The last few days have been spectacular at the Tour de France, and I finally feel like writing up a bit of what the Tour is, for people who don't really follow cycling.
The 2006 Tour de France is a bit of an oddity. It's the first Tour after Lance's retirement, meaning a lot of riders thought they had a chance to win. Then the doping scandal hit a few days before the Tour, meaning that 3 of the best riders (Basso, Ullrich, Vinokourov) weren't going to be racing either. This leaves the door open for lots of good, but unheralded riders, to win the biggest race in cycling.
So the Tour starts. These guys are doing somewhere between 150 to 240km a day in intense heat at speeds that shouldn't be possible. They approach the mountains with Floyd Landis in the lead. After all the shake-ups, Floyd can probably be considered the top contender for the Tour. He's also, incidentally, riding with a degenerative hip condition:
Describing the pain, he said in an interview at his team hotel in Châteaubourg before the Tour's eighth stage, "It's bad, it's grinding, it's bone rubbing on bone.
"Sometimes it's a sharp pain," he continued. "When I pedal and walk, it comes and goes, but mostly it's an ache, like an arthritis pain. It aches down my leg into my knee. The morning is the best time, it doesn't hurt too much. But when I walk it hurts, when I ride it hurts. Most of the time it doesn't keep me awake, but there are nights that it does."
Now this isn't unprecedented. Tyler Hamilton finished third in the Tour in 2003 with a double-fractured collarbone. At times he could barely hang onto the handlebars but he was still able to win one of the stages in the mountains.
So yesterday the guys were climbing lots of mountains, one being this one:
The mountains are what really makes or breaks the Tour de France, and it's hard to describe what you're going through when you're hill climbing. Everything you know about cycling ends on a mountain. The joy of speed, of the wind in your face, of being able to coast and rest your legs. Even the ability to breathe ends on a mountain. All you have left is suffering. And silence. The only thing which can get you up the mountain, which can keep you turning the pedals, is your ability to say yes over and over again to pain.
Yesterday Floyd Landis cracked. He didn't have the energy or the legs, and a lot of guys dug deep and endured as much suffering as they could to climb the mountain ahead of Floyd and gain time on him.
Today the Tour hit this mountain.
After dropping like a stone in the standings yesterday, Floyd Landis gave every ounce of energy he had in the world to the ride today. He tore away from the main group and eventually climbed roughly 5 minutes ahead of everyone to win the stage, and to once again give himself a chance to win the tour.
With his hipbone grinding in its socket.
Joyce Carol Oates once described writing as being very similar to boxing. She said that when a boxer goes into the ring, he strips himself down and basically spends the next hour showing the world how much pain he can take; showing the world his innermost self, free of posturing, free of friendships, free of anything. "This is me," he says to the crowd. "This is what I can take." Oates said that a writer does the same thing. When you open a book, what you're reading is the writer's soul. You're diving into the writer's pains and worries and fears. You're seeing the barest, innermost part of that writer.
Mountain climbing is the equivalent for cycling. You hit the bottom of a climb and all the speed you had disappears. The road slopes up. You flick down into your easier gears. The road keeps sloping up. You grip the handlebars tight and push the right, then the left, pedal down. Your lungs start to gasp. Your legs begin to feel like tingling noodles. The mountain strips away everything you are, leaving only your ability to suffer - your ability to turn the pedals.