“As long as I breathe, I attack” – Bernard Hinault
Said for effect, of course, but pretty convincing words when growled by Hinault from beneath that dark Breton brow.
The sprint is for the adrenalin junkie but the solo attack is the slow burner; a commitment to hurting first your opponents, and then yourself. The attacker is pitting himself against the terrain and the field and gambling on one of two possible outcomes – glorious victory or spectacular defeat. I’m not talking about a doomed breakaway or a couple of hours jolly for the sponsors, I’m talking about a contender – a big beast – attacking in the mountains in a Grand Tour, or slipping the field and striking for home in a Classic.
Glorious victory…Tour de France 2013, Stage 15, Mont Ventoux.
Chris Froome is in yellow and his team-mates – first Kennaugh, then Porte – have splintered the race on the mountain slopes, leaving a select group at the head of the course; only Quintana is further up the road. Each rider is poker faced, daring each other to make a move, and the crowd is primal and baying, forming a corridor as the riders grind upwards in single file. Porte says something to Froome, appears to smile, then peels away for his team leader to strike.
The man in yellow reels in Quintana, deep into his own doomed attack, and the Columbian takes Froome’s wheel and clings on. But Froome goes again decisively. Not content merely to gain time on most of his contenders, this is a show of strength in the bear pit and Quintana can’t respond. Froome drives on and the fans roar, knowing they are watching the Tour winner.
Spectacular defeat…Tour de France 2013, Stage 18, double Alpe d’Huez
The true attack has a quality of slow burning tension. No matter how strong or committed, a rider can blow at any moment, suddenly reduced and grovelling. The attacker is bidding for glory but playing with fire.
On the epic 18th Stage – the day the race goes twice up Alpe d’Huez – Tejay van Garderen attacks on the first ascent, then suffers mechanical trouble as the route loops around to tackle the col again. With an impressive show of strength he breaks clear a second time to leave the yellow jersey and the other big names in his wake. Van Garderen is clear, looking strong, counting down the hairpins and feeding off the crowds.
But at the approach to the summit he slows….he’s cracked ….anyone who knows anything can see he’s hit the wall.
With 2km to go van Garderen is bent over his bike, every pedal stroke an unnatural effort, and Frenchman Christophe Riblon sweeps past, energised by the sight of van Garderen’s suffering. The American has nothing left to give and Riblon takes the spoils.
On Mont Ventoux, Froome took the plaudits for a stunning attack which left no-one in any doubt as to who was top dog. On Alpe d’Huez van Garderen was defeated, but his defeat brought him respect and goodwill; the win went to Riblon, but to make a bold and audacious attack – and even to fail – is to make your mark, and demand a share of the glory.
‘Better a day as a lion than a life as a lamb’, as the cliché goes, or as Hinault put it, ‘as long as I breathe, I attack’.