Ask me where I was on 14th July 2016 and I’ll answer without hesitation. I was at home, right there in front of the screen as we all were. Agog, disbelieving, and glued to the action. Texting friends and imploring them to watch.
“Can you believe it? I can’t believe it. It’s unbelievable isn’t it?”
We couldn’t believe it.
I, a thirty-nine-year-old man, leaping and frantic, was screaming at Chris Froome: “Ruuuuunnn! Find a bike. What’s happened? This isn’t fair. It isn’t FAIR! They have to stop the race. Just ruuuuunnn…run FASTER!”
It was the Tour de France on Bastille Day. The stage was Mont Ventoux, the Giant of Provence, and the occasion was a big, bruising, bully of a bike race. The slopes of this massive slab were hosting the carnival atmosphere which accompanies (no, which IS) the Tour de France.
Tens of thousands of flag-waving-bike-chasing fans had gathered, and closed in, and stifled the procession of bikes and motorbikes on their slow drag up the mountain. Exuberance had tipped over into mild disorder. Chaos was descending.
Chris Froome had crashed into a motorbike in the melee and was now running up the mountain. Running. All clippy-cloppy in cycling shoes and Lycra. His rivals were further up the road and still in possession of their bikes and their senses. Froome had mislaid both. It wasn’t fair, but by God it was great TV.
A Grand Tour, even a very normal one, is an extreme endeavour. A three-week race of three-thousand kilometres. Up mountain, down valley, crossing sun-baked plains and snow-ploughed passes. Benign one day and brutal the next. Skirting towns and criss-crossing cities. In and out of every cheap hotel from Paris, to Madrid, via Rome. It’s the ultimate test for a pro cyclist.
Each start list is dotted with five, maybe six men who can win, while several-dozen of the world’s fittest athletes form a supporting cast of gregarios and domestiques; servants to their leader’s cause.
There’s the Giro d’Italia; high-pitched and frantic, the (self-styled) Most Beautiful Race in the Most Beautiful Place. In high summer comes the Tour de France; a blockbuster TV spectacular of plot and sub-plot, sunflowers and champagne. And finally the Vuelta Espana, in September; sun-baked, lizard hot, and studded with steep Tarmac.
It was said, and is buried deep in the folklore of cycling, that each Grand Tour ridden shortens a man’s life by a year. That the physical exertion required will literally, slowly, kill you.
Whatever the truth of that (and, let’s be honest, there’s poetic license at work), for a pro cyclist to ride one Grand Tour in a year is doable, and to ride two is tough. Three is rare. For many, the completion of any Grand Tour at any time is an achievement.
But what of we mere mortals? Assuming the Grand Tour call-up never comes, how do we immerse ourselves in these three, annual, twenty-one-day epics?
A bike race in person is undoubtedly a thing to be experienced. One hundred and eighty cyclists arcing and swirling like starlings on display. The arrow head of lead-out men pulling things along. The air crackling as a flock of fast-moving bikes hits you as a wind in the hair and a thud in the chest. It’s a noise, and a punch-in-the-guts blur, and then it’s gone.
Nothing to see here.
Get on with your day.
But if you want to watch a bike race rather than feel it you need a TV, a clear diary, and an understanding family.
Supplement this coverage with websites, podcasts, and the occasional piece written by a Fotheringham and published in a broadsheet newspaper and you’ve got the whole shebang not so much covered as pinned down, dissected, and examined like an unfortunate frog at the desk of a biology student.
Be advised: what follows are not time gaps, power outputs, tactical debriefs, or cold hard facts. This book will take you through the Grand Tours of 2018, and it’s all true. But it’s my truth.
Just a pro cycling fan, sitting in front of a TV, trying to unravel what the heck Carlton Kirby* is talking about now.
*Carlton Kirby, Eurosport commentator extraordinaire, considers any sentence not containing a play on words as grammatically incorrect. And what bike race wouldn’t be enlivened by such gems as: “He’s huffing and puffing now, blowing his invisible tuba…you could almost cut the silence with a banana!”
(Image: nadassfoto via Flickr CC)