As it drives south toward the Pyrenees, the Tour de France has been traversing the deeply cupped valleys and rolling hills of an almost unbearably picturesque region of rural calm. Caramel cows cluster at the roadside, plump sheep are nearly lost in the dense grass.
But although the landscape is lovely, the roads are cruel. During the first windy, wet week of the Tour, more than half of the 188 cyclists hit the asphalt, victims of tire punctures, misjudged turns and shaky nerves.
Most of the riders hopped back on their bikes -- their surging adrenaline masking any discomfort -- but broken collarbones, noses, ribs and unbearable pain have ended Tour dreams for some.
This Tour has started off with an unprecedented number of crashes, but crashes are nothing new to the race.
Neither is pain.
Every athlete has felt the pain of injury and exertion. But experts acknowledge that cyclists are the sports world's greatest masochists. The flaming feeling of lactic acid building up in the thighs from ceaseless pumping, the excruciating aches in the neck, back and shoulders from hunching over handlebars for hours on end -- even without the crashes these are normal sensations for riders.
Suffering is a point of pride. It is said that the Tour is won by the man who can suffer the most.
It's tempting to say there is something uniquely French about the way the anguish of the Tour is glorified. Explaining the value that the sport offers young people, the director of a cycling program for children tells French radio, "This is a school of suffering. And when you know how to suffer, you learn a lot about satisfaction."
You wonder, would this kind of promo hook American kids?
Yet, withstanding pain is a universal virtue, as two of the favorites to win this Tour can attest. It was chemotherapy that hardened five-time winner Lance Armstrong to the punishments of the Tour. He has been through metastasized testicular cancer -- what can shake him now? But Armstrong is not the only competitor with a seemingly unnatural pain threshold.
Last year Tyler Hamilton, a former Armstrong teammate from Marblehead, Mass., crashed and snapped his collarbone in two places when he was a half-mile from the finish of the Tour's first stage. Making a choice as intimidating to his opponents as it was medically extraordinary, Hamilton sucked it up. Despite the nauseating pain of jagged bone grinding against bone and flesh, he won a stage race later in the Tour and went on to finish fourth overall.
"For me it's about accepting the pain," said Hamilton, leader of the Swiss team Phonak, just before the start of Stage 9 on Tuesday. "If you don't accept it, if you always resist, it makes it twice as bad."
When he hit the ground last year, he said, his first thought was: "My Tour is over." It was a realization far more agonizing than the screaming nerves around his clavicle. "I had the best form of my life, and it was one of the lowest points of my career. But cycling is all about ups and downs. You probably have more bad days than good days."
That day, in fact, ended up being a good one. After other doctors advised him to abandon the race, Hamilton found one who said that as long as he didn't fall again, he might be able to make it through the three weeks of racing to the end. This news, Hamilton said, "was like a ray of sunshine."
It was all he needed to hear.
There is pain throughout the sprints, through the races on flatter land. Now, with the mountains coming up, the suffering is heightened.
"You're in pain all the time in the mountains," said Frankie Andreu, a former member of Armstrong's U.S. Postal Service team. This is when the strongest riders will gauge the suffering of their opponents and make their moves. Armstrong is the ace of the mountain attack. Possessed of an extraordinary lung capacity and the blessed ability to produce less lactic acid than most, he simply hurts less. And even at his fullest capacity he can be poker-faced when the other riders are open-mouthed and grimacing, noses on their handlebars.
"He loves winning," says Andreu. "Also, he loves making other guys hurt."
The realities of the Tour are a world away from the carnival atmosphere that prevails at the start of the ninth stage in this small medieval town. In the hours before the teams arrive, corporate sponsors hawk their products in what's called "le village," a loud assembly of tents and banners and dainties to nibble on.
Among the oddities on display are a brioche as big as a wagon wheel and, drawing an admiring circle of onlookers, French champion mountain bike rider Marc Vinco. He's doing acrobatics on his bike, hopping from one platform to another, balancing neatly on one wheel. Afterward, drenched in sweat, he is asked about the pain of cycling.
What hurts the most are his shoulders, knees and hands, he says. So what does he take for it?
"Water," he says with a smile, holding up his cup. "Only water. And," he leans close, splattering sweat on a reporter's notebook, "lots of sex. After that, you forget everything."
Just then, the team buses start to arrive, and the crowds lining the streets start to cheer. A few riders take warm-up spins on their bikes, signing autographs to the delight of little children and their squealing mothers.
Stand outside a team bus as the riders emerge into the sunlight, and all you see for a few moments are headless legs. Wearing their cleats -- shoes with metal plates that clip into the pedals -- the men pick their way awkwardly and ever so carefully down the steps like high-heeled showgirls descending a staircase.
What legs! Tanned, sculpted, smooth-shaven. (The leg shaving, by the way, is not for aerodynamics. It is a small effort at pain reduction. Better to dress and heal abraded flesh, known as "road rash," without leg hair getting in the way.) These are legs to stop traffic. Legs, for the most part, that are also scabby, scraped pink, dotted with bandages. You see more skinned knees than on a playground, and there's one guy with an impressive case of road-scraped skin stretching from mid-thigh to shin.
Two of the longest, slimmest legs in the bunch belong to American cyclist Bobby Julich. Any Rockette would kill for his gams, though their tapered form has been gained by way of unenviable physical stress. Julich is an underappreciated star of American cycling. In 1998, the year before Armstrong began his domination, Julich finished third in the Tour, the highest-ranking American since Greg LeMond in the '80s.
Since then, Julich has struggled. He crashed out of the 1999 Tour, breaking his elbow and four ribs. In the yearly races of the European circuit, he has toiled for one team after another. Now a member of Denmark's Team CSC, he is in 18th place after Wednesday's 10th stage, pulling just ahead of his team leader.
Ask Julich about pain, and he speaks about heartache. "I think the worst pain that you suffer isn't so much the physical pain, it's the mental pain, the mental disappointment," he says. "I don't know if you can correlate disappointment with pain, but at least I do. The physical pain, you know why it's there. But the mental pain that you go through, the frustration, that's sometimes the most difficult. Just not finishing as well as I would like. For me, it's just the suffering of your body not following what your mind wants it to do."
When he crashed during the '99 time trial, Julich says his first impulse was to get back on his bike. He didn't feel any pain -- until he tried to get up, "and it felt like somebody was holding me down with a spear in my chest."
"You don't think, 'Oh my God, my elbow's broken.' You think more about the bike race," Julich said. "To a certain degree, that's kind of sick. But it's just who we are. We're warriors. You just pick yourself up and get going again and sort it out later."
Julich says that as far as pure pain threshold is concerned, losing skin and sticking to the sheets at night is worse than a broken bone. But any injury or muscle burn hurts worse at the back of the peloton, as the main herd of riders is called, than at the front.
"I've always said that you suffer just as much in the front as in the back, but in the back is when you feel it," Julich said. "In the front you're probably suffering more, but you have so much more adrenaline going through your body that you don't feel it as much. It's almost a good pain, compared to a miserable pain when you're in the 'grupetto' " -- the group sliding off the back of the pack as the peloton races ahead.
Lose contact with that invaluable drafting effect of riding behind another rider, and you'll need to gut out even more horsepower to combat the wind resistance alone.
"Pain is huge," said sports psychologist Saul Miller, author of "Sports Psychology for Cyclists," in a phone interview from Vancouver. He has counseled some riders to develop mantras to deal with the pain. "They'll think, 'pain is power,' and go deeper into their breathing," he said. Another rider would say to himself, "If it's hurting me, it's killing them."
Here is where it ends. It's every rider's antidote to a punishing day: the massage. Every team employs several soigneurs -- French for "those who care for" -- who are the cyclists' surrogate mothers. They pack lunches and sling them over the riders' shoulders at the race's designated "feed zones." They ready their hotel rooms and oversee the dinner menu. They act as bodyguards between the riders and the crush of public and media at the starts and finishes. They are also their confidants.
Most of all, they are their masseurs. The post-stage massage is a ritual of spiritual and physical importance. It gets the riders to relax, ready to eat and sleep and start the grueling test all over again the next day. And it flushes toxins out of their muscles, restores blood flow, getting the legs back into condition so the riders can drain them again.
A small room at the Hotel Jeanne D'Arc has a fresh herbal smell from the massage oil that Eddy Wegelius is working into the legs of Anthony Charteau, a climbing specialist with the French bakery-owned team Brioches la Boulangere. One of this team's riders, Thomas Voeckler, 25, is the current race leader, the wearer of the coveted yellow jersey. He has the fastest accumulated time over the first week of the race, though that lead will likely dissolve once the serious mountain climbing starts and titans such as Armstrong, Hamilton and Germany's Jan Ullrich start to zoom away from a struggling field.
Wegelius, sweaty and breathing hard, lowers his shoulder to dig deeply into the rider's thigh. He twists the flesh, rolling and folding it like a baker kneading dough.
After a day of racing, not even the massage is pain-free. "It hurts at first," Charteau acknowledges. This stage into the town of Gueret was a particularly tough one, "lots of attacks. The legs started to burn. We have the yellow jersey, so we don't want to lose it. That's what we think a lot about on the course. And when our legs hurt, we aren't allowed to fall back. We have to stay in front. Even when you think your legs are" -- he whistles sharply, describing an inflating balloon with his hands.
Now, however, that all starts to fall away. "Yes," he says with a smile to Wegelius, closing his eyes, as the soigneur bends Charteau's knee and rakes his fingers along his quadriceps. "Especially when you do that."