Saturday, July 2, 2011

Hills of the West Coast Report: It's Tour Time!

Route: Tibbets Park/East Lake Sammamish/SE 24th climb/212th/Louis Thompson climb/Inglewood/Sahalee climb/Inglewood/208th climb/Union Hill/Snoqualmie Valley/Fall City/SE 40th climb/Highland climb Miles: 62.6 Climbing: 3943’ Participants: 11 Attrition Rate: 2 plus Ian’s mechanical and 1 early departure *Special Clydesdale Cima Coppi: Kevin M

Today was the first day of the Tour de France. For the last year, many of the riders have thought of not much else than these next three weeks. It must really suck to be anyone other than the strongest rider in the Tour. It must even kind of suck to be that guy.

I could train for the next year with nothing else in mind other than becoming a strong enough climber to hold Ian L’s wheel on a single climb. I could invest in an oxygen tent, hire a team of the best coach’s in the world, and count every gram of food that goes into my body. I could fill his top tube with sand and it’s still not possible that I could stay with him. This is simply an unachievable goal. On top of that, a year from now, I’ll be another year older and Ian will be another year stronger, because he is still in that age range.

While Ian is light years stronger than me, that’s certainly not the case at the top level of professional cyclists participating in the Tour. All it takes to make a difference at that level is one or two percent, ignoring the potential advantages of blood doping, etc. As I watch Ian ride away on a climb, there is no sense of loss or remorse on my part, no sense of frustration, and no sense of anger. It’s not just that I’m really not that competitive on a friendly ride; I fully grasp that it is not possible for me to stay with Ian.

Now put yourself in the shoes of the General Classification contending Tour riders on the first climb of any significance. These guys are going to be looking at each other and listening to the breathing around them, searching for any sign of fear or weakness. Yes, fear, because these riders have been training for the last year not knowing if they can go with this guy or that guy. Somewhere in the bunch will be someone breathing through their mouth and looking as cool as a cucumber. Phil and Paul may not talk about it, and even if the group stays together on that first climb, many of those riders will already realize that they are not capable of winning the Tour, barring unforeseen developments. There will be the strongest rider, and then there will be everybody else, and the strongest rider always wins the Tour. You would have to be delusional to believe otherwise.

The camera will zoom in on the rider’s faces, and they will do their best not to show any emotion. One or more of them will likely secretly wish that he could pull over and cry in frustration. After all, he has just spent the last year focusing on something that he learns in a split second is impossible. And even if the strongest rider believes he is the strongest rider, he will still have a knot in his stomach and moments of doubt. It’s far from ironclad that he will win; after all, he’s not light years stronger than his competitors. What pressure on these riders!

In tournament golf, if a player is six shots behind with six holes to play, he still has a chance. He could finish strongly, and the leader could “choke” and lose the tournament. That’s not the way it works in endurance sports. Yes, there are variables. Some riders recover faster than others, some can climb great but not time trial, but the bottom line is that anyone other than the strongest rider normally will not win the Tour.

Yes, those pros are sure incredible, and as I discussed in my last blog about this year’s Chelan Century, the rate at which these people climb is astounding. But you don’t have to climb at 6000’ per hour to be astounding. At 40 years of age and weighing in at 220#, Kevin M is the strongest “Clydesdale” climber I have ever seen. When I think of the term Clydesdale, I think of someone who, while they may be capable of pulling like a locomotive on the flats, rides most climbs like they are towing a piano on a trailer. Not Kevin, who must possess one hell of an engine under the hood. I couldn’t keep up with him even on the steepest climbs where the weight penalty is the greatest. I’m a little embarrassed to think about how much less I weight than Kevin. Not often do I witness a battle against gravity as impressive as I saw today.

Back on Planet Earth, the seven remaining members of our group settled down into a nice rhythm. Heading south through the Snoqualmie Valley, we had our own little Team Time Trial, albeit at quite a bit below a full out effort level. We took 5-10 second pulls, similar to the pure rotating pacelines you will see tomorrow on TV. Can you imagine riding in a rotating paceline with everyone absolutely on the rivet? No wonder there is often carnage during those events. I can hardly wait for tomorrow’s Tour stage-just kidding! It’s not like I’ll be watching the Indy 500. Actually, I’ll be looking for any signs of weakness when the camera zooms in on the riders. For me, that might be the most interesting part of the tour, because I think the suspense will be over long before the riders roll into Paris.

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