The disappointment of the escapee caught within sight of the finish is visceral. The proximity of the victor, and his unconcealed delight, only adds to the pathos. It is why we watch cycling. The humanity of the protagonists is obvious, and no more so than at the denouement of the fifth stage of Paris-Nice.
Cycling is increasingly governed by science, the tenets of watts per kilo and holistic exercise regimes, but spectators did not require insight into Thomas De Gendt’s power output to know that he was cooked as the peloton roared past him with 500m remaining; nor could a presumably ferocious programme of core exercises, de rigueur in the modern peloton, prevent him from slumping as he realised the game was up. He crossed the line a disconsolate 47th, having ridden clear with five companions on the slopes of the Col de la Republique, the first climb of the day.
The courage of the man is what keeps us hooked, even in an age of expensively complied reports to lift the veil; entirely necessary, but disillusioning. Sprinters are fearless, and the torturous mountain road offers no hiding place to the climber, but the courage of the breakaway artist is the clearest of all of cycling’s many expressions of bravery. There is a David and Goliath aspect to the rider prepared to challenge the might of the peloton, and something of the character in a silent film, unable to step off the track as the pursuing train thunders behind him.
We have already had cause this season to note De Gendt’s return to his best form, and his ability to take matters into his own hands. The run in to Rasteau provided a further example of a rider freed from the burden of contract disputes and perhaps also of the pressures that come with riding for one of the peloton’s biggest teams.
De Gendt’s signature, and victories already this season for Andre Greipel, Jens Debusschere and Tony Gallopin are evidence of renewed fortune for Lotto-Soudal, Belgian cycling’s blue collar counterpart to the grandee Etixx-Quick-Step. It could be argued that the breakaway is the preserve of the desperado, and a tactical necessity for teams without budget for a bona fide superstar. It’s hard to imagine Quick-Step pinning their hopes for victory on sending a man up the road, for instance. The breakaway is cycling’s equivalent of the long ball, and unlikely to feature in the race strategies of the peloton's galácticos.
De Gendt gained more television time for them at Paris-Nice after Greipel’s victory on the second stage, and a win seems only a matter of time for the Belgian in his current good form.
It was not to be on stage five of the “race to the sun”, however, when the power of the peloton again proved decisive. De Gendt was swamped with the finish line in sight; an isolated figure falling backwards, pushed hard against the left-hand barrier. He looked over his shoulder, sat up, and thumped his handlebars.
De Gendt would not be the last to taste disappointment. Brian Coquard (Europcar), the French sprinter who did much to illuminate the bunch finishes of last season’s Tour, launched a long range effort almost as soon as De Gendt had been passed, but he too would taste disappointment. Lampre-Merida’s Davide Cimolai swung out from behind him with perhaps only fifty metres remaining. Cimolai’s ecstasy offered an unmistakable contrast with Coquard’s frustration and De Gendt’s despair.
It would take a further display of heroism from De Gendt to break away and win on today’s mountainous sixth stage from Vence to Nice, one laden with six categorized climbs, including the opening, first category Col de Vence, but he may find inspiration in retaining the polka dot jersey. Michal Kwiatkowski (Etixx-Quick-Step) is likely to face the first serious challenge to his leadership of the race, most notably from Team Sky's Richie Porte, who remains one second off the race lead.