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American Heroes: Talansky and Brooks

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John Wilcockson / Yuzuru Sunada

Sports can provide some of the most exhilarating images in our day-to-day lives. Such images have been flowing freely this past week, both from the captivating 2014 World Cup in Brazil and from a dramatic edition of the Critérium du Dauphiné in the French Alps. And on both continents Americans were in the emotional spotlight.

The name in all the headlines after Team USA defeated Ghana on a tropical night in the coastal city of Natal was John Brooks. The world now knows that he’s 21 years old, just under 6-foot-4 tall, grew up on Berlin, Germany, and has never lived in the United States. But most startling is that Brooks, playing his first major international match, scored the winning goal with a perfect header that sent the tens of thousands of American fans in the stadium into raptures. On the field, Brooks immediately raised his arms and gasped in disbelief, before falling to his knees and lying facedown as his jubilant teammates piled on top of him. It was a magical moment for football, the world’s most popular sport.

On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, competing in the world’s second most popular sport on a showery afternoon in the alpine village of Le Praz, California-based Floridian Andrew Talansky, 25, was the American star. Starting the final stage of the eight-day Dauphiné stage race in third place overall, 39 seconds behind multiple Grand Tour winner Alberto Contador, Talansky raced his heart out all the way up the 6-kilometer climb to the finish, splintering what was left of an all-day breakaway group.

Like Brooks, his mouth was wide open, but Talansky was gasping for oxygen as he emptied his energy bank through the final kilometers. He knew that Contador was chasing, and that midway up the climb the Spaniard was only 54 seconds behind him (or just 15 seconds on overall time). Both men were at their limit, the way they both like to compete—in fact, Contador said on twitter: “I have rarely enjoyed [racing] on the bike like today.” But on this day, after closing to within 15 seconds, Contador conceded time to Talansky in the final part of the climb—and when the American realized that he’d won the race (by a final margin of 27 seconds) he burst into tears and, like Brooks, hid his face from the crowd.

While Talansky was lauded as the new Dauphiné champion—succeeding two riders who went on to win the Tour de France, Brad Wiggins and Chris Froome—Brooks was hailed as the hero in one of his country’s most significant victories. But the flash of brilliance from Brooks, like the all-round resilience and tremendous grit shown by Talansky, would not have had the same significance without the support and build-up of their teammates.

In Natal, the humid weather and the feistiness of the Ghanaian players tested the Americans throughout the 90 minutes. Brooks came on as a substitute after his more senior colleagues Matt Besler and Jozy Altidore were halted by Achilles injuries, while the first U.S. goal-scorer, Clint Dempsey, was coughing up blood after his nose was broken in one of the game’s inevitable collisions. And Brooks wouldn’t have had the chance to score that decisive goal had Graham Zusi not delivered such a perfectly timed and placed corner kick.

All week at the Dauphiné, Talansky’s seven Garmin-Sharp teammates (from seven different countries!) played a part in helping their American leader get his shot at victory on the final day—and it was one teammate in particular who enabled Talansky to be where he was at the end of that thrill-packed final stage: Ryder Hesjedal. The lanky Canadian was a super-domestique for most of his long career before breaking out to win the Giro d’Italia two years ago. So he knows better than most how to ride support for a leader—he did it expertly last year to help teammate Dan Martin win the Volta a Catalunya and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. And he did it for Talansky last Sunday.

The genesis for the last day’s big breakaway at the Dauphiné came on the short (2.5 kilometers), narrow (12-feet wide) and steep (9.6-percent gradient) Côte de Domancy, just 14 kilometers into the 131.5-kilometer stage. This was the hill that decided what was probably the toughest-ever edition of the world road championships. It happened in 1980, when the 20-lap race meant 20 times up that climb. Only 15 riders survived to the finish in Sallanches where the title went to Bernard Hinault after a dominating solo break. Thirty-four years on, the Côte de Domancy saw BMC Racing’s U.S. leader Tejay van Garderen lead a few attackers over the top, ahead of AG2R La Mondiale’s French hope Romain Bardet—with a large breakaway slowly coming together over the next 7 kilometers of gradual climbing on a main road. That’s where Talansky spotted teammate Hesjedal in the group ahead and decided to join him. By the top of the hill, in Megève, the gap was a minute and a half and there were 23 riders in front, including three other top-10 GC riders (Bardet, Jurgen Van den Broeck and Adam Yates) and three Team Sky riders, representing the interests of then runner-up Froome.

With several teams eager to see the move succeed, the pace remained high—the stage and its 8,000 feet of climbing, saw an astonishing average speed of 39.354 kilometers per hour—and the gap stretched to almost three and a half minutes before the peloton began the day’s next climb, the stair-step Col des Saisies. This is where Froome and three Sky teammates urgently started to chase because none of race leader Contador’s Tinkoff-Saxo teammates were strong enough to help.

Team Sky’s efforts split the peloton, and only 17 men were in the group that topped the Saisies 2:35 behind the leaders. But with 20 kilometers of fast descending ahead, followed by 30 kilometers on the flats before two closing climbs, Sky needed more able bodies to lead the chase. So two of the three in front dropped back, giving Froome five support riders to set a high tempo. Their efforts closed the gap to 1:45 with 45 kilometers left to race

As the lead continued to drop toward the minute, Hesjedal injected a lot of extra pace with long, long surges, sometimes helped by Bardet’s two AG2R teammates. The sustained pressure took its toll. Behind, the group of 17 split into two, with Astana’s still-looking-for-top-form Vincenzo Nibali spearheading a new chase with Belkin’s Wilco Kelderman. And by the foot of the challenging climb to Montagny, 25 kilometers from the finish, the chasers had closed to 1:10, while the disorganized Froome-Contador group had fallen back to two and half minutes.

It was from this base situation that the race was won and lost. In front, Hesjedal continued to pile on the pressure; the Nibali group slowly gained ground; and, at the back, Contador darted away from the weary Froome group. Once the heroic Hesjedal was done for the day, Talansky took over, pushing the pace over the summit of the 8-kilometer climb and then taking every possible risk on the twisting descent back to the valley before beginning the finishing climb to Le Praz—the lowest section of the three-level Courchevel ski resort.

It was on these 6 kilometers of ascent that, at the 1987 Tour de France, Pedro Delgado accelerated away from Stephen Roche in a bid to win that Tour. It looked as though the Spaniard would succeed until Roche gritted his teeth, fought back, and closed to within sight of Delgado at the finish before collapsing beyond the line. These 27 years later, the positions were reversed; but today’s leading Spaniard, Contador, looked as though he would come back to retain the yellow jersey. Instead, he ran out of gas in the final kilometer, where Talansky battled through a haze of pain to score his greatest victory.

In the near future, both Talansky and Brooks face major challenges. If Team USA is going to move on to the World Cup’s round of 16, Brooks may get another chance to help his teammates gain favorable results against the other contenders in their first-round group: Portugal and Germany. As for Talansky, with the start of the Tour de France two weeks he has time to rest, hone his fitness, and gather his thoughts to see just how far he can go in the race that the whole world will be watching.