TOUR DE HELL

The Tour de France starts to­day and sees 198 cy­clists sad­dle up for 21 days of phys­i­cal and men­tal ex­haus­tion. The goal is Paris, and for those who make it through the pain it’s a jour­ney of self-dis­cov­ery

The Advertiser - SA Weekend - - TOUR DE FRANCE - Words reece homfray

BRADLEY McGee had pushed his body so far and buried him­self so deep in pain as he rode the 2645m Col du Galibier dur­ing the 2005 Tour de France that he be­gan to lose his vi­sion. His skin went cold and as he rounded the switch­backs he lost con­trol, rid­ing into the hordes of people lin­ing the roads who had to push him back in the right di­rec­tion.

It was the most har­row­ing mo­ment he would have at the world’s great­est bike race, and it ar­rived at a time when you might least ex­pect it – while crawl­ing up, not fly­ing down, one of the Tour's big­gest moun­tains.

It was a world away from his stage win in 2002 or wear­ing the Tour leader's yel­low jersey in 2003.

It was Stage 11 and McGee still had 10 days of rac­ing to go to make it to Paris, but had de­vel­oped hy­per­in­su­line­mia.

“Ba­si­cally, my in­sulin sys­tem was hy­per­ac­tive and any car­bo­hy­drates I con­sumed would set the in­sulin off and start ram­ming su­gar into my mus­cles,” he re­called last week.

“Very good for re­cov­ery and that’s prob­a­bly why I was able to re­cover a lot, but it’s not what you want to hap­pen mid­Tour de France stage.

“So I was hav­ing these ‘su­gar flats’ and su­gar flats are a pretty scary place to be – cold skin, blurred vi­sion.

“I climbed over the Galibier 10 min­utes down on the grup­petto (last group on the road) and I ac­tu­ally clipped out (of the ped­als).

“I couldn’t see, and on the switch­backs I was run­ning into the crowd and they’d put me back on my bike.

“This was go­ing on for a while and I thought ‘ What am I go­ing to do on the de­scent?’

“I was suf­fer­ing like that pretty much ev­ery day in the moun­tains.

“I limped all the way to Paris and ended up com­ing out sec­ond on the (fi­nal) stage.”

The Tour de France, of which the 101st edi­tion be­gins to­day in Leeds, Eng­land, be­fore trans­fer­ring to France on July 8 has been de­scribed as the hard­est sport­ing event on the planet. The rid­ers suf­fer day-in, day-out for three weeks to cir­cle the coun­try in 3500km by bike.

It’s not just the rid­ing that makes the Tour so painful, but the whole cir­cus of the event.

A typ­i­cal day has the rid­ers out of bed by 7.30am, fol­lowed by break­fast, a team meet­ing, bus ride to the start of a stage, rid­ing for six hours in the heat or rain, of­ten over moun­tains, fol­lowed by an­other 1-2 hour bus ride to where the next day’s stage will start, an­other team meet­ing, din­ner, a mas­sage and bed by 10pm. But even then some­times they can’t sleep. There have been sto­ries of rid­ers tak­ing so much caf­feine and en­ergy gels to get them through a race that al­though their body is ex­hausted, their mind is still wired for hours af­ter a stage.

McGee’s strat­egy in the Tour de France was to re­sist us­ing caf­feine un­til the fi­nal week of the Tour be­cause he was aware of the pit­falls of re­ly­ing on it too early.

“I would ride around for two weeks in the Tour with a caf­feine gel in my back pocket, un­used,” he says.

“Be­cause you knew once you started pop­ping caf­feine prod­ucts you’re des­tined to need them in other stages.

“And you look at rid­ers rid­ing any­thing less than the Tour (de France) and they’re load­ing up on caf­feine gels, you think ‘Well where are you go­ing to go with that?’”

“And that’s a mes­sage I’m try­ing to get across to our young rid­ers – with all the caf­feinated prod­ucts on the shelf. You don’t need it.

“Ev­ery drink is pro­mot­ing that you need caf­feine to do some­thing, when you don’t. Ev­ery­thing you need is al­ready within.”

Aus­tralian sprinter Rob­bie McEwen won the green jersey awarded to the strong­est and most con­sis­tent sprinter in the Tour de France on three oc­ca­sions be­tween 2002-06.

He re­tired in 2012, but in his bi­og­ra­phy One Way Road, he de­scribes wak­ing up each morn­ing dur­ing the Tour to a pain that felt like it was “go­ing right down into the mar­row of my bones”.

Dur­ing the Tour he would refuse to walk up stairs in his ho­tel be­cause even walk­ing down them was painful.

“The tired­ness can be so deep that I won­der how I’m go­ing to get up and get to the break­fast ta­ble,” McEwen writes in his book.

“It’s not the kind of tired­ness that sleep can do any­thing about.

“Ev­ery day, the race forces me to squeeze ev­ery­thing out of my mus­cles. If it’s a flat

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