What does it mean to a professional cyclist to race the Tour de France? What does it mean to a football player to play in the Super Bowl? Or to a “football" player to play in the World Cup? Years of hard work and dreaming lead to these roads. It’s an honour, and a massive responsibility. Although we did not meet at a bike race, the Tour connected me and my wife, Jenna, so to experience one together would be special and she planned an entire month in France to support me, a major undertaking considering she had to handle all of the logistics, transportation, hotels, etc on her own. Also, because the Tour is the only race that most Americans know and relate to, riding it as one of four Americans in this year’s Tour meant an opportunity to connect with the US audience and grow the sport. My parents made the trip to Brussels for the “Grand Depart” in Brussels, Belgium.
The Tour de France adopted Qhubeka, Team Dimension Data’s purpose of mobilising impoverished communities in Africa, as its official charity. During our November team building camp in SA we visited Velokhaya, a cycling club that is developing junior riders in one of those townships. The night before the team presentation staff and riders gathered in a private room. After a brief meeting, the door opened behind us and those junior cyclists entered the room. Behind the scenes, our team pulled off a logistical miracle getting them passports and visas to join us on stage for the team presentation, as if we needed any extra inspiration! “Today was a big day, bigger than any other. I met my cycling heroes. And, I realised that today was a big day for them also.” SuperSport TV put together amazing clips from each day of the Tour, and this quote from the first video captures the emotions we all shared. (Check out the other videos on the media section of our team website: Africasteam.com)
The team: Edvald “The Boss” Boasson Hagen, Roman Krueziger, Steve Cummings, Lars Bak, Reinardt Janse Van Rensburg, Michael Valgren, Giacomo Nizzolo, Me
Stage 1: 195 km
After a brief neutral ride, we stopped in a large plaza where the King of Belgium greeted the Tour. I unclipped mid pack and visited with my ex-teammates, George Bennett and Alex Dowsett. “How many snipers do you think are in those windows?” We scanned. “Probably a lot.” Then the flag dropped and the Tour began. The Tour peloton is a machine. It pushes forward at an interminable rhythm that mows down breakaways and eats up every inch of road. Mid stage we climbed the infamous Muur of the Tour of Flanders. We then pounded a section of cobblestones where the peloton split briefly. Nearing the final we found our teammates to set up Nizzolo for the sprint. 15 km to go a crash erupted mid pack. 10 km to go, before a fast downhill where the course got more technical, I surged to the front with the guys. I pulled until my heart beat drowned out the sound of screaming fans, then swung off. Near the finish an even worse crash scattered bikes and riders across the road. Nizzo got through with Eddie and Reini. Nizzo lunged for 4th place.
Stage 2: 28 km Team Time Trial
“Don’t screw up. Don’t screw up.” I repeated to myself. Because in this technical event, if you mess up, you mess up, even endanger, the entire team. Riding inches from each other, swapping off at the front, going over the limit, sprinting back into line, attempting to recover in the draft, puts every rider under pressure. I gained confidence throughout the effort, and we crossed the line 54 seconds behind the fastest team of the day.
Stage 3: 215 km
A tailwind and strong breakaway, made a furious stage. Steep climbs toward the finish would be critical. Before the first I skidded into a crash in a roundabout. I stayed on my feet, but my handlebars tangled in the spokes of another rider. I called for a spare bike, then caught the peloton just before the first climb. On the back foot, I missed the first group on the first climb, then realised my rear tire had a slow leak. The team car was way behind, so I had to wait a long time for a new wheel, then rode to the finish in the last group, frustrated.
Stage 4: 215 km
Another sprint stage meant an easier start. We cruised for a couple hours, but a short climb 20 km to go made it important to position Nizzolo well. With 30 km to go, Steve and I took the front, blocking the left side of the road until it narrowed and we began the ascent. After a blistering fast descent we had just enough time to reconvene at the front before the final twisty 3 km. I made it to Eddie’s wheel at the front just before Reini lit it up. Normally, I would have pulled before him, but the effort it took to reach the team prevented me from going first. Reini finished his pull to two km to go. Two Jumbo-Visma riders came around us. Eddie drag raced them. Under the 1 km to go banner Eddie swung off leaving me at the front. Over the radio Nizzo commanded, “Go now, Ben!” I sprinted along side Team Quickstep’s leadout train. A rider nearly crashed Nizzo and he lost a few positions. I swung to the right and freewheeled to the finish as Nizzo placed 7th.
Stage 5: 176 km
On paper Stage 5 appeared to be the first potential opportunity for a breakaway. I spoke with some riders at the start line and they said they would control the race if they could insure a small breakaway. However, it was still our plan to disrupt them and get in a break. I made it into a move with ten riders and committed. But, one team missed the out and kept the race alive. After ten km they caught us. The first 20 minutes I averaged 400 watts. Then four riders escaped and we focused on Eddie for the sprint, hoping the climbs before the finish would drop some pure sprinters. They dropped me, and I felt terrible about it, but my heart sank further when I heard Eddie come of the radio saying he had a puncture. He had every excuse to call it a day, but after a quick bike change, clawed his way back to the lead group and sprinted to 12th.
Stage 6: 161 km
Three major passes lead to the first mountain top finish up the Planche des Belle Filles. I wanted to be in the breakaway but expected a drawn out fight, so when the first attack rolled away, I had no chance to get across. Ironically with all of the climbing we did, the peloton split on a downhill and I was in the second group. Roman made the first group and moved himself to 28th overall.
On some summit finishes the team buses park at the bottom. At the top we take jackets and ride down with whistles to alert spectators who are also riding and walking down. Near the bottom I came upon a horrific scene. A spectator had just crashed himself. He was facedown in a pool of blood. His body heaved as though choking, and his right arm was twisted beside him with his tricep stripped off the bone. It was the stuff of my nightmares and I wasn’t able to find out if he was ok. I asked the race medics the next morning and all they said was, “We didn’t hear about it, but he’s not dead."
Stage 7: 230 km
The longest stage of the tour proved to also be one of the easiest. With just two riders up the road we cruised along nonchalant enjoying the weather and scenery. Before the finish the course diverted to narrow roads that were never going to affect the race but still made everyone nervous. “All day on such nice roads and they put us on these little things at the end." I remarked to another rider. “Yea, well, it keeps the wankers out of they way,” he responded. There really aren’t any wankers here, I thought. Every single rider in this race is an incredible professional. And they proved it in the finish, flying through roundabouts, around and over random concrete fixtures, and poles at mach speed without a single crash. I pulled into the first roundabout with ten km to go, then the other boys guided Nizzo to another 7th place.
Stage 8: 200 km
When the flag dropped I attacked. It was a day that most teams marked for the breakaway, and I wanted it. The three riders who followed me were so strong that none of the other attacks from behind could reach us. Degendt, Terpstra, and de Marchi have won a lot of races this way. To our dismay Team Sunweb began to chase on a day that we expected to be given a long leash. That meant we rode harder in front. Degendt suggested that we up the pace on the fifth climb of the day. I was already near my limit, but I agreed hoping he wouldn’t see I was beginning to suffer. I matched him pull for pull, but when he surged at the top, Terpstra and I lost the wheel. Behind us multiple teams were chasing and dropping many riders. The reduced peloton caught me on the next climb. Our maximum advantage of the day was four minutes. Somehow Degendt stayed away soloing to victory. Jenna met me at the finish line, and said she was proud of me. It was my first TDF breakaway. I hoped for more, have been capable of more, and felt disappointed and physically demolished, but also satisfied knowing I’d given my all.
Stage 9: 171 km
The night after my breakaway effort I had no appetite. My stomach rumbled. I spent a large portion of the night in the bathroom and probably slept just four hours. Four of my teammates experienced similar symptoms. Despite all of the care taken by the team to control the quality of our nutrition we must have ingested something wrong. Eddie, despite his bad belly, made it into a 14 rider breakaway. I was so a-bloc (full gas) at the start, that when a mountain biker jumped his bike over my head during the race I thought I was delusional. The breakaway stayed away, so behind we rode steady but hard over the climbs. Still, it took everything I had to survive the day.
Stage 10: 218 km
Hindsight is 20/20 on a stage like this where 20 seconds of a five hour race can mean racing or chasing. A screaming tailwind made the stage so fast and nervous. Our directors, along with every director to their teams, commanded us to be at the front before the course turned and the wind came at us from the side. I pushed and shoved to the front, and as expected the yellow jersey’s team, Quickstep, surged up the left side and echelons formed. I was in perfect position, but knew my teammates were behind me. A hand pushed my left hip and I assumed it was one of my teammates so I made space for him to pass, but it was another rider. When he pushed through, I lost multiple positions. Then the rider four places ahead of me dropped the wheel. Some GC riders were stuck in our group and their teams chased as hard as they could. Eddie and Reini were also in our group, but for us it was game over. Fortunately Roman made the first group and broke into the top 20 overall.
A grand tour is long. We’d already covered more than half the distance of the Tour without a break. It felt long. All except for the rest day which defies physics and flies by. We rode a little, ate a lot, did some interviews and massage, and I got to visit some with Jenna. Then it was back to racing.
Stage 11: 167 km
After the rest day another sprint stage eased us back into racing. The first two hours passed in tranquility on big roads, chatting with other riders. There is an unusual epidemic of young fans mooning us as we pass by. It was funny the first time, but either I’ve lost my sense of humour or it’s just gross and inappropriate now. The only drama at the start was when American hope, Tejay van Garderen, hit a concrete divider. He finished the stage with a broken wrist but was forced to abandon after the diagnosis.
When the threat of crosswind segued us toward the finish, the stress ramped up. Evidently one rest day wasn’t enough to ease fatigue induced tempers. Cursing, aggressive gestures, and risky manoeuvres put everyone even more on edge. Although our team spent most of the day defending a good forward position, a big crash with 30 km to go brought down Nizzolo. I made it through and we switched to working for Edvald in the sprint. Reini fell but returned to the front. My job was to place Eddie and Reini in good position for a downhill 10 km to go. As we were already in excellent position, there wasn’t much for me to do. Reini brought Eddie into the last corner but they overshot it and nearly ended up in the barriers losing their opportunity to get a result.
Stage 12: 210 km
Nobody misunderstood our tactics. Breakaway. For our team, Mandela day is very special. We are about uniting people and trying to change the world through sport. Very special guests, sporting legends, from Laureus group joined us and we wanted to show the world our jersey. We raced with custom helmets and orange bar tape to commemorate the day. Unfortunately, it was one of the hardest days to get in the breakaway. We raced near 60 kph for over an hour, sprinting after countless attacks, until finally close to forty riders escaped with Eddie and Michael. Michael made the main selections and despite a puncture placed 18th. On the last climb, I was empty from the start and rode to the finish in a large group. Jenna had driven all the way from the start to the finish, only to be blocked from our team bus by security and turned around. A big thank you to our friends the Moline’s from Sunflower Cycling for hosting Jenna for a few days.
Stage 13: 27 km Time Trial
Without any pressure on me to go deep, the time trial was a chance to recover more than I would on a long mountain stage or if I was fighting to defend a GC position. I warmed up for five minutes then hit the course. I started easy, but planned to inject some effort to keep my body in race mode for the coming days. I felt better and better throughout the effort. In the end I was going quite hard and finished 49th.
Stage 14: 118 km
I’ll never forget finishing on the infamous Tourmalet, lined by screaming fans the entire 19 km, but it was a grind to the finish. The action kicked off earlier on the Col du Soleur. French star, Thibout Pinot, put his team on the front early, a show of confidence, but when Moviestar took over the peloton whittled down to 40 riders. I did a lot of power but was still dropped. Pinot won the stage. Roman finished 20th on the stage.
Stage 15: 185 km
Before our second rest day, our plan was to help place Roman in the breakaway. With the chance to recover after he could afford to spend a bit of extra energy. To help a specific teammate get in the breakaway you can follow moves and sit on to discourage their success, you can pull the peloton back to breaks trying to escape, you can attack with your teammate on the wheel, or when a breakaway is escaping you can keep attacking to keep the race alive and bring it back. We used all of these techniques. Eddie pulled back a big move on the hardest section of the start. Afterwards I marked as many moves as I could until the first categorised climb. It took an hour and a half, but Roman surged ahead on the climb and made a 28 man breakaway. The next climbs were steady but hard enough to drop a lot of riders. Roman climbed to 17th on the stage and 14th overall. The stage was so hard that although we’d been dropped on the penultimate climb, Michael and I still placed 44th and 45th.
The second rest day was better than the first. We stayed in a golf resort with mouldy smelling apartments, but we each had our own room. After an hour long ride that was easy but felt so hard on my throbbing legs, I spent the rest of the day watching Stranger Things season 3 with Jenna. For a blissful moment I forgot about the Tour de France.
Stage 16: 177 km
If you follow more than one cyclist on instagram you already know the temperature was blistering. Lars jumped in a 6 man breakaway at the start. There was one climb just before the finish so we looked to Edvald for the sprint. My job was to bring him to the base of that climb in front. With the threat of more crosswinds, another post rest day stress-fest ensued. 30 km to go a crash through a roundabout took out Michael. I pulled into the climb with Eddie on my wheel, and we summited in a shrinking group. On the downhill a headwind pushed against us so moving through the middle of the group was much more efficient but also more dangerous. I stayed as close to Eddie and Reini as possible. A pinch point 5 km to go forced riders to brake and squeeze through the more narrow passage at 60 kph. I heard a crash on the right side. The riders ahead of me locked up their brakes. My back wheel fishtailed and snapped back to center when I let off the rear brake. That was close. Then Roman said on the radio, “I crashed.” It was him. Our director remained calm. “Ben, stop now. Wait for Roman.” I pulled out of line, waited until I saw him coming, then sprinted up to speed. Steve had given Roman his bike. Roman slipped in behind me and I pulled as hard as I could.
Meanwhile, Lars, whose breakaway group had never gained more than 3 minutes stayed away until just 2.5 km to go. Eddie and Reini couldn’t find an opening to sprint and finished 12th and 16th. At the finish Roman had lost just 1 minute to the first group of 50 riders and maintained his GC position.
Stage 17: 200 km
When I found out I made the tour team I circled this stage. I even dreamed about winning it from a breakaway. Following the best up the 5 km climb, and dropping them on the technical downhill to the finish into Gap. I lined up near the front beside Thomas Degendt because I knew he would also want to be in the breakaway and I’ve never seen someone able to force it like him. He surged halfway up the 2 km uphill start and it was everything I could do to stay in the draft. 1 minute at 650 watts, then a casual 450 for 5 minutes on the flat. It caused less of a breakaway and more of a split in the peloton. Edvald also made the group of 34 riders. One team missed the break and chased us. After an hour and 55 km of racing, we broke free and built up a comfortable lead of 20 minutes. Then I started taking inventory of who Eddie and I would have to out smart and out pedal to win: olympic, European, national, and world champions, plus the who’s who of breakaways. Still, I hoped and believed. After shoving ice socks down my back for three hours, a brief rainstorm cooled us off.
Some drunk fans have still been mooning us on course. Tired, grumpy, and still low on humour I emptied a water bottle of mix on three bare butts beside the course. Show some respect!
Approaching the final 50 km with a lead and numbers that large would split up. Eddie said, “We have to spread ourselves out in the group and take turns following attacks.” As if on cue, Mollema attacked over a kicker. It softened up the group, but everyone stayed together. Eddie covered the next move. It dangled ahead a little longer, but came back. Then I sprinted after the next attack. Two of us got a gap. When I looked back an elite selection was closing in on us and I found myself in a group of ten. I already knew I wasn’t on my best day so did not contribute and hoped Eddie would make it up to us. Feeling that I would struggle to follow the best up the climb, I went all in. It was a bluff, a risk, a tactical all or nothing calculation. As the group lost coordination just before the climb, I attacked. Van Avermat came over me with the rest of the group on his wheel. My body seized up. I actually think I had an asthma attack. My breath came in shallow raspy puffs. I couldn’t squeeze anything else out and lost contact. I recovered slightly then began the ascent nearly dragging myself back into contention, but halfway up the climb it was clear I wouldn’t make it. I waited for Eddie who was 20 seconds behind, but was unable to contribute much. He placed 13th and I finished 17th.
It felt like a missed opportunity. But with some perspective, I realised that I had created an opportunity that did not come free. I did everything right to win the stage on a day that I didn’t feel 100%, and have confidence that on a good day I can win in the same situation.
Stage 18: 208 km
With the Pyrenees behind us, we moved on to the Alps. These are the days that non-climbers break out calculators to determine their chances of finishing within the time cut. We wanted Roman in the breakaway again. Again, it took an hour on more difficult terrain for the break to form. We missed a group of 33, and although we reacted fast, pulling our hearts out in pursuit our team couldn’t compete with such a big group. Roman called off the chase, and we began the Col d’Vars. On the Col du Izoard, a climb so iconic that I remember riding it in 2010, Moviestar shredded the peloton. With Roman somewhere ahead, Michael and I settled into a group, grinding up the 23 km Galibier. I did not want to look up at the daunting switchbacks above, but despite feeling numb to everything but pain the beauty registered. After 6.5 hours we crossed the line and it started pouring rain. Roman finished 24th. Michael and I top 50.
Stage 19: 127 km
Once again we wanted Roman plus others in the breakaway. The first half of the profile looked easy in the race book, mostly because the second half dwarfed the climbs. However, the race shattered as the breakaway formed. I followed a move up the road but couldn’t work because I wanted Roman there too. It was cool, however, to have the three Americans left in the Tour off the front together. I have lived with both Chad and Joey in Lucca. The charging peloton reeled us in as we hit the next climb. Again, those with the legs made the break. Around 25 riders strained away from us. I watched Roman go across and could literally feel his agony, or was that my agony? At the top of that climb the peloton, let’s call it the yellow jersey group, was down to about 30 riders and I made the cut.
I’m going to interject with an overview to give some context. Julian Alaphillipe has been having a dream season winning a stage of every stage race he started as well as some classics. He took the yellow jersey on stage 3 and defied all speculation guarding it with panache, showing almost no weakness until stage 19. In recent years fans dismissed the Tour as “predictable, controlled, and boring.” 2019, however, flipped the script. People regarded Alaphillipe as a serious contender now. His relentless team, Quickstep, the winningest in pro cycling, worked in defence. It all came down to the final monster climbs of the Alps.
Back to the action, Quickstep kept the breakaway group within 2 minutes. On a climb Roman dropped from the breakaway in an attempt to recover for the Iseran, the main mountain pass of the stage. Once we hit the Iseran guys who had been fighting for seconds until now fought for minutes. Our director said, “the biggest group was two.” I felt like my best self again, surprising given the frustrating conversations I’d been having with my legs all Tour. Roman was on a bad day, so I stayed with him and helped pace him meter by meter up the mountain. Just before the top, our director relayed the most confusing news. “There’s been a hailstorm and landslide on the final climb. The stage finishes at the top of the Iseran.”
We descended the backside and got in team cars. People asked, “what did you think of the decision?” Would I have liked to finish the stage? Sure. But, there was no road left to race on. It wasn’t really a choice. Roman and I crossed the top of the Iseran with 40 riders ahead of us, but it was enough for him to maintain 15th in GC. Alaphillipe cracked and lost the yellow jersey to Egan Bernal.
Stage 20: 59 km
Originally a fearsome profile, the stage was shortened again due to more landslides. The new course, was a flat 26 km run to a 33 km climb to the finish. Steve and I made a breakaway of 29 riders. I saved energy expecting to be called on to aid Roman further up the slopes. As soon as we hit the climb, riders attacked our breakaway, some of them exploded, others dangled. I conserved, following and following. With 13 km to go, I was with 5 riders just 10 seconds behind a group of 6. Only Nibali was further ahead. But, the yellow jersey group, around twenty riders, swept us up. “Ben, wait for Roman.” Roman having reached deep within himself so many consecutive days, blew up and dropped early on, but he did not quit. Because I was on a flatter portion of the climb where my ability to block the wind would be more beneficial to him I stopped and got off my bike, waiting until I saw Roman come around the corner. Then I paced him as steady as I could. It hurt. This time I knew it was his pain that I felt, but we had to get to the top as efficient as possible. He rode his speed on the steep sections, only breaking concentration to throw a water bottle at a fan’s naked, disrespectful bottom. Steve came back and we pulled on the more shallow gradients. We lost time but Roman slipped only one place in the GC to 16th.
Stage 21: 130 km
The final stage of the Tour starts out as a celebratory parade, a good thing, because we had taken two buses and an airplane six hours that morning to travel from the finish of stage 20 to Paris. Every pedal stroke pumped poison and fire into my veins. From experience I knew that when we entered the Champs Elysees the pain would evaporate. Whether it’s your first tour or your 10th, this is an emotional experience. Winning on the Champs is a sprinter’s holy grail. Before entering familiar roads, the fight for position began, and we turned through a narrow gate. “Where are we going?” I questioned. This path is for walking, not driving or riding. Then after passing a magnificent courtyard we rounded the Louvre. Wow. Speed tourism to the max! We blitzed into an electric atmosphere on the Champs at 8 PM. The sun was directly in our eyes, but the pictures would be nice. Eddie has placed top 5 the last four years, and we believed in him. I was given the job of leading through 2 km to go, a difficult responsibility I’ve never had. It made me nervous. Roman created a space for us at the front and we fought to stay together each lap. I was last in line, the most difficult position to defend, as it’s easy to get pinched off the wheel ahead. But, I fought for it. With 4 km to go, I got squeezed off the wheel. Eddie launched his sprint early, leading the gallop to the finish. Four riders passed him on the line and he finished off our tour with a 5th place.
My exhaustion was complete. We shared hugs, champagne, and photos with teammates, competitors, sponsors and family. Jenna embraced me. We made it.