We love winners. But for American cyclist Andrew Talansky, finishing last in Stage 11 of the Tour de France was a victory. (More)

When Last Place Is a Victory

Talansky had high hopes at the start of the Tour. He finished 10th overall last year, and he attacked on the final day to claim a dramatic victory in Critérium du Dauphiné last month. The Dauphiné is one of the major tuneup races for the Tour, and Talansky bested favorites Chris Froome and Alberto Contador. That put him among the favorites to finish on the podium in Paris.

Instead he’ll be going home with an injured back:

“I’m absolutely heartbroken to leave the Tour de France. I built my season around the Tour,” Talansky said in a team statement.

“I had hoped the rest day would allow some time to recover from my crashes. I was hopeful that I could get through (stage 11) … but it proved to be too much.”

But after his epic performance yesterday, Talansky will still go home a winner:

The American rider Andrew Talansky’s hopes of winning the Tour de France effectively vanished after two crashes last week. But he became another kind of cycling hero Wednesday: the rider who would not quit when he probably should have.

Velo NewsMatthew Beaudin sets the scene:

The curtains were falling all around him.

Off the bike, sitting on the guardrail, his crash-kinked back siphoning his strength. On this day, two hard crashes in recent stages were too much to allow a rider who could have finished in the top-five in Paris to even stay with the peloton.

Andrew Talansky sat while director Robbie Hunter talked to him closely about abandoning. The decision, the sport director said, was up to him. If he wanted to quit, fine. But if he wanted to press on to finish, then the only way he’d get there was by riding.

There were 51 empty, hilly kilometers remaining.

While Hunter talked, Talansky wept. Tour officials announced he had quit:

And then he got back on his bike:

Wednesday’s stage 11 of the Tour de France will go down as one of the most unforgettable in American cycling. But not because a U.S. rider won.

Quite the opposite: One almost quit.

One rider stands alone atop the podium in Paris at the end of the Tour, but that’s deceptive. Cycling is not an individual sport. Riders save as much as 40% on their energy output by following other riders and, like migrating geese, they take turns sharing the work:

But Talansky had no one to work with. His teammates were up in the peloton, over five kilometers ahead and pulling away. For company he had only a team car and “the broom wagon,” a van that trails behind to pick up riders who abandon the race.

Nor could he relax his pace. Each stage of the Tour has an elimination time, based on the difficulty of the course and the winner’s average speed. Stage 11 was hilly, but the pace had been quick. Talansky – already 14 minutes behind the field – would have to finish within 37 minutes of the winner or be eliminated.

Talansky was 20 kilometers out when Tony Gallopin crossed the finish line. He was 10 kilometers out when Gallopin mounted the podium to receive the trophy for the stage win. NBC Sports’ post-race show usually features interviews with the winner and other riders. Instead the French pool cameras, and the broadcast, followed a lone rider who would finish in last place.

But he would finish.

Just over 32 minutes after Gallopin sprinted down a street lined with cheering fans, Talansky rode down that same street. The fans were still there. They were still cheering. Gallopin had won the stage. Talansky had won their hearts.

Peloton magazine tweeted the scene, and the score:

+++++

Happy Thursday!