On the eve of his Tour de France debut in 2021, Bruno Armirail was under no illusions about the place he occupied in the cosmos of a sport where lightyears have traditionally divided the stars from the water carriers.
“A cycling team is a bit like a factory: there’s a hierarchy and if someone isn’t made to be a boss, it’s best that he never becomes one,” Armirail told L’Équipe back then. “Me, I like my status as an équipier. I take a lot of pride in it.”
That perhaps explained the Frenchman’s sense of displacement when he found himself being helped into a most unexpected maglia rosa on the podium in Cassano Magnago after stage 14 of the Giro d’Italia. In the mixed zone afterwards, he confessed to unfamiliarity with the entire protocol of race leader, from the ceremony itself to the media obligations that followed.
“I didn’t really feel at ease on the podium, because I’ve never been on the podium apart from the French time trial championships last year,” Armirail said almost apologetically. “I’m not really used to opening bottles of champagne. It’s team leaders who do that. This is something exceptional for a domestique.”
Armirail’s primary task on this Giro has been to take care of Thibaut Pinot, but he was given a rare leave of absence from those duties on Saturday to chase stage victory from the large early break that went clear ahead of the Simplonpass.
“You had to be alert and lucky to get in the break today because it went on the flat,” he said. “I was going for the stage win, but I was on the limit at the end because I’d gotten very cold on the descent.”
The dream died as the move broke up in the finale. So it goes, it was always a long shot. After reaching the finish in 15th place, 53 seconds down on winner Nico Denz (Bora-Hansgrohe), Armirail was already rolling anonymously back to his bus, ready to return to the rhythms and routines of the domestique, when he was asked to wait by the podium.
There, he learned that the peloton was still trundling through the rain more than 10km from the finish. It was increasingly clear that Geraint Thomas and Ineos were eager to let the maglia rosa pass to someone else. Armirail, who began the day in 23rd overall at 18:37, was the best-placed rider in the break. As he watched the finale unfold on television, the realisation slowly hit him. He was someone else.
By the time the gruppo rolled past the finish line some 21:11 down, the maglia rosa had already passed to Armirail, though he seemed to struggle to believe…
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