There’s a famous scene at the end of the movie Bladerunner, when the dying replicant played by Rutger Hauer sits in the rain on a rooftop of a tall, derelict building. He has moments to live and is overcome with profound sadness at all he will lose. He looks at the bland hero played by Harrison Ford and says “I’ve seen things you humans wouldn’t believe …”
I have seen them today on stage 12, the first true mountain stage of the 2011 Tour de France. I saw something up close that was indelible — a rider in so much pain, so far gone in a private hell, so close to death that he had a trail of spittle almost a foot long hanging from his lower lip as he rode past me.
He was dying before my eyes as they all were. I saw plenty of pain last year at the Tour, the agonized faces of Basso and Evans and Wiggins. But this was something almost inhuman and troubling and inspiring all at once.
I was two kilometers down from the summit of Luz Ardiden, a climb that seemed to switch back into eternity. Even driving the climb was relentless with the sharp cut backs and 9% grade.
When the riders came up, their faces were gaunt, expressionless — like prison camp victims, their eyes dead. Their mouths were wide open like Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream. They were zombies or machines that continued to pedal because they were programmed that way. The rational mind gone along with any care for self preservation.
I was watching men kill themselves with a long and painful process called stage 12, a race up one category 1 climb and two hors category mountains, La Hourquette des Ancizan, Col du Tourmalet and finally, Luz Ardiden.
The drooling zombie went by quickly like all the other suffering animals. I think it was a Rabobank rider and it might have been Laurens Ten Dam. I’m sure he took a year off his life today.
You cheer not in celebration of their heroics but in some primal way to try and keep them alive. You scream to prolong their life expectancy.
The intensity of the experience was unforgettable and the TV shots don’t do the pain justice. I witnessed Andreas Kloden come by, a wraith, bleeding, the right shoulder of his jersey shredded. Every face was agony that could no longer find expression.
Even dying, they ride so fast and the team cars and motos barrel past with maniacal fury. There is nowhere for fans to stand — on one side of the road, the mountain, the other, the cliff. You’re forced onto the road. A Euskatel-Euskadi team car ran over my left foot and now I have my own souvenir for Luz Ardiden.
The Men of Orange triumphed today and I was standing in a crowd of drunk, boisterous but not obnoxious Euskatel fans. They shouted support for every rider and pushed them along.
I’d like to think the riders drew some small measure of strength from those cheers but mostly I believe they were deep inside themselves, watching the last light go out.
Our respects go to Samuel Sanchez and Ivan Basso and the surprising Tom Danielson of Garmin-Cervelo. But there isn’t a rider that didn’t come up those mountains that doesn’t impress me beyond words.