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Tour de France
Cyclists in the Tour de France
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Tour de France map
Imagine running a marathon every day for three weeks over a course that takes in a total climb the height of Mount Everest. It doesn’t sound humanly possible, but it equates to the effort expended by riders in the world’s toughest and best-known cycle race, Le Tour de France. And on July 9th the legendary race will hit the streets of Barcelona, culminating in a sprint to the finishing line (for the Spanish stage) in Montjuïc. It is the third time in the race’s history that it has come to the city, and the world’s press will be focusing on the current titleholder, Madrileño Carlos Sastre, as well as seven-time winner Lance Armstrong who will be making a try at a controversial comeback, injuries permitting.
The race started in 1902, when a new magazine, L’Auto, was launched as a rival to Le Velo, the publication that sponsored France’s top cycling event of the day, the Paris-Brest race. As a teaser, the first issue announced a new endurance race, Le Tour de France, with an unheard of three-week duration and a circumnavigation of France, including several gruelling mountain passes.
The pioneer riders carried all their clothing, food and water in bags hung from the handlebars and spare tyres were worn bandoleer-style, diagonally across their chests. Just to add a frisson to the proceedings, early bikes had wood-rimmed wheels that frequently caught fire on long downhill sections due to the friction brakes overheating.
Perhaps the biggest difference when comparing the bikes of 1902 to today’s hi-tech machines is that those earliest versions had no gearing system, just a single speed to deal with the fast open road and the stop-start of busy cities, as well as vertigo-inducing Alpine tracks. One gear for 3,500 kilometres around France, including the Pyrenees and the Alps. That earns respect, mes braves. Only 15 riders competed in the first year, but the race has since grown to become one of the world’s biggest sporting extravaganzas.
The 2009 Tour starts on July 4th at Port Hercule, in the glitzy principality of Monaco, and sovereign Prince Albert will be there to fire the starter’s gun. The route goes from Monaco and follows the Mediterranean coast arriving at Montpellier on July 7th, then on to Perpignan the next day. The riders start out from Girona (having been transported over the Pyrenees) on the morning of the 9th and arrive at Barcelona later the same day. After Barcelona, they cross the Pyrenees via Andorra, then on to Tarbes and Limoges, with the traditional finish at the Champs-Élysées in Paris on July 26th, with no less than Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni heading the welcoming committee. Along the way are countless diversions including team and individual time trials, sprints and sundry jaunts across the peaks of the French, Italian and Swiss Alps.
Following Lance Armstrong’s extraordinary seven-year domination that ended in 2005, Carlos Sastre became the third successive Spaniard to win the Tour in 2008, and is the first in the post-Armstrong era to defend his title. In an interview with ‘Road.cc’ (a Web magazine for dedicated cycle-freaks) in January, 34-year-old Sastre talked about his chances this year: “I am feeling as fit as I have ever been, and with my new team CTT [Cervelo Test Team] fully behind me, and a more streamlined cycle this year, I’m confident of a strong performance...Of course, there are always younger riders coming through, and who knows with Armstrong? You can never count him out.”
For the many fans who follow the race in person (an estimated 15 million of them) an undoubted highlight is the publicity caravan convoy preceding each stage. There’s a real carnival atmosphere, with loud rock, reggae and salsa music accompanying the glamorous models that shower the throng with product samples of all kinds. The caravans are hugely popular in their own right and a L’Equipe magazine survey last year revealed that over a third of spectators admitted, “Forget the race. We’re here for the freebies!” For children, the Haribo sweetie caravan is a firm favourite, with jelly beans, cola-bears and liquorice allsorts scatter-gunned into the crowds. Eye injuries are not uncommon, but no deterrent to the determined toddlers that judiciously elbow themselves into the front line.
Traditions abound in the Tour and perhaps the most well-known is the system of coloured jerseys with le maillot jaune, the famous yellow jersey, worn by the leader of the previous day’s stage. Though much coveted, the eventual winner of Le Tour need never have worn the yellow jersey since it is overall points that count. This happened in 1990, when American Greg LeMond won by coming consistently high in every stage, although never first in any one.
Probably the most famous of all Spanish riders was Navarra-born Miguel Indurain. The first rider to win five consecutive Tours (1991-95), Indurain was universally admired for his modesty, composure and generosity to fellow riders. Also renowned for a lung capacity and blood circulation rate twice that of most riders, he excelled in the mountain ascents. Retired from competitive racing since 1996, Indurain is now a member of the Spanish Olympic Committee.
Sadly, no account of the Tour would be complete without some mention of drugs. Since 1962, when the British rider Tommy Simpson died from amphetamine abuse whilst pushing his body beyond the limits during an ascent of Mont Ventoux, doping on the Tour has rarely been off the front pages. Methods of intake have become more ingenious by the year with blood transfusions being the latest means used to deliver those extra kicks. Edward Pickering, editor of British magazine Cycling Weekly, told Metropolitan, “The problem of illegal performance-enhancing drugs on the Tour is unlikely to go away. Riders will always push the boundaries, but with more sophisticated detection systems in place in recent years, it may at least be contained.”
Happily there is one substance unlikely ever to be banned, fortunately for the current Tour champion Carlos Sastre. When asked in an interview about the secret of his success, he owned up to his covert addiction. “Chocolate. Since I was a child, I have been a complete chocoholic. Some say I only took up endurance cycling so I could indulge without guilt or counting calories!”Fair enough Carlos, but 3,500 kilometres is some penance for a couple of Twix bars.
www.letour.fr for all information and routes for the 2009 Tour de France
• The youngest Tour winner was 19-year-old Frenchman Henri Cornet, in 1904, and the oldest was Belgian Firmin Lambot who was 36 when he won in 1932.
• Le peleton is the term that describes a pack of riders bunched together. Like birds flying in flocks, huge energy savings can be made with as much as a 40 percent reduction in wind-drag at the centre of a peleton.
• Le Tour has 21 stages with flat sections, mountain stages, time trials and sprints, both individual and team. National groups no longer compete, instead each team is now sponsored by a commercial organisation.
• The 2009 Tour carries €3.2 million in total prize money, with €450,000 going to the individual winner.
To read about another cycle ride taking place this month across France and Catalunya, this time to raise money for charity, click here