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
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