The Tour de France is a race for the climbers, and if you’re not the creme de la creme you can forget it.
There are 198 riders in this year’s Tour and 190 of them don’t have a hope in hell of winning it.
And that includes most of the teams’ best riders. Little Thomas Voeckler, Team Europcar’s number one man and the current yellow jersey holder, is little more than a serial breakaway pest. He’ll finish where he usually finishes, somewhere between 60th and 70th place.
The man he usurped, the 80 kg Norwegian ex-sprinter Thor Hushovd, is an excellent climber for a big man but he’ll be shed on the Col du Tourmalet like bark from a ghost gum, and his teammates, already exhausted from driving the peleton into the wind and rain to protect his yellow jersey, will plummet with him.
Hell is usually thought to be underground. Riders of the Tour de France will beg to differ. On Thursday when they enter the Pyrenees and reach the summit of the Col du Tourmalet, the first hors categorie climb of the race, they’ll be praying to get back down among the chateaux and the sunflowers.
Pain has been a constant since the first race in 1903. Those who didn’t cheat in the early years (by cadging a lift in a car or jumping on a train) tried to blot out the pain (in some cases a result of being punched up by spectators supporting another rider) by downing enormous quantities of provincial plonk.
Photographs of the time show these Tour pioneers (spattered with mud, tyre tubes wrapped around their necks) looking as pissed as parrots and mad as March hares.
In the 1950’s the great Italian Fausto Coppi, when asked if he had ever taken ‘la bomba’ (amphetamines), famously replied: “Yes,whenever it was necessary”. Asked, “When was it necessary?” his even more famous reply was: “Practically all the time”.
Better roads and better bikes with more gears didn’t alleviate the pain. During the 13th stage of the 1967 Tour the British champion Tom Simpson, seeing stars and drugged up to the eyeballs with amphetamines, carked it on the moonscape of Mont Ventoux.
This year’s 3500 kilometre tour of purgatory involves traversing 23 high mountain passes. The known drug of choice, the performance enhancer EPO, won’t dull the senses.
Most members of the peleton are just along for the ride. The riders for the teams with the main contenders, however, face a different prospect. This is a team sport in which the team works for the glory of one individual. The slaves of the peleton, the domestiques, will sacrifice their well being on the slopes of the Pyrenees and the Alps, acting as buffers against the elements and as pacesetters for their superiors.
And then we witness what all fans of cycling crave to see: the ruthless stripping of the peleton as, one by one, small groups and then the stronger individuals, are cast off never to be seen again until we’re left with the few madmen capable of winning.
Let the shedding and the suffering begin.
Apologies to Thomas Voeckler. He will be 4th , not 60th or 70th.