“Today we enter the Circle of Death”
Sixty bikes, lovingly cleaned and pampered, stand poised in the garage of the Hotel Parc Beaumont in Pau. This morning they will be taken boldly into the ‘Circle of Death’ by a group of very determined amateur riders, nearly half of whom have ridden every stage so far of this years’ Tour de France route.
Many of the other riders have joined us for the last five stages that will take us all into Paris in a few days’ time. Long days though! This mix of ‘Lifers’ (those riding the whole thing) and ‘Dippers’ (those joining for a taster pack) is potentially quite a volatile one: road-weary bodies and minds, hardened but fatigued by the intensity of long days in the saddle, insufficient sleep and pre-stage transfers are having their bubble burst by a potentially unhelpful invasion of testosterone and naïve enthusiasm from the Johnny-Fresh-Legs! As the organizer, with each wave of new arrivals my challenge is to channel this influx of energy into a positive and supportive vehicle to help carry the Lifers, not crush them.
The affect of this regular change in the group-dynamic on the Tour de Force, and the broad range of cycling abilities that makes up our field, is the elemental key when trying to define what makes this event so special. The riding is almost ‘anti-performance’, and yet all cyclists here are discovering pure cycling day after day.
Their lives are cycling. Their existence is defined by a very simple list of close parameters: eat, cycle, unpack, wash, eat, pack, sleep. Start again. Sometimes an interlude of stepping onto a coach for a couple of hours or maybe having time, at the end of the day, to down the occasional beer in a gesture of overdue celebration. Three weeks of this is a very unique, but disorienting experience. Bodies become incredibly fit; minds numb; friendships intense; emotions high.
To see a strong rider ‘sacrifice’ a morning of fast, thrilling riding in order to keep a slower back-rider company and see them through an hour or two, sends a wave of positive energy throughout the entire group. One rider’s actions can benefit or make problems for the whole group. There has been much sacrifice on the road over the last 15 days. Feelings regularly go beyond the emotional, often touching the spiritual.
We have come over the Grand Colombier, the Madeleine, the Croix de Fer and the Granier in our passage through the Alps. We have swept across the windy plains of Northern France and Belgium. We shook with cold, soaked in the Swiss Jura, and have been baked in the midday sun of the Languedoc. We climbed the Port de Lers in mountain mist before battling with the Mur de Peguerre.
Finally, yesterday we yo-yo’d our way across the Gers to arrive here in Pau where the Giants of the Pyrenees are hiding behind a thick curtain of grey cloud, waiting for us to meet them. We are all ready, each with their own body armour. We will need to help one and other, but these 15 days have prepared us well.
No stage has been easy. But the harder the stage, the louder the conversation and laughter has been in the evenings. The sweet music of victory. There were a lot of nervous souls in Liege at the start, gutsy people who dared put themselves in front of a massive test of body and mind. The youngest is 23, the oldest 68. None have abandoned yet. They have ridden through knee pain, back pain, ‘seat’ pain and many have cried tears of joy on the long climbs. We all know how lucky we are to be able to do this.
There can be no greater way to celebrate our sport and to grasp a beginning of an understanding of what it must be like to actually race this thing. Tomorrow we head into the heart of the Pyrenees with many faces we cannot put names to, but we will all be instantly bound by the deepest love of our sport and of the opportunities it is about to give us in our lives. Vive le Velo. Vive le Tour.
*Phil ‘the Goat’ Deeker is the creator of the Cent Cols Challenge and ride leader of the Tour de Force, a ride for amateurs following the route of the Tour de France one week ahead of the pros.*
Don’t forget you can enter our challenge – Rapha Rising: Circle of Death, beginning next Wednesday as the pros enter the Pyrenees.