Tour de France from the inside

Thanks to the NBC Sports Network and a host of mostly insufferable advertisers, I can watch the Tour de France early in the mornings during July. Since I have always been a recreational cyclist, with no experience at racing, I marvel at the exploits of these young athletes, many of whom are the age of  my grandchildren.

I pay special attention to the brief interviews with these men and am impressed by how genuine they seem, how committed they are to their sport, how skilled they are in combining loyalty to their team with the intense desire to perform well themselves.

It is regrettable that this sport, along with other professional sports, has to deal with the problems of performance enhancing drugs. Even so, the character of professional cyclists strikes me as worthy of commendation to young people today as a good example of athletic endeavor .

Watching the Tour, however, gives only a partial view of what happens on the road and how this intense activity feels to the people actually cycling these long, hard distances. Here I can only depend upon the testimonies of people who actually ride the tour route.

In an earlier posting, I called attention to the group of six women who are riding this year’s course a day ahead of the Tour itself. Heidi Swift from Portland is one of the team and she posts columns nearly every day describing how she and her teammates are faring in this intensely difficult event.

Even with support from their sponsors and from a team of Dutch cyclists who also are cycling the Tour route with them, the ride pushes Heidi and friends close to the point of exhaustion, affecting body and mind. Here are a few lines from a recent post.

“We’re five stages from finishing this thing. Five stages which seems like nothing and also seems like forever. Two mountain stages, one excruciatingly long flat stage, a TT and then the parade to Paris. Tomorrow we must pass over two above category climbs and two category one climbs. It will be a long day on the bike. Probably the longest yet.

“These days do not come without consequences. I’m tired and torn up: saddles sores, cramped feet, permanently numb fingers. That’s just the daily stuff. You ride until it all goes away, replaced by a middle ground of calm and determination. Pain is just a sensation, like love or happiness or anything else. Experience it, ride through it, ride past it.”

Onetime racer, longtime frame builder, and current blogger Dave Moulton also comments on current events in cycling, including the Tour de France. On a recent day, the cyclists were confronted with a serious road hazard, a large number of ugly carpet tacks broadcast on the road. Nearly a third of the cyclists flatted, as did some of the motorcycles that patrol the route and several team cars that support and service the cyclists.

One of the unwritten rules of the road was invoked by Brad Wiggins who was wearing the yellow jersey—the cyclist who at the time was number one in the race. He signaled the peloton, the mass of cyclists riding in a group, who had avoided the hazard, to ease up until the others could get back onto the road and in their place. Here are a few lines from Dave’s blog.

“This unwritten law of fair play was demonstrated in last Sunday’s Tour de France stage. Cadel Evans punctured because some idiot had thrown upholstery tacks on the road. Team Sky, lead by Bradley Wiggins, slowed and essentially neutralized the race while Evans caught up. Soon after the other contender Vincenzo Nibali also flatted.

“Let’s face it, if Evans and Nibali had both lost several minutes the Tour de France would have been over for them and over for the rest of us following the event. The sense of fair play shown by Wiggins and the others, not only neutralized the race but neutralized the affect caused by whoever threw tacks on the road in the first place.

“The fact that this happened without any prompting from officials of the race is pretty amazing in any professional sport, which is why I say cycle racing is unique.”

In a few days this most-watched athletic event in the world will be over for the year, but the examples of overwhelming athleticism and remarkable team spirit will continue to encourage and inspire.

Note: The photo is copied from Swift’s blog on Pelotonmagazine.com. 

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