science and art – Rouleur
Cyclo-cross world champions killing the Tour de France are like buses: you wait for one, then two arrive at once. Tom Pidcock became the second of the breed to win a stage in the 2022 Grande Boucle after Wout van Aert’s victories in Calais and Lausanne, when he scored a solo triumph atop L’Alpe d’Huez. In fact, there was a phase of the stage where a champion – Pidcock – rode alone up front, slowly but surely taking a winning lead over Louis Meintjes, while five minutes further up the mountain Van Aert paced a rapidly shrinking GC group. . The cyclo-crossers had taken over.
And multitaskers take control of the Tour. For better or for worse, Tadej Pogačar sprinted, climbed, attacked, time trialed and dropped all his rivals on the cobbles; Van Aert did much the same. Even Magnus Cort, another stage winner, mixed attack, a bit of climbing and sprinting. Pidcock? Good at climbing, obviously, very good at pacing and judging an effort, and convincingly, viscerally good at descending, including later.
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Pidcock is a difficult rider to train. He tends not to say too much in interviews, despite being as to-the-point as hell. During the press conference following his victory, the first question was: can you explain the experience of riding through the crowd on the Alpe? Pidcock thought for a few seconds, then said, “No. To be fair, he then elaborated on that point, calling it “ridiculous,” and that “no” actually communicated the magnitude of his achievement and the madness of the crowds very effectively. Much better though, in order if not to understand Tom Pidcock at least to appreciate him, to observe his racing style.
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The northern side of the Col du Galibier is probably the most difficult side to climb, but take it in the other direction and it offers interesting possibilities for the descender. There are a few hairpins near the top and a stack of hairpins above Plan Lachat, the point about halfway where the descent joins the valley and heads into Valloire. In between is a winding, winding road with plenty of visibility. In this section of road, after attacking at the top of the climb, Tom Pidcock escaped the gravitational pull of the peloton and set about closing a 90 second gap to the front of the race.
The Briton appeared to be in free fall as he plunged down the descent. He was visibly faster than anyone else on the mountain, compact, aerodynamic and very, very physical. There is a calm and gentleness to some great descenders. Marc Hirsch and The Primož Roglič are cyclists who look like they are part of their bike when they go downhill. Pidcock was different on the Galibier. He was visibly using his bike as a tool – in some corners his body stayed still, but he leaned the bike more; sometimes his arms swayed his bike one way, then the other. He worked with the road and the descent: the lean angle always matched the tightness of the turn perfectly, and at no time did it look like he could fall.
Snapshot: Tom Pidcock walking around the outside of the Arkéa rider Matis Louvel in a tight left corner of the Galibier, which will remain as one of the images of this Tour de France and of Pidcock’s career. Most riders leave the straights to pass because they know the rider they are passing will be riding in a straight line. If you need to overtake on a turn, the inside is a better option, as riders only drift outward through the turns. A move like Pidcock’s around Louvel requires skill and confidence; even a little creativity, or at least imagination.
Another shot: Tom Pidcock slaloming his bike in an S bend on the descent from the Col de la Croix de Fer, steering with one hand while he uses the other to drink. And another: Tom Pidcock dropping Chris Froome, who once laid the foundation for a Tour de France victory in a downhill.
Photo by James Startt
What Pidcock does feels intuitive and natural, almost artistic. It’s all that, but it’s backed up by experience and self-knowledge and so it’s also very scientific. He spoke at his press conference about spending his childhood commuting to and from school, and incorporating enough diversions into the forests that he came home in his school uniform. and his muddy bike. He has learned the way bikes behave so well when he rides them that his skill and decision-making are almost indistinguishable from intuition. You might suggest that Pidcock’s youth is also a weapon, that he is too young to have learned fear, but he feels no fear because his understanding of the particular branch of physics that applies to rapid descent of a bike hill is so deep.
So we step back, watch Tom Pidcock descend the Galibier, and think we can at least relate to him as a rider, due to the aesthetic beauty of his speed, the visceral way he rides, and the cold and hard as he traversed this 90-second hole over the top of the Col de Télégraphe (the last part with help from Froome).
However, none of the art and science of Pidcock’s superb Galibier (and Telegraph and Iron Cross) descent would have mattered to the rider himself had he not been able to climb as well. the Alpe ahead of the others. Downhill exploits were a complex matter of judgment of speed, balance and tire grip; climbing the Alpe tipped the scales more towards science, in a simpler test of threshold power and resilience. It may have been less spectacular than the descent, but there was more to the stage than just the descent. In the end, the winner was the rider who had done everything best.
Cover image by Getty Images