The Grand Tours of cycling – the three-week races of Italy, France and Spain – have no sporting rivals as feats of endurance. The Tour de France, the oldest and grandest of them all, offers a particularly searching examination of a rider’s physical fitness and mental resilience.
Savage climbs, nerve-shredding descents, full bore sprints and timed efforts that require nothing less from a rider than that he ride to exhaustion…all cycling life is here, almost every day, for three weeks. Just two rest days are granted among the Tour’s 21 stages, and most spend these in the saddle.
There is a reason that the Tour de France stands alone as a test of endurance; why it shares the rarified terrain occupied by events that transcend their sport (boxing’s world heavyweight championship, the Monaco grand prix, and others). Bradley Wiggins, Tour winner in 2012, once described it as the only sporting event long enough to require a haircut at the midpoint.
A statistical analysis of this 104th edition of cycling’s greatest race offers some insight into the suffering of the riders. Many might blanch at a motoring tour of 3,540 kilometres, never mind cycling such a distance. Even to describe this year’s race as the Tour de France is to sell it short, with sojourns in Germany and Belgium too. For the first time in 25 years, all five French mountain ranges feature in this year’s parcours, including the mighty Col d’Izoard in the final week of racing.
The endurance effort is met by an equal and concomitant demand for performance. There is no collective slacking off as the race wears on. Rather, any diminution in the performance of a competitor is seized upon as an advantage. Tire at your peril; your rivals will sense and ruthlessly exploit it.
The demands of the Tour are not only felt by the riders, but on their clothing and equipment too. It is a searching examination of the ‘materials’ placed at a team’s disposal, as well as of the riders. Cycling’s ever-increasing focus on aerodynamics has placed added significance on the performance of the clothing. The rider makes up 80 per cent of the aerodynamic picture. Reduce resistance around his silhouette and the gains will be greater than from any yielded by frame or wheels.
When the riders arrive in Paris on Sunday July 23, it will be the end of a three-week ordeal for many. Talk of already lean riders reduced to emaciated husks is routine, and some even claim that they end the race shorter than when they began. Even to finish the Tour is an accomplishment. The ride onto the Champs Élysées is a triumphant moment for all who make it that far.
Vive le Tour then, and chapeau to any rider who finishes it. This enthralling, beguiling, debilitating rendezvous with suffering each July is the only place to be for a professional cyclist. The rest of us can only watch and wonder.