Written for In the Bunch
Everyone remembers the dramatic images of John-Lee Augustyn disappearing over the imaginary railings atop the Col de la Bonette.
That’s it, he’s dead, I remember thinking as he vanished, arse last, into the abyss that flanked Europe’s highest mountain pass.
No matter what your nationality, I’m sure there was a collective sigh of relief from around the world when, moments later, helicopter footage showed South Africa’s newest sporting hero clinging for dear life to the side of the perilous mountain he had just conquered.
Having summited in first place, John-Lee found himself dropping off the other side of the mountain (as the eloquent Phil and Paul would put it) in a splinter group of four en route to the finish, nine thousand feet below.
He had a one-in-four chance of winning the stage, John-Lee would later tell me while sipping on a cup of black coffee, one sugar, in my lounge.
Anyone who knows anything about the Tour, will tell you that those are pretty decent odds, especially considering that he was the youngest rider in the race; taking part for the first time; and then there was the little matter of it being a prestigious mountain stage.
He was having a “bad day”, he continued with the most unlikely words I thought I would hear about his performance on that day. Only four of the team, he told me, had survived until that point and they were keen to salvage something from the Tour.
Team orders were to go with every move – so they did. After the peloton had hauled back yet another breakaway that showed early promise, his legs were cooked and he was in the process of being spit out the back when another move developed.
Robbie Hunter – who would eventually finish half an hour down – took him by the saddle and literally shoved him into the break, which turned out to be the decisive one of the day. There was little time to explain that he had had enough.
Once he was there, the pace became steadier and he started recovering. His directeur sportif kept him topped up with food and liquids – which at one point included a water bottle filled with what we would’ve called corn syrup in days gone by.
John-Lee said the management team – mostly excitable Italians – had lost all sense of decorum by the time they were halfway up the final hors catégorie climb and his radio was ablaze as they willed him on.
About a kilometre from the summit the order came to attack and he gave it everything he had. At the same point the road hairpinned back on itself and, as he rounded the corner, the road had suddenly become a wall.
If it wasn’t for the television camera in his face, he would’ve got off and walked, he swore. It wasn’t an option and somehow he managed to drag his body up the final few hundred yards (which, incidentally, looked relatively painless on the telly).
The manner of his exodus from stage sixteen of the 2008 Tour caught everyone’s imagination and attention. He had instantly become part of Tour folklore.
For instance, in the Giro d’Italia it led to a rare on-the-bike chat with Lance Armstrong, who wanted to know if he was the guy who “fell off the mountain”.
John-Lee also told me the incident helped when the thorny issue of contract negotiations with Team Sky and others came up after Barloworld’s demise. He was no longer an anonymous entity among the peloton – he had indeed become “famous” for falling off the mountain.
So, I pointed out while he finished off his coffee, apart from possibly winning that stage, crashing was the next best thing he could do for his career. Because, I said, who remembers the other three?
Coetzee is a former journalist and full-time cycling fanatic whose company focuses on sports communications.
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