Wednesday, July 23, 2008
Augustyn's Tour de France Crash (YOUTUBE)
John-Lee Augustyn climbed on to the roof of the world yesterday. Less than a minute later, he fell off. But by conquering the highest climb in the 2008 Tour de France he ensured that his subsequent humiliation took a distant second place to a remarkable feat.
The Col de la Bonette-Restefond is the highest mountain pass in Europe. At 2,802m it is a lunar landscape of grey scree and whistling winds. Only three times in its long history has the Tour passed this way, and on each occasion the first rider over the top was one of the sport's great climbers. In 1962 and 1964 it was Federico Bahamontes, the Eagle of Toledo. In 1993 it was Robert Millar, the enigmatic Glaswegian. Yesterday it was an unknown 21-year-old from South Africa, who did not even know in whose wheeltracks he had followed.
With a kilometre to go to the summit of the climb carrying the distinction of being this year's "roof of the Tour", Augustyn jumped out of a group of half a dozen riders and was 8sec ahead when he began the swooping 23km descent to the finish in the village of Jausiers. Within a handful of corners, however, he had been caught, and it was as he tried to follow the Ukrainian rider Yaroslav Popovych through a wide right-hand bend that he ran wide, hit the verge, and plunged over the edge in a small cloud of dust.
Luckily for Augustyn, this is a mountain formed by a long-gone glacier. It has steep slopes rather than precipices, so he found himself sliding head-first through shale. He came to a halt after about 15 metres, and was forced to do a Spider Man impersonation, scrabbling up by his fingertips in order to regain the road. Once he got there, however, he discovered that his bike had fallen even further, which meant that he had to wait for a replacement before cruising down the hill to finish 35th.
"I was confident I could win the stage," he said after extricating himself from the embrace of his Italian directeur sportif, Valerio Tebaldi, and brushing off a coating of dust. "But I took the wrong line when I tried to follow Popovych and I overshot the bend. I just thought, 'I'm going to drop for ever'. I could see my bike going down and all I could do was try to stop, stop, stop."
At 5ft 11in and 9st 13lb, Augustyn has the classic slender build of the born climber. He is from Port Elizabeth, won a stage on the Tour of Japan two years ago, spent five months recovering from breaking a femur in the Tour of Portugal last year, goes out with a Dutch woman who is also a professional bike racer, and lives in Brescia, where his team, Barloworld, have their headquarters. It is safe to assume that much more will be heard from him.