The main event of the cycling calendar has come and gone for another year, and it’s been an absolute barnburner of a Tour de France.
Both channels of SBS made for compelling viewing at about 7.30 am on Sunday morning – on the main channel Chelsea were lifting the Champions League Cup after an epic come from behind win and on the second, another story of persistence and rebound was unfolding in the Mountains of California.
Sport has this ability to uncover the depths of the human spirit. Endurance sport in particular is at times more psychological than it is physical.
Anyone who has participated – even as an amateur – will know how much can be learnt about oneself by absorbing and then breaking through what had originally felt like insurmountable pain.
Mountain top finishes tend to sort out the men from the boys and can be instructive about not only who had the best legs on the day but who was willing to live with the pain for the longest.
The lung busting 126 km seventh stage of the Tour of California from Ontario to Mount Baldy was one such stage. It finishes with a sadistic 8km climb to the peak of Mt Baldy.
With 10km to go you could see the pain writ large on the faces of the leaders. One man looked in more pain than any other – Robert Gesink of the Netherlands.
As the stage developed it became apparent that Gesink was not going to give into the pain and he prevailed over Colombia’s Jhon Atapuma in the final kilometer.
He looked like a man that was riding for more than the stage win or even the Tour win (which he is almost assured of now). Last year he had broken his right leg in a training fall which had put him out of the sport for a considerable period. We knew from his fifth place finish in the 2010 Tour de France that he was a young rider with enormous potential.
In his press conference he revealed that his devastating injury was not the only emotional hurdle he had faced when he stated: “I had a nice victory over here four years ago, and I am really happy to be back at this level after a difficult year. I lost my dad a bit more than a year ago, and felt dead myself. Emotionally it was a really difficult year”.
It may have been the memory of his father that was fueling him as he willed his bike up the unforgiving long climb to the end of the stage.
Having climbing form this close to the Tour de France has to feel good for any rider and Gesink recognised the significance of the result, “I’m back, I’ve been working really, really hard the last months. It didn’t always work out in the beginning and that’s difficult on an athlete, always wanting to win.
“Now to be back at the highest level and to be the best uphill like this is unbelievable”.
His climbing form was so impressive and with his pedigree we have to ask whether he is now a genuine dark horse for the Tour de France, even though his Rabobak team is more likely to be set up for sprint wins for our own Mark Renshaw.
It is proving to be the most open Tour de France in years with Contador suspended and Andy Schlek and Cadel Evans yet to show Tour winning form.
It may be a year for an outsider to put his hand up. If so look out for Gesink – he showed on Sunday that he has good climbing legs and a big heart – two qualities needed to have a chance in the Tour.