Last Saturday the greatest sporting event known to man began in Monaco. One hundred and eighty men mounted bicycles and began a race that will take them clockwise around the whole of France. The race will finish July 26 on the Champs Elysee in Paris, after 2200 miles in twenty-three days with only two days off.
Imagine getting on your bicycle and riding constantly at the highest rate you can muster for, let’s say, 120 miles. After several hours, the pain in your legs cuts like a knife. Your feet are bleeding from painful blisters, your thighs are chafed raw – not to mention the pain in your behind. You lie down that night with so much pain that you cannot sleep.
Then, you get up early the next day and do it all again. Only this time you might have to ride up and down the Alps or the Pyrenees, roughly like riding up a wall for ten, twenty, even thirty miles.
You do this in the company of 180 other men so you ride in a pack. This pack of riders – muscle, bone, and metal – is called the peloton, a very dangerous place. You ride literally elbow-to-elbow at terrifying speeds. The tire right in front of you is only inches away. A gentle tap on the brake and you may end up in a bloody heap. You hit the ground at 20+ miles per hour wearing little more than your skivvies. Bones break, collar bones mostly. At the very least skin will be torn right off hands, ankles, legs, chests, and bottoms. Some riders have died.
The Tour works this way. It is a stage race, meaning each day is a separate race with an individual winner, but there is only one overall winner. The rider with the lowest cumulative time over all twenty-one stages wins. The Tour demands a special combination of speed, endurance, and an ability to climb miles of mountains faster than most people can ride downhill. And you need courage.
The Tour is a monument to physical strength and stamina, but it is also a monument to mental toughness. A course of similar length in America would mean riding a bike from Portland, Maine to Butte, Montana, including twenty mountain-passes through the Alps and Pyrenees.
The Tour rider gets up every single morning and faces that challenge: in intense heat, driving rain, even blizzards. It is a sport of the body, but even more of the mind.
Jesus praised the dishonest steward and said the children of this world are more prudent than are the children of light. For simple human glory, the men of the Tour have sacrificed everything. They are physically ravaged. They look like prisoners on a chain gang – gaunt, drawn, haunted. And for most of them, the greatest reward they can expect is simply finishing. The children of light have much to learn from these men.
We are called to a kind of perfection far beyond that of even the mighty Lance Armstrong who won seven Tours in a row. The kind of perfection we are called to – each of us, not just priests and nuns – is the perfection of the Father Himself. The Beatitudes are not just a pretty poem. They ask for effort that will hurt.
What we can learn from the men of the Tour is physical and mental toughness, and an almost overwhelming dedication to duty and a spirit of self-sacrifice with one goal in mind, perhaps to win, but always to finish.
The Church teaches us to live continuously and deliberately in the presence of our Father God. For this the Church provides for us certain tools: the Mass, the Eucharist, Rosary, mental prayer, Scripture.
Succumbing to a sense of sadness is one of the dangers for the Tour rider and for us in our interior journey. The Tour rider cannot allow himself to imagine the miles in front of him, or he will wilt. He thinks about the little things; the next bend in the road, the lift of the wind, his heart-rate on the monitor, the man in front of him. In the same way, we might wilt if we imagined the immensity of a lifetime of Mass, Rosary, Scripture and all the rest. And so we do not think of the lifetime, we think of Mass tomorrow morning, Rosary tonight, a few minutes of Scripture before bed.
In the end, these are our thin bicycles and we are called to use them strenuously every day. The interior life is our mountains and our flats, our heat and cold, our driving rain, and, as St. Paul reminds us, it is up to us to finish the race – no matter what.