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Hope Dies Last

Tom Southam Tekst Tom Southam Gepubliceerd 24 februari 2018


“Dai, dai, dai!”
“Dai Davide, everything, everything, ev-er-ything”.

What else can you say?

As a sports director what else can you really say into the radio at this moment in time: 800 metres from the finish of Liège-Bastogne-Liège. At this moment my co-director Juan Manuel Gárate and I back in the Cannondale-Drapac car, knew that Davide Formolo was pouring every single ounce of energy that he had into pushing forward. We knew he was combusting: his legs and his lungs burning, while his head was urging him for more.

At this moment he is a bike racer and he can almost see the finish line. When you are a racer, there is nothing else like this. That scent of victory is the addiction that we all share.

In the front seat of the team car, I repeated my words over the radio again.

“Everything Davide, a tutta a tutta!”

The climb up to the finish of Liège in Ans is brutal but it is honest — the road is straight and gradient rises evenly. It is a simple ramp, but at this stage of La Doyenne, it is the moment that cards are placed on the table for the world to see.

In the Cannondale-Drapac car we had watched the 2017 Liège-Bastogne-Liège unfold like an avalanche, tumbling towards a conclusion. Formolo had attacked after the summit of the penultimate climb of Saint-Nicholas, and he had held his precarious gap of five to six seconds for four kilometres.

At this point, we in the car had gone from thinking that Davide’s attack would be the perfect foil for Rigoberto Urán who, like all the favourites, had waited patiently and saved every ounce of energy for the last kilometre, to suddenly, for a moment, daring to think that Davide had a shot to win.

At this very moment, as Roman Kreuziger was beginning to fade and as Porte, Albasini, Valverde and Martin were gearing up to accelerate behind Davide, we knew it would be close. But like everyone, we also knew that the final climb up to Ans flattens slightly when you take the final turn toward the finish line at 250 metres to go.

If Davide could make it to the corner, the road would flatten and I knew that if he could see the finish line just there, surely he could find more from somewhere deep inside of himself

Behind Davide we could see that the riders were ready to pounce. But hope dies last. On the radio I had one last shot at giving Davide his own form of hope. The only card that I had left to play.

“To the corner, just race to the corner. Everything to the corner.”

The psychology of racing in these extreme moments is often to try to break down big efforts into small parts. Anyone who has ridden or competed in sport at any level will know that you don’t really know what you are capable of until you do it. Oftentimes you can only manage to do it if you can blindfold your mind a little.

The finish line is 250 metres from the corner. Meaning that when this photo was taken, Davide had just 550 metres to cover to the left hand turn. Some days 550 metres is nothing, they can be over in a flash.

This was never going to be one of those cases. But if Davide could make it to the corner, the road would flatten and I knew that if he could see the finish line just there, surely he could find more from somewhere deep inside of himself to accelerate again, and maybe resist. If he could focus on the corner he could trick his suffering mind into thinking that he was closer than he was to the line.

After 271 km and weeks of preparation, it all boiled down to playing a psychological game to mentally shave off just 250 metres.

“To the corner, to the corner.”

Liège-Bastogne-Liège is a race that begins with such a slow burn. A lengthy opening scene that rolls steadily south on the open terrain and hard concrete roads of the Walloon region before touching Bastogne and turning back towards Liège. On this return leg the race starts to dart in and out of the cover of the forests and hills of the Ardennes, and the action finally ignites over a grinding, unrelenting final hundred kilometres, mercilessly sorts out the weak, and reduces the peloton to one single fragile line racing towards the finish.

I remember Liège as a rider, and I remember the feeling of the intensity building. Like swimming against stronger and stronger waves while struggling to take breaths, as you gulp down more and more seawater until you simply can’t hang on any longer.

Eleven years later the 2017 Ardennes Classics were my first truly big races as a lead sports director. I’ll admit that I am not crazy about Amstel (Amstel is crazy enough as it is); Flèche is nice but it’s not the big one. Liège however — the oldest and the grandest of them all — was the one that I wanted.

11 years later, and 8 hours before this photo was taken, I was the one who was now in charge of trying to inspire something special out of my group of riders.

I recall my sports director Claudio Corti talking to us with twinkle in his eye as we drove into the centre of Liège on the team bus for the start on a Sunday years ago, telling us all to take a look around and take it in, that this was “La Liegi” (as the Italians fondly refer to the race) and to savour that moment.

At the time I did not understand it. Liège looked like a shit hole, but I was young and dumb and I was also probably simply terrified of what was ahead.

Eleven years later, and eight hours before this photo was taken, I was the one who was now in charge of trying to inspire something special out of my group of riders. But for me there was no standing up on the bus, effusing about the charm of the centre of Liège.

Rather auspiciously we arrived for this edition of Liège in teams cars, as our team bus had broken down right in the central bus station when we had arrived for the team presentation the night before the race, and we’d been forced to just leave the bus in the centre and hope it wasn’t smashed, set on fire, or daubed in graffiti penises.

Deep down, I loved the fact that we arrived unconventionally crammed in cars and piled in to our broken bus to get ready on that Sunday morning (that was parked outside of the official parking in the Liège bus station) and our riders were not in the slightest way phased. Bike riders can be extremely fragile when they lack confidence; I’ve seen riders lose their minds because they don’t have the right oats in the morning, or because their socks haven’t come out of the washing white enough. So to turn up to a broken down bus after being squeezed into team cars to the start and remain concentrated and focussed, I knew we had a team that could really do the business.

And in the race our riders didn’t put a foot wrong: Davide Villella and Mike Woods were two of the key attackers in the final 30 km when the race entered the key phase over the Roche aux Faucons and Saint-Nicholas.

But this is not a victory shot. We all know that Davide didn’t make it to the line. The wave swallowed him before he made it. The first person to pass him was former winner Dan Martin, 150 metres from that corner, at which moment Davide later admitted that he wanted to stop pedalling right there and then and get off his bike. Watch the video, you can see the power drain from him before Martin has even finished going by.

For Davide it was an all for nothing moment — the black tape on his arm in memorial of his friend Michele Scarponi who had died the previous day, and who Davide had raced with only 72 hours earlier at the Tour of the Alps.

This is an all or nothing shot for myself too. As a director you learn that you can want it, and you can do everything you can, but sometimes, no matter what you do, or what you try, you are going to fall short, sometimes by a lot, and sometimes just by metres.

Image: Cor Vos
Image: Cor Vos

If you liked this story consider purchasing Soigneur Cycling Journal 18 where it was first printed.

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