Parasailing, pot-holing, the luge: even those sporting activities that appear to require no skill invariably demand an abundance of human qualities that I might only hope to acquire if the Wizard of Oz was in a particularly generous mood. But we can all ride a bike. We have all known what it is to grind agonisingly up a steep hill and freewheel madly down the other side. In its unique dual capacity as mode of transport and childhood accessory, the bicycle has played a formative role in all our lives.
But thinking back, I find that my cycling memories are imbued less with a nostalgic sepia glow than a stark fluorescent glare of fear and failure. Reading the back cover of Rough Ride, the autobiography of former Irish professional cyclist Paul Kimmage, I feel profoundly chastened. Describing a portentous first ride at the age of 6, Kimmage fondly recalls his father immediately removing the stabilisers before plonking his son on the saddle and pushing him off across the car park in front of their Dublin flat. "I wobbled, but basically had no trouble and was delighted with myself." Replace "trouble" with "balance", and "delighted with myself" with "repeatedly injured," and you have the encapsulation of my own debut.
I lived in the tricycle age for far too long, squeaking about Walpole Park on a maroon three-wheeler, its capacious tin boot flamboyantly emblazoned with a royal coat of arms my father had mysteriously acquired from somewhere. It may be that in this fashion I appeared a ghastly little ponce. After all, I hadn't learned to ride without that shaming third wheel until I was almost 8, being pushed again and again across our back garden on a hand-me-down girl's bike by an increasingly frustrated mother. I was not a natural. I lacked the reckless bravado that propelled other boys to pedal across Ealing Common with their arms ostentatiously aloft, or, worse, nonchalantly folded.
My first real bike was an ancient machine whose name had a stolid, Empire twang, something like Wayfarer or Valiant, and whose cast-iron forthrightness of design you could never quite shake off by removing the mudguards and fitting a pair of cowhorn handlebars. I should by rights have aspired to a Raleigh Chopper, but then Tomas Kozlowski got one, and seeing those already burgeoning Slavic buttocks unappealingly cleaved by that slender bench saddle I understood with a youthful prescience of which I am still quietly proud that Raleigh Choppers were laughably awful. So it was with Valiant between my pistoning young knees that I breathlessly eluded park-keepers seeking to enforce the new "Sling Your Hook, Eddy Merckx" no-cycling rule; his were the wheels that shot across mad Mrs. Lewis's feet and prompted her to send my parents an admonitory letter that famously included the word "delinquent". My Valiant was there outside Gunnersbury Park when a trainee psychopath treated me to my first encounter with a number of other new but much shorter words; there too when, perhaps four seconds later, I accepted that fondly remembered inaugural smack in the mouth.
A succession of inherited shopping models followed, and I had to wait until my sixteenth birthday for my first new bicycle, a ten-speed racer of East German origin. On the way to pick it up, my poor father felt obliged to usher his youngest son into manhood with a dilatory lecture on birth prevention, one whose more poignant euphemisms would recur to me whenever I rode it thereafter. Mercifully almost every component shattered, buckled or split within weeks - I had never previously thought of corrosion as a process you could actually sit down and watch happen. On the other hand, its demise did mean that the balance of those important mid-teenage years was spent wobbling about on my father's foldable Bickerton.
My girlfriend at that time, in fact my wife at this time, had a recurring dream in which I would pedal away from her house naked on the Bickerton. If I tell you that the Bickerton resembled two dwarf unicycles clumsily welded together you will understand that this was not an erotic dream. The Bickerton was a ludicrous machine with the handling characteristics of a human pyramid. Its unique selling point was portability, an asset summarised by a long-running television commercial in which a haughty executive defied a platform full of generously trousered commuters to snigger as he laboriously hauled a huge sack of metallic angles through the ticket barrier, chased and chivvied by taunting voiceover whispers of "Bickerton! Bickerton!"
Nevertheless, as it became difficult to affect the piping tenor necessary to procure a child ticket from ever more sceptical bus conductors, so the Bickerton's social utility increased. I began riding it to pubs and parties, generally returning well-lit and yet, in a hilarious twist of irony, without lights. I crashed into road works and garden fences, and finally broke the Bickerton's back in the grand manner, careering into a parked car with such force that I snapped his number plate in half and ended up on the roof.
It was long years before I cycled again, so long that I almost forgot how to ride. Attending an auction of unclaimed stolen property I felt sorry for a conspicuously pre-teenage girl's bicycle and acquired it for three quid; after a stimulating exchange of views with my wife Birna concerning the practical worth of this item I committed myself to riding it to and from my place of work, the offices of Teletext Ltd.
Six months on, a commuter's familiarity with my route was beginning to breed contempt, and one bright summer's morning I spectacularly overcooked it coming into the Old Ship chicane. Arriving at work with the coagulation process still very much an ongoing one, I was summoned to an impromptu meeting with senior management. Bleeding without permission was added to a catalogue of similar outrages against corporate discipline and four minutes later I was being escorted from the premises. This was a shame, for as well as stymieing a well-developed plan to substitute the main Teletext menu with an animated graphic of an ejaculating penis on 24.7 million television screens across the land, it meant I also faced the demanding challenge of storming furiously past the assembled terminators of my contract on a little pink bicycle.
When the girl's bike was stolen from outside my house, probably by Birna, it had already decayed into a state that would have made for a drawn-out round of Animal, Vegetable or Mineral; its eventual replacement, a brakeless old Peugeot touring bike bought from a man who I'm fairly certain hadn't paid for it, was used only as occasional urban transport for the slightly drunk. I'd hit 30 and had never successfully repaired a puncture, overtaken anything faster than a milk float or ridden hands-off without eating kerb. The faint, arthritic squiggle that was my career path as a cyclist had slipped unnoticed off the bottom axis.
That is until I arrived in the north Icelandic town of Blonduos at 9:32 p.m. on 28 June 1997. It's difficult to imagine cycling across Europe's second-largest desert by mistake, but this seemed the only fair description of the events of that day and its three predecessors. In the company of Birna's brother Dilli I emerged from two-wheeled retirement in glorious fashion, traversing the land of my in-laws on a day-trip that somehow ran out of control into a critic-confounding odyssey. During those long, lonely hours watching Dilli on my forward horizon as he squinted around to locate me on his hindward one, I had found myself mumbling an epic commentary, a tale of water-carriers and wheel-suckers, of bonks and breakaways, a vocabulary learned from ten years of seasonal obsession with the world's largest annual sporting event.
In fact, I'd first become aware of the Tour de France during the home leg of my elder brother's 1976 French exchange. Our house guest Denis spent almost every waking hour of those three weeks with his conspicuous facial features pressed up against a transistor radio on which he had managed to locate faint medium-wave coverage of the event. It was a display of stamina and dedication to parallel that of the riders themselves - clearly, here was an event which gripped a nation like no other, and didn't relax its grasp for twenty-one whole days.
Sadly, Denis was an awful boy who cheated at Monopoly and avenged yet another Belgian victory in that year's race by running amok in our flower-beds with the big lawnmower, so I did not at the time ascribe positive attributes to the focus of his obsession. My own interest lay dormant until the late Eighties, when Channel 4 began covering the event at a time when my lifestyle made getting up to switch channels after Countdown an onerous task beyond contemplation. By default I became one of the billion people who watch the Tour de France on telly.
It was Phil Liggett's memorably raw commentary on the epic Alpine performance of Irishman Stephen Roche (`There's someone coming through the mist . . . it can't be . . . it is! It's Roche! It's Stephen Roche!') during his triumphant 1987 Tour that initiated my fascination. I came to marvel at the heroic scale of the event and its incredible demands, the murderous climbs and 90-k.p.h. descents that sometimes defied death but, tragically, sometimes didn't. I realised that each stage was a race within a race, and that with the ox-like sprinters and bird-like climbers there were even different species within each race. I mastered the terminology - the humble domestiques who fed, watered and protected their team leaders; the peloton, the main bunch of riders that careered along, elbow to elbow and wheel to wheel, at ridiculous speed; the gendarmes assigned to keep tabs on rival breakaways; the humiliations of the broom wagon, on call to sweep up those who cracked in the Alps. I learned to distinguish the multicoloured hooped jersey of the world champion from the appealing polka-dotted affair worn by the current leader in the Tour's King of the Mountains competition. And, after two years, I finally witnessed a rider hoicking up the leg of his shorts and peeing waywardly into the spectators at 50 k.p.h.
That those soiled by this incident reacted with baptismal joy suggested the feats of the enormous crowds were, in their way, no less remarkable than those of the riders. One third of the entire population of France watches the Tour from the hard shoulders and hillsides, occupying a long wait in the mad sun by daubing their favourites' names on the tarmac, then maximising their brief contact with the riders by swarming over the road, emptying warm Evian on the front runners, bellowing encouragement and occasionally knocking the unwary off their bikes. The rest of Europe provided a typical assortment of `characters': a trident-waving, cloven-hoofed German Devil; the fabulously drunken flag-faced Danes. It was the only sporting event I had come across with its own personality.
For ten years my keen interest in the Tour had spawned no greater desire than a vague intention to join one day the exuberant roadside festivities among the largest sporting crowd in the world. But after my Icelandic triumphs, achieved without preparation and at the cost of only peripheral permanent injury, a bolder ambition was born. I might be too old to join the cast of
sport's greatest drama, but maybe I could still stand on the same stage. Ride the route of the Tour de France, even on my own, even at a moderate pace, and I'd have achieved something remarkable, the sort of achievement that made men. Standing at the window with a recently drained bottle of millennial Moet dangling waywardly from my hand I added my own silent, vainglorious vow to the millions swirling blurrily through fizzfuddled minds around the globe. As the final lonely firework hissed up into the drizzle I accepted that with a thriving thicket of unpigmented hairs in the temple region and three children old enough to swear in two languages, Old Father Time was catching up with old father Tim. If I didn't do it this year I wouldn't, because maybe next year I couldn't.
Unlike most professional sporting events, the Tour de France is more about taking part than it is about winning. Only two or three of the 180 starters would begin the race with any real hope of victory; for most, just completing what people (or anyway journalists) call La Grande Boucle the Big Loop - is enough. Make it back to Paris - and in some years less than half the starters do - and you're a Giant of the Road. The last finisher, the lanterne rouge, is given a particularly rousing hero's reception and can look forward to a year of lucrative race offers and sponsorship.
A race where you get a huge cheer and large cash sums for coming last sounded like my kind of race. `Giant of the Road': I could live with that. Maybe I could get some calling cards made up. OK, we were talking about a lot of cycling - but I mean how bad could a lot of cycling really be? I was starting to get quite cocky until I read about Tom Simpson.
`Put me back on the bloody bike.' As last words go, these are about as likely to pass my lips as `It's time someone taught those ostriches a lesson.' But they did good service for Simpson, rasped out defiantly after he collapsed while challenging for the leader's yellow jersey on the dreadful Mont Ventoux climb in the 1967 Tour de France.
By dying, and by dying from heart failure brought about by overzealous consumption of the amphetamines that were later found both in his liver and jersey pocket, Simpson became the first Englishman to make a newsworthy contribution to the Tour since its debut in 1903. His fate showed both that the Tour's uniquely monstrous demands were requiring men to perform beyond their limits, and that despite this they would willingly gamble their lives in exchange for one of sport's greatest prizes.
Tommy's tragedy was the focus of an article I once read in a weekend supplement. Its theme was that though the lesson of his death was clear enough, it had not been learnt. I was particularly struck by the accompanying textbook-style illustration which suggested that, in an age where the demands of professional sport spawn outlandish physiques, there is no more grotesque specimen than the Tour de France cyclist. His oiled, hairless thighs are basted Christmas hams; those stringy, wizened arms last night's leftover chipolatas. Strip him, as the artist had down one half, and it gets worse - lungs so enlarged that they can squeeze out below his ribcage like a nascent pot belly, abrupt tan-line tidemarks delineating sun-broiled flesh from the ghostly, pallid areas forever sheathed beneath shorts and jersey. Inside his body, years of drug abuse have thickened his blood to the consistency of toothpaste, extruded laboriously through the leathery ventricles of a heart distended by relentless cardiovascular activity.
It isn't a good look, overall, but at least they don't have to put up with it for long. Given the ludicrous demands of the event and its associated history of dangerously pioneering chemistry, it wasn't surprising to learn that those who have competed in years gone by can look forward to the briefest retirement in professional sport. A life expectancy more than a decade and a half below the average means anyone seeking to organise a cycling Seniors Tour would struggle to recruit a quorum.
These were all terrible tidings. I had begun to imagine my own
Tour as a long jaunt through vineyards and sunflowers; maybe I'd get sunburn and a sore arse, but I didn't fancy going into an Alpine pharmacy with one hand holding my lungs in and the other flicking through the phrasebook for `my organs are distended'. If these things happened to healthy young jocks in their sporting prime, what about a man theoretically old enough to have fathered children who remembered Adam and the Ants?
I needed succour, and I found it in the achievements of Firmin Lambot. By winning the Tour at the age of 36, `The Lucky Belgian' offered genuine hope that I, an entire year younger, might feasibly complete the course without doing a Tommy.