By Zaheer E. Clarke
(Published August 3, 2015)
Celia’s smile, slaphappy, and serendipitous way of life was always intriguing. Likewise, Sarah’s perpetually composed expression, breathtaking strength, and treasured friendship constantly captivates, especially whenever I drift off into Neverland. Can I tell you? Sarah is a lovely human being, downright lovely. Matthieu, on the other hand, I barely know. Our paths first intersected in the month of May years ago when we co-presented at a conference in Lille, France. Though we haven’t spoken much since, he is forever a friend.
Celia, Sarah and Matthieu are my friends in France that I will visit a few years into the future as I follow ‘Le Tour’ around France. La Grande Boucle, known popularly as the ‘Tour de France’, is cycling’s oldest and most prestigious event. To be frank, it is one of – if not – the hardest and most demanding sporting event on earth – physically and mentally.
Every July, for 16 years, my world stopped. No work, and no school. No wife, kids, or friends. Just me, cocooned in my man cave, lying on the therapeutic couch with food, French wine, and the 50-inch telly for 23 days and 21 stages. I would watch in wonderment as ‘mutant’ humans willingly and fortuitously torture themselves to attain cycling’s Nirvana: the Maillot Jaune, or simply, Tour de France’s coveted first prize, the Yellow Jersey.
If the cliché: “blood, sweat, and tears”, was ever used to surmise the participants’ daily physical depletions, and the mental mountains they overcome in order to finish each stage, much less win the Tour de France, it would be tantamount to a holocaustic disservice in verbiage. This year’s winner of the Tour de France is British cyclist, Chris Froome. He also won the 2013 edition, but as luck would have it, he crashed out of last year’s race along with a series of other favourites.
To win ‘Le Tour’ requires the perfect blend of genes, training, domestiques (teammates), luck, and mental astuteness. As Sam Callan, an Instructor at USA Cycling FIT in Colorado Springs once said, “There are a lot of folks with the (right) physiology (but) who do not have the mental acumen.”
Over the course of three weeks, the Tour ruptures a cyclist’s physical attributes and also attempts to shred his mental gumption. For them, the battle of the mind over the body is what is most difficult. They fight through oxygen deprivation, broken bones, dehydration, lactic acidosis, and altitude sickness. Every day at the end of each stage, they lose almost 5 lbs than at the start; experience excruciating pain and endure hormonal chaos. These challenges coupled with the harsh elements and conditions they contend with – on tyres often a finger digit in width – is insane.
The campaign goes through the heat, rain, and crosswinds; over or through asphalt, cobblestones, mud, and gravel; while attempting to avoid the crazy roadside spectators, motorcycles, cars, ravines, and precipices. Sports scientists in a recent study concluded that a single mountain stage of the Tour is over twice as gruelling on the body as running a 26-mile marathon. In addition, they ascertained that the power generated by these cyclists, while they battle crosswinds during some of these stages, is adequate to operate the lights, a TV, and a refrigerator in a standard house. How do these blokes do 21 stages in 23 days?
During this past Tour, Froome had to combat the elements, the physical and mental challenges, and the other 197 opponents the Tour wheeled on him. However, he also had to fight off baseless allegations of doping from the fans and pundits.
Allegations of doping or cheating during the Tour has been around since its inception. In the early years, riders were accused of ingesting alcohol and ether to reduce the pain. Allegations were rife of riders taking trains, cars, or holding on to them for part of the journey into Paris. However, the most startling allegations were of riders being assaulted with blows, sticks, and stones by the loyal followers of competing riders especially during the night stages (back then). The winner of the inaugural Tour de France, Maurice Garin remarked during the second edition, in 1904, “I’ll win the Tour de France provided I’m not murdered before we get to Paris.” He won that second edition, but was later disqualified with eight others and banned, like Tour de France’s most infamous winner, Lance Armstrong, due to allegations of cheating or doping as described above.
Unfortunately, during this year’s Tour, Froome was meeted with proverbial blows, sticks, and stones as doping speculations sprung up, without proof, because of his dominance. Fans spat at him. Others splashed urine in his face. This all because he destroyed his rivals in the first two-and-a-half weeks of the Tour. Nevertheless, Froome prevailed in the end and won by only 72 seconds: the smallest margin of victory since 2008, and a fraction of Nibali’s 457-second win last year. Still, Froome had to reassure cycling fans of his commitment to racing clean when he said, “The yellow jersey is very special. I will always respect it and never dishonour it.”
This year’s Tour covered 3360 brutal kilometres (2100 miles), starting in the nearby Netherlands, then through neighbouring Belgium, before moving along the coastal northwestern flats of France. It then ventured through the mountainous, evergreen, and picturesque southwest Pyrenees. After which, it explored the gruesome, yet famous snow-capped south-east Alps Mountains, before ending on the breathtaking Champs-Élysées, in Paris, with a grand coronation.
Just yesterday, as I penned this article, my mother-in-law handed me tickets to attend my first baseball game at the famous New York Yankees’ Stadium. I was dazed, excited, and instantly reflected on the eerie coincidence of the Yankees franchise and the Tour de France commencing the same year: 1903. Will next year be another Le Tour de Froome? Celia, Sarah, and Matthieu, I’ll definitely be in France, next year!
Until we meet again …
© Zaheer Clarke
From the “Lies & Statistics” Column in the Western Mirror (Published Monday, August 3, 2015)