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July 13, 2007

The Wonderful Hurt

This is a guest post by Ken Bazinet, of New York Daily News, where he's White House Correspondent and contributes to the Mouth of the Potomac weblog.

Ken BazinetIt has been a glorious first week of racing, with primarily flat sprint stages and a short time trial prologue. The last flat stage of the first week of Le Grand Boucle was today, so the speed freaks grabbed their laurels for the last time until the middle of next week, when the first climbs are finally behind them and terra firma becomes more forgiving to their craft.

Make no mistake, though, in the back of their minds as they wound through wine country southeast of Paris, the sprinters knew they begin their least favorite task tomorrow: surviving three days in the Alps. It is time for the climbers to reign, hammering on their pedals up Alpine ascents that most people experience in a chair lift on a brisk winter weekend. The climbers cross these cloud-encased summits only to “rest” as they swoop like falcons at speeds of 50 miles per hour down treacherous, winding roads.

The Alps are where the overall competition, or General Classification, will begin to sort itself out. The “GC” is the quest for the yellow jersey; it is the primary reason why 189 men climb in the saddle that first day, only to sacrifice their prostate glands and endure shriveled baby-makers for sometimes weeks after the race is over. All the while, the oxygen-deprived sprinters suck up every breath knowing that to win their coveted green jersey, they must survive these still snow-capped mountains and two 30-mile long time trials, the latter known as “the race of truth” — because there is no peloton and no drafting in the time trials; only the rider, the bike, a single bottle of water and the clock.

After the Alps, the clockwise ride around France brings the sprinters back to the forefront to fight again for three or four days as the peloton zigzags its way to Spain. The Basque-filled Pyrenees are waiting. This is where Le Tour is to be decided; on painful climbs where screaming fans have camped out for days and stand literally inches from riders who roll over roads only a couple of feet wider than the trails we enjoy here.

The race is really all about the mountain stages. The Alps and the Pyrenees: where the heart beats 190 times in a minute and legs cramp as they fill with lactate that forces the two pistons below the hips to seize up precisely at the worst possible moment. The Alps and the Pyrenees: the storied mountain ranges that Hemingway and Orwell wrote of, but only the likes of Armstrong and Coppi conquered (even Hannibal needed an elephant to get over).

Still, they ride on and the peloton will finally descend toward Paris, where the last sprint comes during eight bumpy laps over the cobble-stoned Champs-Élysées in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. More than 2,200 miles over 21 stages are behind the riders. An overall champion, a sprint champion, a mountains champion, the best team and the best young rider all are crowned; yet there is glory for every rider who survived this masochistic century-old adventure. Of the 189 starters, half will have retired before Paris. What is that trite, old saying? It’s just like riding a bike? Yeah, only you have to pedal through hell, and it is beautiful.

Posted by Frank Steele on July 13, 2007 | Permalink

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Comments

With due respect to the writer, I fail to understand significance of this post.

Posted by: neal at Jul 14, 2007 1:24:13 AM

Neal, Ken wrote this for a friend who is a recreational cyclist, but doesn't follow the sport.

He told me he hoped to “woo her into watching the race with a romantic take on the beauty of the pain involved.”

I thought it was a great read, and clearly Tour related, so I was quite happy to give it a home on this site.

Posted by: Frank at Jul 14, 2007 7:35:05 AM