Contador on brink of Tour de France triumph
ALBERTO Contader all but sealed his second Tour de France victory at the top of Mont Ventoux yesterday, finishing, symbolically, with the man who has run him closest, Andy Schleck, but 38 seconds behind the stage winner, Juan Manuel Garate of Spain.
Garate attacked his breakaway companion, Germany's Tony Martin, 1.5km from the summit, as the leading duo rode past the memorial statue to Britain's Tom Simpson, but the main battle was being waged behind them, for the final spot on the podium. In the end, Lance Armstrong prevailed, the seven-times winner keeping a grip on third, a remarkable performance for someone who retired three-and-a-half years ago.
And, just behind him, Bradley Wiggins completed his own triumph, holding on to fourth by three seconds, which in Paris today should enable him to equal the best ever finish by a British rider, after Robert Millar's feat 25 years ago. Wiggins has been the revelation of the race, completing his transformation from Olympic gold medallist on the track to potential winner of the Tour.
His performance yesterday on the barren slopes of Ventoux summed up the qualities that have taken him into a new echelon. This was uncharted territory, asking that he make yet another monumental effort to keep in touch with Contador, Schleck and Armstrong, all of them brilliant climbers.
Towards the summit of the mountain he began to lose contact, but he fought back, only to be dropped again. As he rode past the Simpson memorial, mouth wide open, battling not only the gradient but the relentless headwind, he was still yo-yoing, but perhaps he derived some inspiration from the small knot of British supporters there – including Simpson's daughter, Joanne – because he did enough to cling on to fourth.
It had been predicted that half a million people would line the 21km climb, but last night they were claiming it was more than that. "I have never, ever seen crowds like that at the Tour de France," said Armstrong. "Unreal!" And that from someone who, in 2004, rode a time trial on Alpe d'Huez witnessed by a million.
Yesterday, the crowds were concentrated on the lower slopes, with the final 5km closed to traffic. So the higher, more rarefied atmosphere close to the summit was eerily quiet in places. 1.5km from the very top stands the pale grey marble memorial to Simpson, the British cyclist who collapsed and died here during the 1967 Tour.
Some have compared Wiggins, in appearance, to Simpson, who, with Millar, is the only other Brit to finish in the top ten, claiming sixth in 1962. Like Simpson, Wiggins is tall, lean and also has the distinctive nose. But the links go beyond their appearance. The Simpson memorial was always going to be a gathering place for British supporters, even if most couldn't get there. Those who did were rewarded for their efforts, however, by being able to share the experience with Simpson's daughter, Joanne. Like others, she hadn't been allowed up on her bike, so she abandoned it and walked, leaving at 7am and arriving at the monument five hours later.
She was joined by Greg LeMond, the three-time Tour winner, and as the Tour vehicles streamed through one or two stopped to pay their respects, with Marc Madiot, the director of the Francaise des Jeux team, climbing the 13 steps to the monument to lay a bouquet of flowers.
"I just like to be here, I feel my dad is here rather than buried in England," said Joanne. "For me this is his burial place."
She has followed Wiggins' progress with great interest. "I lived with his father, you know," she said. "Garry Wiggins lived in the same digs as me in Ghent. I remember Brad being born."
Wiggins, when passed, was fully committed to his pursuit of Contador, Armstrong and the Schleck brothers, and couldn't afford even a glance at the memorial. He was also too tired at the finish to speak, but later communicated a message via his favourite method of communication – Twitter. "Shed a tear today for Tom," read his post. "I had a little extra strength today from somewhere. Had a photo of the man on my top tube."
The other three British cyclists all paid their tributes, Charly Wegelius turning towards the monument as he rode past, and throwing his water bottle towards it, to be added to the pile of cycling-related nicknacks gathered around it.
Then came Mark Cavendish – who has a great chance to win his sixth stage of this Tour in Paris today – who removed his helmet, and just behind was David Millar, who reached into his back pocket, removed a cotton cap, and tossed it over the fence in the direction of the statue. "To Tommy, RIP, David Millar," read the scrawled message.
As Millar knows only too well, Simpson, who died with amphetamines in his pocket in an era when there were no dope tests and rampant abuse of drugs, the British rider's legacy goes beyond his 'palmares,' or CV, and, even in this Tour of no positive tests – at least not yet – it cannot be forgotten.
LeMond, who appeared at the memorial to pay his respects, put it best. "It's an important place for cycling," said the American, who has been outspoken in his criticism of his sport's doping culture. "Because of Tom Simpson's death dope tests were introduced. Many more cyclists would have died if it hadn't been for him."
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Wednesday 19 June 2013
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