Before the 14th stage of the 2014 Tour de France, Bjarne Riis stood outside the Tinkoff-Saxo team bus. In his usual manner, he took in the scene as if looking at the world from a distance. He doesn’t give much away. There’s a hint of a grin and sometimes it turns to a smile. Occasionally a frown appears and generally there’s little emotion. From behind his sunglasses, he soaks it all in while journalists buzz around looking for interviews, photographers snap and fill their memory cards, mechanics fine-tune the bikes, team staff faff about doing the final chores before setting off on another journey from point A to B. Eventually the riders emerge to roll off to the sign-on… and beyond.
It’s another day in a bike race.
A day earlier, the Dane watched on as Vincenzo Nibali won another stage, his third in the 101st Tour – the one he’s likely to win.
At Chamrousse at the end of stage 13, Rafal Majka crossed a line on the road 10 seconds behind ‘The Shark’. Second in a mountain stage… it’s not bad. Actually, it’s damn good. Staff from some teams would be relishing the result, rubbing their hands together in glee. There might even be some fist-pumping and high-fiving going on.
It’s the Tour de France. It’s in the Alps. It’s at the top of the first HC climb. It’s a great result, especially for a guy who originally confessed that he didn’t really want to have to back up from the Giro d’Italia and race a second Grand Tour. Not yet. Not so soon.
Yeah, Rafal would delete that Facebook post and ultimately express how excited he was to be part of the Tinkoff-Saxo squad that was going to help Alberto Contador win the Tour.
That wouldn’t happen. Etc…
You know the story but the absence of the original leader is again relevant to the review of a stage of this magical mystery Tour.
Let’s be clear about this: if Contador was still in the race, Majka wouldn’t have finished second at Chamrousse… well, not unless he followed his leader over the line. It may be a hypothetical conclusion but we can safely say that Riis would have been furious if the Polish rider demonstrated what he’s clearly capable of while doing what he was meant to do: ie. be a domestique.
But Rafal got a chance. He jumped at it. He tried but he simply couldn’t win the first climbing test after his leader crashed out of the Tour with a fractured tibia. And second place should be enough to make Mr Riis grin.
But it didn’t quite happen that way. Let’s call the expression a smirk of mild contentment. That’s what Riis revealed outside the bus in Grenoble on the morning of the 14th stage.
Bjarne, I told him, you must be pleased with at least having a presence after Plan A goes out the window. “Yeah, yeah, yeah… well, pleased? Nah.”
He wasn’t grumpy, he just said it like he saw it. “We want to win.”
That’s how he and his team approaches a race like the Tour. And then he conceded, that second place for Majka wasn’t actually too bad. “Well, we’re happy about the result. There’s no doubt about that. It’s just given us confidence for more. And I think that’s important for the team.
“The team is strong. It’s good. And we have a big motivation to go out and do something nice.”
Okay, thanks for coming Majka. Glad you could make it. Pleased you came close… let’s try again. And that’s exactly what he’d do. And what a relief it would be. He raced ahead of everyone – yep, even that stubborn Shark who no one else seemed to be able to shake. Majka rode up to Risoul and finally got to throw his arms in the air. It was a long time coming and he wasn’t just smirking when he reached the finish 24 seconds ahead of Nibali. He was cheering and so too was the crowd.
It was an impressive performance. It’s made Poland pay attention to cycling. And it’s confirmed that this young rider who was sixth in the Giro d’Italia is a true talent, a team leader – just like he had been in Italy earlier this year.
“This is my first pro victory,” he explained afterward. “I was always coming second, third… I needed to win some big stage at the Tour de France.”
Ta dah! He got his chance; he came close. He got another chance; he triumphed.
Good news. The remedy for disappointment had been found.
* * * * *
On the rest day that followed the stage in which Alberto Contador crashed, the whole Tinkoff-Saxo crew went for a ride. They’d stop at a roadside café and Bjarne Riis led the discussion. “Tell me guys, what do you want to do now?”
No immediate plan was hatched but he asked for their contribution. How does a team that came to the Tour with the intention of winning the title – and winning it with one man alone – make amends when it all comes crashing down? They talked. They listened. They all threw in their ideas. And a day later Nico Roche went on the attack. He would go to the podium and collect a red number and the ‘Fighting Spirit’ prize of stage 11. Minor consolation, all things considered, but it made him happy. “It’s my first time on the podium of the Tour by myself. I’ve been there with the team – when it won the collective classification in 2013 – but this was my time.” Cool.
But more would come. Majka: second… and then first. Great. Even Bjarne would agree. Maybe, just maybe, he even cheered.
– By Rob Arnold