In the midst of the Tour de France, we asked Blair author Tim Murphy to share his expertise on what makes bike racers tick. Tim is the author of Road Cycling the Blue Ridge High Country and a cyclist himself, so he knows all about this topic. Enjoy!
The world’s best bike racers are at it again this month in the 97th Tour de France. The Tour stretches over 23 days and 2,258 miles, but much of the racing is moot, a collection of sprint finishes where the race’s overall contenders finish last. The toughest riders typically don’t emerge until the race heads for the hills. The wicked walls of the Pyrenees in the third week of the race should tell us who will be at the top of the podium July 25 on the Champs Elysee.
Mountains mean misery for bike racers. Steep grades shatter the pack. Some racers fall so far behind they’re forced to drop out of the race. For those with the stamina to stay at the front, the physical and psychological tension is intense. Riders reach their physiological limits in an effort to stay at the front, knowing that just one unanswered surge by a rival could rewrite the script of the entire race.
Knowing how the mountains mangle top pros, why do so many weekend warriors love them so? Here in the southeastern United States, Blue Ridge road cycling events are shattering attendance records. Last month’s Blood, Sweat and Gears ride in Boone, N.C., was a sell-out despite a truly sadistic 102-mile route with more than 13,000 feet of climbing. Blood, Sweat and Gears; Hurt, Pain and Agony; Blue Ridge Brutal: just reading the names of these events is enough to make you reach for the ibuprofen.
So why do thousands of seemingly sane people willingly seek out such suffering? Take a ride with me.
Huffing my way to the top of a major climb isn’t pleasurable, but it’s strangely satisfying. As the climb wears on, life seems to simplify. Breathe deep and pedal, breathe deep and pedal; it’s all I can do as the road soars upward. My usually overactive brain settles.
At some point in the climb, the road will switch back. I can look down the mountain and see where I started. I experience a flash of transcendence, like a hawk soaring high. As the climb wears on, the top will tantalize. Is that it through the trees? “False flats” will frustrate. How is it I’m still struggling to turn the crank when the road seems to be flattening out? I fight my own impatience.
Finally, the top. Victory! Now the thrill ride is about to begin. I move the bike through its gears, crouch down, and whip down the curves back into the valley. The air turns chilly as the bike speeds down, down, down. Life becomes simple again. Look at the road, follow the line. Block out the views, the hazards, just look where you want the bike to go and watch it follow. Swoop into the apex of the turn and out again. Repeat until the serpentine road unkinks and the swelter of the valley returns.
Tim Murphy has pedaled the peaks of the Blue Ridge since 1981. He has organized charity rides, supported greenway development, and served as promotions coordinator for the Brushy Mountain Cyclists Club. He is the author of Road Cycling the Blue Ridge High Country.