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Crazy dream turns into Tour de France reality for Key Biscayne’s Andrew Talansky

Andrew Talansky was a kid with a crazy dream when he rode his bike up and down the William Powell Bridge on Rickenbacker Causeway, pretending Miami’s mountain was a French Alp. He rode the 15-mile loop from the end of Key Biscayne near his home to the toll booth and back multiple times, pretending it was a 150-mile stage through the sunflower fields and vineyards of the Tour de France.

The power of his imagination was even greater than the power of his legs.

So when Talansky pedals to the mile-high peaks of Mont Ventoux and Alpe-d’Huez in the coming weeks, climbing 12-mile stretches with steep 8-percent grades, perhaps he will recall his rides on the short, 78-foot-tall Rickenbacker molehill and smile — if he can manage a smile through gritted teeth during the world’s most spectacular and grueling bike race.

Talansky, 24, is among the promising rookie cyclists in the Tour de France, which began its 100th edition Saturday with a 127-mile ride up the east coast of Corsica and jolts the field Sunday with four climbs along the spine of the island.

“I always wanted to ride in the Tour de France, but now that I’m here it’s kind of unreal,” Talansky said. “It’s a demanding, insane challenge. I know I’ll learn a lot about myself by the time it ends.”

Should Talansky survive stairway-like ascents that are hors categorie (beyond classification), descents that can reach speeds of 70 mph, crashes, illness, exhaustion and mechanical mishaps during the 2,042 miles of the three-week Tour, his arrival in Paris would be via a most unlikely trail. He did not start cycling seriously until age 17 and did it in Miami, not known as an incubator for the next Greg LeMond.

With the exception of the Rickenbacker bridge and Mount Trashmore, Miami’s topography resembles the EKG of a flatlined patient. As Marjory Stoneman Douglas wrote in Everglades: River of Grass, South Florida’s clouds are its only mountains.

Talansky is not expected to be on the wheel of favorites Chris Froome of England and Alberto Contador of Spain. But he is a contender for Best Young Rider (25 or under) honors, which means he would don the white jersey on the Champs Elysees podium when the Tour concludes July 21.

“A lot of guys come unraveled the third week,” Talansky said. “If you can be consistent day by day then when someone cracks on a mountain stage, you can put yourself at the front of the pack.”

If Talansky earns the award it would not only be a boost for his career but for his cause: Riding drug-free. He is part of a new generation trying to reinvent the disgraced sport by pledging to stay clean. His team, Garmin-Sharp, has been in the vanguard in the race to distance cycling from its unseemly past, when riders relied on blood doping, steroids, EPO, HGH — an array of banned substances and methods that included testosterone patches and surreptitious transfusion sessions in village inns when blood bags were hung from picture frame hooks.

“It’s like a movement,” Talansky said of Garmin-Sharp’s activist stance, which includes disbanding the entire team if one rider tests positive. “We’re proving you can perform without using drugs. We take pride in accepting responsibility to compete with integrity. We want to be the face of change.”

Talansky, once inspired by seven-time Tour winner Lance Armstrong, is now the anti-Lance of American cycling. Armstrong was stripped of his titles and faces several lawsuits after a U.S. Anti-Doping Agency investigation revealed that he cheated throughout his career, coerced teammates into doping and bullied potential whistle-blowers.

Just as Armstrong’s fervent followers in the cancer community were conned, so too were up-and-coming riders, Talansky said. Armstrong, who made a two-year comeback in 2009-2010 and competed alongside Talansky, created an influential cancer-fighting foundation but also used the story of his survival of the disease as a shield to deny accusations.

“He was charismatic, as a lot of liars are, and he’s not a hero to me anymore,” Talansky said. “He’s also taken the brunt of the blame for a culture that was allowed to thrive for a long time. Now that the truth has come out, we can finally move forward. Testing has improved 1,000-fold in the last eight years.”

Further evidence that cycling is ridding the peloton of dopers is in the numbers, Talansky said. Races are slower and the traditional power measurement of riders — watts per kilogram — is lower.

“If you can do six watts per kilogram on a 30-minute climb in the last week, you could win,” said Talansky, who finished seventh last year in the Tour of Spain, where he logged a power rating of 5.8 and winner Contador was at 5.88. “It used to be seven, which is unthinkable now.”

Talansky said riders like himself, 2012 Tour and Olympic champion Bradley Wiggins and Americans Tejay van Garderen and Taylor Phinney can win fans back to the sport.

“I hope the public can find belief again,” he said. “You’ll always have skeptics. You also have cynics who have decided it’s a dirty sport. To them I say, if you are dead convinced that what you’re seeing is fake, don’t watch it and don’t buy a bike. All we can do is keep working ethically and refuse to compromise our values.”

If anyone has an appealing image it’s Talansky. He’s a wiry, bespectacled, blond intellectual who likes to quote the late American distance runner Steve Prefontaine in Tweets: “To give anything less than your best is to sacrifice the gift.”

Talansky grew up in Key Biscayne because his parents liked the small-town atmosphere.

“When he was a boy, we wanted his bike to be his mode of transportation — not knowing, of course, that he would become a professional cyclist,” said Talansky’s mother, Susane Amick, who is an interior designer, massage therapist, Tai Chi instructor and radio voiceover artist.

Talansky rode everywhere around the island — to fishing, kayaking and wakeboarding adventures with friends, to karate lessons and to the Donut Gallery.

At Gulliver Academy, he tried swimming and cross country. And when he had a stress fracture in his shin in 11th grade, he borrowed a friend’s bike to stay in shape.

“He decided to go on a group ride with the older guys and I warned him, ‘Andrew, that’s four hours, are you sure?’” said Amick, whose boyfriend, Boris Fernandez, was a triathlete. “He came home and said, ‘Oh, that was so fun.’ From that minute on, he loved it.”

Talansky joined the junior Team Laser sponsored by Laser International Freight owner Santi Gabino.

“He was a natural — built for the bike, lean, smooth, high RPM,” Gabino said. “He had the same focus and willingness to sacrifice that you see now.”

The juniors did long rides through Kendall, Miami Beach and to the end of Everglades National Park at Flamingo. Talansky and a friend once rode to Key Largo and back on a whim. It took them eight hours. They raced throughout Florida and won state titles.

Talansky and teammates got discounts and free repairs at Bikes To Go in South Miami, run by Max Berger. Amick, by then divorced, brought the mechanics her famous banana bread and lasagna in gratitude.

“That kid was all about studying for school and training,” Berger said. “To make it in Europe as a pro is very unusual for a cyclist from Miami.”

Talansky hasn’t forgotten his roots: When cyclist and young father Aaron Cohen was struck and killed by a hit-and-run driver on the crest of the William Powell Bridge in 2012, Talansky joined the outcry and advocated starting a legal fund. When Miamian Manny Huerta competed in the 2012 Olympic triathlon, Talansky sent his support.

As a freshman, Talansky won the collegiate championship at Lees-McRae College in North Carolina before dropping out of school to concentrate on cycling. He spent an unhappy season with the Amore & Vita team in Europe, living in the servants’ quarters of an old villa in Lucca, Italy.

“Looks beautiful from the outside but hasn’t been updated in 400 years,” Talansky said. “No heat, no hot water. Crammed in one room with four Russian guys, a psychotic American and some random guy who would come and go. I was miserable, got sick, came home.”

Back in the United States, he raced alone out of the back of his Honda Fit, slept on sofas with host families and put all expenses on his credit card. He got dropped by the peloton in races, and contemplated quitting.

Then, he won two races, joined the Cal Giant Specialized developmental team and met Kate Fox at an event near Lake Tahoe. They are engaged to be married in October.

“I knew nothing about cycling but when I met him my heart just skipped a beat,” said Fox, a bodyworker who was into snowboarding, snowmobiling and dirt-bike riding. “His overall being and energy — I know it’s a cliché but we knew we were meant for each other.”

Talansky improved as one of the Berries — the team sponsored by Cal Giant strawberries.

“He rode so aggressively we figured he would either blow up or be the real deal,” said team director Anthony Gallino. “An intense fire burns within him, and he learned to channel those emotions. He can climb, sprint and time trial, and when you are that well-rounded with his lung capacity and physiological gifts, you’ve got an exciting career ahead. He’s one of the most genuine, classy, polite and joyful kids I’ve ever met.”

During a breakaway climb at the 2010 Tour of the Gila in New Mexico, Talansky caught the eye of Garmin director Jonathan Vaughters, a former pro who had confessed to drug use and founded the maverick team. Talansky signed a contract and is among the team’s top riders, nicknamed “Pit Bull.” In March, he finished second overall and won stage 3 on a cold, rainy breakaway descent of Paris-Nice, a prestigious five-day race that Talansky calls “a miniature Tour de France.” In the Criterium du Dauphine earlier this month, he overcame a stomach bug to finish third on the last day behind Team Sky stars Froome and Richie Porte.

“Andrew is young and while it’s his first Tour de France he’s coming off a great season,” Vaughters said. “Our approach is a little unconventional but we’ve managed to come up with surprises every year at the Tour. Our goal is to animate the race with an aggressive strategy and we will aim to place high in the general classification.”

This year’s Tour features one team and two individual time trials and four summit finishes, including atop the treeless moonscape of Mont Ventoux and the first-ever double ascent up the switchbacks of Alpe-d’Huez. The final stage starts at the gardens of Versailles, crosses the Louvre courtyard and goes around the Arc de Triomphe.

“It’s somewhat heavy on climbing, but a balanced course,” Talansky said. “My strength is my ability to recover well. What I can do in one day I can replicate over three weeks.”

Talansky prepared in the Sierra Nevada of Spain. He lives with Fox in Girona, home to a colony of riders. They grow tomatoes and zucchini in their garden, walk to coffee shops in town and listen to country music — when Talansky isn’t training, racing or sleeping.

“When he’s on the bike he is a totally different person,” Fox said. “At home, he’s hilarious. He’s a character. Every day, he comes up with different dance moves for me and makes up songs.

“His personality enables him to enter the Tour with a calm, peaceful approach.”

Fox and Amick will attend Tuesday’s stage in Nice. Fox and Talansky’s father, Alan, who lives in California, will also be in Paris.

“I’m proud of him because he had the courage to follow his dream,” Amick said. “It’s symbolic that it’s the 100th Tour, it’s Andrew’s first and it’s a new beginning for the sport.”

When the season is over and Talansky returns home to Key Biscayne, he still goes on occasional 6:30 a.m. group rides along his familiar route over the Rickenbacker bridge “where it all started,” he said.

“It’s funny how it used to seem so monumental,” Talansky said. “Now, it’s like a speed bump.”