Blood, Sweat And Gears
The Heroes Ride Cycles Instead of Steeds But the Tour de France Is an Epic Saga
By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 3, 2004; Page C01
At a time when elements of Broadway and Vegas have invaded so much of the sports world, there is something classic about the Tour de France.
The three-week-long bike race unspools today on a path toward certain pain, physical punishment and hazards of all sorts that are unmatched in athletics.
Like completing the Appalachian Trail or running the Iditarod, riding in the Tour is at once very simple and richly metaphoric. It is heavy on steak, light on sizzle. It is exquisite self-flagellation, whose redemption comes in a commingling of anguish and glory.
The Tour is decidedly medieval. With its platoons of the strongest and steeliest cyclists, astride the finest two-wheeled steeds that modern engineering can devise, traversing mountains and misery in equal measure and adhering to a code of honor that governs everything from bathroom breaks to what to do if your key rival crashes (wait politely for him to get back on the bike, of course), the Tour resembles nothing so much as a heroic quest from the days of King Arthur.
Sure, most of the competitors are anorexic-looking, hollow-cheeked fellows with wan white chests and baby-smooth legs, wearing flashy Spandex and oversize insectoid sunglasses. To many, they may look more like large crop pests than warrior princes.
But stick with this for a while. Throw five-time winner Lance Armstrong -- the fatherless Texas boy who vanquished cancer on his way to becoming a pop icon and possibly one of the greatest athletes of all time -- into the mix and you have so many parallels to mythic hero tales that fans need look no further for their 21st-century action figure.
Perhaps this is why the Tour has fascinated Europe for the past century, and its fame is growing steadily here. It is the most storied contest in a sport that runs on technology (one of Armstrong's bikes incorporates materials used in space satellites). Yet it follows an ancient formula, where men are called to venture into open country and prove themselves against their rivals and against their own weaknesses. Tackling the slopes of the Pyrenees (during the race's second week) and the Alps (in the third), riders will crack, get dropped, slip backward, fall over sideways. Others will claw and grind their way up to the finish, only to face the same pain, fear and difficulty the next day, and the next.
"It's a mirror-like reflection of real life," says Bob Roll, a former pro bike racer and a Tour commentator for cable's Outdoor Life Network. "It's like a soap opera unfolding. . . . It's a melodrama that guys are actually going through. Once you identify the strengths and weaknesses, you go through it with them."
No rider makes his way to the finish at Paris's Arc de Triomphe alone.
Teamwork is essential to the race: Eight pack dogs surrounding the alpha male. Bike racing is about working through pain, and beating back the wind. Riding six- to eight-hour days on the open road, you need your buddies around you as human windshields.
If the team leader is a knight, his teammates (known by the French term "domestiques") are his squires. There's a feudal sense of hierarchy on the teams, designed to keep the leader in the best winning position throughout the race. This is especially true on Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team, which adheres to an all-for-one strategy. If deep within your domestique heart lies a grain of ambition to steal a Tour win away from Armstrong, you belong somewhere else. (Two of his chief rivals this year -- the American Tyler Hamilton and Spain's Roberto Heras -- are former teammates who defected to lead teams of their own.)
On the Armstrong Express, your job is to suffer deeply each day to protect one guy.
The teammate in front is battling wind resistance; everyone behind benefits from a 25 to 30 percent reduction in effort by riding in his slipstream. As lactic acid builds up in the muscles of the man heading into the wind, his thighs begin to burn. When he can no longer keep up the necessary pace, he fades back, and the teammate next in line takes his place.
For much of the race, Armstrong rides relatively coolly a few men behind. Only at decisive moments in the mountains does he "attack," accelerating at a pace that tears the legs off his competitors. If he's thirsty, hungry or needs a rain jacket, designated teammates drop back to the team car to load their pockets with supplies.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company