Posts Tagged ‘Thor Hushovd’

Confessions of a Tour de France Virgin: On Cyclists’ Psychology & Stage 4 Cambrai – Reims

July 8, 2010

With a workaday route for stage four, and no major upsets, it seems now is a good idea to offer some brief, and scientific reflections on cyclists’ psychology before the mountain stages, which I presume will offer a whole new avenue of inquiry on the crazy ways which the pros think. Broadly speaking, cyclists are crazy. Or at least, they have a mindset that leaves them utterly outside of normality. Other endurance sports just don’t compare to a Grand Tour. Up and down mountains, over one hundred miles a day, every day, for weeks. This doesn’t exist anywhere in sport; it doesn’t exist anywhere outside of sport. And it must hurt. It must have you want to cry. Why do it then?

I won’t even try to offer an answer for this question because nothing definitive presents itself. Of course, the sense of achievement at simply finishing must be a motivating factor for some, especially since so many cyclists are not racing to win. But for every amicable trier, you get a character like Mark Cavendish. Bent on winning the green jersey, the sense of achievement at finishing the whole Tour doesn’t seem such a major attraction for him; there was suggestion yesterday that he may drop out if his abysmal points score doesn’t improve; yet he enters endurance races like le Tour rather than just track cycling or shorter events. If the achievement of endurance isn’t a motivating factor for him, why bother?

Mark Cavendish attacking Petacchi after losing the Stage 4 sprint (artist's impression)

What seems to remain true of all these cyclists though is a disconnect with the real world which allows them to finish stages. They seem practically impervious to pain, finishing stages with fractures, looking like they might be entering shock and then jumping on teammates bikes, bleeding and cycling, never stopping. I would even speculate that this comes with a hallucinatory separation from the real world, as is manifested by the seemingly genuine belief in conspiracy theories that exists amongst the field: that bikes are being fitted with miniature engines, that the race organisers are out to hurt them as much as possible and so on. Witness too the complete lack of social skills that most of these guys seem to have. Yes this can be attributed to their exhaustion, but does not this hallucinatory nature come from exhaustion too? Does the multitude of locales in such a short time make everything seem less real, more real, neither? Does the presentation of huge fluffy teddy bears by two beautiful women and a group of men in ill-fitting tie-less suits make riders feel like they have any more a realistic grip on reality? Do cyclists even notice the surroundings that I have waxed lyrical about? Do they ever go insane?

These questions will perhaps play themselves out in the mountains, for Stage Four was a little dull. No big crashes, no terror of the cobbles, and a deeply unsatisfying sprint finish. I missed the highlights so I only saw the action of about the last 70km. Even the countryside, though pretty, was a little boring; the most interesting thing I learnt today was that people in the north-east of France just can’t get enough of carp fishing, though Reims Cathedral was, of course, majestic.

Reims Cathedral

The main interest for me then, lay in the breakaway group that led for the most of the stage. There seems to have been no real mention of them in the press coverage of the stage, and so I’m afraid I’m unable to give their names. The amount of time the peloton took to reel them in defied all the commentators expectations and as they hit the series of roundabouts in the last 5km, I wondered whether they wouldn’t just manage to retain their lead, especially if there had been a crash amongst the lead pursuers.
The relatively prosaic nature of this stage also afforded an excellent view of team tactics in the run-up to the sprint, with elbows out, teams jostling for position and this balletic movement across the road as groups separated and converged organically. The movement of cyclists in le Tour can probably be calculated with the golden ratio. Then Alessandro Petacchi  won. Sometimes the run-up to the sprint is more interesting than the sprint itself.

Would you have tried to console Cavendish after he failed?
Will Cavendish’s anger improve his performance?
Should the wearer of le maillot jaune be crowned like French royalty in Rheims cathedral?
What’s more boring – facts about the Dutch countryside or facts about carp fishing?

The Guardian’s write-up of Stage Four

Next time: Stage Five Epernay – Montargis. By the looks of things, a tiring stage, though there should be plenty of fascinating Francophile information as le Tour hits Champagne country.


Confessions of a Tour de France Virgin: Watching Live & Stage 3 Wanze – Arenberg-Porte du Hainaut

July 7, 2010

Sinner that I am, I expected live cycling to be boring, like motor racing only slower. Sure, the highlights would be good, capturing those moments of drama that derive from the human failings of mind and muscle, rather than the dull mechanical tinkering for the prize of split seconds that Formula 1 consists of. But live? Endless pedaling, gritted teeth, inclines so interminable it feels more like trying to bike to the next village in the Yorkshire Dales than watching the pros glide effortlessly uphill like the world’s been turned on its head. Of course I was wrong.

You still need a good book, or a magazine, or a laptop to fiddle with. There are boring bits, endless advertisement breaks, dodgy shots of nothing in particular (just how do men on the back of motorbikes manage to wield cameras so effectively?). But watching live allows you to experience more directly everything that is weird, but somehow strangely obvious, about an endurance event like Le Tour, and often these flashes of the surreal are the sort of things that get edited out of the highlights in favour of the high excitement of a sprint finish or a huge pile-up. The race doctor leaning out of a car window cleaning up the face of a bleeding cyclist, the inexplicable absurdity of the motorcade weaving in and out of the race, the shifting of the peloton as tactics change. No doubt this is all run of the mill to the seasoned viewer but to the newcomer it is charming.

And more: the French graphics on screen, proudly imposing francophone pictures onto the rest of the world in one of the few chances France has to insist on its cultural superiority on the global stage. The French words used being simple enough to provide no real problems, but still amusing in its insistence of calling the lead rider ‘Tete de la cours” rather than providing his name, giving the trailing time of the “groupe poursuivant”, seeming to conduct any press business in French and leaving the English commentators to provide rudimentary translations.

Watching live allows the extra fascination of seeing what goes on outside the race too. Odd glimpses of little villages, aerial views into peoples back gardens, tracksides lined with whole settlements and tourists who would never have thought of visiting except for le Tour and now immersed in some backwater, sharing what exactly with who? Just cycling?

Best of all, the shots of chateaux and little villages, churches and 19th century boulevards, canal locks and lazy rivers, their names in French on the bottom of the screen, the commentators giving facts about them which they awkwardly try to link to the action: “Fine Louis XV woodwork – not exactly what Lance Armstrong needs right now”, “The hometown of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot but the field is not nearly as complex as one of her mysteries”, or even (I imagine though le Tour does not hit Normandie this year), “I’m not sure Schleck camembert it any longer”. I said that the francophone pictures are all about France asserting its cultural superiority, but the whole nature of le Tour is not simply about cycling; it’s about being shown a carnival and pageant of French life which is impossibly more picturesque and fascinating that anything else on summer television, and all as a backdrop to the truly glamorous sport of cycling (which will itself be the subject of a later column).

Chest beating like the Norse God he is.

It is the cycling that remains to be spoken of, however, and Stage Three certainly didn’t disappoint. From Wanze to Arenberg-Porte du Hainault, the chief attraction was, of course, the cobbles. The rain didn’t materialise but they still looked truly fearsome to ride over. Often the view was entirely obscured by dust and most riders finished the day looking like they’d been working down a mine. On top of this, the roads were often barely five feet wide, surrounded by baying crowds, and with huge gaps down the middle, waiting to swallow a front wheel like a hungry road monster.

Frank Schleck became the first major casualty of the race, flying off the cobbles into a ditch before being surrounded by fussy Belgians. I wouldn’t like to speculate what part of his ordeal was the worst. My sympathy lay mostly though with Chavanel who, despite his significant lead, lost le maillot jaune as he entered his home country after a series of punctures. He just didn’t seem to have it in him after yesterday’s effort to catch up with the pursuing group, unlike Armstong’s frankly superhuman effort to catch back up with the field.

Thor Husovd’s chest beating provided one of the best TV moments of the day, pulling a face like the god from which he takes his name. But the real drama came not on the cobbles themselves, but in the run-up to the cobbles, where the sense of panic amongst the peloton is truly palpable. The jockeying for positions seemed nothing short of terrified, such is the fear that the cobblestones seem to instil in even hardened professional cyclists. I couldn’t understand why this fear manifested itself in needing to be at the front of the field. Surely, thought I, if you’re likely to fall off, you want to be nearer the back where everybody hurtling along behind you won’t squash you. No doubt I would have continued to be confused if I’d only watched the highlights, but I realised that going along the cobbles means no overtaking, and it’s so slow and unpredictable that the peloton breaks up into a string. If you’re at the back, you just end up further and further back. And then it all clicked why the cobbles might decide le Tour. Still, Geraint Thomas might even catch Cancellara’s lead of 23 seconds today if he gets going along what should be a short and very fast stage.

What is your favourite pun involving an aspect of cycling and French culture?

Have you ever seen something you shouldn’t in an aerial view of a Belgian’s back garden?

Can Geraint Thomas wear le maillot jaune before the mountain stages?

Have you ever cycled over cobbles?

The Guardian rounds up the day’s action

Next time:

An interested layman psychoanalyses professional cyclists and Stage Four, the first stage run exclusively in REAL FRANCE, Cambrai – Reims.

And a quick recommendation of The armchair sports fan who is providing far more articulate and informed opinion on le Tour than me, as well as offering some interesting comments on these very pages.

I can be followed on Twitter @Svejky