When I look into my heart of hearts, I find a place of austere clarity. It contains a few abiding loves. One of the most significant among these is my complete adoration for cycling. Were I to win the lottery tomorrow I’d begin planning my escape forthwith. And what would I do? No different from many of you, I’d set course for cycling’s homeland. And though I love the cobbles and muur, my preferred playground is mountain terrain. Left to my own devices, I’d ride as many of Europe’s 2000-meter cols as I could in a month. I’d pray for the strength to ride two per day until I’d scaled them all.
So while I salivate at the very mention of Paris-Roubaix and see it as the ultimate hard-man test, my greatest love I reserve for Grand Tours in general and the Tour de France in specific. You see, my love for the Tour isn’t based on courage, brute force, macho cool or even tough-guy bravado, but my childhood sense of fun.
When I was a kid, bike riding—as we called it—was one of my all-out faves. The perfect summer day was a day spent riding as much as possible and the farther afield the better. Had it been possible, the perfect summer would have been three months with no school and hours of riding bikes each day. Had it been possible I could have enjoyed heaven on earth.
So imagine my surprise when I learned of the Tour de France. Three weeks of riding around France in the summer. Three weeks of being paid to ride bikes for five or six hours per day. Three weeks with your best friends. It was a dream come true.
When I learned that Greg LeMond typically trained eight hours a day, the depth of envy I felt burned through my shoes and the foundation of my parents’ home. Someone was paying this guy to do something my folks rarely allowed me to do for more than two hours at a time. Clearly, this world had options to which I was unaware.
To this day, a month spent riding around France tops most wish-list possibilities. A date with Pam Anderson, tickets at the fifty yard line for the Super Bowl, dinner at the White House, serving a case of Petrus to friends, and none of them match the excitement I feel when I think about riding mountains day in and day out for a whole calendar page.
And the pinnacle of the PRO life is the rhythm of a Grand Tour. Wake, eat, rest, eat, race, eat, rest, eat, sleep. Such a life could easily be a prison to some, but to me it has always been a chance to gorge on my favorite meal. Weeks of days defined by racing.
As I have come to know Grand Tours and how the are raced, my love for them has only increased. For all the flash and grandeur, they are won not so much on the coup de grace, but on conservation, efficiency and tactical sense. Sure, we applaud the rider who can deliver the withering attack, but discretion is as important as the attack itself. Delivered at the wrong time it isn’t just an effort wasted, but a nail in one’s own coffin.
The high water mark for each of my summers as a kid was the Fourth of July. From riding bikes to the parades, funny outfits, cookouts and fireworks, the Fourth was the perfect summer day. And what is the Tour de France but that day played out over and over again? With the last of the season’s Grand Tours coming to a close, I’m sad to be nearing the end of another season; I don’t feel I sucked quite enough marrow from this one. That’s more a statement of insatiability than actual hunger, I suspect.
I have often imagined how great life would be to be the lanterne rouge. I simply can’t imagine what it would be like to with the Tour itself, but I think I can fathom what it would take to be the guy just hanging on by the skin of my teeth in a Grand Tour. That perpetual state of disbelief—I’m still here; I’m still in it!
And then one day I learned that not all pros who wish to ride the Tour get to go. Oh the horror! To be considered and then to find out you didn’t make the squad. No fireworks, no adulation, no cool mountain roads. Cinderella should know such pain.
No soup for you. Come back one year.
Of all the world’s many privileges, that is one that if I had it to do over, I’d live a Puritan life. My refusals would be legion, my discipline harder than granite and my will as unyielding as the laws of physics, all just to have a crack at riding a Grand Tour just once.
Only a cyclist or a Puritan could see day after day of suffering as a vacation.
Image courtesy John Pierce, Photosport International