All year long, I've been watching (as Phil Leggett would put it), "a certain Canadian rider". I watched him perform really well in all the great spring classics.
I fully expected him to finish somewhere in the lower half of the Tour, not because he couldn't do well, but because I knew he would go balls-out to help Christian Vande Velde win, and he would spend the first parts of each stage at the front, and then the last part at the back, exhausted, just trying to make it home after putting in a Herculean effort to help VDV.
When VDV crashed out of the tour, I saw a slight hope of glory for Ryder. The next day was the cobbles stage, and I'd seen Ryder fly over the pave in races like Paris-Roubaix, I knew that while the rest of the tour, including all of the other classics specialists, would be doing whatever they could to shepherd their respective team leads through the pave stages, and that would leave Ryder free to go out with the break-away, and then power over the last 30 - 50k and see who could hang on.
For the first 100k of the stage, it went exactly as I dreamed. He got into the break and got a substantial lead, and left the rest of the break to solo to the finish. Unfortunately, the Saxo and Cervelo teams had other ideas, and two of the strongest Classics racers in the world (Cancellara, who had beaten the best of the cobbles riders in an amazing solo break just a few months prior, and Thor Hushovd, who had won two previous editions of Paris-Roubaix). When I saw those two towing Andy Schleck up, I repeated "Go Ryder" over and over again for the last 20k of that stage, like it was my own personal mantra. I knew it was going to be a nail-biter.
It was. Ryder finished 5th on that day, and the best hope of a stage win for Garmin went out the window. But the silver lining on that cloud was that Ryder had gained a bunch of time on the rest of the field, and, if he could just hold on, he could, I figured, hold on to a high overall place in the race through the Alps.
It was a slim hope, the Tour has the best riders in the world, all tuning their form up for this three week period. It's got hellacious hills, that riders climb at insane speeds. Ryder's a climber, but he's a big guy, and he has an extra 5-10 kg over pure climbers to drag over those cols. All I could think was, if he can find the big group of elite climbers, and just hang on the back for as long as possible, he'll be the best Canadian finish in 22 years. And he was.
Garmin was outstanding. They didn't seem to be able to help him much on the climbs themselves, but he was always in the first 20-30 riders up the climbs, and he never had to try and bridge any gaps on the early climbs, and he was always in the mix on the climbs. Through the alps he rode his own pace, and managed to find other climbers that were going the same pace. The amazing thing was the riders that he managed to stay with: past tour winners like Sastre, mountain goats like Joaquin Rodriguez, tour heavyweights like Denis Menchov, and Andreas Kloden. The creme-de-la-creme of Tour riders. Every day through the Alps, he found his pace, and he managed to stay with some of these guys.'
Even so, he wasn't doing *that* great. On the stage into Mende, just before the Pyrenees, he was in another break that came up against the desires of the Astana team, who drove the main pack fiercely to put their team leader on the top of the hill overlooking the town of Mende on top. Ryder, who had been in the break all day, couldn't stay with the pack up the short fierce final climb.
Still. He was in 13th place, and he could even lose big chunks of time in the Pyrenees and keep a top-20 finish, which, in the Tour de France, is something that other riders have built entire careers around.
Going into the Pyrenees was tense. He hadn't done that well through the Alps, and the stage into Mende had obviously put him on the rivet. I was nervous. What made it worse was constantly searching for him in the peloton, especially in the stages through the Alps. He was still an also-ran, and Phil and Paul *never* mentioned him. Liz and I spent the entire three weeks looking for the orange helmet poking up over the rest of the mountain goats. We'd shout excitedly when we saw him. "There's Ryder! He's still in it!" Meanwhile, Phil and Paul would be moaning over the abysmal performance of Lance Armstrong.
But every stage, into Ax-3-Domains, over the Port de Bales, over the toughest climbs in the Pyrenees, Ryder was right there, not sacrificing much time, and staying with the best riders in the Tour, climb after climb. Phil and Paul started out in wonderment "How is this big Canadian staying with the mountain masters?" they asked, after the stage into Ax-3-Domains, then, they started to mention him more, they would look for him in the leading groups, and mention him, using words like "Phenomenon" and "Surprise Talent", and my favourite "Weight of a Nation". He started getting post race interviews. It was wonderful. He moved up from 13th to 10th over those 3 stages.
Then, the Queen stage. The second ever mountain-top finish on the Tourmalet. Everybody expected a mano-a-mano duel between Contador and Schleck, and that's what they got. My eyes were focussed behind, in the 2nd group on the road up the famous climb. A small group had formed including Tour giants like Menchov, Sami Sanchez, and Roman Kreuziger. They were the lucky few that could grab Contador and Schleck's wheel for just a few pedal strokes, and they were constantly about a minute and a half behind. The entire climb was through a dense layer of clouds on the mountainside, and the TV cameras would only flash back occasionally to the 2nd group on the road. About 2 km from the top, I stopped seeing Ryder in the group he'd been all climb. "Oh Well," I thought "He won't lose that much time, and he'll lose a couple of places, tops" It was still the best in over 20 years.
Contador and Schleck came in first, then they just had the camera going on the finish line. Joaquin Rodriguez finished about a minute back, and then about 30 seconds later, the camera zooms in on a figure emerging from the clouds near the finish line. "Menchov must have had good legs today" I thought. Then Liz said "Is that Ryder?!", and I saw the distinctive orange helmet coming into view, and it was! Ryder had attacked all of the best mountain climbers in the biggest stage, in the biggest and best bike race in the world, and come in 4th. Not the best, but better than anyone had ever hoped for. That day alone jumped him up into 8th place overall.
The Tour de France is the biggest pressure-cooker. It only takes one bad day to lose the race entirely. The list of contenders who dropped far, far out of contention in one bad day is filled with champions like Lance Armstrong, Ivan Basso, and Cadel Evans, who, in the Alps went from 1st to 18th, and lost nearly 18 minutes. Nearly every stage was, for me, filled with trepidation. Would this be the day that Ryder started going backwards? The time trial (a.k.a, the race of truth) was no different. He had never performed spectacularly in a Grand Tour TT, and he didn't in this one either, but the field ahead was full of mountain climbers, most of whom are notoriously bad at TTs. He managed to claw 2 minutes out of Joaquin Rodriguez and jump into 7th.
Most Canadians woke up to see him on their morning paper this morning. I can imagine them sitting back and reading the paper thinking "Huh. Seventh, eh? That's not bad, I s'pose"
This is when I want to shake them up and say "Not Bad?! Not Bad! It's fucking fantastic is what it is!" I considered myself one of the biggest Ryder fanbois in the entire world, and even I was prepared to be amazed if he finished in the double digits. Top ten was inconceivable.
Chapeau, Ryder, and chapeau, Garmin. Every year, you manage to surprise the world with a top-ten finish that no-one expected.
Wiggins learns too late who is Wigan, and who is really Manchester.