On 7 July the Tour de France began in Dunkirk. Lance Armstrong, who won in 1999 and 2000, has called it ‘a contest of purposeless suffering’. Cycling more than two thousand miles (many of them mountainous) in 21 days is as brutal a challenge as sport can offer. To meet it the human body is treated like a machine – the engine of the bike/body vehicle. The rider’s performance depends crucially on metabolic efficiency – on the relation of input fuel (oxygen, food and water) to output muscle power. Fuel-foods, such as pasta and carbohydrate-loaded drinks, are the chief inputs. Asker Jeukendrup, a Dutch expert on carbohydrate and fat metabolism, uses the cheeseburger as a unit to describe calorific intake. Inputs equivalent to 28 cheeseburgers a day fuel the rider during a mountain stage and he will also take in 10 litres of water (and sweat most of it out). His metabolism is monitored like a racing car engine. It is possible, for example, for a rider’s pulse rate to be broadcast back to the team car, and for the team manager to send on instructions about tactics and the optimum pedalling rate. Not surprisingly, there are riders who complain that they are treated like automata. It isn’t surprising either that the Tour’s great human dramas take place on the mountain stages where the riders’ capacities are tested to the limits – of the energy equation, of the individual metabolism, of the pain threshold, and of whatever the brain-triggered hormonal system can do to push at them.

The Tour’s dramas can’t be separated from its scandals, which centre on the use of drugs to push at these limits. This is the only sport, so far as I know, where many competitors and some commentators actually say (rather than just believe) that without pharmaceutical assistance their competition could not exist at all. But no amount of drug-taking can produce some of the advantages that nature hands out for free. When Lance Armstrong was 16 he was given a vo2 test, which measures how much oxygen the body can take in and use. His score is still the highest recorded in the institution where he was tested. His body also produces exceptionally low levels of lactic acid – the substance which makes muscles sore after exercise. The Colombian rider Santiago Botero, who has worn the red polka-dot King of the Mountains jersey, had only done nine days of road-racing as an amateur when he was taken on as a professional by the Kelme team on the basis of a spectacular vo2 test.

Body shape is important too. When Armstrong recovered from the testicular cancer which nearly killed him, he discovered that ‘it had completely reshaped my body. I had a much sparer build. In the old photographs I looked like a football player with my thick neck and big upper body … The result was a lightness I’d never felt on a bike before.’ As a rule small men win in the mountains and bigger men power ahead in the time trials. This is no longer so obviously the case, but Armstrong was certainly moving towards a perfect mean. It was post-cancer that he won his first Tour.

Then there is aerodynamics. Although tiny reductions in air resistance can make a real difference in a sport where performances are separated by fractions of a second, and a narrower wheel and a shaped helmet also have their uses, weight is more important than wind resistance when riding up a mountain, and when hurtling down the other side, a lower crouch over the handlebars will have more effect on your speed than anything you can do to the profile of the machine.

What makes a big difference on the flat – figures of 20 to 30 per cent are quoted – is slipstreaming. The man in front has to work much harder than the man behind, and it is this fact which turns the Tour into a team sport. In individual time trials, all depends on the single rider; in the mountains (where a slipstream has least effect) exceptional riders can break away, but on the flat a big group sharing the work can usually catch up with a man out on his own. When a breakaway does succeed it will have been made by a race leader and his team, but only if the competition has slipped up and let him get away. In general you protect your lead rider best by keeping him steadily ahead of the competition, not by chasing a one-off run for glory: you let the maverick have his day. The maverick will, of course, also be a member of a team but attrition in the race is fierce – the newspaper proprietor who founded it rather hoped only a single rider would get through. As the number of riders finishing outside the time limit begins to cut down the field you see that merely to finish the Tour is a high achievement.

From the start the Tour was a professional, commercial contest – and it looks it. The cyclists, tied to sponsorship deals, must have their upper bodies given over to advertising via jerseys blazoned with logos. Amateurs now buy these professional strips. In France you see plump middle-aged men dressed in full racing kit. The aesthetic of cycling, the moulding of body and machine into a single, astonishingly efficient unit has something in common with the kind of engineering which covers maximum space with minimum material. The tubular frame, chain drive, wheels and sprockets which make up a bike are not elegant in themselves, but the effort to make every part as light and responsive as possible, the paring down of material – resulting in differences which are only really brought home to you when you pick up an expensive road bike and find how light it is – is the sort of thing which glues men’s noses to shop windows.

Condor Cycles, Gray’s Inn Road, London

Condor Cycles in the Gray’s Inn Road has as mixed a clientele as you can imagine. A young woman fits herself up for a touring holiday; sweating cycle messengers hover, and, outside, three youngish men in City suits have the relative virtues of mountain bikes pointed out. There are jerseys – the polka dots, the green, the yellow and team jerseys. And there are the parts. No one makes a whole bike: you build it. Looking through the magazines for top gear, I found I could have a carbon fibre frame just like Armstrong’s for under £2000, Shimano chain-set and gears, carbon fibre handlebars, the pedals, saddle, stem and seat column of my choice for a couple of thousand more. For me to build a body to match the gear was never remotely within the realms of possibility. Wrong lungs, wrong legs, wrong heart, wrong brain, wrong boredom threshold. Going back to Condor to take the picture shown here I find the grill is down, but behind it the three winners’ jerseys – the green (points) the polka dots (King of the Mountains) and the yellow (overall winner) – are there, side by side, as they will be on the podium in Paris later this month. To wear one of them seems a bit like pinning on false medal ribbons, but it can be read as a tribute, too, from fan to hero – and also, perhaps, as evidence of the amateur’s need to get as close as he can to the feel of the real thing. The active imitation that derives from passive admiration and sells billions worth of endorsed clubs, balls, racquets, boots and basketballs, as well as bikes and jerseys, is the most honourable kind of imitation.

In Armstrong’s recent biography (Yellow Jersey, £8), pain is the common element in the juxtaposed stories of his cancer treatment and cycling career. The British rider Tom Simpson, who died climbing Mont Ventoux in the 1967 Tour, enters the mythology as a hero falling in battle rather than the victim of a sporting accident. The aesthetics of the bicycle, like that of swords and armour, intimately mixes the heraldic and the efficient, wonderful craftsmanship and brutal physical demands. The spectrum is, of course, wide. In my cycling magazine I notice an advertisement for saddles. There are versions for men and women of the blade-like racing variety; broader, comfortable, padded numbers are labelled as being for ladies and gentlemen.

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