The Tour de France physically ages you and at this point of the race Paris starts to resemble not the city of love, accomplishment or a celebration but salvation.
The name of the capital city has crept into nearly every interview now as riders begin to cross off the days until they can see family as opposed to play up to camera.
“Here we are in the Tour de France and one stage less,” said defending champion Egan Bernal (Ineos) days before he surrendered.
If you sign-on for the whole, consecutive three weeks of work (four if you include the media preamble) you don’t see it because you’re part of it, but if you duck in and out of the ‘bubble’ the fatigue is tangible.
The eyes of journalists that were bright and clear at the Grand Depart become red, drawn and dry. Riders, who commenced clean shaven with fresh haircuts, develop deep sleep creases in their faces, which don’t fade as they gingerly walk out of team buses in the morning, wearing socks and sandals. They ask to speak in their native tongue where possible, not a second, third or fourth language. Team buses begin to smell kind of rank, like a stuffy gym.
You begin talking more in something akin to pidgin English than proper sentences with colleagues whom you can only take a break from at bedtime. Pre-COVID-19 protocols, most riders would stay in twin share accommodation so didn’t even get that.
Before the pandemic, riders would look at you and you’d look at them outside crowded buses at stage starts, both sides evaluating whether an interview will be worth the energy it’s going to take to talk.
For the sprinters, this week is especially hard. Stage 18 saw one of the most decorated sprinters’ in the sport’s history, Andre Greipel (Israel Start-Up Nation), abandon with 129km to go.
Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal) has openly asked for encouragement on social media to get through the third week of this edition, which Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo) from the outset forecast as a “death march to Paris”.
The battle Sam Bennett (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) has taken to Peter Sagan (Bora-hansgrohe) for the green jersey, Ineos’ fall and Jumbo-Visma’s succession, the emergence of Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma), Tadej Pogacar (UAE Emirates), new faces like Marc Hirschi (Sunweb), plus the return and the absence of notable team staff, has also contributed to a different and so arguably harder beat.
Green jersey Bennett, who is as fast as predecessors, like Greipel, but lither and so a more able climber, is within shot of ending Sagan’s long reign over the points classification.
Bernal, 23, after stage 14 highlighted how the contest between the pair had affected everyone.
“The first climb … [Bora-hansgrohe] was pulling full gas for Sagan, trying to drop Sam Bennett. Finally, he dropped and the whole stage was really hard just for the green jersey, they were fighting for the green jersey, so it was really, really hard. Then, in the final, I think everyone was in the limit,” the Colombian said.
Jumbo-Visma has made successful moves to assert its control over the Tour since day one but the peloton, unlike previous years under the Ineos/Sky empire, is now fighting for victories rather than racing merely to hold minor places along a brutally mountainous course.
“I could barely pedal my bike, with 500m to go I couldn’t stand up,” Porte, who is fourth overall, said after stage 17 to the Col de la Loze.
They say you see the best and worst of people at work and no truer word has been spoken than at the third week of the Tour de France. There is a real human element to it and on the flipside humans on the precipice of a breakdown. In the trenches, the media scrums, grown men have chased and kicked each other in response to getting pushed or bumped. I’d like to say I’m above it, but my pointed elbow has accidentally on purpose found a ribcage before.
Scrums and excess fanfare have been nullified under COVID-19 protocols this season but the toll of the Tour, and the physical, mental and emotional exertion it demands has not. If anything, it’s been amplified amid coronavirus testing and doubt week three would even eventuate.
On stage 18, the peloton showed it has still got fight. The key protagonists were there, Bahrain-McLaren was visible, Porte chased back from a puncture with 26.9km to go, Michal Kwiatkowski and Richard Carapaz saved Ineos’ campaign with a one-two win, operating outside the squad’s usual Tour script. The general classification is not entirely set in stone and there is still much to play for, especially with the upcoming time trial.
Paris is three days away, so close and yet so far.