OYONNAX, France — Sitting on a roadside guard rail, wincing and rubbing his lower back, Andrew Talansky looked ready to quit the Tour de France in the middle of Stage 11. The Tour’s Web site and French TV commentators said his race was over. So did some English-language Twitterati.
The “Pit Bull” proved them wrong.
With a show of tooth-grinding grit and determination to repay his Garmin Sharp teammates who had ridden hard to help him, the 25-year-old Miami native got back up on his bike, wiped his eyes and pedaled on to the finish far behind the pack — and just in time.
Two days earlier, the pain and damage from two recent crashes had already ended Talansky’s outsider hopes of victory. He began Wednesday’s 187.5-kilometer (116.3-mile) hilly ride from Besancon to Oyonnax in eastern France in 26th place — nearly 15 minutes behind race leader Vincenzo Nibali. The Italian retained the yellow jersey Wednesday by finishing right behind France’s Tony Gallopin, who won Stage 11 in a bold late breakaway.
Talansky, nursing a sore back, had bad luck compound his misery early in the stage: He blew a tire and got left behind. Because he was no longer in contention to win the Tour in Paris on July 27, his teammates didn’t wait up.
Straining, he couldn’t make up the difference alone, but pressed on anyway.
When Talansky, clearly in agony, stopped on a roadside and sat down with about 60 kilometers left, Garmin-Sharp sporting director Robert Hunter — who as a rider became the first South African to win a Tour stage — and other two other staffers pulled up in a team car.
“He thought that maybe it was time to stop the Tour. He sat down … thought about it, and decided to continue,” said Hunter. “If he wants to fight on and get to the finish, the only way we’re going to get there is by fighting. That’s his character and the way the team works as well.”
Hunter continued to pour on encouragement from the car as Talansky resumed riding.
Under race rules, Talansky — who would’ve liked to be a journalist if not a cyclist — faced a deadline: Because it was a hilly, relatively long stage, he had to finish with a time no more than 14 percent greater than that of Gallopin. It added up to roughly 37 minutes, race officials said.
He finished 32:05 back, with a 20-second penalty for taking too long a pause.
Other riders might have calculated that it would be wiser not to risk worsening an injury so early in a promising career. But Talansky was running on determination, and wanted to make it through the stage.
“I just wanted to make it to the finish … for my team and the work that they’ve put into this Tour for me,” he said at the team bus after straggling to the finish. “I didn’t just want to stop and go home that way after everything they’ve done for me.”
Talansky was the last of the 179 remaining riders in a pack already depleted of its two biggest stars to crashes. Now, he’s 44th in the overall standings — more than 47 minutes behind Nibali. Because he made it, he and the team were able to think over whether it’s really worth it for him to carry in a similar Stage 12 on Thursday.
“Now we can sit down tonight and make a proper decision and see where we can go with this,” said Hunter. Similar to Wednesday’s ride in length and layout, Stage 12 is a 185.5-kilometer (115-mile) ride over four small- to mid-sized climbs from Bourg-en-Bresse to Saint-Etienne.
The “Pit Bull” — so dubbed by sharp-tongued Garmin-Sharp team boss Jonathan Vaughters — had already flared his fighting spirit after Stage 7, when he tumbled to the asphalt after bumping into Australia’s Simon Gerrans while trying to get out of the way of a frenzied final sprint: Not the American’s forte. Talansky demanded an apology, which he didn’t get publicly.
Talansky had come in fresh off an impressive win in last month’s Criterium du Dauphine stage race — a key Tour warm-up — notably defeating 2013 Tour champion Chris Froome and two-time Tour winner Alberto Contador. They both crashed out of this Tour due to injury, meaning this Tour will have a first-time winner.
Astana leader Nibali took another step toward becoming it, finishing right in the pack trailing Gallopin. Overall, the Italian has a 2-minute, 23-second lead over Australian Richie Porte in second. Alejandro Valverde of Spain was third, another 24 seconds back.
With such a margin and the strong form he has shown so far, Nibali is looking well-positioned for possible victory on the Champs-Elysees. But tough days lie ahead: in the Alps later this week, and the Pyrenees mountains in Week Three.
Gallopin, who wore the yellow jersey for a day before Nibali recaptured it, first tried to break away with about 13 1/2 kilometers (8.4 miles) left, but got reeled in. Then, in a late flurry, with less than 3 kilometers to go, the Lotto-Belisol rider tried again. This time, it worked.
The Frenchman chiseled out a lead of several seconds and, desperately pedaling, held off a surging pack in the final several hundred meters to win by several bike lengths — just enough for him to have time to lift his arms in celebration, panting.
“Incredible,” said Gallopin. “It’s really a victory that feels good.”