Well we nailed June to the wall, didn’t we? For me it meant riding up and down and all around Wisconsin and Illinois.
Horribly Hilly was like a stage of the Tour de France. 72 miles and 6000 feet of climbing. And so it has been interesting to imagine doing twice that, and turning around the next day and doing it again?
Same with the Century I just rode. Pro cyclists ride 100 miles like it’s a slow walk in the park. For me it was an accomplishment to ride nearly 18 mph for the distance. My legs were not as sharp as they were for the Horribly Hilly. It happens.
Well, by comparison these Tour riders do 100 miles at an average pace of over 27 mph some days, and keep up that pace for 21 days of racing.
This year, the Tour de France starts out in Utrecht, Belgium, where race fans are crazy and the roads will punish the lazy, distracted or unfortunate. So we should not be surprised if in 2015 one of the lead riders takes a fall again. It happened last year to Froome and Contador. Froome busted his ass and Contador a leg, if I recall.
Apparently my fave cyclist in the world, Matthew Busche, winner of the 2015 US National Championships, was not selected for the Trek Tour team. If you’ve never read his blog, it gives tremendous insights on the rigors of being a pro cyclist. Here’s what he wrote about doing the Team Time Trial in the Dauphine race in France:
No seriously, they are… not really so fun. They are never easy and the pain just grows throughout the entire ride. It is a different animal than the individual time trial because rather than set out on a pace you can hold for whatever distance/time, you need to go above that level while pulling, then when you pull off you need to quickly recover enough in time to be able to jump onto the back of the line then rest a little more before your next pull. It is an exercise in self-control because once you go above your limit and can’t recover, you will be dropped for sure. And as guys drop off, the recovery gets shorter, which means your pulls come quicker, which means the lactic grows more! All in all, I don’t think it is something anyone really look forward to.
That should make you feel better as a cyclist, knowing that these guys suffer and fail just like the rest of us. And when it’s on a Grand scale, as it is in the Tour de France, the pressure on the athletes is immense. There are only nine team members on these Tour squads. Everyone has a role. Just the competition to make a Tour team is beyond most of our imagination. Then you have to line up and race all out for 21 days. And on rest days you still ride your bike for three hours.
Last year “Flip” Busche raced in the Tour and even tried a couple breakaways. But he also crashed a lot. Five times I think it was, yet he kept on going. It goes to show that it takes experience, grit and a bunch of luck to race well in the Tour de France.
Lance is back. Sort of.
Which brings us to the fact that Lance Armstrong will be riding two ceremonial stages of the Tour course this year in advance of the peloton. Of course there are many who hate the fact that Armstrong will be coming anywhere near the Tour. His doping record and treatment of those who opposed him during his reign as the king of cycling are stuck in the craw of many pro cycling fans, and will be forever.
In conversation with a few cyclists during a recent ride, there were those who passed on judging Lance to be a worse cheat than most. “He was still the best cyclist among all the other cheaters,” one fellow observed. “And they were all cheating. Make no mistake about that.”
It may be true that cyclists such as America’s Greg Lemond did not cheat to win their Tour titles, while Lance did. It is also true that Lance ruined lives with his torturous aggression toward those who opposed him or threatened to blow the lid off his anti-doping ruse.
But the fact remains that Lance Armstrong came out ahead in bike racing through 14,000+ miles of racing to win seven times in the Tour de France. He controlled his own destiny and acted strategically. Heresponded to challenges better than any Tour bike rider in history. And despite his own worst flaws, and there were many, he used his reputation to do some good in this world.
The supposedly new breed
So it’s an interesting challenge to consider what these new, supposedly dopeless bike riders have to offer the Tour this year. One still really has to wonder. As one commentator on a YouTube video of Alberto Contador said, “Almost everybody in the top of professional sports is doping one way or another…If you want to have such achievements and see people do these kinds of stuff, you gotta take it with a pinch of salt and just admire it as it is.”
The challenge in watching the Tour is that we do want miracles to happen. We thrill at the sight of a rider launching off the front of a thinning pack on a mountainside. We long for that rider to transcend all our expectations. Our dreams get tied up in those efforts, those men “dancing on the pedals” as Phil Liggett likes to call it.
Well, are those moments still tainted by doping? Perhaps the differences between riders is now natural, not supernatural. In any case, it’s best to consider how goddamned hard it is to ride up a long, steep mountain grade at nearly 20 mph.
We apparently don’t like cheats in the world of cycling, so we must accept that the Tour itself is a superhuman event. Those are human beings inside those colorful kits. They have human brains too, and human flaws. They may be better riders than anyone else in the world, but the roads are still made of asphalt, and the mountains piled high with rock. When they emerge from the treeline and start climbing to altitude, the air gets thinner as the road gets steeper. They are trained for these exertions, yet on any given day the body may or may not respond.
The human factor
The competition looks interesting, with Vincenzo Nibali returning to defend against Quintana, Froome, Contador, Talansky, Van Garderen and the rest. Analyzing who will win is always fruitless. No one really knows. Not when there are cobbles to navigate in the first week, and mountains to climb the last two.
I prefer to watch the Tour and find a rider to root for along the way. There are so many good reasons to cheer for so many riders. The sprinters with their preening victory celebrations, like prize fighters or track runners. The pure climbers with the race for the absurd polka dot jersey. The heroics of a French rider on Bastille Day. It’s like a Pixar film. Drama and humor and fashion all mixed together.
Once you learn their stories and motivations, and how much difficulty in training and life they must overcome to achieve results, the Tour is one big rolling soap opera. It has made me cry over the years, and cringe as well.
Those crashes. They are so fast and nasty. Riders getting thrown into fences like Johnny Hoogerland did a few years back? That was beyond category in terms of discomfort. Despite their “big engines” and gravity-defying legs, they are just like us, only better. That’s what makes the Tour de France so interesting and exciting.