Cycling, like all sports, is a cruel game. It raises hope, it elevates expectation, and then it bodyslams you back to the ground, reminding you of your fragility.
In every Tour de France, the same story is repeated multiple times: a rider goes clear, the finish line approaches, they envisage their face plastered across the front of L’Equipe, and then their hearts are broken, their dreams shattered and their ride of a life ends in unimaginable heartache.
On stage nine of the Tour de France, Matteo Jorgenson went through all the emotions, all the feels. He wasn’t the first in the race's long history, and he won’t be the last. But it doesn’t mean his misery and torment is any less difficult, and it doesn’t act as any form of consolation.
The Movistar man, 24 at the Tour’s start, was part of the 14-man break that was allowed to go clear early on - task one ticked off. That initial satisfaction and relief turned to genuine optimism very quickly as the peloton allowed the large group an advantage that they would never bring back.
As the mighty, imposing volcano of Puy de Dôme approached, Jorgenson - in the middle of his career-best season - clipped off the front and immediately built a lead in excess of a minute. On the lower, less brutal slopes of the mythical climb, he maintained his time gap, and a dream slowly morphed into a realistic chance.
The only way he was going to forgo the opportunity of writing himself into Tour folklore was if he cracked. And crack he did. The gentle slopes of six and seven percent soon roared up to 11 and 13 percent, the roadside crowds - five and six deep in places - then fizzled out into just a single Gendarmerie by the funicular railway, and Jorgenson’s minute gap quickly began to erode away. Within a few kilometres, a minute was wiped out.
Michael Woods wrote his name in Tour history on Puy de Dôme (Alex Whitehead/SWPix)
Profiting from one man’s pain and distress was Michael Woods, his North American colleague. Aged 36, a veteran of the peloton and as well-respected and well-liked as they come, the former international runner had been searching for a win in the biggest race of all during his eight years as a pro, and throughout his previous three appearances in the Tour. He had come close - a couple of thirds was his best - but the win had eluded him.
As Jorgenson’s body gave up, depriving him of the finest victory of his young career, Woods caught up to him, rode in his slipstream for a few seconds and then powered out from behind. There was no reaction from Jorgenson other than a bow of the head and dejection.
Woods, meanwhile, powered forward and made victory his. The Israel-PremierTech team are the Care Home of the Peloton, but they have proven once again that the elderly can still have their day in the sun, and can still triumph over the youth. Just like last year when they won two stages with Simon Clarke and Hugo Houle, the ProTour team have their Tour victory, a triumph that will be their season highlight.
For Woods, it was jubilation, a career dream realised, fulfilled. For Jorgenson, it was anguish, desolation. That’s the Tour de France: it takes the riders to the most iconic, most fabled landscapes in cycling, but it’s not joyfulness and elation for all. For many, for most in fact, it’s heartbreak and cruelness. That’s sport. That’s cycling. That’s the Tour de France. And it’s why we love it as much as we hate it.
Cover photo by Getty Images