An occasional series looking at the defining moments which explain why sport captivates us so much ...
In sport, you often hear competitors talk about “110 per cent effort” or similar to emphasise that they’ve given absolutely everything. While one might quibble over the mathematics of such a statement, it’s nonetheless a valid reminder that sportsmen and women do push their bodies to the very limit of their capabilities, and sometimes beyond.
Nowhere is such single-minded effort more necessary – or indeed more obvious - than it is every July at the Tour de France.
There’s something about the Tour that sets it apart. It provides the most strenuous examination possible of speed, stamina, strength and sheer obstinacy, with its long flat stages, savage mountain climbs, and against-the-clock time trials stretched over a gruelling three-week schedule.
To put this challenge into context, here are some basic facts and figures about the 2003 edition, which provides the setting for this post. That year’s race comprised 21 stages over 23 days, covering a total of 3,428km, roughly the same distance as Paris to Moscow. The furthest covered in one day was 231km (London to Cardiff), and the longest stage took over six hours to complete. En route, there were fifteen climbs higher than the peak of Ben Nevis, Britain’s tallest mountain. And at the end of it all, the race was won at an average speed of 41kph. At this pace, you would run the hundred metres nearly a second faster than Usain Bolt.
Three weeks. Two wheels. One living hell. Welcome to Le Tour. This is not an event you choose to participate in unless you are the hardest of masochistic hard men (or doped up to the eyeballs, but that’s an entirely different topic).
I can’t stress enough just how tough the Tour is to even complete, let alone win. It may share the same means of propulsion as a Sunday afternoon bike ride, but it has about as much in common with it as the marathon does with my walk home from the corner shop.
Over the years, the Tour has provided a plethora of memorable images and defining moments, many of them involving Lance Armstrong, the most successful Tour rider of all time. This is my favourite.
Tour de France, July 2003
No matter how good a climber you are, this is the kind of day you know is going to hurt in a way that no amount of training can truly prepare you for. Covering 160km and culminating in three major climbs – the Col d’Aspin (the warm-up act at a mere 1,489m above sea level), the Col du Tourmalet (2,114m) and finally the finish at the top of Luz-Ardiden (1,715m) – this is four-and-a-half hours of intense suffering for the very best; an extra thirty minutes or more for many others.
The American Lance Armstrong is seeking a fifth consecutive Tour victory, but he has not dominated this race in the manner of his previous wins, looking vulnerable in the Alps and conceding a massive 96 seconds to Jan Ullrich in the individual time trial three days earlier. His advantage over the German is now a wafer-thin 15 seconds, with Alexandre Vinokourov just three seconds further behind. Armstrong’s objective today is simple, at least on paper: build his slim cushion over Ullrich and Vinokourov, ideally to a minute or more, ahead of the potentially decisive second time trial.
The slopes of Luz-Ardiden are to be the battleground for Lance Armstrong’s last stand.
Four hours into the stage, the leading riders are bunched together at the foot of the final climb. They are watching each other, waiting for the attack they know must come soon.
Sure enough, the yellow jersey eases into position at the head of the group, the orange-shirted Spaniard Iban Mayo and Ullrich at his shoulder, the others a few metres further back. And then suddenly, inexplicably, Armstrong’s bike twitches violently and he crashes to the ground, taking Mayo with him. (TV replays will later show his handlebars had caught the straps of a spectator’s bag.)
A second passes, then two, then three. Is his bike broken? How badly is he hurt? Is it all over for Lance Armstrong – just like that?
The wait is excruciating, like watching a jelly-legged boxer struggling to beat the referee’s count. Ullrich and the other leading riders cycle past. Armstrong is clearly dazed and shaken as he picks himself up and rights his bike, pausing to refit his chain before setting off in pursuit. A TV camera zooms in on his bleeding elbow, then pans up to his face. His wide-eyed, adrenaline-fuelled fury tells you everything you need to know: I will not let it end like this!
Armstrong strains every sinew to regain the lost ground, but not without one further flirtation with disaster. Charging up the mountain in pursuit - out of the saddle, standing on the pedals, maximum effort - his right foot slips out of the pedal, and he lurches forward precariously, his balance utterly compromised. For a moment it looks as if he’s either going to lose his manhood on the bike frame or else come off his machine altogether. Fortunately he does neither. He instinctively catches himself, regains his balance, and quickly slots his foot back into the pedal. A hiccup, no more.
At this point, any ordinary human would probably be content to thank their lucky stars and follow the pack to the finish. But professional cyclists are not ordinary humans, and Lance Armstrong is no ordinary cyclist. He has been in this situation – hunted, disrespected, written off as lacking a winner’s quality – before, and he knows what to do.
The leading group is now back together again, and almost immediately Mayo launches an attack, his tired legs developing an instant burst of speed in an attempt to put a decisive gap between him and the others. Armstrong’s response is immediate, surging forward to catch the Spaniard’s breakaway, and then without pause for breath he does what he has always done best – launch an attack himself. A devastating burst of acceleration, a quick look over the shoulder to see if anyone can respond - they can’t - and he’s away, a yawning gap opening up rapidly behind him: five seconds, fifteen, thirty …
Literally and figuratively, Lance Armstrong never looked back again. He finished 40 seconds ahead of the rest that day, but it might as well have been 40 minutes. The war was not yet won, but the key battle had been.
Put firmly on the back foot, Ullrich would go on to crash in a torrential downpour during the final time trial in a desperate attempt to make up time, confirming Armstrong’s fifth Tour de France victory. The American would go on to win the next two Tours; Ullrich would never get as close again.
Armstrong’s stirring fight-back on Luz-Ardiden was potentially the difference between him losing his stranglehold on the world’s greatest bike race and becoming its most successful ever participant. On such critical, defining moments are sporting legends made.
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3 years ago