French Revolutions: Cycling the Tour de France

French Revolutions: Cycling the Tour de France

by Tim Moore

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Overview

Not only is it the world's largest and most watched sporting event, but also the most fearsome physical challenge ever conceived by man, demanding every last ounce of will and strength, every last drop of blood, sweat, and tears. If ever there was an athletic exploit specifically not for the faint of heart and feeble of limb, this is it. So you might ask, what is Tim Moore doing cycling it?

An extremely good question. Ignoring the pleading dictates of reason and common sense, Moore determined to tackle the Tour de France, all 2,256 miles of it, in the weeks before the professionals entered the stage. This decision was one he would regret for nearly its entire length. But readers—those who now know Moore's name deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Bill Bryson and Calvin Trillin—will feel otherwise. They are in for a side-splitting treat.

French Revolutions gives us a hilariously unforgettable account of Moore's attempt to conquer the Tour de France. "Conquer" may not be quite the right word. He cheats when he can, pops the occasional hayfever pill for an ephedrine rush (a fine old Tour tradition), sips cheap wine from his water bottle, and occasionally weeps on the phone to his wife. But along the way he gives readers an account of the race's colorful history and greatest heroes: Eddy Merckx, Greg Lemond, Lance Armstrong, and even Firmin Lambot, aka the "Lucky Belgian," who won the race at the age of 36. Fans of the Tour de France will learn why the yellow jersey is yellow, and how cyclists learned to save precious seconds (a race that lasts for three weeks is all about split seconds) by relieving themselves en route. And if that isn't enough, his account of a rural France tarting itself up for its moment in the spotlight leaves popular quaint descriptions of small towns in Provence in the proverbial dust. If you either love or hate the French, or both, you'll want to travel along with Time Moore.

French Revolutions is Tim Moore's funniest book to date. It is also one of the funniest sports books ever written.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780312316129
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 06/01/2003
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 288
Sales rank: 462,989
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.65(d)

About the Author

Tim Moore is the author of Frost on My Moustache and The Grand Tour, both available from St. Martin's Griffin. He lives with his family in London.

Read an Excerpt

FRENCH REVOLUTIONS
Cycling the Tour de France

By Tim Moore

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2001 Tim Moore.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0312290454



Chapter One


'Oh, it's you again.'

    It's never wise to phone a Frenchwoman more than once in any given fortnight, even if — or perhaps especially if — she happens to work on a help desk. Asking the Tour de France press office for details of the race route was clearly ranked on the scale of telephonic enquiries somewhere between 'Have you ever considered the benefits of pet insurance?' and 'What colour knickers are you wearing?' No matter that the route had clearly been decided well before the release of the basic outline in September, some six months previously.

    'We do not announce zis informations,' said the voice defiantly, 'until fifteen May.' The line went dead; you could just imagine her flinging the phone down in petulant exasperation as a sympathetic press-office colleague looked up from her Paris Match and, slowly unwrapping another bon-bon, said, 'Don't tell me — another journalist.'

    Anyway, it was a date. The plan, as it stood, was to complete the Tour route before the race itself set off on 1 July. Departing on 15 May gave me six weeks in which to do so — double the time allotted to the professionals; it also meant I would be 35 for three whole days of the period. On the other hand, all I now had to plot and prepare for my odyssey were a month and a postcard-sized map of the country with a squiggly line linking the start and end points of each stage, torn from the October issue of procycling.

    Each Tour has a new route — travelled clockwise one year, anticlockwise the next. The 2000 Tour was an anticlockwise one. Starting in the centre-west of the country, the line meandered briefly north into Brittany before turning back on itself, sweeping down to the Pyrenees, then across Provence via Simpson's Ventoux to the Alps. Here it flailed madly about for a disturbing amount of time, working its way circuitously northwards: 'The entire length of the French Alps from the south, a route last taken in 1949, with the Cols d'Allos, Vars and Izoard, all over 2,000 metres high,' panted procycling eagerly. Then it was two days in Switzerland and Germany, crossing back over the Rhine in Alsace and working westwards to the traditional Parisian finish.

    The accompanying map had the benefit of being small, but most of the important figures in a box alongside did not.

    5 July, stage five: Vannes-Vitré, 198 km.

    6 July, stage six: Vitré—Tours, 197 km.

    7 July, stage seven: Tours-Limoges, 192 km.

    Six hundred kilometres in three days, as near as 'dammit' is to swearing, though not quite as near as 'fuck that'. Can I have a rest now?

    8 July, stage eight: Limoges—Villeneuve-sur-Lot, 200 km.

    9 July, stage nine: Agen-Dax, 182 km.

    10 July, stage ten: Dax-Lourdes/Hautacam, 205 km.

    11 July, stage eleven: Bagnères-de-Bigorre-Revel, 219 km.

    Apparently I could not. In seven days, the riders would cover a distance that in different and rather foolish circumstances would see them pedalling up to the outskirts of Warsaw. Worse, I knew from my television experiences that a lot of these kilometres would be breezed through by riders idly chatting to team-mates with their arms off the handlebars as they maintained speeds which even the ugliest exertions would leave me some way short of.

    Not that there'd be any of that when the mountains got going. The route might change, but every Tour is won and lost in the second week, when the Pyrenean and Alpine climbs meet an angry sun halfway, the last stragglers wobbling over the line in graphic distress after eight scorched and airless hours in the saddle. Footballers whine if they're asked to play more than a single ninety-minute game a week. Olympic athletes demand a day of rest after running half a lap of the track. But when the Tour de France hits the mountains, its competitors have to haul themselves to the ragged edge of exhaustion from dawn to dusk, day after day, inching agonisingly up the highest roads in Europe and then careering lethally down them.

    To this end, procycling had also helpfully included a 'gradient profile' of stage twelve, Carpentras—Le Mont Ventoux. As learning curves go, they didn't come much steeper: an alarming succession of peaks and troughs that looked like the printout of a lie-detector test. Two impressive 3,000-foot cols caused jerky fluctuations of the sort you'd expect from Jeffrey Archer comparing O-level results with Pinocchio, then — whoosh! — there was Jonathan Aitken booking Baron von Munchausen into the Ritz as up to Ventoux the line soared crazily off the scale.

    All in all, there were 3,630 kilometres (which may be more familiar to you as 2,256 miles) and sixteen mountains to be conquered in three weeks. It was the equivalent of cycling from London to Bristol every day, only with Swindon wreathed in cold mist atop a towering peak so steep you'd be kneeing yourself in the face if you walked up it.

    Slowly, certainly, the wrongheadedness of my initial pledge was dawning on me. With two weeks to go and my train ticket to Dover already rashly purchased, I knuckled down. I took out temporary membership of a gym, bought Chris Boardman's Complete Book of Cycling, and tried to fix the Peugeot's brakes.

    I didn't take too much notice of the text side of Mr Boardman's volume after reading of the importance of training on Christmas Day to establish a psychological advantage over one's rivals, and coming across phrases such as 'The Tour came close to destroying me because it slowly drained my spirit ... The Tour is the limit. It is the Olympics, Wimbledon and the World Cup all rolled into one. It is the highest level of sport ... That feeling in the pit of your stomach that the next three weeks are going to hurt.'

    On this basis, it didn't seem ideal that with less than a fortnight before departure I didn't actually own a roadworthy bicycle. Jogging for half an hour up and down the towpath every evening was a step in the right direction, but not a very big one. I needed to do some cycling. Or anyway some cycling-type exercises.

    Chris Boardman, a former Olympic gold medallist and the first Englishman since Tom Simpson to wear the yellow jersey in the Tour, might reasonably be expected to know something about preparatory exercises. Holding a hand over the accompanying words (the mere mention of 'the muscle group at the front of your thighs' made me feel squeamish), I was soon mimicking Mr Boardman's line-drawn simulacrum on a twice-daily basis. Pressing a heel back to a buttock, pushing a wall, even lowering nose to (or anyway towards) thigh with my leg up on a chair (I'd work up to the illustrated table option just as soon as the sensation that my knees were about to snap forward the wrong way seemed less compelling): these at least had an authentic air, the kind of thing you might see footballers doing on the touchline, albeit with fewer daughters hanging on to their legs and necks. Others, notably the spinal mobility and gluteus maximus stretches, cajoled me into whimsical poses last struck when Miss Pillins asked 2Y to imagine we were spring's first snowdrops emerging from the frosted soil.

    In recent years, those snowdrops have invariably been accompanied by a savage and ridiculous new gym fad, and they don't come much more savage or ridiculous than spinning. Melding an exercise bicycle to the traumatic peer-pressure, barked commands and hysterical hi-NRG soundtrack of aerobics, I'd been told that spinning was to a jog around the river what bear-baiting was to yoga. It seemed sufficiently drastic. With a week left I went off and spun.

    The airless spinning room at my local gym consisted of a claustrophobic mass of exercise bicycles arranged in tight, respectful semicircles before the instructor's machine; settling myself indelicately into the lofty saddle amid two dozen sinewy women in their forties and a fat, red Irishman, it occurred to me that if (or ideally when) we were all vaporised by Martian invaders the first member of the mopping-up squad to poke his little green head round the door would imagine he had discovered some hallowed chamber where obscure rotary homage was paid to King Spin. Only later did I realise that with all that tiresome bellowed encouragement, those clashing elbows, the soul-destroying, out-of-the-saddle, give-no-quarter competitiveness, a spinning class was a static peloton, the closest approximation to a desperate bunch finish I would ever experience.

    I'd sat next to the Irishman in the hope of faring well by comparison, but after ten minutes of hectoring, Flashdance and increased wheel resistance ('Crank it up a notch, and one and two and UP on the pedals and give me ten and GO!') the sweat was already cascading in an unbroken stream from lowered chin to pumping knees, flying off the uselessly whirring front wheel and splattering toned, hairless flesh in a generous radius. Part of the deal in gyms, and indeed in professional cycling, is never to exhibit real pain or distress. Consequently, when we got into the uphill double-time sprinting the instructor, perhaps noting my uncanny visual impersonation of a man being exorcised in a sauna, slipped quietly off his bike and sidled over. 'Take it easy, eh?' he whispered soothingly as Donna Summer began to feel love. The phlegmy, rutting grunt that was all I could manage by way of response did not help my case.

    After that I started lowering the resistance control a notch whenever he said to turn it up, but, even so, winding down at the end of the forty-minute session I felt very, very bad; worse, in fact, than I had ever felt. The techno thump of a shell-shocked heart filled my head; most of my muscle groups had disbanded and a leather-aproned medieval butcher was clumsily yanking my hamstrings. As I shakily dismounted into an unsightly puddle of body fluids, I had a strong sensation that my feet had somehow been stretched and extruded into platform-soled appendages.

    'First time?' said the Irishman, who somehow looked further from death than he had before.

    'Last time?' tinkled a hollow-cheeked, hawser-armed woman, her lilac crop top blemished with the merest sprinkling of perspiration that in any case was probably mine.

    I didn't (or rather couldn't) say anything in reply, but explained myself to the instructor after the following day's session. 'That's quite an undertaking,' he said, implying that I would need quite an undertaker. One of 'his' women had recently returned from cycling over the Andes; another was off to the Himalayas. 'Don't worry,' he said, noting that this news had failed to comfort or inspire, 'that was a pretty big hill we just simulated. About 22 kilometres. And you'll only need to work at maybe 20 per cent of that rate.'

    I nodded wetly. All I could think was that I'd just wasted 22 kilometres going nowhere in a room full of hot Lycra. There would be times, I imagined, when I would dearly want those 22 kilometres back, saving them up as a joker to be played in some epic Alpine crisis. 'Except,' he said, squinting thoughtfully, 'I suppose you'll need to be at it for about eight hours a day.'

    Somehow blanking out the enormity of this task, I managed one more spinning class and two jogs. Then, gingerly consulting Chris Boardman, I came across the starting revelation that 'with one week to go, training should be finished ... It is highly unlikely that you will generate more form in this time.' With five days left, interpreting this theory of 'tapering' a regime as a competition approached ('the volume of work is slowly reduced as the objective approaches'), I tapered my training rather more abruptly to a standstill. Everyone knows what the tough are said to do when the going gets tough. But I went shopping.

    The sporting-goods industry prospers from the eternal truth that people who are not very good at something would rather blame a lack of expensive equipment than their own physical failings. Certainly rectifying the former is a lot quicker. Every time I looked at those little line drawings of Mr Boardman down on all fours howling silently at an unseen moon or getting his leg over the dining table, I felt an itching desire to slam his scary book shut and go into town to buy things made out of carbon fibre.

    Not knowing anything about bikes, or at least bikes costing more than fifteen quid, flicking helplessly through the cycling-magazine adverts in Smith's was a sobering experience. It seemed to be quite easy to spend considerably over £1,500 just on a frame, a wheelless, chainless, pedalless diamond-shaped assemblage of metal tubes. Almost randomly, I came up with a figure of half this amount as my budget for a complete bicycle. Venturing much below this price raised fears of another two-wheels-on-my-Trabant DDR special, meaning that metal fatigue would set in after four days, and that on the way to pick it up my father would appear out of nowhere to place a kind, worldly hand on my shoulder and explain that the male menopause was nothing to be scared of. Beyond £750, I would be too crap to notice the difference, as well as potentially falling foul of the general rule that very expensive pieces of machinery require regular expert maintenance. I didn't want a Fiesta or a Ferrari. A nice Golf would do me.

    I can't quite remember why the GT ZR3000 first appealed. It may have been the memory of the slanting GT logo flashed along many of the peloton's crossbars; it may have been because that crescendo of numerals and digits conjured images of an enormously overpowered motorcycle, thereby suggesting great speed with minimal human effort. When a call to GT's Martin Warren revealed that the ZR3000 was last year's model and could therefore be offered at an attractive discount, the deal was done. 'Do you want to assemble it yourself, or ...?' he asked, ending the whimper-punctuated silence that followed with, 'Or ... yes, I'll, um, put you down for the "or" option.'

    The bike, of course, was only the start of it. An astonishing 4,000 people make up the Tour's travelling entourage — journalists, officials, members of the crap-chucking publicity caravan — and 600 of them are there to support the twenty teams who each enter nine riders. Ferried about in over a thousand official vehicles, they carry food, drink, spare parts, spare clothing, vitamins and, er, 'vitamins'. I would have to get all this stuff, and carry it myself in panniers.

    There are plenty of people whose dark, dull lives are lit up by opportunities to patronise and humiliate those they encounter in their professional capacity. Although most of these people work in the police force or Paris, while acquiring the peripherals for my trip I was intrigued to note the number that had made their horrid little homes behind the counters of bicycle retailers.

    I'd avoided them up to now, but with time running out I had to get help where I could. In tones normally reserved for asking small children to pop down the shops for a tin of elbow grease, I was scathingly informed that the ZR3000, as well as being last year's model and therefore on a competitive par with a swingbin full of fag-ends and used teabags, was risibly inappropriate for my task. The lugs, whatever and wherever they might be, would snap clean through as soon as I attached panniers, and actually the pannier rack wouldn't fit anyway, and in any case only a really major prannet would ever use panniers — and listen to this, Dave, there's a bloke here reckons he's doing the Tour de France, right, and he doesn't even know if his bike's got Presta valves or Schraders.

    It was Martin Warren, perhaps mindful of the extraordinary number of wankers I would be encountering, who had suggested I talk to Richard Hallett, technical editor of Cycling Weekly, a man apparently much sought after for his rare ability to offer advice on clothing and equipment without snorting in helpless derision. I hadn't really wanted to trouble him, but being told by two awful men in a shop on the Fulham Road that I didn't walk like a cyclist was the last straw and I gave the man Hallett a call. He listened patiently while I explained my quest, then, rather sharply, asked his only question.

    'Are you fat at all?'

(Continues...)


Excerpted from FRENCH REVOLUTIONS by Tim Moore. Copyright © 2001 by Tim Moore. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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