Blazin' Saddles

Ventoux Rendez-Vous: From Chris Froome to the Broom (Wagon)

Blazin' Saddles

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It was a quite unbelievable performance. One 28-year-old man digging deep to get to the top and beat his biggest rival. The crowds were roaring; it was Bastille Day, after all.

There was no one ahead of him - just an open road leading to the summit of Mont Ventoux; his biggest concern was what was going on behind. Would he be caught and denied?

He knew if he made it people would be asking questions: where did he get his strength from? How did he manage to pull off such a coup? Did he get any assistance up the climb? But he'd deal with that during the rest day. First, he just had to get to the top.

No, Saddles isn't talking about Team Sky's Chris Froome, the emphatic winner of stage 15 atop the 'Giant of Provence'.

Rather, this is Sojasun's Jonathan Hivert - the Frenchman who finished the Tour's longest stage at the other end of the spectrum, in 181st place exactly 50 minutes and 21 seconds down on the yellow jersey.

Hivert lost contact with the peloton before Nyons with 60km remaining and was forced to ride the last two hours or so on his own with the broom wagon - his only real rival on the stage - breathing down his neck.

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All those zany things we witnessed on the Ventoux - for instance, the naked man with the stuffed wild boar - Hivert had to tackle on his own. And not just on his own - but a full 17 minutes behind the day's penultimate rider, Juan Jose Lobato.

It's hard enough for the leaders like Froome and Nairo Quintana to carve a path through the frenzied throngs of spectators - but can you imagine having to do it when those same fans thought the race finished half an hour ago and you're just an amateur trying to steal a bit of the limelight?

Now can you imagine being French and having to do your best Moses impression on a bike amid a sea of fans whose hopes of a home hero on Bastille Day were thwarted faster than you can say "Pierre Rolland, don't even think of lowering the sartorial standards of this breakaway with your ridiculous polka-dot get-up - now bugger off back to the peloton", but who suddenly realised that they had, after all, did something to cheer?

And can you imagine doing all this knowing that three years earlier you did exactly the same thing: Hivert, indeed, was the last rider over the line when Juan Manuel Garate won stage 20 atop Mont Ventoux back in 2009.

That time, he trickled home just the 26 minutes in arrears. Although, on that day the stage was around 80km shorter; this year, the hardest and longest climb of the race came at the end of the Tour's longest stage since 2000 - the year that Lance Armstrong beat a top 10 of similarly juiced men in lycra to Paris in an era that could only be described golden if you were referring to the urine samples that should have all come back as positive as the south end of a magnet.

Talking about Armstrong, it was fitting the big man himself should tweet Froome to "give no gifts on the Ventoux" as the Briton approached the summit. After all, Froome's fan-cadence-tastic ride on the 'Bald Mountain' had echoes of the Texan in it.

For the past three years we have watched yellow jerseys Bradley Wiggins, Cadel Evans and Andy Schleck calculate their way to the top, winning with about as much flair as a skinny jeans summit held in torchlight in Hackney.

But Froome - who became the first yellow jersey to win on the Ventoux since Eddy Merckx in 1970 - is actually riding this Tour as if every stage depends on him taking at least a minute from his main rivals at every summit or ITT time check.

In short, we haven't seen this kind of swashbuckling bullishness since Armstrong grabbed the Tour by the scruff of its neck and used it to wipe his arse for seven heady years around the turn of the millennium.

The thing is, when Armstrong did it he had a strong team of similarly charged co-workers, while Froome seems to be dominating this race with a team rivalling Cofidis on the explosivity stakes. (Although, to be fair, both Peter Kennaugh and Richie 'Launch Pad' Porte were back to their Ax3 Domaines best after those mysterious musettes picked up at the 10km-to-go banner.)

The moment Froome made his decisive attack to distance Alberto Contador two kilometres later, between the angle of the camera, the yellow jersey's speed, position on the bike and crazed cadence, it looked like Froome was actually descending the Ventoux - not tackling one of its steeper 8 per cent gradients.

Froome's spindly legs were spinning faster than a wind turbine on the coast of Tenerife. His cadence looked like a cartoon when the hands of a clock are speeded up to reduce an entire day inside a matter of seconds. Two motorbikes appeared to crash in his wake, such was their inability to keep up.

He soon caught Quintana, who at the start of the climb had a nosebleed. (Saddles hadn't seen a Colombian with a nose bleed since, well, this is a family blog and so we'd better skip over the remainder of that anecdote...)

Britain hasn't had much luck on the Ventoux in the past, what with Tom Simpson and all that. In fact, not wanting to be macabre or make light of the past, but Froome's victory now means British riders are statistically just as likely to die on the Ventoux as they are to win on it. Which is progress.

Although all the naysayers and finger pointers will question the notion of progress when it seems to be taking everyone back 20 years.

Given Froome's fireworks and cycling's tainted history, it's entirely right to be suspicious of the performance - which is probably why the French will find it much easier to celebrate Jonathan Hivert's human ride more than the flying knees-and-elbows effort of the man who beat him across the line by the best part of an hour.

Still, Froome's time for his ascent was apparently only the 22nd best in history, with the likes of Andy Schleck, David Moncoutie and even Roman Kreuziger faster in the past. So don't get too carried away.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: When asked what Chris Froome said to Nairo Quintana as they entered the final 2km, Sky manager Dave Brailsford said: "I’m not sure, perhaps he wanted to buy some coffee." Nothing like a good bit of stereotyping is there, eh?

HOT: Peter Sagan celebrated building up an unassailable lead in the green jersey competition by performing a wheelie as he was being caught by the main pack at the start of the Ventoux.

NOT: Pierre Rolland had a shocker - chasing onto the break for the best part of an hour at 50kmh before effectively been told to p*ss off back to the peloton. Still, at least the peloton will have one less pair of polka-dotted bib shorts on Tuesday - not to mention socks, helmet, bike etc and so forth.

STAGE 16: VAISON-LA-ROMAINE - GAP, 168KM

Following Monday's rest day, the race resumes with this intriguing stage which is neither mountains nor flat. It's quite similar to the stage following the second rest day of the Vuelta in which Alberto Contador surprised Joaquim Rodriguez - and the Saxo-Tinkoff rider will need more of the same if he wants to make the 100th Tour a contest once again.

Froome is riding so well in the mountains and the time trials, this is probably the only chance his rivals have - not to mention the only chance for a plucky outside to get a win. As such, Europcar pair Thomas Voeckler and Cyril Gautier will no doubt try and get a first win for France. Vacansoleil will also be keen. In fact, there will be so many riders keen to make the break that we can expect yet another ridiculously fast stage. Followed by a Peter Sagan victory, of course.

PLAT DU JOUR: Before Tuesday's stage there's the small matter of the annual Vacansoleil-DCM second rest-day 'mussel party' which, given the fact that we're in the Vaucluse and nowhere near the sea, could be one for Jan Bakelants to miss. Once in Gap, it's a carbs frenzy with Tourte de Champsaur on the menu, which is basically a potato gratin with lardons, cream and garlic - but made into a pie.

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