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When it comes to bike racing, glory and heartbreak can be mere centimetres apart. Just ask Nick Schultz (BikeExchange-Jayco).
On Tuesday’s stage 10 of the Tour de France, the 27-year-old Aussie came within a handspan of claiming the biggest victory of his career. It was only a desperate bike throw from the more experienced sprinter Magnus Cort (EF Education-EasyPost) that denied Schultz a career-defining success in his debut Tour, the Dane getting his wheel in front with less than a metre to spare.
“I am really happy with second, but to be honest I am also really upset,” Schultz said after a photo finish was required to separate he and Cort. “It is not like every day you get to try and win a stage of the Tour de France.”
The day started in frustrating fashion for Schultz’s BikeExchange-Jayco team with Luke Durbridge sent home with COVID. But with a tough day in the Alps ahead, and that day suiting Schultz’s characteristics, there was no time to dwell on Durbridge’s exit – Schultz was required up the road.
It took roughly 70 km of frenetic action for the day’s break of 25 to get clear, and Schultz very nearly didn’t make it.
“To be honest I actually had really bad legs today after the rest day, at the start,” Schultz said. “Luckily I had the boys trying to help me get in the breakaway. I just had to bite the bullet and try to get in there. I was almost worried once I got in there, like ‘oh no I don’t feel very good’, so I really had to gamble, but thankfully I had Jack Bauer with me. He did an amazing job keeping the breakaway together and pulling.”
The break opened a gap that extended to beyond nine minutes at one point, before the 25-strong group started to thin down on the final climb to the Megève Altiport. When Luis León Sánchez (Bahrain Victorious) attacked alone from the break in the closing kilometres, it was Schultz that took responsibility for the chase, reeling in the veteran Spaniard with just over 2 km to go.
By the time the final sprint began on the airport runway, hesitation at the front had allowed a group of 10 to come back together to contest the victory. Schultz, despite his exertions, had enough to follow Sánchez when he launched the sprint, before surging through to the front with just over 100 metres to go.
As the uphill sprint played out in slow motion, it seemed as if Schultz was going to hold on for victory in his debut Tour de France. It took every bit of Cort’s grit, experience, and timing to overhaul Schultz and claim his second career stage win at the world’s biggest race.
“I tried to play poker,” Schultz said of the lead-up to the sprint, “but I’ve never really been in that position before to contest a Tour de France stage win. It was almost perfect, but we know Magnus Cort – he has won stages in Grand Tours before, and he was just the better man.”
The great thing about Grand Tours is there’s always another opportunity for riders like Schultz. Sure enough, the Queenslander has vowed to try his luck again before the Tour reaches Paris.
“That’s what I’ve come here for,” he said. “That’s my role in the team, to get in the breakaway in these mountain stages, because we’ve pretty much got a sprint group plus me.
“There’s a lot of responsibility for me on these days, but I’ll do my best and see where we get to.”