The brutal physical and mental toll of the Tour de France

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Johnny Hoogerland of Vacansoleil-DCM was one of a number of riders to crash on the opening stage of the 2013 Tour de France (Image: Team Sky).

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Tough world, this cycling business. When riders aren’t fending off doping allegation from every angle like Steven Segal in a dark alley against a gang of mulleted thugs, they have to actually ride their bikes.

A life dedicated to the carbon human-powered machine is a hard one.

Glamorous it can be when you hit the peaks and are ensconced among the rich and fabulous in Monte Carlo or being paraded on the stage in front of the adoring fans at the start of a Grand Tour, but essentially it’s a never-ending grind to stay in shape and to become fitter, faster, stronger.

Like Sisyphus with his stone, the professional rider is in constant fight-mode.

Battling against the elements, physical decline, the road and all the other intrusions of life that can affect a rider all combine to make a hard job even harder.

Some riders feel the pulse of victory often. For others it is more ephemeral, whereas for a few unfortunates it can never happen at all.

A whole professional career without raising their arms and hearing the applause of the crowd – imagine that. Yet for all there is no release from the cycle of preparation, training, racing and the stress that accompanies all that.

None become free of their boulder until the day they hang up their wheels.

And there, at the summit of everything and in every sense imaginable, there is the Tour de France. This is a race that places the greatest stresses upon the peloton, demands the heaviest sacrifices, the steepest tolls.

It is portrayed as a celebration of France, an evocation of the past and yet simultaneously a plasticised version of the present and a glimmering vision of the future.

Yet what is it truly, at its basic core, than a festival of suffering?

One rider that continues to astound in this race with his ability to endure – and there should be a special jersey awarded to this man – is Geraint Thomas.

His pelvis has been broken since day one, when he came down in a massive pile up with just a handful of kilometres to go on Stage 1. It’s an injury that ranks up there with the most painful ever sustained in the Tour by riders who have continued on.

“It’s definitely better than a week ago. Obviously, there’s still a bit of pain and things,” Thomas said, “I feel like I can get out of the saddle a little bit.”

Love the understatement – exactly what we’d expect from a man so ably dealing with what must be an incredibly painful injury.

In the 1975 Tour de France, Belgium’s Eddy Merckx suffered two blows on two separate occasions.

The first came on Stage 14 when a French spectator lashed out at Merckx with a punch to the stomach – which all happened as Merckx was climbing the massive Puy de Dome.

But it was the injury sustained on Stage 17 that truly ended the great man’s hopes of winning the ’75 Tour, and which he later blamed for shortening his amazing career.

On that stage Merckx collided with the Danish rider Ole Ritter and injured his hip and knee but broke his cheekbone. Advised to abandon, Merckx soldiered on and finished second, three minutes behind Bernard Thevenet.

“It was pain,” said Merckx later, “that you cannot imagine possible.”

There have been other cases of riders carrying on in the face of what for most of us would be unendurable pain, yet most eventually succumb and abandon the race.

To find a case of suffering that equals Thomas’ though, there is only one rider that can compare: Tyler Hamilton.

The now-disgraced American broke the delicate collarbone on Stage 1 of the 2003 Tour de France and went on not only to compete the race and finish fourth overall but also to actually win Stage 16 with a solo effort.

The will required to even sit on a bike immediately after breaking a collarbone and finish one stage is mind-bending, but a whole Tour?

Hamilton actually ground down his teeth while clenching so hard to take his mind away from the pain.

On any sufferation meter that one is right up there.

These riders suffered with physical injuries, of which, with one look at the start line each morning and the profusion of bandages and plasters that abound, we know are only too common. These injuries a doctor can see, treat and tend to.

But what of the mental injuries being carried within the peloton? If the Greatest Race on Earth is hard on the body then it is even harder on the mind.

Some of the mental stress is incredibly basic, dealing with the onslaught of exhaustion that each rider will succumb to through the race. For some it is fleeting, for others it is a constant anchor that rules their every action, from morning to night.

There are others still that are not only racing in this beast of an event but also in fear for their jobs, and so are desperate to stand out, to seek and then seize any opportunity they can find to either get away or to ingratiate themselves with a team leader – and in many cases that can be any team leader, or any manager, anyone that will offer up the golden promise of a contract.

For the top guys in each classification the pressure is of an altogether different, more precise variety, namely the constant threat of losing time or points.

What sport in the world demands the same focus and attention to all details, all the time, that the Tour de France does of its potential winners?

A Grand Prix? Nope, that’s over in two to three hours or so. A 15-round boxing match? Again, too short.

The closest I can imagine is a non-stop individual sea voyage lasting a similar time, but even then there are periods of monotony there, of peaceful seas and relaxation.

No, nothing on the planet compares with the Grand Tours and in particular the Tour de France in terms of the focus and concentration required – no traditional sporting event in any case.

These men are tough physically, but it all stems from the core of their being, from an inner steel that the normal man in the street will never comprehend.

Like Scott and Amundsen crossing frozen wastes, Cook setting off into uncharted waters and Hilary and Norgay Tenzing reaching the summit of Everest, these riders are driven by something else, something almost other.

It all makes no sense when considered rationally, and yet it all makes such absolute, perfect and beautiful sense in so many other ways.

The true greats of the sports were mental giants also, not merely incredibly talented.

Fausto Coppi, Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Miguel Indurain and even, dare I say it, Lance Armstrong. Men so tough they would regularly destroy an entire peloton by their mere presence.

Others have fallen by the wayside, crushed by the stresses and pressures made by this very singular event.

Bradley Wiggins finally succeeded in 2012 but not before cracking before the gathered press, of which there are rumored to be over 2000 this year alone.

Chris Froome is now dealing with that side of things and so far bearing up. Others who do not fare so well in the modern era include the Schlecks and of course Cadel Evans.

Evans, as we all know from YouTube, has had his wobbles, yet still clung on to win his Tour. Andy and Frank however, despite Andy being awarded the 2010 Tour thanks to Contador’s ban, seem too fragile for the demands of the Tour.

In the 2013 event we have the curious case of Thibaut Pinot. The FdJ rider is only 23 and considered one of French cycling’s greatest hopes after winning a stage in the 2012 Tour when he was the youngest rider in the race.

He finished tenth on the GC, the youngest to crack the top ten since 1947.

He has, however, just abandoned the 2013 race, citing a fear of descending as the cause. His brother said that he was in the form of his life going into the race but the young rider has been broken by his fear of descending and by this race in the most spectacular fashion.

“Some people are afraid of spiders or snakes. I’m afraid of speed. It’s a phobia,” he said soon after losing a whopping 25 minutes on Sunday’s stage.

“When I saw that I was not able to stay on the wheel of a rider like Mark Cavendish on the descent off a mountain pass, I asked myself: ‘What am I doing on the Tour?’ I received the clear response that I have nothing to do here.”

A Tour casualty of the highest order, and yet obviously, in a perverse sense, a brave man for admitting his fears.

If we could look into the minds of the remaining participants of this Tour de France, we’d see many more scars and bruises in need of medical attention.

Lee Rodgers is an independent pro rider riding for the Crank Punk Coaching Systems-Lapierre Cycling Project, and is a freelance journalist.
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