We introduce you the Flamme Rouge. The peloton has gone from band of brothers to angry swarm. Everyone is fighting for space, everyone is fighting for a wheel. Forget any notions of solidarity. This is elbows-out war. This is the last kilometer. This is the Flamme Rouge.
“Speed?” remarked Jackie Stewart, a few months after winning the first of his three Formula 1 world titles in 1969. “The whole business is the reverse of speed. Speed doesn’t exist for me unless I’m driving poorly. Then things seem to be coming at me quickly instead of passing in slow motion. In form, I see things a long way off, in fine detail. A corner will come towards me very slowly… everything is clear, neither hurried nor distorted, like a slowed-down movie film.” You know what’s going on around you, you’re aware of some things, but there’s no detail in your peripheral vision. It’s only what’s in front of you.
The peloton is going full gas. You stay focused on the finish line. It’s a strange feeling. You can see the stripe of the finish line but can hear the peloton behind at the same time. You are going all out, unable to go any faster in the last 200 metres.
The sprinters are gathering behind lead out men – rockets waiting for the final fuel tanks to drop away.
200 metres of empty road lie between you and victory. What is left in those pumping legs?
”Unfortunately, they catch you.”
The sprinters are unleashed. A 12-second effort is all they need. Heads low over the bars, covering each metre in less than 0.05 of a second. It’s not how much power they can put out, but how quickly they can accelerate.
Where in the body do you die first – in screaming lungs, in maxed-out heart, in lactic-drenched legs? The man who crosses the line first is not the one going the fastest but the one who is slowing down the least. A wheel alongside, a shoulder in your peripheral vision and a brightly coloured helmet beyond that.
Unfortunately, they catch you.
The sad and heroic tale of many a breakaway rider. Few can forget the sight of Jack Bauer exhausted and slumped on the floor by the barriers at the 2014 Tour de France, head in his hands and crying, having been caught by the peloton within 25 metres of the finish line, after spending all of the day in a two-man breakaway.
”The ‘real’ racing begins at the flamme rouge.”
That raw emotion epitomised the challenge facing riders attempting the long-distance escape. Some may last until 20 kilometres to go, others may hang on all the way to the flamme rouge, but the majority will be caught before the end — the odds of survival are rarely ever in the breakaway’s favour. It has become almost standard practice for a break to be let go, only for the peloton to gradually reel it back in as the kilometres tick away. The ‘real’ racing begins at the flamme rouge.
This article is written by Jason Smith.