Tuesday, July 21, 2009

All mountains, no molehills

This is what the riders in the Tour de France face tonight.

Just look at that first climb! If that wouldn't make you reconsider your career choices, then you should be considering your sanity. But then Tour riders are never the ones you would search for if you were after people to chat about sanity at a high school "talk about my job day".

That first climb takes the riders over a mountain higher than Mt Kosciusko (2,228m). Now, ok we here in Australia inhabit a pretty flat land, but even still, that is pretty impressive. And what's more, after doing it, they have to climb another mountain (you know, just for kicks - sort of a, hey that was fun, let's do it again type operation).

When I was young, I ran middle-distance races, and I always knew before the start of a 3,000m race that it was going to hurt - I hated sprinters who did their 12 second sprint then searched for a drink and a seat in the stands - but the pain of the Tour rider is a completely different zone. Tour riders start each day knowing they will probably face moments where they will feel their chest scream in pain as though some evil French imp has reached inside their stomach and is yanking on their oesophagus and heart, and for good measure is squeezing their lungs for laughs. They know the muscles in their thighs will gain the ability to speak, and will be shouting to their brain for mercy, then abusing the mind with the most foul language imaginable. And most likely at some stage the muscles will then sob like a man who has accidentally knocked on a CIA prison and enquired if anyone within knows where the nearest water-boarding party is happening.

They are true insane fools. And God bless them for it.

This year's Tour hasn't been as riveting as previous years. Basically it was over the moment the organisers decided to re-introduce the team time trial. It meant that the ridiculously loaded Astana team was assured of having the winner. And this was confirmed when Astana beat Team Saxo Bank (containing rider Andy Schleck) by 40 seconds, Cervelo Test Team (containing last year's winner Carlos Sastre) by 1 min 37 secs, and Team Silence-Lotto (Cadel Evans' team) by a whopping 2 min 35 secs.

The team time trial is a truly dumb inclusion for a race that rewards one person with victory. What it does do however is highlight how often the winner is the rider who has the strongest team. At least they have got rid of the time bonuses for finishing in the top three of a stage.

After the time trial, it meant the race was between Alberto Contador of Team Astana and Lance Armstrong of Team Astana. And when in Stage 7 Contador beat Evans, Sastre and Armstrong by 20 seconds the tour was over. This was confirmed on Sunday night when up the climb to Verbier, Contador beat Sastre by 1 min 6 secs with Evans a further 20 seconds back.

And yet with the Tour effectively over (Team Astana will not let anyone else control the race from here on in), they still have to suit up, jump on the bike and go through hell.

And yet tonight's is not the worst climb to come - that is on the second-last stage, the stage the organisers were hoping would decide the tour - the climb up Mount Ventoux (known as Mount Baldy because it is a volcanic waste land - no nice green hills here).

Just in case you doubt the torture involved, here's the final climb of the stage in detail:

In 21 kms you go up 1.6km. The black bits show where it is most steep - yep the last 2 1/2 km are the steepest.

It is on Mt Baldy where Sastre and Evans have their only hope. Team Astana will do all it can to protect Contador, but the stage is pretty flat up till that point, so no one will have had to work particularly hard (unlike previous years before final climb up Alpe d'Huez).

I don't hold out much hope for Evans, or Sastre (or anyone else) beating Contador up the Mountain - he is just looking far too strong. But damn, if I don't marvel at their ability to try.

I'd be hopping off and pushing the bike up, and thinking why I hadn't decided to pursue an easier career - pit-bull wrestling perhaps.

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