You would likely have to search far and wide to find a somebody, even a keen cycling fan outside Poland who has the name Maciej Bodnar on their radar. As a casual cycling fan I had no prior knowledge of the three time Polish national time trial champion. I am writing this after a stage of the 2017 Tour de France that was almost uncanny in its dullness and lack of energy. Won by Marcel Kittel, it ended in a bunch sprint, a sight which has become the most noticeable image of this tour so far.
In past editions of the 104 year old Tour de France the sprint stages have provided excitement and tension with the world’s fastest on two wheels going hammer and tongs in a 30-45 second period of madness. The issue at this year’s editions of the bunch sprints is that we have lost two of the most talented riders of recent years, as they exited the race in dramatic style over a week ago.
As the sprinters thrashed their way into the final metres of the stage 4 sprint into Vittel, the current world champion, Peter Sagan was very much in contention for his second stage victory of this years tour. Meanwhile, the 2011 world champion, Mark Cavendish was struggling to make his way to the front. Though often this is the way he launches his winning sprints, coming from far back before leaving his rivals for dust. As Cavendish made his way up the left side of the road he attempted to squeeze through a gap almost fully taken up by his Slovakian rival.
As Cavendish navigated his way into the small gap, Sagan stuck his elbow into the Manx’s side, sending Cavendish spiralling into the barriers, ending his three week job in France early to the tune of breaking bones. Sagan stayed upright, but was unable to defeat Arnaud Demare in the remaining bunch. However, an hour later the world champion’s tour was also over, the commissars not taking kindly to his apparent over reaction to Cavendish’s search for a gap that perhaps wasn’t there.
Due to this highly debated incident, the sprints have become almost too predictable, it being unforeseeable that Marcel Kittel wouldn’t add to his impressive tally in Pau today. In sprinting terms, the German’s other main competitors weren’t really on the same wavelength, with Edvald Boasson Hagan a and the brutish Andre Greipel being his nearest rivals. This also being after Nacer Bouhanni’s antics and Demare’s exclusion from the tour due to finishing stage 9 outside the given time limit. However, there was one man who wanted to upset the German’s procession.
Maciej Bodnar was part of a breakaway that worked hard to gain time over the peleton for the majority of the 203 kilometre stage. It was within the last 25 kilometres that the two weaker riders, Fredrick Backaret and Marco Marcato started to fall of the pace. As realisation dawned on Bodnar that staying at the same pace would mean getting caught by the main group, he decided to make a daring move to attempt to win the stage. He slowly gained time, almost reaching a lead of 50 seconds as his time trialled his way through rolling French countryside and quaint village squares.
Likely this move was not expected by the peloton, the sprinter friendly teams started to up the pace with powerhouses like Tony Martin making fleeting appearances at the front of the main bunch. This also injected a bit more excitement into preceding’s as overall contenders Alberto Contador, Jakob Fuglsang and Romain Bardet all suffered falls which fortunately didn’t result into too much physical damage. With most in the peloton avoiding these incidents, the chase continued with the gap coming down to almost 20 seconds with 10 kilometres remaining. It looked almost unconceivable that Bodnar would stay away and I toyed the idea of an epic victory with my grandfather, who I had convinced to watch the cycling over the tennis.
As the riders entered the last few kilometres I insisted that he was about to be caught, the time at the top of the screen indicating that his lead was barely in double figures by this point. Four kilometres, three kilometres, two kilometres, one…As Bodnar went under the one kilometre maker with 150 cyclists baring down on him I couldn’t believe he was still riding on his own. We began cheering him on, willing him to achieve the impossible.
Then Kittel and 53 riders passed him. I hadn’t felt so gutted since Scotland’s game against England in the Six Nations. This man had put in a titanic shift, with his reward being 54th place. Having turned himself inside out for the last eighth of a 200km ride ridden in no less than 4 hours and 34 minutes, perhaps the only silver lining was that he had ridden a time trial that could likely beat his three victories as Polish time trial champion in terms of sheer effort.
For me he instantly became one of my favourite pro cyclists. As a Scotsman I have an almost detrimental obsession with the underdog when it comes to sporting occasions. I backed a rider who I had never heard off with every bone in my body in those last few miles, his effort inspiring me to post a new best time in my local 20 kilometre route earlier this evening, comparing in peanuts to the ride that the brave Pole put in today.
Lets hope for more racing like it and with the high mountains of the Pyrenees coming tomorrow I’ll be misbehaved and back the rider who can finally knock Chris Froome off his seemingly untouchable perch. Not even national pride stands in the way of underdog blasphemy.