I can´t tell whether the Tour´s arrival in the Pyrenees was impossibly dramatic, or if that´s just the Yellow Jersey talking. A few minutes ago the Maillot Jaune walked into the immaculately named Hotel Coma, and on a whim the cycling groupie in me asked if there was a room available. Would you think you could get a room in Orlando at the Lakers´ hotel during The Finals? Or Barcelona at Man U´s hotel?
Exactly. But the strange, circus-like atmosphere of the Tour means that a relatively unfancied team´s leader somehow ended up in yellow tonight, and when we inquired at reception about the possibility of the room, we were greeted with the expected pained expression, but the words that followed stretched belief to the limit.
¨Sir I´m so sorry, but the only room we have available is a family room. It sleeps four people…¨
How much are you charging?
¨110 Euro, sir. It´s the only room we have available.¨
So for a little over NZ$200 and some sweet-talking of the recptionist, we´ll be sleeping under the same roof and dining in the same room as the most coveted prize in all cycling. I´ll be posting a full report, complete with photos, autographs, and whatever else the night brings, from our home base, but for now, these are the day´s events as they transpired.
We drove up from Lla Franc, a small village on the Costa Brava this afternoon. The crew was my father and I, plus three Norwegians who followed us up into the foothills and into the Pyrenees proper, as the motorways disolved into country roads, and a seemingly endless succession of hairpins propelled us ever higher.
Local knowledge had us scythe up over the high mountain pass at Canillo, through Soldeu and Encamp and across to Ordino by mid-afternoon, where we ate a reasonably edible menu del dia and listened to the crowd rise and fall, and the cacophony of helicopters, motorcycles, team and tour vans and all the rest rumble past the door.
When we stepped out the lead group retained a reasonably impressive margin over the peloton, 12 minutes with around 80 kilometres to go. The fact that those 80 kilometres would see the road rise more than 1500m to the finish at Arcalis was less relevant than the chilling sight of Astana in full flight at the front, stretching the chasing bunch thin and seeing it disintegrate at the close. We picked up this information at Pas de la Casa on the way over, and by the time we got into position the lead was apparently the same.
I say apparently because information is an oddly scarce commodity when you´re watching the Tour in person. Most of the crowds, which were two or three deep at Ordino, are tourists, and few had radios. We all waited, increasingly impatiently for the first concrete proof that a race was on, and the sight of the lycra-clad madman flying up the mountain sides at speeds you and I would struggle to match along Mechanics Bay with a tailwind.
It arrived with the lead group, seven riders, all in clear pain, but still with a good break on the field. We´d bumped into a group of New Zealanders, who mentioned that they were staying at the Hotel Coma, a hundred metres or so away, and that a couple of riders from the lead group were part of AG2R-La Mondiale, and staying at their hotel that night.
We thought little more of it, and instead waited with unbearable anticipation for the Lance and Alberto show, which powered through around eight minutes later. They were clearly going for the jugular, and we noted the yellow jersey of Cancellara toward the back of the field – an ominous portent of what was to come for him.
After the last rider limped past around 15 minutes back we raced up to the Coma to watch one of the more enthralling finishes I´ve seen in a while. Brice Feillu broke away from the lead group and won the stage handsomely, before being emotionally embraced by his brother during an extremely shambolic interview for French TV.
Further down the track a brutal staring match was taking place between Armstrong and Contador, with the latter seeming to wilt under the steely, questioning, undeniably arrogant gaze of the Texan, while Cadel Evans leapt up and down like a spoilt child, without remotely impacting upon the form of the Astana warriors. Cancellara cracked in a monstrous way, flying backwards while the Astana pair tried their best to look impervious to the pain.
Then, with less than two kilometres to go Contador let his talent sing for the first time on the Tour, launching a breathtaking attack halfway along the straight leading up to a hairpin. Evans and Armstrong attempted to respond, but found nothing which could match the acceleration of the Spaniard.
He ended up taking 19 seconds out of his bitter rival, leaving Armstring again in the strange position of being separated by tenths of a second from a higher spot on the podium. This time, though, it was third, as a little-known Italian named Rinaldo Nocentini stole the Maillot Jaune by a mere eight seconds.
And so it goes. Feillu emulated Virenque, and might have become a national hero to the French who´ve been so starved of late, and the Astana battle just went from diverting to enthralling, but they must all bow for tonight to a slender, slight Italian from an unfashionable team.
Tonight we´ll dine and drink alongside him, and as soon as I can I´ll post the rest. He strolled through the hall of this three star hotel a few minutes ago, pausing to acknowledge the applause, and the whole place is aflame with his exploits. Right now, he´s the toast of all cycling, and that´s all a man can hope for in this beaten but still defiant sport.