On the Monday morning after the 2008 Tour de France had finished, a Chinese tourist sat on a bench on the Champs Elysees cutting his fingernails, the clippings flicking towards the road where the race put on one last show. He was nonchalant about it, snipping away as a lady walked past and tut-tutted at him.
It was wrong, not just because it was rude and disgusting, but because it felt disrespectful to the 145 riders who had finished the 95th Tour de France, who had thundered up and down the laps of the most famous street in the world in celebration of the toughest race in the toughest sport in the world. The day before Rob Hunter, then in the colours of Barloworld, had finished 10th, losing a bunch kick to Gert Steegmans, the Belgian from the QuickStep team. The top 10 on the stage included Gerard Ciolek, Hunter’s former teammate Oscar Freire Gomez, Robbie McEwen (Hunter’s future teammate on Radioshack), Thor Hushovd, Julian Dean, Stefan Schumacher, Robert Förster Gerolsteiner and Leonardo Duque. Schumacher, riding for the Gerolsteiner team, would later test positive for Cera, then the new generation of EPO, forfeiting the two stage wins he had taken. Hunter would have his position improved to ninth, which, in the greater scheme of things, meant little to Hunter.
In 145th – or 144th, or, make that 143rd place after Bernard Kohl, the Austrian also on Gerolsteiner, later tested positive for EPO – was a cyclist born in Kenya, made in Britain and registered as British. Christ Froome finished a minute and 37 seconds behind Steegmans after he had had to stop to give Hunter his rear wheel after Hunter had punctured. He tried to catch up to the bunch, but with three weeks in his legs and the peloton in full stampede mode to get to the finish, Froome did not have a chance.
It was a bitter-sweet end to the Tour for Froome and Barloworld. They had lost five of their nine riders, most to injuries from crashes (including Mauricio Soler, the 2007 King of the Mountains jersey winner whose bike handling skills on the flat were always shaky) and one to doping. Moises Duenas, the Spaniard, had tested positive for EPO. Barloworld, the company and the team, were torn apart. The company immediately decided to withdraw their sponsorship of the team, but once the emotion and shock had settled, the decision was made to finish the Tour. If it was to be their last act as a team, then they were going to go out in some style.
The four battled through to Paris: Hunter, Froome, Italian Gianpaolo Cheula and John Lee Augustyn, just the second South African to ride in the Tour. Augustyn became famous for his famous crash on the descent of the Bonette-Restefond as he tumbled down the shale. I arrived in France to watch the final three stages as a guest of Barloworld. I had to ask Augustyn about the prang: “When I climbed back up I asked the cop to get my bike as I had to get to the finish,” he laughed.
Froome didn’t laugh when we spoke about Duenas. He said he wanted to hit him and that he hoped he never saw him again. He was angry that his career had been threatened by the selfishness of one man. Three years later, Froome’s career has blossomed. His second place at the Vuelta a breakthrough moment – the moment when he began to believe that he could win, that he could compete at this level. He finished 16th on the prologue of the Tour de France on Saturday. Daryl Impey, the third South African to take part in the Tour, finished in an impressive 34th place. He, too, has had his watershed moment, the victory in the second stage of the Vuelta Ciclista Al Pais Vasco, his first World Tour victory. He simply believes he deserves to be here. Matt Goss, his teammate and chief sprinter, sang Impey’s praises during the Giro, when the South African led him to a victory in the third stage.
In three weeks time, Impey, Hunter and Froome should be having a beer somewhere in Paris, possible near the Champs Elysees. In 2008, I remember bidding Froome and Augustyn good night as we stood beside the Arc de Triomphe at around midnight. I was heading back to my hotel, they were heading out into the night to celebrate finishing the toughest race in the world for the first time. They’d taken themselves to hell and back; they’d crashed and fought; they’d had their heads kicked in by a cheat. The next day a man would clip his nails on the road where they rode with such bravery. He had no idea.