The difference of a year for U.S. cyclist Nate Brown

U.S. cyclist Nate Brown has worn the polka-dot jersey twice at the 2017 Tour de France. EPA/GUILLAUME HORCAJUELO

BRIANCON, France -- They were both professional riders when they met, not even three years ago. Now he's a 26-year-old racing his first Tour de France and she's retired at 23, due to circumstances beyond her control. Yet they've never been closer.

When Nate Brown jumped into a breakaway and successfully attacked on two categorized hills on the Stage 3 course in the Ardennes, taking the points he needed to wear the King of the Mountains jersey, Annie Ewart felt joy wash over her at the home they share in Girona, Spain.

Brown had been the ninth and final rider selected for Cannondale-Drapac's Tour roster. Before the race began, Ewart told him: "Who knows if you'll ever do it again? Really try to be a part of the Tour and not just survive it."

Since his two-day stint in the polka-dot jersey, Brown has done "a lot of anonymous but high-class work" as a support rider, team director Charly Wegelius said. His contribution has helped Cannondale's team stay at full strength, and position its Colombian star Rigoberto Uran, now 27 seconds behind overall leader Chris Froome, to make a podium run.

"People at home, they don't see it," Wegelius said. "I hope at this Tour, [Brown] can find a bit of ego and realize how good he is. He's always worked hard, but he's been a little bit too modest. He's really proving his value, I think."

Tucked away well over an hour back in 38th place, Brown could play an important role for Uran on the way to Thursday's uphill finish on the Col d'Izoard. But his Tour debut has already been a success by any measure -- especially given where he and Ewart were a year ago.

Her pre-race advice to him was rooted in a life-threatening experience.

In July 2016, Ewart, a Canadian junior champion and promising time trial specialist who competed for United Health Care, went on a training ride in Boulder, Colorado, with Brown's 19-year-old brother Jon, who now competes for the U.S.-based Axeon Hagens Berman U-23 team. Out of nowhere, she felt her heart rate go berserk. Ewart waited for the episode to pass. Instead, her heart escalated to 240 beats per minute and stayed there.

There were no other people in sight and no cellphone service. Jon Brown saved Ewart's life by manually pushing her on the bike as he rode for six miles until they were able to wave down a passing car and get within range to call 911.

Ewart was diagnosed with ventricular tachycardia. She had multiple surgeries to try to correct and then control it as the elevated rhythms kept occurring, even when she wasn't exercising.

Already exhausted and taking a break after a crowded spring racing schedule that included finishing the Giro d'Italia, Brown dropped everything to be with Ewart. A few weeks off stretched into months. He didn't race again last season and questioned his own motivation to continue.

The two sometimes had little energy to do anything but curl up on the couch and binge-watch the NBC series "The Blacklist" and "Blindspot,'' but they kept talking, trying to work out their individual and mutual paths.

Sitting on a park bench during the Tour's second rest day in Le Puy-en-Velay, Ewart gently touched the scar visible under the spaghetti strap of her sundress. "It was amazing to see how he was going through this tough time, and he parked it as best as he could and helped me through my stuff," she said.

The feeling is mutual.

"I'm so impressed with the way she's handled it," the soft-spoken Brown said this week. "I would have been a wreck. My life would have been a disaster. Not only has she handled her transition, she's supported me. It's almost like she gave me all of her power."

Brown, from Covington, Tennessee, and Ewart, a native of Victoria, British Columbia, met in January 2015 when her Austin, Texas-based personal coach, David Wenger, asked her to come train there for a couple of weeks. He'd known Brown for several years from the Austin cycling scene.

"About a week before, Nate and I were on a ride," Wenger said by telephone. "He was really excited about meeting Annie. I was being a little protective of her and I told him I would kill him if he made a move on her, kind of in jest."

The chemistry was obvious when Brown and Ewart rode together on undulating Lime Creek Road. He went off to Europe. They talked every day. He came to visit her in Victoria after his season ended, and they have been a couple ever since.

"I think he's had his best year to date, and I think going through what we went through last summer makes this year so much sweeter," Ewart said. Her health has been good, and she is able to do moderate exercise. Ewart said there is some thought that her condition was caused by an enlarged athlete's heart, which could ease as her elite racing days recede.

"I think they both realize life is very short and precious,'' Wenger said. "I see the difference in Nate. The sacrifice each has made to their passions, and each other, has made their bond airtight."

Brown came back strong this season, convincing Wegelius to tap him for the Tour after racing well at the Tour of California and the Criterium du Dauphine. "Nobody said anything, but I think there were a few eyebrows raised, that it was a bit of a generic choice," Wegelius said. "He really did great in the training camps, so he earned his spot here fair and square.

"I hope his experience with the polka-dot jersey gives him a little taste," Wegelius said. "Maybe it's not ego -- it's ambition to dare a bit."