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.
(Page 2 of 2)
I didn't exactly feel the wind in my hair, however. At five miles per hour I should have had a chance to enjoy the scenery; in fact I found myself fixating on the tarmac, sucking air as I fought to turn the pedals. Looking up gave me a crick in my neck, and a dispiriting view of the continuing hill ahead.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The Col de Grosse Pierre, which lasts for two miles, has an average gradient of 6.4 percent. In a car, you would probably take it in third gear, changing down to second at the hairpin bends. On a bike, however, imperceptible changes in gradient make themselves painfully felt in your legs. And I had no gears left to change up to.
I was pouring sweat, my lungs were burning, my thighs straining, and my buttocks aching from the discomfort of racing saddle. "This is me against myself," I thought. That wasn't sufficient motivation. "OK, this is me against my editor."
Then slowly, miraculously, the slope seemed to ease. I allowed myself to hope, and raised my eyes. And there it was, a hundred yards ahead, the little black road sign "Col de Grosse Pierre" that marked the summit. My face broke into a big grin.
Then, of course, came the fun part, though I kept my hands on the brakes all the way down the other side of the mountain, nervous of going too fast on the steepest stretches. Freewheeling the whole of the three-mile descent, I was whooping and laughing with glee at the thrill, deafened by the wind rushing past my ears.
When I hit 30 miles per hour, I frightened myself and slowed down. Later that afternoon, on flat ground elsewhere in France, Tour de France riders averaged more than 35 mph over more than an hour of racing in a time trial.
By the time I reached the village of la Bresse, at the bottom of the hill, I did not even feel ridiculous in my Spandex as I rolled up the street. I had climbed a mountain and raced down the other side, and reckoned I knew what I was doing.
Which proved to be not entirely the case. I set off on my second ascent, an eight mile - but gentler - climb in high spirits, if a little sore. I discovered that though the average gradient was only 3.1 percent, that figure masked some nasty little walls.
Coming up on one of them, and getting my gear-change wrong again, I stalled and tipped over. With my feet strapped to the pedals I was helpless, and hit the road hard on my elbow. As I lay there entangled in my bike, my Spandex-enhanced paunch in the air, I was glad of the mountain solitude: On Sunday several thousand fans will line this route, but nobody was there to see me being undignified.
In the end I made it to the top without getting off, mainly by taking it slowly. Not counting stops for swigs of energy drink at the top and bottom of each climb it had taken me about two hours to do the two mountains - a 16 mile ride. It will probably take the Tour de France pack little more than half an hour.
I had a ten mile cruise back to my hotel, and was so exhausted the next day I fell asleep mid-afternoon. The Tour riders will have another 91 miles to go on Sunday, and another four mountains to climb before they can get out of their saddles. And then the Alps. And then the Pyrenees.
Case proven, I think, Mr. Editor. The Tour de France is the toughest competition in sports.