There are ways that these things happen. The hours of anticipation spent in the searing sun (or the pouring rain, or the frigid cold) are finally interrupted by a sure sign of the approaching peloton. Sometimes, it’s a lone police motorcycle doing about a million miles per hour more than the posted speed limit screaming by. Or maybe it’s the guy with an iPhone and only 4 percent left on his battery after he has been streaming the entire stage announcing (yet again) that “they are getting close.” But, more often than not, it is the distant thump-thump-thump of a helicopter that signifies the eventual arrival of the peloton.

Words/images: Andy Bokanev

The chopper is impossible to spot at first, its noise an aural mirage bouncing off valleys and canyons below. But eventually somebody sees it. And there is always a moment of surprise of looking down at an aircraft, even if you expected it. It moves slowly, like one of those incessant drones stalking a target. Only, in this case, the target is a lone cyclist trying to make a gateway from the rest of the peloton.

Then comes the first wave of the caravan. The motorcycle cops, the support vehicles and the announcer blaring his nonsense over the loudspeakers. All the while, the helicopter thump turns louder as the race moves closer and closer to our location. Now more motorcycle cops fly by (where the hell are they all going?) as we squint into the sun and try to make out the details on the road below us. And then we see it! A slowly moving lead car, a slowly moving motorcycle with a man standing on the back holding a camera…and, not too far behind, a single rider!

He’s coming!

All the anticipation, the near heatstroke (or frost bite) is all worth it for this moment. As the escaping rider gets closer we all stare down the road. And then there he is! No matter how shy or reserved you may be, I dare you to try and hold back the cheering and the yelling that will surely bubble to the top. Of course, there are always idiots who will run alongside in a thong or a cape or wearing horns or any other combination outfits just for a chance to get on TV—and that’s okay. They are just part of the experience. And when they get too close to the race, we all secretly hope that they trip and fall. The breakaway rider passes. His 1,000-yard stare reveals the hand he’s been dealt. He looks over his shoulder and sees two more riders not too far away. He gets out of the saddle, but it’s not hard to tell even in this short amount of time that whatever he had, he left it somewhere further down the mountain. He’s not winning today.

Then comes another cameraman on another motorcycle and with him a main group of chasers. Around us, there’s yelling, cheering, cowbells and offers for hand-ups. The chasers look focused and fresh—as if they started this race about 100 miles later than the solo rider ahead.

Then…silence.

A few minutes pass and another group rolls by. They know they are not winning. They know they are well within the time cutoff. A few accept a hand-up (espresso for some, Coke for others). This is not their day for glory. Tomorrow’s another day and another chance for a sprint finish.

Then…more silence.

More team cars pass us. Meanwhile, somewhere up the mountain, the race is probably over by now. We are only 3 kilometers from the finish after all. We wait some more and see another big group make its way up the hill. It’s been about 20 minutes since the first rider rolled through and this group looks decidedly more tattered and frayed than the previous ones. These riders are not absolutely sure they are going to make it. But we cheer them on—like they are winning the most important stage of their lives, like they are making their way up to the top ahead of the rest of the pack and crossing the line with no one else in sight. It does not matter than they are 20 minutes behind the leader. They are the ones we’ve come to see.

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