Cycling, for most of us, is something we leave
eagerly behind when age and income offer up the internal combustion engine
as an alternative. The two great exceptions to this general rule are China
- the majority of whose enormous population believes that the motor car
was invented for the sole use of government officials - and France.
For the average Frenchmen, cycling is far more than the cliched image of the farmer meandering along on his ancient machine, laden down with market produce. Now, when it comes to high-octane, big bucks professional road racing then the French really do know their onions. For this we must thank Tour de France, an annual 22 day celebration of all that is thrilling about pedal-power, as well an expose of some of that which is less desirable. The first Tour was staged in 1903, a chaotic affair that attracted an eccentric 60-strong posse of committed cyclists eager to push themselves towards the outer edges of their physical ability. Eccentric ? Yes, of course, who else but an eccentric would contemplate the prospect of not only riding up an Alp, but freewheeling down the other side, on roads that resemble a skidpan after experiencing even the lightest of showers ?
The answer of course, is that these cyclists were drawn from the same group of men who also climbed mountains, ran marathons and generally woke up every morning and contemplated immediately what they might now find to challenge them! In that sense the Tour de France has not changed at all, the participants still hewn from rock, still crazy after all these years. What has changed is the profile, the numbers, the money and just about everything else. The cycles, of course, now have as much in common with the early 20th Century machines as, say, a model-T Ford has with a Ferrari. With special clothing, helmets, back-up teams and cycles designed to slide through the air with minimum resistance, the modern Tour competitors might as well have beamed themselves down from Mars when compared with the early pioneers.
Right Now, the tour which regularly beats the Hollywood for drama and excitement, has around 20 Teams, each with nine riders and a small posse of dedicated mechanics, specialist doctors, and strategists, begin the grande boucle. They have to contest a prologue, 11 flat stages, three marathons, three mountain stages, four high mountain stages and two individual time trials. By the time the winner poses his Yellow Jersey (Mailot Jeune) on the Champs-Elysées on July 25 - the only time this Paris thoroughfare is closed to traffic apart from Bastille Day - many competitors will have succumbed to the unique demands the race places on mind, body and soul.
The winner approx. 1.2 million francs out of a total prize fund worth 12 million francs and he would have ridden almost 4,000 kilometers. Each of that meter is tracked by television and massive press corps, whose daily preoccupation is to watch the start and the make it to the finish before the peloton (main group of riders) gets there! Riders will crash, collapse through exhaustion and loss of will, suffer an adrenaline overload and discover aches in parts of their body they did not even know existed! The Tour de France does not sort out the men from the boys, it identifies the superhuman (how else will u address Armstrong, the 1999 champion from United States!). And, sadly, sometimes it highlights the low tricks humans will use to achieve their objectives. Last years chaotic, often farcical, attempts by the authorities to root out the serious drug-takers reduced the race at times to an ID parade on wheels. Racing retreated to the background as cyclist after cyclist was hauled off the road and into the testing center to provide a specimen for analysis. This was new. What of course was not new was the thought that professional cycling on the continent is now irretrievably linked to the chemical substances.
Almost 32 years ago, Britain's Tommy Simpson collapsed and died on Mont. Ventoux. He was a terrific cyclist, but not quite good enough to achieve his dream of the ultimate Yellow Jersey. At the post-mortem, traces of amphetamine were detected. The reason he died that day was because he had taken his body beyond its limit. Can You believe that he died because he simply did not have the energy left in him to even breathe! And for a while Tour de France held its own breath as it contemplated the greatest scandal in its history. Much was said about keeping the sport clean, of refurbishing its image. But as with every other game played where big money is available, the drug taking has continued. To what extent, No-one knows, but every one knows it happens (I just heard a few weeks back about someone using anti-asthma drugs as performance enhancing supplements!!). The risks are huge, but the so too are the potential rewards!
What, however, is beyond dispute is that the Tour has offered us some of the most compelling heroic sporting figures of this century. There is the belgian Eddie Merckx, who by 1974 (the year I was born!) had won five races, the frenchmen Bernard Hinault, who had achieved the same phenomenal record by 1985 and there is Miguel Indurian. Taciturn and focussed to the point of high obsession, the Spaniard never courted popularity, but his five consecutive victories between 1991 and 1995 set him apart from even the likes of Merkx and Hinault. While Merkx and Hinault rode with style, Indurian used cycle to crush the opposition. His desire to win, his need to see himself reflected in the glory of the Tour De France, meant that no matter how much the opposition tried to stop him he was able always to find another gear. His hard eyes and his blank expression intimidated others as no other rider ever has. His ability to suffer in silence as the lactic acid burned its searing way through his wiry physique was just awesome if not incredible.
The winner of the Tour is always a hard man, for there is no other way to triumph in this grueling marathon. But when the trumpet-calls sound for the triumphant champions since the first group of Tour de France competitors rode away from Cafe Revil Martin in Montogeron on July 1, 1903, no-one deserves a louder blast than Miguel Indurian. The scale of the fame he now enjoys back in Spain is equaled only by the desperation of the French riders who ganged up to try to stop winning during that extraordinary five-year cycle. Men like him and Merckx and Hindault did not take drugs. Not because they were purer athletes than others. They did not take drugs because they did not need them. The seeds of greatness can never be implanted, they are either there genetically or they are not available at all. This is what Tour de France is all about. This is the greatness of this event making it unique.
Never mind the money, forget the scandals and feel instead the challenge that is thrown in front of these riders each day of this race. It may be just a cycle race but it is also a public calling, a stage-managed examination of a rider's resolve in the face of pain. It is the height of irony that Yellow remains the color of cowardice, for whoever pulls on this Jersey before turning into the center of Paris every summer will be truly brave. The winner of every Tour de France deserves a hero's welcome.
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