Perseverance: Or, Why I Watch The Tour

All doping and performance enhancement jokes aside, there’s a lot to be learned from the Tour de France – or any cycling tour, actually. Whether it’s La Tour, or the Giro d’Italia, or even the Vuelta d’Espana, watching the pro cyclists grind it out day after day, hill after hill, for weeks on end, is inspiring.

Think you know long workouts? Try doing them back to back for two weeks straight, with just two rest days for recovery. Try riding over terrain that climbs, descends, and climbs again, over and over.

While the Tour is showing, I’ll generally watch a few hours here and there. This year, I PVR’d several days to watch as I did other things — whether it was background viewing for days I worked from home, or to play while I worked out in the home gym.

While four or more hours of cycling can be a bit like watching paint dry, I quite love to watch this footage. Not because it’s particularly gripping to watch a group ride, in real time. But because watching the slog, the suffering and the dedication is truly inspiring.

In this year’s tour, there were major crashes in the first five stages that took out many of the contenders for the coveted yellow jersey – and in one case, the wearer of the jersey, who had to drop out for surgery on his thus broken collarbone. Riders are shown riding alongside the tour doctor’s car, getting anaesthetic spray applied to their knees while they ride, and carrying on with just a few stylishly French Advil to buffer the pain. Riders crash, untangle their bikes, and get back on – ripped cycling jerseys and shorts flapping in the wind to reveal wickedly raw road rash and bruises that would keep most of us down on the ground crying for help.

Just a minor scrape. I can still ride. No, really I can.

Just a minor scrape. I can still ride. No, really I can.

They’re riding in torrential downpours, searing heat, and high winds. Some of it is on beautiful fresh tarmac, but many miles go down on cobblestones and cracked pavement, and even then, with crazy spectators performing idiotic acts of passion as riders fly on by.

Riders can lead an entire race, just to flat in the final 25km, losing their spot. Riders can be caught up in the peleton’s crowded crashes, swept off the road through no fault of their own. Mountain descents can end in a slide that removes more of the rider’s skin than one would think survivable. Or in the case of one legendary rider, a seemingly small injury from an insignificant tumble can lead to race doctors discovering testicular cancer – ending his Tour, but likely saving his life.

When I’m out for a two hour ride, covering a respectable 54 to 60km in the process, I will often experience multiple highs and lows. but nothing compared to that of a distance ride like those occurring each day of the Tour. These guys are riding at average speeds in excess of my top speed, for hours and hours. Four to five hours of high output, and then they often outright sprint for a few kilometres to the finish. Hop off, get on a bus to the next city, all just to stay in a hotel and get back up in the morning to carry on with the next stage. Perspective indeed. All I have to do is get home in one piece, grab a shower and some lunch, and carry on with my day.

With all the support for these cycling teams – team mechanics, athletic trainers and massage therapists, soigneurs and chefs, not to mention some pretty posh team buses for the big guys – it’s still the determination of the riders and their capacity for hurt that make a two week Tour de France possible.

By the time the Tour de France is into its second week, the riders are generally looking more gaunt, sunburnt, and decidedly road-weary. These are the stages I love most. Guys are cycling with broken ribs, tendonitis, road rash that looks downright foul, and inevitably, saddle sores. At this point, they’re significantly down in weight, despite their legendary 8000-calorie a day feeding regimens. And doggedly, they carry on. Five hours a day, up a mountain, at speeds in excess of what the average joe can do on a TT bike with a hefty tailwind.

Sort of makes it easier to hop on the bike for a long session, doesn’t it.

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