The Miami kid finished last. That hardly describes it.
Thirty-two minutes and five seconds ticked off the official race clock before Andrew Talansky pedaled across the finish line for Stage 11 of the Tour de France.
That would seem an ignominy that transcends mere last place. That was long after the last stragglers among the other 200 riders completed the 115-mile course through the Jura Mountains. Long after the podium ceremonies. Long after the two pretty models presented that day’s allotment of trophies, bouquets, teddy bears and kisses to the winners. Long after the overall race leader was zipped into a new yellow jersey.
Thirty-two minutes and five seconds earlier, the crowd in the eastern French town of Oyonnax had witnessed a frenetic mob sprint so close at the finale that 34 riders had been awarded the same virtual time as stage winner Tony Gallopin. Even better for the locals, Gallopin was a fellow Frenchmen. All the more reason to head for the bars and cafes to celebrate.
Except the spectators stayed around. Another kind of drama was unfolding on the long road to Oyonnax. Something heroic.
Now there's a word that my ilk has managed to devalue, particularly when we write about sports figures, awarding hero status to athletes for occasionally fulfilling expectations that come with annual paychecks of $5 million or $10 million or $15 million, not counting endorsement money. Lately, we've been tossing around hackneyed variations of the term while reporting the reconfiguration of the Miami Heat's famous triumvirate.
But on Wednesday, while South Florida obsessed over LeBron's leaving and the baffling ramifications of the NBA salary cap, the French were lingering along the Tour route to cheer a heroic loser.
They celebrated a feat by a young Miami athlete that was hardly noticed by folks back in his hometown. The crowd in Oyonnax knew that Andrew Talansky was chasing the very essence of sport.
Talansky, 25, who grew up on Key Biscayne, a wiry straight-A student and a former cross-country runner for Gulliver Prep, has become a star in professional bicycle racing over the last two years. A big name in Europe. Not so much back home in Miami. After winning the Critérium du Dauphiné in June, the young leader of the Garmin-Sharp racing team was considered among the favorites going into the Tour de France.
But the 2014 Tour has been brutal. Crashes took out previous winners Chris Froome and Alberto Contador and champion sprinter Mark Cavendish. Talanksy had gone down twice, and hard, bouncing onto his shoulder after bumping wheels in a crazy mass finish on one stage, then wrecking the next day on a rainy downhill descent.
By the start of Wednesday's stage, Talansky had become a study in cuts and scrapes and bandages. He injured his hip and back. His team reported he also had a respiratory infection.
He raced, anyway. But after 60 miles, when the great pack — known as the peloton — accelerated, he was left behind. Being alone in bike racing is more than a psychological detriment. The peculiar physics of the sport require a lone rider to exert some 30 percent more energy just to keep pace with those pedaling within the aerodynamic shelter of the mob. Talansky stopped for four long minutes to confer with his team manager, with the posture of a man undone by his injuries. Everyone knew that his day and his Tour de France were over.
Except he re-mounted his bike. He pedaled off. Another 32 agonizing miles to go.
French TV, broadcasted to the U.S. via NBC, became transfixed by this lonely, brave struggle far behind the peloton. A motorcycle-mounted cameraman was dispatched to shadow Talansky. A split screen showed race leaders at the front, the dogged Talansky far to the back. His pain was obvious. His face was a twisted grimace. He was in tears. He pedaled on.
I'm a longtime Tour de France fan who each evening settles in to watch a recording of that morning’s race. Watching Stage 11 late into the night, so many hours after the actual race was over, I had this overwhelming, utterly absurd urge to call friends and demand that they turn on their own televisions and watch what was unfolding — something like they’ve never seen before.
The crowds along the route, many of whom monitor the overall race developments on portable televisions, smartphones and computer tablets, stayed by the roadside long after the peloton had passed to cheer and applaud this forlorn last rider, to run along with Talansky’s bike for a stretch and shout encouragement. There was some vague drama, I suppose, in whether he could cross the finish line and avoid the 37-minute cutoff, an indignity that would officially eliminate him from the Tour. But mostly, it was this stunning display of perseverance that captured imaginations.
All hope of his reaching the Paris finish had vanished. It was obvious that Talansky wouldn't be able to continue as the Tour climbed into the Alps this weekend. His tour was over. He wouldn’t be able to continue with Stage 12. Everyone could see that. There was no rational reason for him to continue on with this stage, just to finish last, just to forestall the inevitable. And he had plenty reason to stop — riding on could exacerbate his injuries, delay his recovery.
Except that he wouldn't quit. He just wouldn't quit. “I just wanted to make it to the finish for my team,” he said after the race.
As Talansky ascended the heights of the Cote d’Echallon and finally entered the final stretch into the Oyonnax city center, more than a half hour after the peloton passed that way, the still waiting crowd — and you have to love the French for this — cheered the way they would cheer a champion riding to victory: waving, shouting, clapping, leaning over and slapping their hands against the plastic road barriers. They willed Talansky to the finish.
And a Miami kid's last-place finish felt a lot like triumphant.