Last night's racing was sublime, riveting. Attack, fade, attack again, grind. Frank Schleck, Castres, Zabel. Axel Merckx with the move of his career. A brave Frenchman and a brave Spaniard who are too slow to contend, hung in there. A great world champion was broken into little pieces and had to abandon, a much sadder word than "leave," "quit" or "lose." The pack was shattered. Individual men failed. It was impossible to look away. I have never seen anything like it.
We racers and tifosi talk too much about speed, about 7 wins, about wattage and heart rates and the modulus of carbon fiber. We lose the essence of the sport which is men putting themselves in great suffering with the help of an impassable road up an impossible mountain, testing their mettle, legs and lungs against each other, giving all, failing, recovering, giving all again, looking into the heart of darkness and pain, looking deep into their own soul, and then riding out of something like hell, at a pace triumphant.
Or abandoning, utterly crushed.
Though the Tour is on tonight, I am almost afraid to watch, lest this tough Stage 16 should fail to measure up to the impossibly high standard set on Alpe d'Huez yesterday. That was champagne and caviar racing. Forget the dopers, Ulrich, Basso, Hamilton and the rest. We don't need them. Don't curse them, don't damn them - just forget them. They don't deserve to bring sacrifices to this altar, not just for the crime of doping, but for the crime of besmirching a very pure sport. The sport will forgive doping, after all doping is men trading years of their lives, risking jail and livelihood for a single sip from the cup, but cycling does not forgive stupidity and indiscretion on or off the wheel. This sport is mystical in its import whether dopers ride or not, and, in fact, assuming the rest of the peleton is relatively clean right now, it is better without the dopers, the competition purer, more free of baggage. What were their names again? Oh, nevermind. Doesn't matter. When an enormous pack of Top 10 caliber riders have a fair chance to win, when a great classics rider like Voigt or Schleck or Kessler has more than a chance to take a stage win, and when a guy who has had a so-so career like Axel Merckx has a chance to become a hero for 20 minutes, it is indeed a great day. The common men are reaching deeper into themselves than they thought possible, and becoming great men before your eyes. If you think that Basso or Ulrich, once cleared, will come back as strong as ever, think again. Some of these new men will ride with confidence, having tasted greatness and having realized what heights they are capable of. The dopers, by making themselves somehow larger than others, will return diminished.
The heated fight, victory, failure, redemption - these great themes played out on the 21 switchbacks last night. Warfare is the only human activity I can think of that surpasses bike racing. The only activities that rival a race, that can be for a minute its equal, are the rare great opera performed greatly, the finest wines and romantic love. Nothing else is finer, with both more wickedness and more purity, than a battle on wheels which strains the legs, the hearts, and the spirit of men - nevermind the the tense stomachs of the tifosi.
Yesterday's stage was unique. Other races and stages in the grand tours might measure up to yesterday's battle, but nothing will surpass it. We saw 150 men stripped down to the bare essence of their being. Some were found wanting, many measured up, and a surprising number completely surpassed themselves, and our expectations of them. I have not been racing for long, but I've been following the Tour for most of my life, and following it closely for over a decade, as well as reading about its history, culture and legends. While other stages may be its peer, other individual riders may turn it greater performances than the workmen did yesterday, none will be its equal for a racing fight. I sincerely hope that you, like me, appreciate Stage 15 for what it was: the very best of its kind we will ever see.