The show must go on: mishaps and miracles at the Grand Départ



Opportunity knocks

On July 3rd, 1988, 7-Eleven stagiaire Nathan Dahlberg was cooking dinner at his home in Ghent when he heard a knock on the door. The New Zealander had raced a 190km kermesse that day: he was tired, hungry, and had no idea who could be calling so late.

The answer was one straight out of a cycling fairytale. At the door was a Belgian man that Dahlberg had never seen before, telling him to come with him at once to drive the 600 miles to Pornichet and race the Tour de France, which began the next morning.

“It’s a Cinderella story,” Mike Neel, the 7-Eleven manager, would later say. Bob Roll, Dahlberg’s team-mate, had crashed during a pre-Tour training ride earlier in the day and Dahlberg was the only rider anywhere close enough to make it to the start line in time.

Dahlberg’s house had no phone, meaning that Neel had to ring up an old friend in Ghent to go round and fetch him.

The 1988 Tour de France peloton arrives on the Champs-Élysées. Nathan Dahlberg is in there somewhere, 43 places back…

Dahlberg ate his dinner, left the dishes in the sink, then the pair drove through the night to the Grand Départ on the west coast of France. “I got about three hours’ sleep in the car and about an hour’s sleep in the hotel once we got there,” recalled Dahlberg to the New York Times.

At 9am the next day he was signing on for the Tour de France. In a matter of hours, Dahlberg had gone from the small-time Belgian kermesse circuit to the greatest bike race in the world.

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Time flies when you’re warming up

The 1989 Tour de France is best remembered as the closest Tour ever raced – Greg LeMond and his futuristic TT bars beating Laurent Fignon to the victory by a paltry eight seconds.

Perhaps even more remarkable, however, was the performance of Pedro Delgado in the Tour’s prologue in Luxembourg. Sadly for Delgado, that’s not for his performance on the bike but the fact that he arrived at the ramp nearly three minutes late for his allotted start slot.

He still holds the dubious honour of being the only defending Tour champion in history to end the first day in last place.

1989 Tour de France – Pedro Delgado during his belated prologue effort.

The cause of such a disastrous error? In the immediate aftermath, rumours were rife. Some said Delgado had been accosted by police, others that he had been sipping coffee with a beautiful woman.

The truth, sadly, is more mundane. “I had my head in the clouds” Delgado said. “Everything went as usual. I left the hotel on time, I warmed up well on the circuit, and everything was going normally. I didn’t notice time passing. And when I got onto the platform to start, the timekeepers told me I was late.”

1989 Tour de France podium – Laurent Fignon, Greg LeMond, and Pedro Delgado.

2:40 was Delgado’s opening deficit. Amazingly, he would go on to finish 3rd, just 3:34 behind LeMond and 3:26 behind Fignon. One can only dream of the duel between the three riders had Delgado had made the start ramp in time.

Millar’s mechanical 

David Millar arrived at the 2003 Tour de France with his sights set firmly on the prologue. A superb time-trialist, the 6.5km route through the streets of Paris represented a gilt-edged chance for the Briton to seize yellow.

Cofidis evidently thought so too: on the eve of the prologue the team mechanics set about removing the front derailleurs from the bikes in order to save a few grams, the reasoning being that the inner ring wouldn’t be needed on such flat parcours.

Tour de France 2003 – David Millar before his infamous mechanical

It might have been quite clever, had it not been incredibly stupid. What hadn’t occurred to the mechanics was that even if it wasn’t needed for shifting, the front derailleur also served to catch the chain should it be thrown from the chainring. Millar could only watch in horror as his Cofidis team-mates rolled one by one off the start ramp and promptly dropped their chains.

With no time to rectify the problem, Millar could do nothing but pray. For a good while, at least, it seemed that his prayers had been answered: he held a four-second lead at the time check. All until the penultimate corner.

The grainy YouTube TV footage makes for tragic viewing: when he should have been powering towards the finish, Millar can be seen freewheeling to a near halt on the final stretch, fingers scrabbling desperately at the chain. He lost the prologue, and the yellow jersey, to Brad McGee by just 0.08 seconds.

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One man’s loss…

By 2004, Australian domestique Matt White was 30 years old and still waiting for his Tour de France debut. In fact, he must have felt destined to never race the Tour – twice he had been in teams denied entry to the race due to doping scandals.

You can imagine his disappointment when, having finally made the Cofidis squad for that year’s Tour, he somehow contrived to break his collarbone on the morning of the first stage.

2004 Tour de France – Matt White receives treatment after breaking his collarbone

During a relaxed recon of the prologue course in Liège, White’s front wheel became entangled in some rogue TV cables and the Australian was suddenly out of action.

Cofidis called up the only other team rider in the country, Peter Farazijn, and told him he had four hours to get to the start line.

Farazijn, who was at a car rally on the other side of Belgium, jumped into his motor with his wife Sibelle and caned it all the way into Liège, police escort and all.

Arriving without time to even warm up, Farazijn climbed onto White’s bike, finished 185th in the prologue, then told the press: “I will not finish on the podium this year”.

And Matt White? He did finally make it to the Tour in 2005. He finished it too.



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