Racing Butterflies

16 Jul

The pros are missing out. Watching them on TV you get very little sense of the extraordinary speed they race up Tour de France hills. With their gaze fixed on the brake bridge ahead of them they rev like spin dryers up gradients the rest of us find it tough to walk, and all in a gear ratio the rest of use for flat training spins.

It really beggars belief and only experiencing it first-hand gives you any sense of the gulf that exists between fit but talent-free amateurs and the elite of cycle sport. Still, you’ve got to feel a bit sorry for them.

They scream around France for three weeks every July and none of them really has a clue where they are at any given moment, their minds instead focused on the bike in front and a never ending series of calculations about distance to the top of the next hill, to the finish, time to the group ahead, to the group behind etc, etc.

The privilege they enjoy as members of an exclusive club of competitors in what is always referred to as the world’s biggest annual sporting event comes at a price: only the slow amateurs who make the pilgrimage to the mountain passes the pros use as the pulpits for sermons of circular motion can truly sense the beauty of the extraordinary surroundings.

There was plenty of time to contemplate the truth of this unremarkable notion as I plodded up the Col du Noyer a few days ago ahead of Stage 10. A few hours after my meandering ascent of what the tour organisers classified as a Category Two climb, Nicolas Roche hared away from the slumbering pack and glided up the hill in the big chain ring in what was probably the fastest ascent of the day

For me a 39×25 seemed more appropriate and as I ploughed a 23 centimetre furrow through the melted tar with only the local butterflies for company. Only the fittest and most committed butterflies could stay with the searing pace I set but there was still plenty of time for us to share the beautiful secret about what for most of the year is a fairly anonymous tarmac track in the midst of some pretty amazing topography.

For an hour last Wednesday there was no more beautiful place on planet earth and the dizzying reality of it almost made me fall off the side. The butterflies were in on the deal, though, and they kept me upright as I zig-zagged to the top like a drunk at closing time.

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