It was the most romantic day of the Tour de France. Thomas Voeckler was dropped by the peloton as they climbed the mountains of the Pyrenees. But he would not concede the race lead without a fight, and rejoined the group, only to be dropped again, six times over the course of the stage. He wore the Maillot Jaune on his back, and the tricolored heart of the French national champion on his sleeve. In the end, he kept the golden fleece for another precious day, and became the new darling of France in the process.
At the same time, further down the mountain, Basque rider Iban Mayo prepared to abandon. At the beginning of July, he was a contender for the Tour. On Stage 4, he crashed on the cobbles of Belgium, and lost valuable minutes, early in the game. Two weeks later, he had to be convinced to stay on his bicycle. Each pedal stroke sapped what energy there was left in his legs. But Mayo, too, made it to the top of the Plateau de Beille that day, with a little encouragement, and the occasional push from his teammates and fans.
Tyler Hamilton, on the other hand, took off his race number, waved goodbye to the team cars, and left the Tour that morning. Last year, he finished in fourth place with a fractured collarbone. This year, his heart was broken, and his body bruised. Not only did Tyler crash hard that week, but his beloved Tugboat, cycling's favourite dog, had been diagnosed with an agressive form of cancer. Tugs was euthanized on the Tour's first rest day.
At the Plateau, Lance Armstrong outsprinted Ivan Basso for his first solo stage win of 2004. No one else could match his pace. Behind him, the peloton was in pieces. Ahead of him, hundreds of miles away, Paris awaited his return.
Congratulations, Lance. And to the rest of the peloton: Here's to you. Thanks for a great July.