How hard is the Tour de France? Ask our spandexed scribe.
Sporting 21 gears and a lime green suit, a Monitor reporter pedals a 15.6 mile stretch of the race.
About half way up the "Col de Grosse Pierre" (Big Stone Pass), sweat stinging my eyes and my thigh muscles screaming, it occurred to me that the big stone in question was not some ancient landmark but attached to my bicycle.Skip to next paragraph
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Or possibly located between my ears. What on earth did I think I was doing, cycling up a mountainside in eastern France until my lungs burst or my heart gave out, whichever came first? And ludicrously dressed in highly unflattering Spandex, to add insult to injury.
Blame it on my editor. Perhaps tired of reading my annual description of the Tour de France bicycle race (now ending its first week with Lance Armstrong, again, wearing the leader's yellow jersey) as the toughest physical challenge in world sport, he assigned me to answer a simple question: How hard is it really?
I am on the wrong side of 50, fully enjoy the gastronomic pleasures of France, and have not seriously exercised for several years. In no manner do I resemble the muscled young athletes at the peak of their form who are currently pedaling round France on a 2,255-mile race to glory.
But I thought it would be instructive to ride a little bit of their route, which is why I found myself a few days ago in this picturesque town in the Vosges mountains, listening carefully while bike-shop owner Marie Agnes Picart explained to me the finer points of 21-gear racing machines.
After taking an experimental spin around Ms. Picart's forecourt, I set off.
I didn't attract much attention as I wobbled down Gérardmer's main street - cycling is a popular sport in these parts - and I was soon at the edge of town starting my first climb into the pine-forested hills.
Almost immediately I was in trouble. I was having difficulty changing gears, I was breathing loudly, and I could feel my heart pounding. My greatest fear: I would not make it to the top even of this introductory slope, not steep enough to warrant any kind of classification on the Tour de France itinerary.
After a while, however, I found my rhythm, using the middle of the three chain-wheels so as to give myself room to maneuver when things got harder, and climbing at a steady seven miles per hour. My satisfaction overrode my realization that when the Tour riders come this way on Sunday they will treat this little hill as a speed bump.
At the top I stopped for a while to congratulate myself, and to study the road ahead which rose alarmingly out of rolling pasture up into the pine trees. This was not much of a challenge by Tour standards - a mere category 3 climb on a descending scale of four - but it looked serious enough to me.
Less than 500 yards from the bottom, I was already in the easiest gear, out of breath and badly flustered. I was left with only one option, to pedal more slowly, and little by little I recovered my nerve. I was doing five miles per hour, which may have been three times slower than the pros take a hill like this, but was not so tortoise-like as to fulfill my second greatest fear - that I would go so slowly I would tip over.