Garmin-Sharp team leader Andrew Talansky, 25, of Miami, came into the Tour de France widely regarded as a contender for a top-three finish. That wasn't to be, as Talansky crashed heavily twice in the first 10 days of the race and found himself laboring in excruciating pain during Stage 11 from Besancon to Oyonnax in the Jura mountains of eastern France. Talansky stopped by the side of the road with just over 30 miles to go in the 117-mile stage, in obvious physical and emotional distress, and looked as if he were ready to abandon. After conferring with team director Robbie Hunter, he elected to continue and finish the stage alone to honor his teammates and end the race on his own terms.
Talansky, who withdrew from the Tour before the start the next morning, spoke with ESPN.com senior writer Bonnie D. Ford via Skype from his training base of Girona, Spain, about his dramatic day in the saddle.
Ford: What did you feel like at the start of Stage 11?
Talansky: I was optimistic at the start of that day. We were optimistic we could get me through that stage and go for the stage win that day with the team, in the hopes that I would end up feeling better later in the race and maybe be able to go for a stage win myself.
Ford: When did things start going south?
Talansky: I knew I was in for a rough ride from the very start, from kilometer zero, when the flag dropped and the attacks started, I was instantly uncomfortable. I knew it would be a struggle. But then throughout the day, how I was feeling just got worse and worse. About 100 kilometers in, when the road started to go gradually uphill, things started to go south pretty quickly.
Ford: Was it full body pain? What was troubling you the most?
Talansky: The most problematic thing was my SI joints running into my lower back from the crash. It's like an ankle, if you twist your ankle and keep running on it, it's not going to get better. The best way to describe it is, it keeps me from going hard. It's like you're stuck in first gear, just completely takes away my ability to pedal. It's like you have a limiter on, a governor on. It was a strange feeling.
While you're in the Tour you're just thinking day-to-day, how can I get through the race tomorrow. Even with that first crash, that was exactly how my mind worked. I didn't want other people to worry about me, I didn't want my teammates to worry. Honestly, in the moment, you're convincing yourself there's no reason to worry. I wanted to believe I could brush that off and keep going. It was a much harder impact than I let myself understand at the time. Obviously we came to see the full consequences of it.
Ford: Take me through your decision to stop, your conversation with Robbie, the thought behind getting back on.
Talansky: I was trying to stay calm, but there was a little bit of panic. Guys were stopping for nature breaks uphill on the side of the road and I was going backwards through the cars because I couldn't get my body to do what I wanted it to do.
You go to worst-case scenarios. How am I gonna finish? How am I gonna fix this situation? And eventually I realized there was no fixing it. When you're in pain like that, it's hard to think extremely coherently. I was getting more and more overwhelmed. Leading up to the moment I climbed off, I'd been arguing with myself in my head for probably 5 kilometers, saying: 'This is stupid. Even if you do finish, what's the point? Part two, how are you going to finish when you can't even pedal your bike?' I'd stopped pedaling several times trying to stretch my back out and the pain just got so much, I just pulled over on the side of the road. For me that was it. I couldn't handle the pain anymore. It was pretty surreal.
When I got off my bike, Robbie came and said, 'It's OK, we're gonna talk for a minute, just sit down here, we have time.' I was pretty emotional at that point; I thought that was the end of my Tour, on the side of some no-name road in the middle of France. Also, I was thinking of my teammates getting to the bus that day and hearing that I stopped the race. I felt I owed more to them, but there was no more I could do.
Robbie helped me calm down so I could make the choice for myself. He didn't say, 'Get back on the bike,' but nor did he say stop. He said: 'This is a choice only you can make, but take a moment to make sure you make the one you're going to be happy with, make it not out of a place of emotion or anger or fear, but make it out of what can you do, what's possible. If you want to stop, that's OK, then get in the car and it'll be fine. If you want to keep going, then you need to get back on your bike and we'll go to the finish at whatever speed you can ride.'
Something kind of clicked for me. I realized obviously I'm not gonna get back into any kind of group, that was gone, but sitting there I thought maybe I can finish, maybe that's possible somehow. One of the most overriding feelings was that my team was going to finish that stage and find out I had quit the race after everything they'd done for me. For about five minutes, the pain was a little better. We started one of the proper climbs of the day and I thought, I made a huge mistake. I kept telling myself, just another kilometer. Robbie kept me calm, kept me focused.
I wanted to finish the stage so I could look them in the eyes and thank them for everything they've done. Some days my best isn't gonna be good enough, and that day my best was finishing a half-hour down on the stage winner. Just so they know I'm the kind of person who isn't going to give up when something goes wrong.
Ford: Is it strange to get so much positive feedback for the most miserable day of your career?
Talansky: People on the side of the road were incredibly supportive, and that was a huge shock to me. They were cheering for me like I was gonna win the stage and I was half an hour behind the leaders.
The outpouring of support and how excited people were when I won the [Criterium du Dauphine, an important Tour tuneup race], you could say that was almost expected. But I never thought of or intended that for my personal day in hell on the bike. It was for me and my teammates and so I could look at myself in the mirror and be proud of myself, then make a decision about what the rest of the Tour would hold or wouldn't hold. But then the outpouring of support well outside the team, people watching on TV, it's been incredible. It was such a terrible day for me personally. If some people were inspired by it, if some people saw heart in a ride like that, if some sort of good can come of something that bad, that makes me pretty happy.
Ford: What did you feel like, rolling in?
Talansky: A little bit numb. Relief that I had made it, relief the pain was gonna end, relief that I had made it inside the time cut so I actually had the choice, we could sit down and figure out what the rest of the race would hold. A lot of thankfulness for the support from Robbie and the car.
I was crying when I got on the bus. I was frustrated that my best, that was it. That was everything I had to give. It didn't repay them in any way for what they did. It didn't help one of them win a stage. But that was all I could do. That was the only way I had was finishing the stage and honoring everything they had done for me.
I don't 100 percent understand why I needed to do that for myself. We talk a lot in the sport about suffering. I thought of it later -- when I'm at the front of the race like the Dauphine, you're racing for a win, a stage or the whole race, you might be suffering but you're doing what you love to do on the bike. Stage 11, that was suffering in the purest sense. No victory on the line, no podium, no nothing. The sport constantly has redefined for me what I'm capable of mentally and physically. That day showed me when I need it, there's more in my body, more I can do than even I can believe sometimes. I think it's a day that will serve me very well in the future.