A STORY FOR CHRISTMAS: Death of a Domestique
Murderers! It was the only word that Oscar Lapize had the breath to spit out that late-July day in 1910 when the Tour de France first sent its riders up the 1,710-metre Aubisque. Of course it was just a mule track then.

The target of this succinct abuse was Henri Desgrange, founder of the Tour, who was standing with his officials at the summit watching the sweaty, dusty cyclists struggling to reach him. According to those infinitely flexible legends of the Tour, Desgrange smiled and took it as a compliment.

The organisers are more considerate nowadays. They have let the public authorities tarmac over the Aubisque and the other great Pyrenean passes (not all good news, for it makes them faster and in some ways even harder to climb). And they have learnt, by trial and error, that if they send their men into the mountains too soon they drop like flies. Instead they open with half-a-dozen flattish stages in which the riders can settle into their three-week regime of public glory and private servitude.

Today, Friday, is the sixth and last of these, and for the first time, the Tour's gaudy progress seems as orderly and monotonous as the pine forests of the Landes which hedge it in on either side. Things had been very different earlier in the race. After zipping through the prologue, a 6km time trial in the centre of Lille, the 198 riders moved out on the open road in a highly nervous state. Anxious not to lose their position in the writhing column, they jostled and swerved, repeatedly brought each other down in a sliding entanglement of bodies and cycle frames, and left a lot of skin on the road. A dozen retired with broken bones or because they were just too sore to hitch their legs across the saddle the morning after. But this initial frenzy now seems to have worn itself out, and if the riders are apprehensive it is more for the future than the present.

They have called a tacit truce, and this stage is being ridden less as a contest than a brisk 208km route march, taking the crack cycle corps and their motorised battalion of camp followers from one set of overnight quarters to the next. To be precise, from the grand Atlantic seaport of Bordeaux to Pau, elegant "belvedere of the Pyrenees".

Next day, on the 15km climbs to the high passes along the Spanish border, Marc Manin is due to surrender his yellow jersey as Tour leader. The press, the public and Manin himself are all agreed on that. With his big thighs, sharp elbows and twitchy manner Manin is made for the short-lived violence of the sprints. The prolonged discomfort of the mountains stages may have to be endured, but is best taken slowly. He will join a group of skivers at the rear - known as the charabanc - and provided this manages to finish within the time limit, Manin will be back to fight the sprints another day. He doesn't even envy the little bird-like climbers who fly up to the cols to take the prizes. Each to his metier.

Alain Boucher's metier is humbler. He is an efficient time triallist, in fact better than he allows himself to be, but not a recognised sprinter or climber. If anything you would call him a rouleur, one of those riders who can keep up a steady pace for kilometre after kilometre. As such he is employed in the Kwiklux team as Manin's gofer and minder.

His job as a back-up rider is to see that nothing avoidable should prevent Manin from finishing another day in the yellow jersey. If Manin is thirsty, Boucher will drop back to the team car to fetch him another water bottle. If Manin's bike is damaged in a crash, Boucher will give up his own. If his enemies attack, Boucher will chase to close the gap.

Every domestique has his day when his boss, having settled his own affairs, gives him leave to sprint for a 1,000-franc village prime or take part in a breakaway with the other no-hopers. Outside these special concessions Boucher knows it would be folly to take liberties; Manin would interpret it as a challenge. Cycle racing is peculiar among team sports in that two-thirds of the riders in any team are on trust not to use their initiative. Boucher finds no problem with that. At Roubaix, when a fan from back home asked him why he didn't go all out to win the prologue, which would make him race leader, if only for a day, Boucher said flatly: "You mean, show up Manin and lose my job? No, I wouldn't be seen dead in the yellow jersey."

Before we go any further, I should mention that "back home" means Essex, and that despite his name and dual nationality, Boucher is to all intents English. In fact in France, where he does most of his racing, and in Belgium, where he shares a flat with an Aussie rider, he is seen as a familiar type of young Englishman, decent, shy, and dogged almost to the point of simple-mindedness.

He owes his surname, but very little else, to his father, Eddy, a Belgian steward on the ferry running between Zeebrugge and Felixstowe, where he met Edith Grant, licensee of the Sea Shanty. They married but, only a year after Alain was born, separated when Edith found out that Eddy already had a mistress and baby daughter in Bruges. To avoid the risk of bumping into Eddy on the street, Edith moved to Colchester, took over another pub and there, in the noisy flat above the bar, brought up her son as Alan Grant.

As soon as he was old enough to ask, she told him that his father had been lost at sea. Which was broadly true. Eddy had died young, tripping on a rope during a quayside brawl, and drowning in the oily waters of Zeebrugge docks. Edith never mentioned Eddy's origins, and Alan was nearly 16 before he discovered the truth. It was when he needed his birth certificate to apply for a racing licence at his cycle club.

Alan's bedroom was papered with photographs of Eddy Merckx, Lucien Van Impe and lesser Belgian stars, and he never forgave his mother for robbing him of his heritage. Without discussing it with her, he left school to work in a cycle shop and, at 18, when Alice introduced him to his new stepfather, he left home, England and his old identity behind, reverting to his cradle name, Alain Boucher.

He was a promising cyclist. He had been placed in a number of road races and won a junior pursuit title on the track. And although this wasn't much to go on, a sympathetic vice-president at the Wheelers, who knew his circumstances, recommended him to an amateur club in Ghent which would make or break him.

Boucher never doubted that he had made the right move. He lodged with one of the club patrons, a wealthy restaurateur, was well but plainly fed, trained daily with the boss's son, raced at least twice a week. Eventually he learnt to hold a wheel in crowded circuit races over the wet cobbles, a Belgian speciality. He became harder, more self-reliant, a stubborn winner in tight corners. At 21 he turned professional with a minor Belgian team where he graduated in tactics and discretion: seeing nothing and saying nothing when the favoured riders went into the soigneur's room for their "vitamin" jabs. Two years later he was picked up by Kwiklux as a reliable workhorse.

He had won nothing with them in nearly three years, though the directeur sportif, Charly Pascal, often hinted that his time would come. All the same, on this particular afternoon, Boucher is doing unusually well in the Tour. He had come 15th in the prologue, giving it a bit of a go since, provided you don't do it subversively, nobody can reproach you for making a personal effort in a time trial. That result helped. So, too, did the fact that most of the later crashes occurred at the back of the field while Boucher was up the front supporting Manin.

He is now lying 11th overall, only two minutes, seven seconds behind his leader. He feels pleased by that, but a little too exposed, even though the Pyrenees and the Alps a week later will cut him down to size. That's if he survives them. Meanwhile he gets on with his domestic duties which today are lighter than usual.

The road is straight and wide, and apparently none of the favourites wants any extra exertion just before the first mountain stage. "Doucement, eh?" Nothing more needs saying. They will keep the field together until the last dozen kilometres, and then let the sprinters have their harmless fling. Anticipating this, the reporters who normally lead the race, listening to the private commentary on Radio Tour, have pressed on to the free buffet of charcuterie, cheese and fruit laid out for them in a clearing alongside the N10 at 95km. Or the more serious-minded have diverted from the course to try the Coq au vin landaise or the Pintadeau flambe in some recommended village auberge. For the good of their stomachs the cyclists might get along on chicken, pasta and salad, but the gastronomic reputation of the Tour is safe in the hands of the press.

Spectators, too, are sparse and so, enjoying their unaccustomed privacy, the riders pedal along exchanging greetings, handshakes and gossip as though they are on a club run. With only a third of the 230km stage to go, Boucher begins to relax. His job is simply to ride at the front of the peloton to stoke up the pace and discourage early breakaways. When the field is finally blown apart by its gathering momentum, it will be up to faster Kwiklux riders to lead Manin out into the finishing sprint.

It is the Spaniard, Garcia, who ruins the mood. One moment he is telling a long story in broken French to the riders around him. The next he is sprinting, head down, bottom up, along the left-hand verge and into the entrance to a village. There he is momentarily lost from sight at a bend in the road. The reaction in the torpid bunch is slow. "Idiots, get on his wheel." Boucher recognises Manin's voice, and realises the order is meant for himself and Franck Carlsen, the two Kwiklux riders closest to the front.

Easy for Manin to say; bloody difficult to do. Garcia is going like the clappers, and the bunch also pick up speed as soon as Boucher and Carlsen try to set off in pursuit. They make 100 metres and are then left in limbo, unable to advance and unwilling to retreat back to the field. Help comes from two sources. First they are joined, in twos and threes, by opportunists from the lesser teams who have sidled away along the gutters scenting some personal profit: a prize, a place or two in the rankings, or maybe, if it matters enough to Kwiklux, a back-hander.

At the village exit the group has grown to 12. By working in relays at the front they increase their lead to the point where individuals can no longer bridge the gap. That now requires an organised counter-attack. Of even more help to the escapers is the appearance of a roadside sign announcing a feeding station in three kilometres. There the team helpers will be holding out musettes, little cloth satchels of food and drink to be picked up on the run. But although the riders are adept at this snatch and grab, those packed close together in the bunch don't fancy doing it in the panic of a chase. They will wait until after the feed before deciding what action, if any, to take.

Having been provisioned in comparative comfort, the group are crossing a small rise when they first catch sight of their quarry ahead of them. Garcia is poodling along eating a banana and transferring the rest of his rations from his musette to the hip pouches of his jersey. He will know from the motorcycle marshals who keep ripping by that his chasers are gaining on him, and has decided to wait for them. He glances over his shoulder, throws his empty musette on the verge and picks up speed so that they can't sweep by him. It can be embarrassing to jump too late on the passing train.

Boucher also looks back along the road where nothing moves except a neutral service car hurrying up to join them. And that isn't allowed until a gap of at least a minute has been established. Boucher knows very well what's going on back there. Manin is trying to get the other leaders to help ride down the escapers. They're refusing. It's his yellow jersey. If he wants to keep it, he's got to do the chasing.

Manin's opponents know what Garcia is up to, and don't greatly care. He is two and a bit minutes down - nobody remembers exactly. If he can double the present gap in the next 30km - and take a 20-second bonus by winning the stage - it's Garcia who will be wearing the yellow jersey in the Pyrenees next day. A big day for him. Spanish fans pouring over the border, Basque flags everywhere, Garcia's name stencilled on the roadway of every climb. Something to remember always.

On the approach to Pau the favourites will build up the pressure to deny Garcia. But what does it matter if they fail? Whoever starts tomorrow in the yellow jersey, Manin or Garcia, neither of them will be wearing it when the Tour leaves Luchon the following day. Manin - you can count him out. And Garcia - he has far more cunning than class.

The self-effacing Boucher doesn't figure at all in their calculations. Only in Manin's. He now realises what a mistake he'd made in sending Boucher ahead to police the escape. Although the Englishman, in his dumb way, has always behaved correctly, he is 13 seconds better placed than Garcia, and the temptation to run away with the silver may get the better of him.

Boucher, who makes it his business to know the time gaps between all top 20 riders, and a few other special cases, feels more anxiety than excitement. He is taking a lot of abuse, especially from Garcia, for not doing his share of pace-making at the front; but he stays at the rear so that nobody can accuse him of aiding the flight. Preoccupied, he isn't aware of his team car drawing level until he hears Pascal's Yankey-French accent coming from the passenger window: "Hey, Boucher, Carlsen's looking pooped, You all right?" Boucher nods. "Don't hang on the back. Move up a bit or they're going to jump you."

"I'm watching. Are the others starting to chase?"

"No sign of it. You got over three minutes. It'll close, but looks as if you might stay away. OK? So you got to beat Garcia."

"What about Manin?"

Pascal raises a stiff finger. Manin is valued but not liked. "Forget it. If Manin's going to lose the jersey, better for the team you get it, not Garcia. That's your job now. Make publicity for Kwiklux." Pascal lowers his voice. "You won't beat him in the sprint, so you got to attack early. So, just past 3km to the line ... you listening?" Again Boucher nods. "OK, there's this double bend, left then right, and then you're into Pau. Short streets, little hill - you've been there before. That's the best chance you got. Go for it. Bonne chance."

It is as Pascal said. At 3km to go they are down to eight men, and getting edgy. A Dutchman, Van Meer, makes the first move, but too soon and on the wrong side of the road - the outside of the bend. But this opens the way for Boucher. As Garcia swings over to catch Van Meer, he sees too late that Boucher has broken away on the left. He wrenches his wheel around, but it's a disaster. His front tyre rolls off and catches in the fork, and Garcia is on the ground.

Looking over his shoulder, Boucher sees the fallen Garcia, reads the hesitation of the others, and is round the second bend and locked into the shortest time trial or the longest sprint he has known. He only looks back once more, when he passes under the red kite marking the final kilometre. There's no chaser within 300 metres. He has no big gear; a stage win hadn't been in his plans. But what he has is high enough to carry him clear across the line with both arms raised and his stomach churning with apprehension.

Boucher steers his bike towards Kwiklux's soigneur, Fat Henri, who helps him down and wipes his face with a sponge smelling strongly of cologne. "Good boy," he says, and adds in French, "They say there's been another big crash." Then Pascal, who has followed Boucher to the finish, asks: "What did I tell you?" and marches him to the team car to shelter him from the press. Even so, it doesn't prevent the photographers snapping him as he counts down the seconds on Pascal's stopwatch.

The moment the hand shows 1min 47sec, with the main field still to come in, Pascal has the car door open: "Right, we go for the yellow jersey." Scarcely conscious of what is going on around him, he is standing on the podium while two blonde publicity girls help him into his yellow jersey, when the street suddenly fills with a tide of riders. The peloton has arrived. They are all looking up, curious to see who made it, and he can hear his name repeated.

The only rider Boucher is aware of is a mirror of himself, except that this man's yellow jersey is torn and soiled with blood and grime. Manin looks up at him and taps his forehead in that Gallic gesture which says, "You must have been mad to have done that."

Delayed by the television interviews, Boucher travels on to the hotel in the team car with Pascal. There are other teams staying there, and several of the younger riders congratulate him as though he had led a successful peasants' revolt. But Garcia is also waiting in the foyer, his arm in a sling. He has broken his collarbone and is waiting for the car that will take him back to his home in San Sebastian. Boucher wants to commiserate, but before he can go over, Garcia calls out: "There's the parasite. Doesn't do a stroke of work in the break, and then steals the yellow jersey from Manin. Wait until you meet my people in the mountains." Boucher tries to speak but Garcia turns his head away.

It is almost as bad during dinner. Manin eats in silence, and most of the others, out of fear or delicacy, don't allude to Boucher's success. Only Jules Barthe, the team's most accomplished climber, says jocularly: 'So Alain, you're the man I've got to beat in the Pyrenees." He winks to show there's no ill feeling. And Pascal, sitting at the head of the table, taps his wine glass and makes a little speech saying that he had followed Boucher for the last 40km, and that "his comportement was that of a true professional, riding in the interests of his leader, Marc Manin, and his team". All Boucher can think to say in reply is he regrets the yellow jersey, but it was not his fault.

That night his regular room-mate, Carlsen, before he drops off to sleep, tells Boucher that he's got nothing to feel guilty about. "All of us would have done the same. Pity it was Manin, but what the hell." Boucher lay awake but at least he used the time to resolve one thing. Next day he would ride as race leader, not as a jumped-up domestique, and wouldn't surrender the jersey until he dropped.

Overnight the weather is transformed, as so often in the Pyrenees. The sky is grey and the mountains are masked in cloud. Taking their coffee and talking to reporters amid the white pavilions of the village depart, the riders are subdued. Boucher hasn't even looked at L'Equipe, not wanting to upset his resolution.

Others have, and Van Bornem, a Belgian he's known from his amateur years, says: "I see you've made a few enemies. Garcia's sounding off. And his manager. And Manin hasn't been much help. Don't take any poisoned waterbottles from the crowd." He laughs and slaps Boucher on the shoulder. "Well, look after yourself."

Boucher does take him seriously, systematically checking his brakes, his gears, his tyres. Riders have sabotaged their rivals before. He knows he must also be wary of spectators. ETA have often threatened to target the Tour in the Pyrenees, and this could be their excuse.

The stage to Luchon is a killer - 250km long, with the massive Tourmalet following the Aubisque. The course rises almost from the start. Town gives way to fields of maize, and the fields to narrow defiles cut by hissing mountain streams and lined with conifers. Calf muscles ache already, but it is only from the village of Eaux-Bonnes, after two hours' pedalling, that the serious 12km climb to the summit of the Aubisque begins. As the mist thickens, Boucher knows that his only option is to ignore the others and climb at his own speed.

He is alarmed at the number of riders disappearing into the clouds ahead of him. But he keeps pressing down on the pedals despite the pain, and gradually catches and drops several of the false starters. In the final kilometre to the top, where the crowd have gathered in force, he first becomes aware of their hostility, as they instantly identify his jersey. One spectator gives him a thump on the back which almost knocks him off the saddle. Another runs alongside him like a dog, barking insults into his face. The gendarmerie on their motorcycles try to keep the passage open, but the fans press in from either side until he can feel their angry breath.

At the summit there are roadside barriers and a few moments of calm. Boucher shouts at the time-keepers and one of them announces: "Nineteenth - two minutes, twenty." Handed a newspaper, he stuffs it under his jersey to keep the cold, rushing air from his chest, and begins the descent. With any luck he'll catch the leaders as they ease up and regroup in the valley.

There are far fewer spectators now, these mostly in groups at the hairpin bends, comparing techniques as the riders corner and perhaps hoping to see a crash. Boucher thought the cloud might have been thinner on this side of the mountain, but no luck. Riding alone he eases himself carefully round the bends and tries to compensate by going flat out on the straight.

On the sixth fast run he can make out a large knot of spectators ahead. Unusually, there's no guardrail, but he assumes the gathering must mark another bend and begins to brake. Then he hears his name called, and a man wrapped in a flag steps forward and waves him on. Boucher releases the brakes, and too late realises that the people have blocked the bend from sight, and he has been directed off the road on to a muddy track. Perhaps the fans just meant to cause him pain, teach him a lesson. After all they hadn't set their trap where the drop was sheer. But it makes no difference. Boucher can't cope with the change of surface at that speed. He falls forward over the handlebars and tumbles until his head hits a projecting rock.

To say all that can be said in their favour, the group are aghast at what they have done. They don't leave the scene of their crime, but run down the path to stare helplessly at the mortally injured Boucher whose lips alone are moving. Some run back to wave down a gendarme. An ambulance arrives. Several official vehicles draw up, followed by Pascal's team car which has been held up on the climb. Late riders, forced to slow down, ask who it is. Only the man in the flag is willing to talk to the television camera, and explains that Boucher simply tried to take the corner too fast and lost control. Fortunately for him, and for all of them, it was too late to record Boucher's last, bitter words which, being in English, they hadn't understood: "Bloody fools, bloody murderers, I was only doing my job."