A Day at the Greatest Cycling Event on Earth: Tour de France

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A day’s stage of the Tour de France looks a bit like an instalment of the Hunger Games -an unsympathetic game of elimination in which 198 riders start together and ride progressively faster for 150-plus kilometres until a combination of tired bodies, nasty crashes and mechanical mishaps leaves one small group of riders out in front.

The finale inevitably involves either a flat all-out sprint or an unfathomably steep climb up some ridiculous mountain, where the roads narrow and the riders enter a human tunnel of overexcited fans who lose all sense of self-control, screaming and running around the riders like they’ve completely lost their minds.

The riders battle through the crowds, fighting fatigue and their own mental demons, wrestling with each other as the tension rises and team rivalries start to spill over. Bodies are forced to the absolute max, as riders begin to drop off one by one, ultimately leaving one rider who can grind it out to the line pushing past everyone else, pushing past all the pain, fatigue and aching limbs to say screw you all, I am the strongest today. I am the strongest despite the ultimate test of hell you just put me through.

Fail to make the time cut, don’t bother coming back tomorrow. If you do, you get to go home, rest up and come back tomorrow and do it all again. And every other day after that for the next 23 days.

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It’s the toughest endurance event on earth, without question. My own feelings on the Tour de France have always been that if you make it onto a Tour de France team and finish the three weeks, that in itself is a massive achievement. Putting aside placement or any thoughts of winning stages or, dare I say, one of the coveted jerseys. Just finishing the race – is HUGE.

This is a race with no sympathy. No room for moaners, wusses or posers. This race will weed out the weak and spit out the pretenders. It’s part of what makes this race truly great. It’s the hardest and the best of cyclists, competing against each other on some of the world’s toughest climbs across the French Alps, Pyrenees and Massive Centrale.

Brutal.

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I’ve wanted to go to the Tour de France ever since I read David Walsh’s book on Lance Armstrong – Seven Deadly Sins. Not for the reasons you might think! David wrote about driving around following the tour as a journalist from place to place, day after day and just being apart of the tour story. Feeling the drama as it unfolded around the French countryside.

This year, I went.

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I didn’t follow the tour for the full three weeks, because of work… and other boring reasons. I followed it for a week. I greeted the tour as if came into Pau, witnessing Marcel Kittel soar to victory in a sprint victory, before then moving eastwards to Rodez and Laissac. It was magic. The atmosphere in the french towns on the day the race was due to arrive was fantastic – pure joy and like the biggest parade you could imagine. Old and young come out, all day to line the streets and raise the atmosphere.

What You Can Expect Spectating at The Tour…

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You will stand for four-five hours under a hot sun if you want a good spot next to the barriers at the finish line… and you will only see the cyclists for five seconds (ish). If you’re clever, you pick a spot along the route with some sharp corners or on a climb where the riders are forced to slow. That way, it takes much longer for the riders to move past you and you get to see them for longer. Also, these spots are much less populated so you don’t need to arrive here until maybe 30 minutes before the peloton is due to arrive.

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You will get close enough to the cyclists after the race to hug them!

It’s good craic waiting for the race to arrive so don’t be put off by the long wait time. You can chat to the other people waiting and get to hear lots of good stories. There’s also the caravan which always arrives ahead of the peloton, which is basically a big parade. The finish line area also has lots of big screens showing the actual race, which you can watch as you wait. If you’re the chilled variety and are not fussed about being right next to the barriers, you can also bring a fold up chair, your book and a picnic and just sit at the side of the road and chill out until the race is about to arrive.

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The boys doing their cool-down bit. Bora’s Bodnar was THE break of the day, having been in the break from the beginning and then going solo from 25km from the line, he so nearly managed to hold off the peleton only to eventually be caught in the last 400m. Hate that!

My experience of being apart of the Tour de France was fantastic and I loved it. The atmosphere was definitely worth travelling for and is something special that I will always remember. And as for the south of France, in general, I’m happy to report that it was beautiful, relaxing and thoroughly enjoyable. In fact, I’m already thinking I may be making this trip an annual event.

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Tomorrow, Chris Froome will ride his bike from Montegron to Paris with a glass of champagne in hand, tipping his hat to his fourth Tour de France victory. This will be the fourth time he has proven himself to be the toughest, grittiest, strongest cyclist in the world.

Or just the most stubborn.

Making Your World Bigger

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I live in a small world.

I get up, put my cycling gear on and head out the door to work in Dublin. I do my work day, mostly in the office in the city centre and sometimes out and about around the country. At the end of the day, it’s back into the cycling gear, train home, make dinner, watch some TV and bed. Gym one or two evenings a week and I also venture out to the Dublin suburbs to stay with my Grandad one or two evenings too.

At weekends, I’m also pretty boring – long cycles around Kildare, Meath, Laois or out towards the Wicklow mountains. Then it’s food, meeting up with friends for coffee around Kildare or doing something nice with my cousin and my little goddaughter. I drink about 5 times a year and go out on the town even less than that. I love a good night out and getting my dance on, but the opportunities are few and far between these days with most of my friends (who I would do these things with!) having moved away or emigrated.

But I’m also the kind of person who is quite happy in myself and mostly content in my own company – reading, cooking, going to the cinema, following sports, whatever. I’ve always been good at keeping myself entertained and finding something to do.

I love my little world. It reassures me in many ways and I feel lucky to have somewhere I feel safe and somewhere I can call home.

But lately, I have started to feel like my world is too small and I have this itch to break out and blow it wide open – run in every direction and see where it takes me – let it tear me down, re-design me and build me back up, one foreign brick at a time.

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Breaking Out

I was lucky enough to be given a last minute opportunity at work to go to Scotland for a week to take part in a work-related course. I jumped at it – to my surprise more than anyone else’s… I am such a person of routine – I make the same things for dinners, for lunches and supper – I do much the same things every day of the week – but when given the opportunity to drop it all and have a whole week of newness and the unknown, I didn’t even hesitate.

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Funky building in a park in Hamilton where I went for a wee walk

I had a great week in Scotland, despite a wee bit of rain 😉

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Big building in Hamilton, Scotland where I was for the week

I met loads of great people with incredible experience, who were a joy to meet and get to know.

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I didn’t take any pics as I was driving, but this cool looking island could be seen all along the coastal drive and it was amazing looking!

I saw a whole new country with stunningly beautiful scenery.

I felt free.

This trip reminded me of what life is about and what my soul really wants. I forget this. I forget because the day-to-day needs and foggery gets in the way, clouds my view and makes me forget. It forces my soul to submit, conform and behave.

But I don’t want to conform anymore.

I want to be bold, break out and live in the big, big world around me.

Tomrrow, I go to the south of France to see the Tour de France in person. First stop Biarritz, then on to Pau, Toulouse and Rodez. I can’t wait. Sun, tiny villages in the south of France, pro cyclists up close (and hopefully personal) and pure unadulterated freedom.

Freedom to roam, freedom to discover and freedom to just be me. Away from everything I know, all the crap and away from my little world into a much, much bigger one.

Cycling, Coffee, Cake &…Wind

Coffee

Go cycling, they said.

You’ll love it, they said.

When I first started cycling (in any sort of meaningful way, as opposed to a 5 minute jaunt to the shop…) it was with the local triathlon club. I figured I was very new to all this lycra and metal malarky and could benefit from some guidance and experience around me. After all… unlike running, when you’re on a bike you’re typically going much faster and the potential for becoming entangled in metal or wiped off the road is much greater. So tips from the experienced… most welcome!

As I quickly learned, apart from things like road etiquette, what gear you should be riding in and general tips about how to actually ride your bike (who knew?) , there are also a particular number of certainties that go hand in hand with cycling, which unless you have already been initiated into this clandestine little world, you never would have put together.

(I didn’t know anything of this cycling decorum so lest you too end up looking like a confused, gormless gobshite – like me – I suggest you read on!)

1. Coffee 

Every cyclist’s best friend and unapologetic indulgence.

Before a ride, multiple times during a ride and always, always AFTER a ride.

If you’re out cycling with a club, group or a buddy, be prepared for a nice stop at a cafe along the way. Good chance for a break during a long spin and it can be a welcome rest before heading off again. The caffeine is a helpful boost too – just ask Floyd Landis who infamously downed 15 cappuccinos in one sitting 😉

If you think cyclists are a very serious lot, think again. For a lot of cyclists, the coffee stops are the best part of cycling. I was once out with a small group of cyclists and it was pissing rain so I tabled the idea of forgetting the cafe stop and just cycling straight through to the end.

“Then what’s the point in all of this then?” said four disgusted faces.

 

2. Cake

Yes, actual cake. Butter, sugar, flour, eggs, whipped together and slathered in icing.

You might be forgiven for assuming all cyclists starve themselves and probably stick to a bare americano  or espresso on their coffee stops but no. Nearly every cyclist I’ve ever encountered will go for a pastry,  slice of cake, scone, whatever – without hesitation.

Most reckoned they’ve burned the calories and need a few more to fuel the next part of the ride. Most would be right. Granted, I’ve never been out on a ride with a grand tour rider but I like to think they eat cake too 🙂

Similar to a cyclist’s feelings on coffee stops, I get the feeling that most view the cake situation along the lines of sure, what’s the point in a long spin if there’s no cake?

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Cake honestly tastes much better when you’ve worked for it.

3. Wind

Nobody tells you about the wind. Nobody.

OMG, the friggin wind.

Before I started cycling, I ran. As a runner, I thought I was one with nature and the elements, frequently returning home from a run knowing exactly which way the wind was blowing and being in a position to compare wind strengths from day to day.

Now I look back and realise I knew nothing. Within the first 20 seconds of a ride, I’m immediately calculating which direction the wind is blowing from, estimating wind speeds and working out wind gusts. You feel the wind so much more when you’re seated up on a saddle and though I’m no expert, I expect the fact that you’re moving much faster on a bike than say, you would be while running means that there is a much greater wind resistance and it’s therefore a much greater factor.

The wind is huge in cycling and it can make your ride or… well, just make you want to dump the bike on the side of the road and curl up into a ball. No exaggeration.

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I cycled through this pretty little village of Dunsany today. Not relevant really, just pretty!

4. Social Bunch

Cyclists are the best. One of the reasons I love being a cyclist now is that I feel like I’ve joined a some kind of very cool secret society.

You go out for a spin and you spot a cyclist coming in the other direction. Never met him, never even seen him before, but I look up, give him a little wave and a smile and he likewise, lifts a hand from the handlebars and waves back, giving a respectful nod of the head.

This happens all the time with nearly every cyclist I come across on the road offering a smile, wave, respectful nod and sometimes a few words of hello. Not to sound naff, but it’s really quite lovely. Particularly nice at those moments when you’re feeling tired, bored, soaked to the skin or just otherwise want to turn around and go home – an encouraging greeting from a fellow road warrior can give you a nice little lift and spur you on a bit further.

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I don’t know what this face is, but I never know how to pose for a selfie. I may need training.

5. Chamois Cream and Underwear

I’ve saved the best till last.

What no one wants to talk about but what you MUST know about. Ignore this intell at your peril.

Most cyclists do not wear any underwear when they cycle. Two reasons – you can see the lining of the underwear under the lycra cycling shorts, which some find unfashionable/ unseemly. Secondly, wearing underwear can exacerbate the saddle sore situation…

When I first started cycling, I never had any problems with chafing or skin injuries anywhere on my body. Alas, when I started to crank up the frequency and duration of rides, I quickly became acquainted with what are commonly known as “saddle sores.”

Leg up, leg down, leg up, leg down… over and over and over again for 3+ hours, rubbing back and forth over the side of a saddle. Add a good splash of rain and sweat and you quickly have a recipe for skin abrasions. While on the saddle, you might feel a slight discomfort, but actually this is not the worst – what is worse is what comes afterwards.

Stand in a hot shower with fresh saddle sores and you’ll know all about it. Very similar to chafing injuries from running, except these ones are on your heiny and on the inside of the upper leg.

Because of the location of saddle sores, they can be very slow to heal because you cannot very well avoid sitting down completely. And if you’re like me, you’ll be back on the bike a day or two later again and more than likely end up re-aggravating the injuries once you start pedalling away again.

It’s a nasty circle, but the good news is that it can be avoided – mostly. Get yourself a jar of chamois cream, slather some around your shorts and may you never have saddle sores again!

I use Udderly Smooth Chamois Cream (with shea butter) which retails for about 10 euro (on wiggle.com). I only ever need to use a small amount owing to the coconut oil – like consistency, which means you get quite a lot of lubricating for quite a small amount.