Beautiful Losers: Mauro Santambrogio and the 2010 Tour de France

It took the people of Yorkshire to show the Tour de France how it was done this year. The race never quite recovered its momentum after leaving them behind to get back to France. The early dramas came partly from stupidity, with Manxman Mark Cavendish out of the race on the first day when he head-barged another rider, hit the ground and couldn’t get up unaided; past winner Alberto Contador decided to pull an energy bar out of his pocket while doing 80KPH downhill – I mean, what could go wrong there, except of course the crash that sent him to hospital? Defending champ Chris Froome crashed out early too, thankfully through no fault of his own, and his absence could have stopped it being a bit of a snooze… except that Italian grand tour contender Vincenzo Nibali took over that job. The 2014 Tour was notable for the resurgence of the French; French riders battled it out to win second and third places, the first Frenchmen to reach the top three since 1984. It would be fantastic to see them reclaim their event.

Naturally, I don’t only watch cycling to see winners wearing various coloured jumpers and holding up bunches of flowers and kissing girls. Every sport features beautiful ways to win… well, not judo, possibly… but there are also beautiful ways to lose, and such moments often leave more of an imprint behind them than even the most spectacular win. Some of these moments can look stage-managed and cheesy, such as leading doper Bjarne Riis ‘honouring’ the previous winner Miguel Indurain when the 1996 race wiggled over to Spain to go through the latter’s home town, in the full expectation that he would be leader; there was also a young Lance Armstrong’s ‘tribute’ to team mate Fabio Casartelli as the Texan pointed to the sky when he won a stage a few days after Casartelli’s death during the 1995 Tour (a feat of formaggio repeated 6 years later by an older Armstrong). There was the moment when deadly same-team rivals Greg Lemond and Bernard Hinault crossed the line with their hands not round each other’s throats but clasped, in the 1986 Tour.

My favourite by far of these moments of loss featured Australian Cadel Evans in the 2010 Tour. It’s safe to say that Cadel had been trying for a few years to win a grand tour; he was a clear contender, with placings at 8th, 4th and 2nd, but by the end of the noughties was getting the reputation of being a nearly-man. The general consensus is that he was often edged out of the top place by dopers. Maybe this contributed to his reputation as a bit of a grumpy bastard in the face of questions from the press and fans about his performances. I kind of don’t blame him; he was never able to give any accurate answers that wouldn’t have landed him in hot water with the entire sport.

In the 2010 Tour de France, Cadel was World Champion, but finally got to give the rainbow stripes of the WC jersey a rest to wear the yellow jersey – given to the race leader – on stage 9. If you’re familiar with how bike racing works, you’ll know that the jersey, and the race, isn’t won till the last day. Until then the wearer of the jersey has to use his team to defend him against attacks by other contenders and their teams; they will seek any weakness – a fall, an injury, even to a team member, a loss of tempo or concentration, a sudden change from good weather to bad, a crash in the main group that may hold up anybody behind it – and exploit it. It’s a fraught business. Halfway up the last climb of a five-climb day, the fearsome the Col de la Madeleine, two teams, Saxo Bank and Astana, put pressure on Cadel’s BMC team, and one by one his team mates dropped away, and then so did he, knowing he was going to lose the jersey that day, and what was more, be so behind that he’d never be able to regain the time he’d lost.

Cadel also had a bit of a secret: he’d fractured his elbow two days before. He didn’t mention it, even to his own team, just didn’t want it to become common knowledge. I’m not sure how wise this is, but there are numerous instances of riders carrying on with broken bones, at least for a while. Wise or not, it puts certain pro footballers into perspective as they get a tap on the ankle and roll around in agony.

Cadel had one team mate left. 26 year-old Italian Mauro Santambrogio rode in front of Cadel, sheltered him from the wind as much as he could. At that time he was an established domestique, or team helper, having ridden for several teams. In the footage of stage 9, Santambrogio has a fixed, determined expression, composed – and not the teeth-gritting ‘race face’ of riders going all out. He looks serene, almost angelic.

They knew Cadel had lost, but they rode anyway. At the end of the stage, Cadel put his head on Santambrogio’s shoulder and sobbed. Santambrogio put an arm around his team leader’s shoulder. It’s a sad picture, but a great one all the same. Cadel didn’t ride his customised yellow bike again, and had to revert to his rainbow jersey of World Champion – which is, after all, not so bad – and, broken elbow and all, he stayed in the Tour, and finished a respectable 26th.

Cadel finally won his Tour de France in 2011, and what a great, and well-deserved, win that was. He’s had a few moments since then – even wore the leader’s pink jersey in the 2014 Giro d’Italia for a few days, but really, he stopped being hungry enough to win a grand tour after 2011. He is a fine sportsman and a great man in his personal life, I think, with his support of Tibet, and his comparison of its people to that of Native Australians, plus his donations to charities. I think cycling will be a poorer sport without him when he retires.

Santambrogio’s story hasn’t ended quite so well. He wasn’t with BMC by the time Cadel won his stage, had moved on to the near-enough all-Italian Vini Fantini team. He was making waves in the 2013 Giro d’Italia. He even won a mountaintop stage, flouroescent yellow in his team kit against the equally glaring backdrop of white snow. After the race, which saw the ejection of his team leader Danilo di Luca for doping, Santambrogio failed a test for the performance booster EPO – not the first test he’d failed in his career – and since then he hasn’t got back on a bike as a pro, and, I fear, he never will, and fear too that, even if he does, he’ll never have a finest hour than the day he tried to help Cadel limit his losses in the 2010 Tour de France.

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