Tomorrow morning in Liege, Belgium 198 men will begin the most grueling sporting event in the world. Over the course of twenty-one days of individual races – called “stages” – these men will ride their bicycles around the whole of France, a distance totaling 2,172 miles.
Along with largely flat stages of 100 miles and more, they will ride across the tops of more than twenty-five mountains including summits and passes in the Vosges, Jura, Swiss Jura, Alps, and Pyrenees. The mountains are graded by levels based on incline and distance. The most terrifying climbs are called Hors Catégorie – “beyond category.”
The riders will peddle almost straight up these HC inclines at speeds of 14 miles per hour, which doesn’t sound like much until you realize they are riding vertically. They will roar down the other side of these mountains at speeds of 60 miles per hour all on little rubber tires no more than an inch wide.
They will do this every day, with two rest days, for three weeks. They ride five or more hours in the saddle, eat dinner, go to bed, and do it again the next day and the next and the next and the next.
Forget the physicality. The psychological hurdle is immense. Go out and ride a bike for a measly fifty miles tomorrow and then do it again the next day. See how your mind works on the morning of the second day. You are sore. You know how tough the first day was. You cannot imagine doing it again.
Will it be fight or flight? Will it be up and at ’em, or roll over for more sleep? Now multiply that distance by two or three and do it for twenty-one days, and toss in multiple mountain climbs of 7,000 feet. That is the Tour de France.
Most folks see bike racing on TV and their eyes glaze over. It does not make any sense. It looks like pointless chaos. And boring to boot.
Here is a primer. There are many purposes to the race and many ways to win but the primary purpose is for one man to cross the finish line with the lowest cumulative time across all 21 stages and those 2,172 miles. Each stage is a separate race with a winner in each stage, but each stage adds to the cumulative time that determines the overall winner at the end of twenty-one racing days. It is possible for a rider to not win a single stage yet win the over all race if his cumulative time is lower than all the other stage winners.
Because there is only one overall winner, it looks like an individual sport. Nothing could be further from the truth. There are nine men per team and all have different jobs. Some are sprinters whose job it is to win individual stages and bring glory to the team and the sponsors that way. Others are climbers whose job it is to win the “King of the Mountain” jersey. But only one rider is picked – for his overall skill and talents – to contend for overall victory. All the others work in support of him. They are called domestiques.
A man cannot win the Tour de France alone. It is simply impossible. He needs his men to ride with him, pace him, shield him from the wind, guide him up the mountains, drop back to get him bottles of water or packets of food. Sometimes his men will lead the pack, called the “Peloton,” and fix a horrendously high tempo in order to wear out his contenders.
On fast flat stages, where the speeds go as high as 35 miles per hours, they gather around him so he is protected from the frequent crashes that break bones, end careers, and even kill. The Peloton on a fast flat stage is one of the most terrifying places in all of sport: more than one hundred men, inches from each other peddling literally at break-neck speed, protected only by a helmet and skin right nylon.
I have ridden in an amateur version of this. Terrifying indeed. A crash can happen with the simple inadvertent touch of the brakes or a slight turn of the wheels.
On the high mountain stages, the domestiques ride in front, drawing the designated competitor along in their wake so that he can marshal his strength. You see the domestiques peddling furiously, giving their last measure of physical and psychological strength, and then, exhausted, they drop off as the chosen one peddles on behind yet another domestique who will offer the same total gift of self. At the end the potential champ will be alone competing with the other elite contenders, but he is lost without his team’s help.
We walk into Heaven alone, all by ourselves, but we go there with others. Like the winner of the Tour de France, we have domestiques throughout our lives and without them we cannot win. At the General Judgment, we will know them. We will meet the teacher who prayed for us, the priest who fasted for us. We will know the sacrifices of countless others who, unbeknownst, rode for us, protected us from the wind, got us bottles of water and packets of food.
But perhaps even more importantly, we will meet those we rode for, those who would not have won the race without our help, without our prayers, fasting, and sacrifices. We will meet those we led up mountains and protected from the wind. In this life, we are both contenders and domestiques. It is the way He set things up.
Watch the Tour de France this year and while you do, meditate on the Four Last Things.