Andrew Talansky became an unwitting star of last year’s Tour de France when he labored through Stage 11 in a poignant show of will over pain. TV cameras captured Talansky sitting by the side of the road, in distress and despair as he debated whether to continue the 30 miles to the finish despite an agonizing back injury.
After speaking with his team director, a tearful Talansky climbed back on his bike and pedaled onward, over a mountain and to the town of Oyonnax, where he crossed the line 30 minutes behind the peloton in last place, barely beating the time cutoff. The podium ceremony for the stage winner had already concluded, but fans stuck around to cheer Talansky as the announcer said, “This is also the Tour de France!”
Talansky decided to abandon the Tour the next day after consulting with the team doctor. He had injured his lower back and arm in crashes during Stages 7 and 8. He said he was “absolutely heartbroken.”
When Talansky’s third try at the Tour commences Saturday, he will readily trade sympathy for success, which he would define as a top-10 finish when the race concludes July 26 on the Champs-Elysees in Paris.
Miami’s Talansky, 26, placed 10th in his inaugural Tour in 2013 in only his third year as a pro. The exceptionally mountainous 2015 course plays to his strength as a climber, and he could be a podium contender if the ride goes smoothly for him and his Cannondale-Garmin teammates and not so smoothly for the “Big Four” favorites — former champions Vicenzo Nibali, Alberto Contador and Chris Froome, and Colombia’s Nairo Quintana.
“Anything can happen in the Tour, which means anything is possible,” Talansky said of the 21-stage, 2,087-mile odyssey, which will start for the 21st time outside France, in the Dutch city of Utrecht for the 102nd edition.
The Tour includes a short individual time trial on the first day, a team time trial in Stage 9, tough uphill finishes in the first week, seven mountain stages in the Pyrenees and Alps, and the dreaded cobblestones in Stage 4, where a total of eight miles of bone-jarring roadway from Belgium into France could cause havoc as it did last year on a wet day of crashes that took out Froome, among others.
Organizers set the route to maximize potential for suspense from Stages 17-20. On July 23, riders face a 114-mile stage from Gap to Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne with seven categorized climbs and the hors categorie up the 5,772-foot Col du Glandon. The next day, they will finish atop La Toussuire, which includes an 11-mile ascent at a 6.1-percent grade.
The penultimate day features a climb up 7,900-foot Col du Galibier followed by a finish at L’Alpe d’Huez, the famous 21-switchback stretch of 8.6 miles at 8.1 percent gradient, always lined with screaming, sunburned fans.
“There are chances for shuffling of the leaders late in the race, and I’m looking forward to the Alps,” Talansky said.
He has had a season that resembles the stage profiles — up and down. Talansky had to withdraw from the Amgen Tour of California because of illness.
He came back to win the U.S. time trial championship in Chattanooga, Tennessee, which will give him the privilege of wearing the stars and stripes jersey at the start of the Tour.
Talansky attempted to defend the biggest, boldest title of his career at the Criterium du Dauphine, but he settled for 10th place.
Although the spring didn’t go as planned, Talansky said he feels more confident going into the Tour than he did last year, when misfortune ruined the race that is his top priority.
“Each Tour is a learning experience, and last year I had to look in the mirror and do a deep self-evaluation,” said the red-headed Talansky, who grew up in Key Biscayne, graduated from Gulliver Academy and didn’t take up cycling until age 17, when he was recovering from a running injury. “In the big picture of my career, what was a terrible day will turn out to be a benefit. People took motivation from seeing my ability to suffer and persevere, and I learned a lot about myself.”
Cannondale-Garmin team CEO Jonathan Vaughters said Talansky’s recovery from the back injury required months of physical therapy that compromised his comfort level on the bike.
“It has certainly taken him a while to regain his spark,” Vaughters said. “We saw he was very promising at U.S. nationals, then the Dauphine started off promising but by the end of the race he was struggling a little bit. But I think he is going to be good at the Tour de France. He is on the right trajectory.”
Talansky’s co-leaders on the argyle-kitted team known for its ardent advocacy of cleaning up a sport marred by a history of doping are Canada’s Ryder Hesjedal and Ireland’s Dan Martin.
“These three and the team as a whole will work seamlessly and selflessly together to shake things up and create opportunities,” Vaughters said. “You’ll see a lot of creativity from us at this Tour.”
Talansky, who splits his time between Girona, Spain, and northern California with wife Kate Fox, is one of only three Americans in the Tour’s 198-rider field, the smallest contingent since 1996, when Lance Armstrong rode with George Hincapie and Frankie Andreu.
Tejay van Garderen of team BMC finished fifth in last year’s Tour, second in the recent Dauphine. Tyler Farrar, a former Tour stage winner and strong sprinter, rides for South Africa-based MTN-Qhubeka.
France has a handful of contenders, including Thibaut Pinot, Jean-Christophe Peraud and Romain Bardet.