonial: there’s a long preamble from the outskirts of Paris and through the suburbs, photos are taken, champagne is passed around; it is a festive and relaxed occasion. Tradition dictates that whoever wears yellow that morning will be wearing it in the evening. While the general classification race is off-limits, the chase for the stage win itself is taken as seriously as any other.

When we hit the banks of the Seine the pace heats up. Not long afterwards we see the Eiffel Tower for the first time. It doesn’t matter how many Tours you’ve done, this remains a spine-tingling moment. It signifies you’ve made it. The start of the race, three weeks before, seems a lifetime ago, all the suffering is momentarily forgotten and you’re left awash with a sense of accomplishment.

The team of the yellow jersey has the honour of leading the peloton past the Eiffel Tower and on to the Champs-Elysées for the first of ten laps. Whatever we felt on that first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower is now eclipsed by what we see, hear and feel on the Champs. There’s nothing else like it in cycling, perhaps in any sport.

We turn off the Seine and race under the arches of the Louvre and right through the main square, past the glass pyramid, before turning left on to Rue de Rivoli. The streets have been lined deep with people the whole way through Paris. We’ve almost become accustomed to the crowds and noise, then, as we enter the circuit, it feels like we hit a wall of sound. It makes everything we’ve seen up to that point feel like a village fête – this is like entering the most beautiful arena in the world; it feels like a scene from Ben-Hur, only bigger.

Rue de Rivoli is more akin to an autoroute than a rue, the peloton is suddenly dwarfed by its surroundings; the crowds here are the biggest on the circuit and the most vocal. There is an energy in the air that never fails to replenish resources I thought exhausted. As we come to the end of Rivoli we veer left on to the cobbles of Place de la Concorde. After Rivoli, it almost feels quiet here. A few seconds later we turn right, and on to that most famous of boulevards, the Champs-Elysées.

Then we see it for the first time, the Arc de Triomphe. This is what each of us has seen on TV as young fans; the Eiffel Tower is something you only get to know and feel when you become part of the peloton. The Champs and Arc, on the other hand, are already embedded in our psyche. There is a familiarity to it, though that familiarity doesn’t prepare us for the incline, or the cobbles. It all looks so smooth and fast on TV, yet it’s far from that; it is a fair old slog on the way up through the finish line to the Arc. All we can hear are the crowds; all that we feel is the heavy, uncomfortable, repetitive shocks of the cobblestones. Then, when we make the turnaround and head down in the opposite direction, it’s like somebody has pushed the fast-forward button: everything is accelerated to a higher frequency; the only sensation of air on the way up is our breathing, now, on the way down, it overpowers everything, smothering our ears as the speed increases and the wind rushes in.

The 2013 final stage differed from the ‘standard’ affair. In honour of it being the 100th edition of the Tour de France, we were to do a lap of the Arc de Triomphe instead of the U-turn we normally made before reaching it. This had never been done before. To add a little more je ne sais quoi it was held in the evening so that we were finishing as the sun set. It is hard to imagine it being any more grandiose.

I’d been in a horrible way during the preamble through the Paris suburbs, so much so that I wasn’t speaking to anybody, I was too immersed in self-pity. If I did speak it was more Tourette’s- like than conversational: ‘Oh God, my fucking legs.’ I couldn’t imagine how I’d fulfil my self-imposed challenge to break away on the Champs. I felt like a fraud.

My first inkling that maybe all wasn’t lost came when the speed picked up on sighting the Eiffel Tower. For the first time all day I could take my mind off my ‘fucking legs’, the increased energy of the peloton forcing me to stop thinking about what was going on inside my head and enabling me instead to begin focusing on what was going on around it. By the time we arrived on Rivoli and entered the circuit I was back in the game, ready to prove to my teammates that I could break away at will on the Champs.

The race follows a fairly predictable format once we’re on the circuit: the yellow jersey’s team have the honour of leading the peloton in a victory lap. Once that lap is completed the attacks begin. The attacks always take place on the upward incline, as it’s almost impossible to escape on the descending side as the speed is so high. The road’s so large there is almost no need to fight for position. If you have the strength you can move up the side whenever you please, especially near the turnaround at the top, where everything slows down and bunches up.

Generally, the first attacks don’t go – too many riders want to be in the move and there are sprinters’ teams marking them in a defensive manner; it resembles the very beginning of a race rather than a finale because up to that point the race has effectively been neutralised. Most riders don’t appreciate or consider that. I’ve been in the breakaway a few times in the past on the Champs, I’ve figured out the best method. It’s pretty simple, really: surf the front in the wheels, wait until a move looks to have broken the elastic and is being allowed to go, then counter-attack from the very front on Rivoli before Place de la Concorde, and bridge up to it on the Champs.

Attacking on Rue de Rivoli works because the peloton arrives on to it from a tunnel and through a fast corner. It’s normally stretched out in one long line – the snaking passage through Place de la Concorde keeps the peloton strung out – which means it’s much more difficult for riders to move from their position, or even notice the counter-attack. By the time the peloton arrives on the Champs and bunches up and notices you’ve gone it’s too late for them to react.

This is basically what I did. As soon as I could tell that everybody was tiring themselves out and the attacking verve had diminished I made my first and only move. There was only one rider ahead at this point, but I knew that I could provoke a few others to come with me. That is usually the way: when a strong rider recognised for making it into breakaways attacks, others will follow with full commitment, believing it will work. The advantage of hitting the Champs-Elysées alone or in a small group means you can head straight to the gutter. This is the final little trick that makes the biggest difference. Although the avenue is cobbled it has a smooth gutter next to the curb. It’s not wide (maybe a foot maximum), and it’s riddled with drains, but riding it is a damned sight faster than the alternative. This is a massive advantage. The chasing peloton won’t use it because no team can ride it safely grouped together; the team leaders will prefer their domestiques to take the slower but safer option, relying on their strength in numbers to eventually control the race. Hence why getting the gap before hitting the Champs is so important: it means you’ll be going faster than the peloton the whole way to the top – if you’ve got the legs, that is. It’s also possible to ride the gutter on the way down the other side, although it gets a bit sketchy at times as you’re getting close to 70km/h on a thin strip of concrete next to a big curb, with screaming fans a metre away and a TV motorbike right next to you, ready to capture for posterity the moment you clip your pedal or get stuck in a drain and slap down on the floor. Which is part of the fun, I suppose.

 

The next hour was a blur. We started as four riders, but two of them were dropped after only one lap off the front – they weren’t able to ride the gutter up the Champs. Then there was only me and Juan Antonio Flecha left, the two of us off the front leading the Tour de France on its final stage in its 100th edition, lapping around the Arc de Triomphe, feeling like tiny little insignificant ants in comparison to our surroundings.

I was feeling so strong, I couldn’t believe I was actually doing what I said I would do, only a short while after hiding in my little hurt locker, hating the world. I was not asking Flecha for help. Our chances of winning were as close to zero as was perhaps possible, but that wasn’t why we were doing it. We were doing it because we both loved cycling; neither of us could help but let the teenage fan out on occasions like this. This was the ultimate occasion.

I know Flecha well; our careers have run parallel. He lives in Catalunya and is a member of my cycling club, Velo Club Rocacorba. We hadn’t planned the move in the slightest: it was serendipity more than anything else, we’d barely spoken to each other, we were simply focused on what we had to do. In that sense, we were the perfect pairing: friends who trust each other’s abilities implicitly. The times I found myself on his wheel in the gutter I never once doubted his ability. I was able to treat it as if it were just a normal stretch of road. Most other riders I’d give a bit of distance, not trusting them to ride it safely. I had no such doubts with Flecha: he’s a Flanders Classics specialist, totally at home riding a thin strip of concrete between a curb and cobbles at 70km/h.

I started doing more and more of the work, never asking Flecha for more as I knew he wasn’t playing a tactical game, he was clearly just getting tired. Then, as we rounded the Arc for the second time alone, ready to descend, he said, ‘David, you go now.’

There was no reason for him to let me go. After all, the hardest bit of the lap was done, but he did anyway. (I spoke to him later, after the stage, and he told me, ‘You were so strong, you didn’t need me there. I thought you should have it to yourself.’)

The next twenty minutes rank as maybe the most incredible I’ve ever had racing... I’m alone on the Champs-Elysées, leading the 100th edition of the Tour de France on a road I know so well, for numerous reasons. Flecha is right: I have it all to myself, the peloton is at thirty seconds, which would be close in any other circumstances, yet not here. They may as well be on another continent.

Coming around the Arc de Triomphe on my own as the sun sets, hugging the inside near the Arc with acres of road between me and the outer barriers, I feel so small. The size of the Tour de France has never been so apparent. As I exit the Place de Charles de Gaulle that surrounds the Arc I sweep to the right to make sure I’m in the gutter for the high-speed descent down the Champs. Any trepidation I’ve previously felt about the risks inherent in riding here are now gone. I have no fear, I’m completely at ease.

There are gendarmes lined up, standing on the curb between the barriers and the road, preventing any crazy fan from doing anything that might put us or them at risk. Up to this point, when Flecha had been on my wheel, I swerved round each gendarme ever so slightly so as to avoid touching them, not wanting him to be caught out. Now I just hold my line, brushing each of them with my shoulder as I pass. They never move, not in this passage nor the next; there is a mutual trust and confidence between us.

The crowds are so close, but they can’t touch me, not that it matters because I can feel their proximity. The occasional voice makes it through the waves of sound, clear as day; the cheering and movement on the other side of the barriers is in complete contrast to me. I’m trying to hold as still a line as possible while going as hard as I can. I have to go fast, I have to stay still.

Coming to the end of the Champs I can see the big screen showing the feed from the TV motorbike shadowing my every move, the same images that maybe some kids in Hong Kong are watching. I give a little salute to the right as I go to the end of the Champs where the VIP section is, hoping that’s where Nicole and my mum are, just as I’d done to my family and friends when I was off the front on the Champs on the final stage of my first Tour in 2000.

Coming through Place de la Concorde in this direction offers a moment of respite. There’s no gutter and the cobbles are at their bumpiest, making it uncomfortable and slowing everybody down. I know the peloton will be using it as an opportunity to relax – it’s the only section of the lap where there is an impression of tranquillity, relative, of course. Coming out of Concorde we rejoin the Seine embankment which is, like everywhere else, rammed with people, but because the cobbles end and the tarmac begins, the rattling and tension disappear from the moving mass that is the peloton. As each of us rolls on to the smoothness of a normal road we exhale reliefIt doesn’t last long; just under a kilometre later we turn left into a tunnel that takes us under the Jardin de Tuileries and leads us back on to Rue de Rivoli.

Being on my own through all of this makes it a completely different experience from what I’m used to in the bunch. I can disappear back into my own head, no longer needing to concern myself with what is going on around me, except what I chose to pay attention to, which is the experience rather than the technicalities of manoeuvring within the peloton.

Entering the tunnel is such a contrast to everywhere else; it is like dunking my head under water – it’s dark, empty and quiet, except for a group of fireman who cheer, ‘Allez, allez, Daveed!’ each time I come through. I can’t help but give them a little signal of respect: once my bottle is near empty, I jettison it in their direction, making sure it slides to their feet.

As the tunnel comes to an end the noise begins again. It’s as if somebody is turning up the volume and brightening the light in perfect unison. Then it happens: as I exit the tunnel into full daylight I hit the wall of sound once more, back into the Ben Hur hippodrome.

It’s a ramp back up on to Rivoli. The first corner was commandeered by the Norwegians years ago – they’ve made it their own to the point of it now being referred to as the ‘Norwegian Corner’. They’re brilliantly raucous, faces painted, Viking helmets galore; their cheering and chanting clearly amplified by a day of drinking under the Paris sun, they set the tone. Skimming the barriers as I take the apex I’m nearly deafened by the noise; all I glimpse is a sea of red, then it all opens up and I’m faced with the spectacle that is Rue de Rivoli. Thousands and thousands of people are going berserk. Flags of all nationalities are waving, the kilometre-to-go arch is in the distance and there’s me in the middle of the road, dwarfed by it all.

I’m way above my limit. There is no point in holding anything back, it is simply a case of trying to stay out in front for as long as possible – it turns into the most spectacular individual time trial of my career. The sprinters’ teams controlling the peloton have happily left me out there, using my speed as a reference, yet we all know that I’m going to slow down at some point. There’s no way I can hold them off.

After being off the front for nearly forty-five minutes I can feel my strength start to go and my speed to drop. Going round the Arc I can see the peloton closing in on me. I know it will soon be all over. I am relieved; I’m beginning to hurt everywhere again, my mind is no longer able to overcome my body. I give one last big push down the descent, skimming the gendarmes, feeling the crowds. I look at the big screen and can see the powerful peloton approaching, ever closer behind. I want to make it through the tunnel, selfishly wanting Rivoli to myself, just one more time.

I make it to the entrance of the tunnel and glance over my shoulder. Somehow I’ve held my gap, even increased it a little. I can see I have more than enough to make it not only through Rivoli but back up on to the Champs. Thankfully, and I don’t know why, I decide to stop thinking about the effort, and the race, and just start soaking up the moment and the emotions.

I’ll never forget those final few kilometres. I made sure of it, yet I had no idea it would be the last time I’d ever race there. It was as if the race had said, much like Flecha, ‘You can go now, David.’