This article is dedicated to a man who will start his first Tour de France on Saturday.
He is a rider few followers of the sport know anything about, aside from the fact he is fast and calls himself the Flying Mullet.
His name is Shane Archbold and he will become just the 11th New Zealand man to ever start the Tour when he rolls out of Mont Sant Michel this weekend.
His job for the next three weeks is simple; protect Irish sprinter Sam Bennett in the final of the flat stages.
Few in the world can – or will, do what Archbold can; put out frightening power over a couple of kilometres, handling his bike in the most dangerous of situations, with Sam on his wheel, waiting for the latter to launch.
Last year, Sam had a full lead-out train at the Tour but they never won that elusive stage.
This year, Bora-Argon 18 have changed tack, opting to let Sam and Shane ‘do their thing’.
Their ‘thing’ is one of the most beautiful things in bike racing; total sacrifice by one so another can prosper.
Here is a little yarn I wrote about Shane Archbold when he rode for the An Post Chain Reaction team two years ago. It sums up the man and the sport perfectly.
(This article first appeared on stickybottle.com)
The race is going away from the An Post Chain Reaction team but that doesn’t bother manager Kurt Bogaerts too much. They’ve been in that position before. What really drives him mental is that they haven’t adhered to the plan.
Shane Archbold – who had a dreadful crash on the opening day – is rocking wildly as he tries to stay in touch with the main field which is now down to around 50 riders. Up ahead, Sean Downey, Owain Doull and Robert-Jon McCarthy are all doing okay in what is left of the main peloton – and Jack Wilson is over a minute up the road in the break.
Kurt falls silent. He’s well aware their only chances of outright victory are Doull (7th @2’07”) and Downey (19th @ 2’53”). The break’s gap extends. Kurt’s frustration grows. Most of the big players are in there – but only one An Post man, and he’s almost 15 minutes down on GC. A stage win is very unlikely, overall victory is impossible if action isn’t taken.
Kurt is losing patience; “it’s over…if we don’t do something…..fuck” and he hammers the steering wheel in frustration.
The rain pours down and Archbold is on his limit on the category three climb of Derryquinn. We’re barely 50k into the stage and one of the team’s star riders is in trouble. There’s the Tunnel Road (Category two), Derrycreha (Category three) and Cousane (Category three) to come yet. It’s going to be a long day for the Kiwi.
Kurt demands gloves from the back seat for Archbold. Hans, the mechanic/soigneur, is sharp and lively. Kurt puts his hand back and is presented with neoprene thick enough to scoop up lava. It’s that kind of biblical day on the Rás.
Kurt rolls down the window and exchanges a momentary glance with his man. Their eyes meet. Kurt needs to see the eyes for proof but the drool on Archbold’s chin coupled with his bloodshot pupils give his sorry state away.
“I’m facked,” offers Archbold in his thick Kiwi tongue, as he looks down and shakes his head in disgust.
Kurt is still giving him the eyes, glaring at him. “The race is over if we don’t do something….You must get back in the group (which is disappearing from sight up ahead) and give me an effort hard as you can up the Tunnel Road.”
“How far away is that?,” quizzes Archbold. “20k to the bottom (even though it’s closer to 25), hard as you can up it. We have to bring the break back.”
I’m doing a quick math myself and it becomes apparent that yes; dire situation requires drastic measure. Archbold must not only get back into the front group he’s been dropped out of, but he must then go to the front of that group and try to bring back the break – which his teammate is in.
Kurt knows it’s shit or bust so he deploys Robert-Jon, Downey and Doull for duty at the front – though the latter two must be used sparingly as they’re still in with an outside chance of overall victory. It’s magic.
Archbold puts on his gloves, takes the mother of all wing-mirror slings and hauls himself back up to the front group like a man late for a job interview.
1’ 10” is now the gap and Kurt is growing anxious. He drops a gear and rips up the outside of the cavalcade and front group en route to Wilson in the break. There, buried in the lineout, is their man tapping through. “You do not ride one metre in front. You slow it down,” yelps Kurt at Wilson.
“One minute between break and front group, gap falling”, barks the commissaire over race radio.
“Come aaaaan,” enthuses Kurt. The plan is working. Archbold did as he was told.
We pull in between the break and front group and Bogaerts does his own manual calculation. The commissaires had it spot on but Kurt is a glass half-full type, “40 seconds,” he roars at the now Archbold-led chase group. My respect for the Kiwi soars. He’s absolutely dying, but he did as he was told.
“Riders being distanced from the tail-end of the chase,” comes the next dispatch from race radio.
Kurt straightens up just a little.
We start the Tunnel Road climb and more county men get dumped out the back. I can see county rider and first year college student Sean Hahessy suffering like a dog but hanging in there. Former An Post rider Denis Dunworth has had enough and calls it a day but there are plenty more like him. Then we see Archbold get shelled, barely moving, swinging wildly and it’s clear he is not getting back on now. Kurt gives him a jacket. Hell, he’ll need it today.
No time to hang around for condolence, however.
Robert-Jon is now lighting it up on the most difficult part of the climb. The gap is down to 30 seconds and the Irish-born Australian is driving it so hard he’s shedding more and more men out the arse of the peloton. In fact, he drives it so hard that he blows himself up.
It’s a long way from sunshine crits in Adelaide here on the southern-facing side of the Tunnel Road.
Kurt takes a rice cake when I offer it to him. They’ve three cards left, one’s a joker (Wilson), a bit of a decoy; two are pocket aces (Downey and Doull).
Boom. The front group start racing to get across to the break. Kurt can see it. We can all see it. The race is back together and we start the rip-roaring descent into Glengarriff. The plan is working.
Stacey Kelly (daughter of Irish cycling legend Sean), their soigneur, is there at the base of the climb with musettes and Kurt tells her wait for Shane. If they are to win, Shane must come home inside the time limit. It’s worth noting that a day earlier from Charleville to Caherciveen, Shane was last man on the road. Today, he would be second last man home.
We drive on. Suddenly, there’s a skirmish up ahead. A group has broken clear. A dozen or so. There’s a green jersey in there and they are motoring up Derrycreha….and there’s a green jersey in there!
“12 men breaking clear….standby for numbers….” An eternity ensues. “Number nine….” It’s Downey.
“They have a gap of 200 metres….can we get a car here,” demands the commissaire. This is dangerous.
Two Austrians, two Italians, two Madison Genesis, the defending champion are there amongst the others. And Downey is definitely there too. The gap goes from 1’55” to four minutes in a little under five kilometres and Kurt is the happiest man in Ireland. They have turned matters around dramatically. Instead of the hunters they are now the hunted.
The boys behind have stalled and as we start the last climb of the day, at Cousane, the gap has extended to six minutes.
The craic is good in the car now and I’m getting to learn the inner workings of Bogaert’s mind. This shit makes him tick.
We have more rice cakes. He even offers me a sandwich. We talk about (or he does) bio-rhythms, the team, training, power meters, Philippe Gilbert, his family and it quickly becomes apparent he is more Irish than I thought.
“If Bennett and Van Avermaet were sprinting for the win at the Worlds, who would you shout for?” I ask. He looks at me twice to see am I taking the piss. “Bennett of course.” I definitely insulted him with the question. Bogaerts is a born and bred Belgian but he sees Bennett as almost like a son.
Amazingly, about one minute later a text arrives from Sam himself, wanting to know if Downey is riding into yellow. It’s a beautiful moment. Though Sam has left what Kurt calls the “An Post family”, he’s still very much a part of it.
Downey comes back for instructions. The gap is eight minutes. He wants to know who can sprint, who can punch, what the finish is like. The Banbridge man is smiling, he’s actually smiling! He knows he’s heading for arguably the biggest result of his life. His mother and father are at the line too, and his brother Mark (an Irish international and European track silver medallist) is tweeting furiously. His only regret is his girlfriend isn’t here but you can be sure she’s hanging on every tweet too.
“Believe in yourself now, you are sprinting very well this year,” encourages Kurt, “but you must try to test them; on the next hill I want you to attack…see who is strong.”
“Attack from rider number nine,” crackles race radio, quickly followed by “all back together.”
Tension mounts as the riders up ahead weave left, dive right, jab and move, jab and move as the line nears….Downey jabs again, the others counter….Bialoblocki goes….all back together…the Italians try to one-two the rest….they’re neutralised…we’re heading for a sprint.
Inside a kilometre to go and the shadow boxing is over. Bialoblocki lands a crushing blow and takes the win. Downey is boxed in at the final bend and has to settle for eighth. He’s dejected. His mother doesn’t know how to react because her boy is the first Irishman home but he isn’t exactly laughing.
She’s still the proudest person there. Father Seamus offers a well done and Kurt is next on the scene, helps him off the bike and waits for an explanation.
“I just got boxed in by (Ian) Bibby (Madison Genesis) and had to lock up so I started…..I had to start my sprint again….I’m sorry,” he rues, and he hangs his head ruefully. Kurt says nothing.
They live to fight another day. Archbold was 35 minutes down. Stacey Kelly waited on her own, as usual, in the pissing rain to feed him, as she would all the others.
They didn’t win the race, but they won a lot of respect.
This article first appeared on stickybottle.com