Up at 6:30 a.m. to watch Stage One of Le Tour: an individual time trial — which means each rider races the clock to go from point A to point B. There is also a team time trial later on in the three week race. All nine members of each team, or all who are still in the race, go together in a long line with their wheels no more than 2-3 inches from each other so they can draft. A team trial requires even more intense concentration than usual. A gust a wind, a bump in the road, a loss of focus, and the wheels can brush up against each other, normally taking down the whole line in a massive high speed crash.
In today’s race the yellow jersey winner from 2016, Chris Froome, goes last so that he knows the time he has to beat. He’s in contact with the team car via radio in his helmet. They will be urging him on, telling him the split times, confirming his position in the stage.
The route is 14K in Dusseldorf, Germany, and it’s raining a bit, making the road slippery. One rider has already gone down on a slick curve, and gotten back up again. They ride through rain, even heavy rain, wind, snow on the mountain tops if there is any. So far the fastest rider has a 16:21 time — the winner will beat that by an as yet unknown margin. The likely eventual Tour winners won’t start for some time.
They are riding their special time trial bikes, which for most riders have disc wheels on the back. Each rider has several bikes, depending on the terrain of the day.
The Tour is such an extraordinary challenge because the winner has to excel in all aspects of the sport: sprinting over flat terrain for limited distances, doing endurance rides of 200 km or more, climbing mountain stages that include some of the Alps’ highest peaks — and descending safely at high speeds through the hairpin turns. They have to be able to concentrate while riding alone, as in the time trial, and as part of a team whose job it is to tee up the strongest rider for a stage win or the overall Tour win. It’s a bit like a baseball player excelling at every position on the field, including pitcher.
Men drawn to professional cycling typically have wiry, lean frames, and an outsized aerobic capacity. Shaquille O’Neill, despite his extraordinary athletic talent, couldn’t do it — he’s too big and heavy. Michael Jordan couldn’t do it — he’s too tall. Every pound of weight and every inch of height makes the ride more arduous.
The seconds gained or lost in today’s race will matter dearly over the 21 days. In 1989, U.S. rider Greg LeMond defeated the #2 competitor, Laurent Fignon, by 8 seconds over the entire race — three weeks and more than 3500 km. I was watching the Tour then too.
Just making coffee, and settling in. Le Tour begins.