The catch wasn’t inevitable until it was.
At 48 km to go, Matteo Jorgenson’s move off the front of a breakaway tepidly chased by a disinterested peloton stretched a small gap and then a larger one. The tall American was pulled in by the magnetic force of Puy de Dôme, an extinct volcano on the edge of Clermont-Ferrand that seems to have its own gravity.
You can see it coming from a long way off, pick out the silvery shimmer of the funicular curling toward the summit, rising with a severe gradient that is guaranteed to hurt. So for almost an hour, Puy de Dôme loomed, and Jorgenson closed in on it. Behind him, the gap closed – a pace led by Neilson Powless at first, then Michael Woods, chasing the long figure in the white jersey of Movistar.
At 4 km to go, Jorgenson carried just over a minute’s advantage, passing through the tunnel of noise before the silence. The road closed to spectators for the remainder of the climb, on a surreal landscape that looped clockwise toward the summit, it was just Jorgenson and his silent agonies. Behind him, a Canadian closed.
At 450 m to go, Jorgenson looked over his shoulder and Woods was there. Immediately, Woods attacked. Immediately, it was game over for Jorgenson.
The American on the Spanish Movistar team takes his craft seriously. He’s invested in his own success, and spent years building to a moment like this one – at the Tour de France, alone off the front, looking like he might raise his hands on an attritional stage.
Today’s stage, to the Puy de Dôme, was not just any stage. Last raced in 1988, it groans under the weight of history. The site of great duels in years past, Puy de Dôme disappeared from the Tour itinerary for decades, passing generations of professional cyclists by. Until today, when a multi-national breakaway group was given the freedom to compete for stage honours. Just 17 riders in the Tour de France were even alive last time this mountain was contested.
Matteo Jorgenson, born 1999, wasn’t one of them, trading experience for youthful exuberance. Riding for Movistar, a team without a GC hope since the departure of Enric Mas on stage 1, Jorgenson and his team have been forced to improvise. Having watched a stage win fall apart, sports director Patxi Vila, responding to a question about how the plan didn’t pan out, said “I actually think it was the only thing we could do. If you arrive here with Woods or some of the other riders of the break – Matteo is a pretty big guy, and on these percentages he suffers. It’s just physics.”
“I had to play my hand a little bit early,” Jorgenson said, of his hour at the front of the world’s biggest bike race. “I just started to feel empty with 1 km to go.” He was subdued in explaining his ride, but when he got to the word ‘empty’ there was a heavy emphasis on it, from hard-won first-hand experience. “Before I knew it Mike was there, and passing me. There was absolutely nothing I could do.”
Watching it from the team car, Vila had a similar fatalism. “You can see it. If you’ve been a bike racer, you can see it coming from pretty far – if everything goes as it was going, it’s just physics; there’s too much mass. But even if you didn’t win, I think you need to be super proud,” he continued, seemingly talking to Jorgenson directly despite the indirectness.
“It was a long hour,” Jorgenson said at the team buses, having finished fourth on the stage, collected the consolation prize of most combative rider, and descended back past where it all fell apart. Of the climb once it got onto the final stretch, he said: “It was brutal because there are no fans, there was no radio – my radio cut out. It was just pure silence the whole time, against my own body and my own mind.”
After Jorgenson lost the battle with Woods – who’d time-trialled to the top with a mentality of “however hard I went, it didn’t matter, I just thought I’d be proud of myself” – he also lost a battle with Pierre Latour and Matej Mohorič.
Then, half an hour or more later, he climbed into the Movistar team bus in a baking parking lot on an exposed, extinct volcano. It’s a team that is sometimes seen as a strange fit for Jorgenson, but he’s become fluent in Spanish, a young American redhead integrating into the venerable infrastructure of the oldest continuously-operating team on the WorldTour.
The Movistar bus had waited for him, rather than sending him down in an ancillary vehicle, and was one of the last to leave the parking lot. Through the glare off the glass you could see him working his way down the aisle, hugging one proud, smiling teammate after another.
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