OYONNAX, France (VN) — The curtains were falling all around him.
Off the bike, sitting on the guardrail, his crash-kinked back siphoning his strength. On this day, two hard crashes in recent stages were too much to allow a rider who could have finished in the top-five in Paris to even stay with the peloton.
Andrew Talansky sat while director Robbie Hunter talked to him closely about abandoning. The decision, the sport director said, was up to him. If he wanted to quit, fine. But if he wanted to press on to finish, then the only way he’d get there was by riding.
There were 51 empty, hilly kilometers remaining.
“He thought that maybe it was time to stop the Tour,” Hunter said. “He sat down and got the motion out of it and thought about it, and decided to continue to the finish.”
By that point Talansky, 25, was a stone falling through water. Thirteen minutes down, 15, 18 … It was a sort of slow motion time trial, but not to win, only to make it to the line. He pedaled through the noise in his back with tears in his eyes. TV reported that he didn’t care to know his deficit, only that he wanted to finish. The Tour’s website announced his abandonment.
“I’ll never encourage a person to get off his bike. The directors in this team have all ridden their bikes and they know what it’s like,” Hunter said. “I’ve been in that position where I’ve stopped, and a couple of hours later I’ve regretted it. The only thing I said to him was, ‘If you’re going to stop make sure it’s the right decision.’”
There are myriad races within one bike race at any given moment. Racing at the front. Racing to hold on to the back. Wednesday morning, Garmin director Charly Wegelius said his team would abandon its GC charge in favor of racing for stage wins — for Talansky, when he recovered, and for others as well.
Wegelius couldn’t have known at the time exactly what that would translate to on the road just hours later. The cruelest race showed its lack of sentiment again when Talansky’s own team hammered the pace as its captain languished in the purgatory between the peloton and abandonment.
A stage win was feasible at the front. Races are lost and won every single day, sometimes by the same team.
“I think we showed in the first 10 days of the race that we had one of the strongest teams in the race,” Wegelius told VeloNews before the stage. “And every time we asked the riders to do something, they were exactly where they need to be at exactly the moment they needed to be. And you don’t do that if you don’t have the legs. So we’re going to use those resources differently.”
Tony Gallopin (Lotto-Belisol) stole the day, and the announcer at the finish was shouting — he’s always shouting — proclaiming the arrival. The sunburnt fans were all cheering; everyone loves a French winner in France. Interviews, the whir of finishing riders passing by, the mad dash behind.
And then, everyone waited. Would Talansky make it?
Thirty-two minutes and five seconds later, Talansky crossed the finish line, inside the time cut by five minutes. He rode next to the left-side barriers and through a tube of cameras and soigneurs and very loud cheers and toward the Garmin-Sharp bus, coughing. He stepped into the bus and then came back out to the teeming press corps.
“I’m just suffering quite a bit from my crashes. I have some really bad back pain, but I just wanted to make it to the finish for my team,” Talansky said. “It was for my teammates, for my team and the work that they’ve put into this Tour for me. I didn’t just want to stop and go home that way, after everything they’ve done for me.”
A Tour de France begins with charts and plans and ideas. But the road often forces the hands of the riders and managers, making decisions for an entire peloton in a right-hand turn, on a rainy day, in a sprint crash.
In spite of its commitment to riding a GC-focused Tour for the first time in years, Garmin-Sharp will revert to its old self for the rest of the Tour, abandoning Talansky’s general classification campaign.
For Garmin, that means loosing the attackers, something it has been known for in France over the years. David Millar won a stage in 2012, and Dan Martin won a mountain stage in the Pyrenees last year.
“Any one of the riders can do something really special in this race, and they’re things that can change people’s careers. So, one door closes and another door opens,” Wegelius said.
The team will assess Talansky’s condition and make a decision on his future at this year’s Tour. Before the drama of stage 11’s solitude, it seemed as if he had embraced the new challenge of riding for a stage win, according to his director.
But where Talansky finds himself now remains to be seen. Some kilometers, notably at the Tour de France, are much longer and more lonely than others.