A day in cycling history: stories from the top of Alpe d'Huez after stage 12 of the Tour de France
Sophie Smith recalls the scenes from the top of Alpe d'Huez after Tom Pidcock's emphatic victory
So concentrated was Geraint Thomas on his fight for the yellow jersey that when he arrived atop Alpe d’Huez on Thursday he momentarily forgot teammate Tom Pidcock had – only minutes earlier - won stage 12 of the Tour de France.
Commercial theme music and the lively tones of a French commentator played from speakers near the podium, behind which Pidcock was hurriedly ushered behind on his bike after crossing the finish line.
Just beyond that was a guard of Gendarmes who formed a human fence, keeping team staff and media dressed in white polyester bibs to one side of the road, and creating a space for riders on the other as they came through in dribs and drabs, looking for their soigneurs.
Chris Froome was part of the main breakaway, from which Tour debutant Pidcock attacked from to celebrate a solo victory, while Froome finished third behind runner-up Louis Meintjes.
The older Briton rode into the sea of white jerseys and soigneurs with a pained expression, seemingly searching for the roadside barricade to pull up against.
Third was Froome’s best result since a career-threatening injury in 2019. Trying to catch his breath, he coughed repeatedly before opening a bottle of water and cracking a smile.
Related: Is Chris Froome back? The story of the man who refused to give up
“His mountain biking came in handy today,” Froome said of Pidcock. “There were a few points where I backed off because he was pushing the limits.”
As a scrum encased Froome, his former teammate Thomas came into view, resting on his bike stem, drenched wet from sweat and perhaps what appeared to be the remnants of an icepack peeping out the back of his jersey, near the base of his neck.
Three minutes and 23 seconds behind Pidcock, he had sprinted to the line against race leader Jonas Vingegaard and defending champion Tadej Pogačar.
Whippersnappers, Thomas called his younger rivals.
“I actually felt like I had the speed in that sprint, but, well, Vingegaard came, it was either brake or crash, so I braked,” Thomas said.
The 36-year-old had ridden at his own pace within the final 3km, anticipating that Vingegaard and Pogačar would toy with each other, which they did. Every time Pogačar attacked, Vingegaard would follow.
And each time, in his own time, Thomas bridged back.
“I guess it’s that old diesel engine I’ve got,” the 2018 Tour champion quipped.
“I’ll still try to win but it’s obviously a tough ask, Vingegaard, as you saw today, covering Pogačar for fun. But no one expected Pogačar to have a bad day yesterday, so you never know.”
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It was hard to hear Primož Roglič as the music and commentating continued to fill the air.
The Jumbo-Visma title contender turned super domestique for Vingegaard did his share of pace-making up the famous switchbacks, which thousands of fans lined, forming a human tunnel in some parts.
Various national flags caught the wind as sun-kissed supporters jollied in fancy dress, sounded off foghorns and generally cheered – with beer breath, going on a few corners earlier in the day- as they bore witness to the Tour.
A mix of television microphones and the smartphones of print journalists, some in hand, some on extended sticks, were poised at the ready as Roglič looked back down towards the course, where riders were still finishing.
“I have to go far?” he muffled to a team staff member through a face mask firmly fixed to his face.
“One hundred 50 metres back off the finish, left, a gravel road, down, and then you will see the hotel, a big block,” the staff member replied.
Roglič looked as though he was going to go straight back the way he came on Alpe d’Huez before a reporter asked about strategy. It was hard to make out his answer, with the music, the mask, and his softly spoken words, but one thing was clear.
“We have the strongest guy,” he said.
In the lulls between riders crossing the line there were tender moments. Soigneurs knelt in front of their riders sat on the ground, fixing them with towels, food, offering reassuring words and gestures.
Michael Matthews crossed the line and just had time to open what looked like a fun-size Haribo packet before the majority of the rouleurs and versatile sprinters rolled through in a bigger group behind him.
EF Education-EasyPost converged together at the same point past the finish line, opening bottles of Perrier sparkling water and also some Haribo.
The music was cranked even louder as stage winner Pidcock, yellow jersey Vingegaard and white jersey Pogačar were all presented in their respective podium ceremonies.
Their work for the day was done by the time the pure sprinters finished the stage more than 38 minutes after Pidcock celebrated, within the time cut. Caleb Ewan’s jersey was covered in white salt marks, and his face was dirty from the road, but he was happy. Stage 12 with its three hors categorie climbs was the one he was fearful of missing the time cut in.
Vingegaard and Jumbo-Visma set the tone in the Alps, not only having power in numbers but playing that advantage to aplomb.
Vingegaard took the yellow jersey from Pogačar, who under pressure from the Dutch squad, proved human on the Col du Granon and lost precious time to his rival.
Some pundits can’t see how Pogačar, given how Vingegaard has matched him, not to mention the unparalleled strength and nous of his team, can now reclaim the maillot jaune.
But the 23-year-old in a playful interview to close out his foray into the Alps clearly doesn’t agree.
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“I know why I cracked yesterday, and I know that it will be hard to happen again this Tour,” he reflected about Granon.
Seb Piquet followed up with the obvious question: What happened?
“I cannot tell you that … No, I tell you!” Pogačar joked.
“It was just too many attacks, and I was maybe stupid, I should lay back a little bit yesterday on Galibier. On Galibier I was really good, and I paid a price on Granon.
“Today I tried but with not 100 per cent confidence after yesterday. I think I can go with [my] head up, motivated to the next week.
“It’s going to be interesting how we play in the Pyrenees.”