It’s the images you don’t see that make this Tour de France so special

It’s the images you don’t see that make this Tour de France so special

07/09/2021

The best sports photography captures the purity of athleticism, and all its significance, in ways our minds only fumble to articulate. The thousand-yard stare gaping through a grit-encrusted face, speaking of the years of suffering and sacrifice that came before. The close-up of a tear on a winner’s podium, spelling out the deeply human, universal fear and disbelief behind the realisation of a lifelong dream.

The standout picture for many cycling fans on this week’s historic day on Mont Ventoux may well be that of the Wout van Aert, cresting the summit of the beautifully brutal climb, limbs glistening, eyes boring into the road, the famous mast in the background, a win all but certain ahead.

But a hastily framed, iphone picture taken on the same climb, three-quarters of an hour and a whole ascent earlier, conveys at least as much about this race and what makes it so celebrated, if not more. The blurry photo, tweeted by Team Qhubeka NextHash, shows van Aert’s fellow Belgian Victor Campenaerts.

He can be seen through the front windscreen of the team car, standing beside his father, his race over. The same bulging thighs that had pistoned him almost 1,800km of the way around France already, were now straddling the carbon frame beneath, the two feet of the world hour record holder, planted on the solid ground all champions come back to eventually.

This was the first climb father and son had ridden together, when Victor was 14. Campenaerts senior had come back to Ventoux as a pilgrimage, to cheer his son’s debut at the Tour, but had instead become the point on the course rider No.194 would battle all day to reach, the end point of his race.

For all the celebration and adoration bestowed on the riders up front, the real romance and beauty of the sport is found in the dozens of stories at the back, in the middle, and in the broom wagon sweeping along behind.

Long before Van Aert had made his decisive move off the front of the race, his team-mate Tony Martin was riding behind in the back of an ambulance. The camera had captured the aftermath of Martin’s final and decisive crash of this race, the right thigh covered in blood, but not the moment itself. His would disappear into the back of the medical vehicle, to be forgotten and swallowed up by the action up front.

We see glimpses of the various forces at play but we never have the time to go back over the 184 different stories of a day, belonging to each of the riders. Or, I should say, 151 after more than half a dozen abandonments on the day. While stadium sports allow us the advantage of set cameras picking up every moment, in bike racing we see a single shot of Bruno Armirail dropping back to the doctor’s car to pick up some assistance, and can only guess at the potential stomach upset that has been plaguing a fitful night of non-recovery.

The camera picks up Marc Hirschi, dabbing at a bloody nose with tissues, but moves along to more race-worthy moments while he is left to deal with whatever caused the blood vessels to burst and however it plays into his day.

The roadside fans, impatient to watch the rest of the action in the comfort of their own homes, will have been abandoning their front-row seats, few witnesses left to account for his day.

When Clement Russo climbed into a team car after riding 50km at a pace that would make the rest of us wince, his name flashed up on the screen as the latest abandon, without even a second’s worth of camera time for his lonely battle 8km behind the rest.

Even as the race leader Tadej Pogacar struggled to keep to the back wheel of Jonas Vingegaard on the second cresting of Mont Ventoux, we forgot about his earlier bike change and sprint to return to the back of the bunch. No one’s story is ever written in full.

The Tour, because of the sheer number of factors and protagonists, is overlain with countless sliding-doors, could-have-been moments; the threads of a narrative that go home early, rather than go on to dominate the headlines.

It is what makes Mark Cavendish’s wins all the more remarkable. Had he not been selected for the race, the established version of history would have been he passed his best several years ago. Instead, he is rewriting his own place in those history books.

All those potential turns of a sixpence are why this race is far from over. As we marvel at the feats of those beating the very best in the world, don’t forget those just out of camera shot. The stories untold and races unfinished are what make the Tour de France.

MARK CAVENDISH was made to wait for his chance to match Eddy Merckx’s record 34 Tour de France stage wins as the breakaway survived yesterday. German powerhouse Nils Politt took the honours after a frantic start allowed a powerful 13-man group to get away and put paid to an anticipated bunch finish at the end of the 159kilometres stage into Nimes.

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