by Ed Ballard
1130 hrs — 150 km from the finish at Bourg-d’Oisans
Phil: Good morning to all our viewers and welcome to day 17 of the 219th Tour de France. We join the last of the alpine stages just after the 50-kilometre mark as the peloton passes through another of these nameless mountain villages. And here in the yellow kevlar of the race leader is the familiar hunched figure of Eugene Kutts, surrounded by his henchmen from the Protea Correctional team.
Paul: Tell you what, Phil, I’m still in awe after his attack on the Col de la Madeleine.
Phil: That was the most ferocious performance I’ve seen in years, Paul. But today is another day, and the riders in the peloton have hours of arduous racing ahead of them. Would you say they’ve been dreading this stage more than any other?
Paul: It’s one heck of a tough stage — 200 kilometers of treacherous mountain roads from the ruin of Moûtiers to the fortress of Bourg-d’Oisans, taking in three hors-category climbs including the legendary Alpe d’Huez — but these guys are too jacked on focus pills and minotaur hormones to know the meaning of fear.
Phil: Do they experience any emotions, Paul?
Paul: Hatred, Phil. Hatred for each other and hatred for the gods who selected them for this contest.
Phil: And let’s not forget, hatred for the viewers at home.
Paul: For them most of all. It’s no exaggeration to say that many of these riders would have chosen any other fate above this one. Forced labour, exile — even death, Phil.
1202 hrs — 130 km to go
Phil: Here’s the first attack of the day, and the two riders making the move are wearing the red jerseys of Digisoft Panoptikon, the big-spending outfit from the New Colonies.
Paul: This move smacks of overconfidence, Phil. Dyson Sanchez is a promising rider, but he’s yet to impress in the mountains, and Yosef Johnson fell to pieces in the Pyrenees.
Phil: Eugene Kutts certainly doesn’t look too worried.
Paul: He’s not the worrying type, Phil. Most of these riders are only concerned with survival, a few are thinking about the stage win, but Kutts has bigger fish to fry. He’s thinking about overall victory in the Tour de France. He’s thinking about 500,000 New Credits.
Phil: And the only chance he’ll ever get to win his freedom.
1244 hrs — 112 km to go
Phil: There’s still well over 100 kilometres of agony between here and the dark fortress of Bourg-d’Oisans, and life isn’t getting any easier for the leaders on the road, Dyson Sanchez and Yosef Johnson. They’re riding into the poisoned wind that blows from the north, and there are wolves in these mountains.
Paul: And things worse than wolves.
1310 hrs — 95 km to go
Phil: As the famished riders snatch what food they can in the militarized feeding-zone, the drone gives us a fantastic shot of one of the great relics of this part of France: the vast abandoned power station of La Mure, built back in 2064.
Paul: All those pylons, covered with vines. It makes you think, Phil. But something’s happening back in the peloton!
Phil: Bandits! Bandits have picked off one of the competitors, and I’m hearing over race radio that the victim was the lanterne rouge!
Paul: That’s right, the unlucky rider who drew the bandits’ attention was Tony Lochner, another of the Panoptikon boys. The bandits might be vicious but they’re not stupid, Phil; they sensed he was in a vulnerable position near the back of that main group.
Phil: He’s had a rotten Tour, Paul.
Paul: I’ll tell you the rider I’m most concerned for now, Phil, and that’s Brutus Murdoch — after that bandit attack he’s the only Panoptikon rider left in the peloton.
1313 hrs — 93 km to go
Phil: Well, that didn’t take long. A brief churning deep within that mass of riders, a spray of red across the road, and that’s the end of Brutus. The peloton parts around his body like a traffic island. Would you say death comes for us all, Paul?
Paul: That he does, Phil, and more to the point, he’s turning this into a very costly day for Team Digisoft Panoptikon. I don’t envy the guy whose job it is to radio the news to Johnson and Sanchez up ahead: “Listen boys, pedal like your lives depend on it, because things got messy back here.”
1420 hrs — 74 km to go
Phil: Good to see the locals lining the cobbled streets just as they did in years gone by. They really love their cycling!
Paul: It would be more accurate to say they’re hungry, Phil. You’ll notice that none of the riders wants to be the one riding closest to the crowd, and the last thing they’d ever do is make eye-contact.
Phil: The Protea Correctional boys have certainly formed a tight cordon around Eugene Kutts.
Paul: Funny to think there was a time when the maillot jaune would ride near the front of the peloton. Nowadays that makes you a sitting target.
1501 hrs — 65 km to go
Phil: I’m hearing that the two Panoptikon boys leading the race have left the course and are heading onto a side-road. We’ll get pictures for you just as soon as we can, but it sounds like they’ve given up the ghost.
Paul: I’m not surprised, Phil. Sanchez and Johnson know all too well what’s happened to their team-mates. Their best hope is to lay low till the peloton has passed by; maybe they’ll ride again tomorrow.
Phil: How do you rate their chances, Paul?
Paul: In these hills, with the fog coming down? Not good.
Phil: What a fiasco today has been for Team Digisoft Panoptikon!
Paul: They made a lot of noise in the run-up to the race, Phil. New coaching staff, big-money sponsorship deals, the Tour’s most sophisticated gene-splicing lab. And they signed a whole chain gang of talent in the penal draft. We expected big things. But the Tour is more than a bloodbath; there’s a game of chess being played out there, and on today’s evidence Digisoft Panoptikon are still learning the moves.
1524 hrs — 52 km to go
Phil: Eugene Kutts has put the hammer down!
Paul: This is where the racing starts! Kutts has bided his time all day; he’s watched, he’s waited, and now he’s looking his rivals right in the eye and saying, “Come on boys, what have you got?”
Phil: Who can live with the murderous pace being set by Eugene Kutts? The man sticking grimly to his wheel is Leo Martens, the Vampire of Ghent, and Moya’s still here, like a golem in black lycra, and we’ve still got a couple of riders from BigPinkPenitentiary, and that tall thin killer in the shades is Abdelkader.
Paul: Don’t forget the polka-dot jersey, Andrius Kavalskis; what a Tour that young man is having! But only one thing’s for sure: we’re going to lose a lot of men to the mountain tonight.
Phil: What kind of attrition rate are we looking at for the laggards struggling up those endless hairpin bends, Paul?
Paul: As a rule of thumb, it’s usually safe to say between 10 and 20 percent won’t make it to nightfall.
1540 hrs — 45 km to go
Phil: If you’re just tuning in, you join us on the road to Alpe d’Huez with our two race leaders. The monster in black is Ivan Moya, one of the survivors of last year’s Tour, and this young man in the red and white polka-dots of the King of the Mountains is Andrius Kavalskis, the young contender from Team AlmazVodkaKishka.
Paul: I like this boy, Phil.
Phil: He was the only man who could stay with Moya when he made his move, and now they’ve put a good stretch of road between themselves and the yellow jersey of Eugene Kutts.
Paul: I think we could be looking at today’s decisive attack. 97 times the Tour has ridden up this mountain, all of them murderous bike races, but these two look ready to make their mark. I love their contrasting styles! Kavalskis is such an elegant, sprightly rider. Look at him turning over that high cadence — this guy was born on a bike.
Phil: And so young! Whatever crime he committed back in civilisation, it’s hard to believe he’s earned this fate. But how about Ivan Moya, Paul — what power this man has!
Paul: He’s one tough customer. El Esbirro, they call him — the Goon.
Phil: An arsonist, I believe.
Paul: Sure, he’s not what you’d call graceful, but he can pump out a thousand watts for hours on end. This guy has the VO2 max of a killer whale.
Phil: The faces of these two! Like ghosts in the fog.
1554 hrs — 37 km to go
Phil: Now we rejoin the yellow jersey. The chasers have regrouped around Eugene Kutts but he can’t afford to let Moya and Kavalskis stretch their lead, not with so much mountain still to climb.
Paul: You know what, I think Kutts in trouble, Phil!
Phil: I think you might be right! The big freak from Joburg is wearing the mask of pain! He left a trail of carnage up the mountainside yesterday, but has that effort taken its toll?
Paul: Don’t forget, it takes something serious to slow this man down. He’s legally a mutant. He’s been pumped so full of weapons-grade steroids he can barely talk.
Phil: He looks like a gorilla.
Paul: He practically is a gorilla, Phil. Just look at those red eyes: the eyes of the first man in fifty years who volunteered to take part in the Tour de France.
Phil: But wait, Paul, is he bleeding? Is that blood?
Paul: Hold that thought, Phil — there’s been an attack!
Phil: His rivals are smelling blood and someone’s gone off the front! But who’s the plucky rider trying to bridge the gap to the leaders?
Paul: I think that’s Abdelkader, Phil.
Phil: Now there’s a racer I love to watch. As deadly on the breakaway as he is with a shiv.
Paul: He was one of the pre-race favourites, Phil, but he’s picked a heck of a dangerous time to make his move: we’re nearing a tunnel, and that spells danger.
1606 hrs — 33 km to go
Phil: Well, we’re seeing the yellow jersey group emerge from the tunnel, no doubt breathing a sigh of relief. But there’s no sign of Abdelkader, and I’m fearing the worst.
Paul: Like I said, Phil, a dark tunnel is a suicidal place to launch an attack. I remember one incident in the Pyrenees a few years back; an entire team bus just vanished.
Phil: Yes, it was the bus belonging to Team Maximum Security-Dippin’Fries, and as I recall the incident took place on the road to Luz Ardiden.
Paul: And that bus of theirs was a very well-armed team bus indeed.
Phil: It was a team bus that could execute a scorched-earth policy.
Paul: That team bus razed villages in its time, Phil, but it never made it out of that tunnel.
1610 hrs — 31 km to go
Phil: Oops! I’d advise viewers of a sensitive disposition not to look at what’s dangling from that ski-lift. And I thought we’d seen the last of Abdelkader!
Paul: Well, we’d seen the last of most of him.
1622 hrs — 24 km to go
Paul: Moya’s gone! He’s made his move on the slopes of Alpe d’Huez and Kavalskis is struggling to stay with him!
Phil: That’s a huge acceleration — out of the saddle, tongue protruding, legs turning over a monstrous gear. This man has the engine of a mountain goat!
Paul: Kavalskis is slowing — I think he may have a technical fault.
Phil: What a cruel blow to his Tour hopes, and his dreams of liberty.
Paul: It’s his chain, he’s lost his chain.
Phil: But that chain is the least of Andrius’ worries — he’ll be thinking about those wolves. They’re closing in!
Phil: But Moya’s slowing too! He’s had a peek over his shoulder and spotted the wolves. He’s turning his bike around —
1623 hrs — 24 km to go
Phil: And that’s something I’ve never seen! With Kavalskis at the mercy of the pack, his rival is batting the wolves away with his pump. What heroism! When people talk about the Tour de France you hear a lot about infighting, about backstabbing and bloodshed —
Paul: Wholesale slaughter —
Phil: But this race has a spirit of comradeship that has always endured. These guys are competing for the stage win, remember, not to mention 10,000 New Credits and the pleasure of a local maiden — the stakes could not be any higher! And Kavalskis is back on the bike; now they can resume this enthralling battle in the fog.
Paul: You know what, Phil? I’d think twice about taking on Ivan Moya if I was a wolf.
1648 hrs — 17 km to go
Paul: It’s not looking at all good for Eugene Kutts. He’s managed to stem the bleeding from that shiv-wound in his side, but he’s haemorrhaging time to the two riders in front.
Phil: He just has to keep moving forward — right now all his enemies are sharpening their knives as they chase him up this mountain.
Paul: Look at him. Slumped in the saddle, chainmailed fist clamped over his stomach — you’d almost think he was afraid. Nobody knows better than Eugene Kutts how easy it is to finish off a weakened rider. All it takes is a shoulderbarge and you’re over the precipice, kevlar or no kevlar.
Phil: It’s sad, Paul.
Paul: But we’re going to have to leave Kutts for now, because we’ve missed some action further up the hill.
Phil: Kavalskis is on his own! He’s riding like a man possessed — but what happened to Ivan Moya?
Paul: It looks like the Alp has claimed him, Phil. Only one man knows what happened to Ivan Moya, and that’s the man we’re looking at right now, pedaling like he’s never pedaled before. Look at the face on him, look at the eyes!
Phil: All I know is, Andrius Kavalskis is flying on the wings of terror, and he doesn’t look back as he crests the summit of Alpe d’Huez.
Paul: Don’t forget, the road down to the grim fortress of Bourg-d’Oisans is a treacherous descent, especially in these wet conditions. Overshoot the apex of one of these bends and splat! — you’re in the forest. And once you’re in the forest…
Phil: But look at this boy, Paul — every bit the GC contender, growing in confidence with every metre of road that flies under his wheels.
1703 hrs — Bourg-d’Oisans. The finish.
Phil: What an effort! He barely has the energy to raise a gauntlet in celebration as he crosses the line. Smile, Andrius, you’ve just won a stage of the Tour de France!
Paul: The question is, will he cash in the 10,000 New Credits he gets for the stage victory, or trade them for a ninety-second time advantage in the general classification? That would bring him within touching distance of Eugene Kutts, and after today he must like his chances of closing the gap. But Kutts is never a man you want as your enemy, even when he’s wounded.
Phil: You know what, these are the questions Kavalskis will be weighing up in his mind right now on the podium. Sure, he’s a young rider, but he’s a tactical rider — but look, the guards are leading forth the maiden.
Paul: Poor girl.
Phil: Well, we’ve come to the end of our coverage, and the end of the Alpine stages. There’s just one thought now in the minds of the survivors: only three days till Paris.
Paul: What remains of it.
Phil: But before then the Tour will head for the Pays de la Loire. What awaits the peloton in the blasted plains? Tune in tomorrow to find out.
Ed Ballard is a journalist and writer who lives in London