While I’ve never doubted what the TV commentators say—that multi-stage bicycle races like Le Tour du France are the most demanding athletic events of our time—a female cyclist and writer named Heidi Swift conveys a more persuasive interpretation of how hard this extreme sport really is.
With a team of women cyclists, Swift is riding the Tour’s route one day ahead of the race itself and posting frequent reports of how their ride is going. Excerpts from the early stages tell part of the story.
After stage one: “It was a hard stage today. Nothing to dismiss easily. In the final 4k we turned straight up a 17% climb that narrowed and switched here and there through the town. Up, up, up, up. Unrelenting after nearly eight hours in the saddle. I cursed and stood on the pedals and bumped over cobbled roads and then it ended. I thought of the godlike men who will arrive there tomorrow, crushing up the grade in an explosive finale.
“What we do on this course is an exercise in survival. What they do is pure magic and outright athleticism. The crossover of the two is where mortals are able to touch a little bit of that golden light.”
After stage four: “You know how you know when a ride is hard? You’re climbing and blood starts spurting out of your nose. (For the record, I just wrote ‘nose starts spurting out of your blood’ and had to fix it. Which is to say I’m really cashed.)
“The kind (and powerful) Dutch woman who came by me while the blood rolled down my wrist and arm gave me a bit of tissue. I stuffed it shut and kept going – there was still one more climb to do. My advice to you: don’t do threshold efforts while swallowing blood. Unless you’re at 198k of a stage of the Tour de France.” Then you just keep rolling.”
Swift and her teammates have trained rigorously for their tour, and they are sponsored and supported by strong organizations. Furthermore, as Swift’s dispatches indicate, there are other teams on the course with her woman’s team who are ready to provide additional support. Even so, the physical pain and mental stress are building up.
The official teams, of course, have even more support: their team cars, mechanical repairs instantly available, medical support, food and water all along the way. Furthermore, the smooth character of edited TV reports mask some of the stress that riders experience.
Even so, the unbelievable performances shine through. As a non-racing but aggressive cyclist, I have on rare occasions cycled at speeds between 45 and 50 miles an hour. Always down steep grades where gravity provides most of the forward momentum. In the tour, the top cyclists who are charging up hill to the finish line develop that speed by sheer power of muscle and mind (and a little help from their friends).
And they do it day after day!
Heidi Swift, by the way, is a Portland-based writer and cyclist. My previous awareness of her abilities was based on occasional columns she published in the Portland newspaper, The Oregonian. Her personal knowledge of cycling shone through. She affirmed different ways of being a bicyclist, and her writing conveyed feeling as well as information. There was a bite to her columns that I liked.
She and her teammates are sponsored by several bicycle-related businesses, including the magazine Peleton, and that’s where her Le Tour postings are published online. Several online reports detail the team and its Tour effort. To read Jonathan Maus’ account, click here. Her Oregonian essays are good, reading, too. Heidi also blogs and a good introduction to this venture is this interview, also published in the Oregonian. The two photos and the two excerpts from Heidi Swift’s tour accounts are all taken from postings on www.Peletonmagazine.com.
Swift has a hard three weeks in front of her—to ride the Tour’s course to the point of exhaustion every day and to post her regular reports. My bets are that she’ll get it done.