Monday, July 25, 2005

Le Tour

Some human endeavors expose the inadequacy of our methods of communication. For example, parenthood is impossible to describe to somebody who's not a parent. I expect that the real experience of being in a military battle is indescribable. The most extreme things can probably only be experienced.

Every year when i watch the Tour de France, i realize that there's a whole lot of stuff in this race that's foreign to most people, and i don't mean just that it's in France (and maybe Germany, Belgium, Spain). The intricacies of bicycling racing are without parallel in the sports world. The concept of domestique, a rider whose main purpose is to serve the needs of the team's top rider, is strange, especially since these riders are in fabulous shape and often top racers (one of Lance's team members won the Giro d'Italia this year). The idea that you can win the war (the Tour) without winning any of the battles (the stages) is odd. The idea that in a sprint race a group of riders throws itself at the finish line with reckless abandon in order to win the stage, and yet they all get the same finish time as the peloton. The word peloton. Lots of strange stuff.

But none of that stuff is what i find so amazing, and so impossible to describe. The amazing part is the sheer physical accomplishment. These guys ride hard stage after hard stage with only a couple of "rest" days (on which the riders still ride in order to keep their legs loose). I usually do a couple of 100+ mile rides in a year. I don't race the distance, i just ride it usually averaging around 20 miles/hr on relatively flat rides, slower if there are hills. Still, it takes a lot out of me and i'm in fairly decent shape compared to the general public. These riders do harder, longer rides daily. Plus which, they are racing. Bicycle racing, despite what you'll hear from ignorant sports writers year after year, is a skill-intensive activity. Riding a bike at close to 30 miles/hr in the peloton is a skill, cornering at full speed on slick roads is a skill, descending a mountain road at 60 mph without wetting your pants is a skill. It's mentally exhausting to ride like this, because your attention can never waver.

I know that i never will experience anything quite like the Tour de France, and i'm sure that even my impressions of it are false in ways. But i've never seen anything on video, in print, or elsewhere that really conveys the essential incredibleness of the race. I think that's because there simply aren't adequate superlatives to describe what is for most people effectively impossible. Finishing Le Tour, never mind winning it, is superhuman.

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