Whenever people who don’t follow bike racing happen to meet champion cyclists, they are always surprised by how small the riders seem. So they are, both in general and compared with other sportsmen, or even sportswomen. That thought was prompted again by last Sunday’s heroic stage of the Tour de France. It began in Givors, in front of illustrious guests. One was Eddy Mercx, perhaps the greatest cyclist of all, who must have watched Chris Froome’s victory on Mont Ventoux later in the afternoon and remebered his own heroic conquest of the mountain in 1970, on his way to the second of his five Tour victories.
Another was Marion Bartoli, a week after she won the ladies’ singles at Wimbledon. Her home town is Le Puy-en-Velay, not far from Givors, a ville-étape for the Tour ten years ago, when we who were covering the race were plied with cans of the famous Puy green lentils (they’re really good!), and she’s a Tour fanatic. Seeing her again, off the court, made me think of some comparisons. At Wimbledon, a BBC pundit got in the hottest of water by saying that Marion isn’t “a looker,” but even a less obviously sexist commentator called her “stocky.” To be precise, she’s five-foot-seven, and weighs 140 pounds.
Now look at some cyclists. Tony Martin, who is the current time-trialling world champion and won the first time trial in this Tour, is two inches taller than Bartoli, but the same weight, 140 pounds. Mark Cavendish is five-foot-nine like Martin, though heavier at 150 pounds, with a sprinter’s thick thigh muscles. Although Chris Froome is a lanky six-foot-one, he only weighs 152 pounds. Even then he’s a veritable giant compared with the one man who stayed close to him on Mont Ventoux. The wonderful Nairo Alexander Quintana Rojas, still only 23, is the kind of cyclist his fellow Colombians pleasingly call an escarabajo, a flying beetle. He’s two inches shorter than Bartoli at five-foot-five—and 14 pounds lighter, a pocket dynamo of 126 pounds.
With that kind of physique, one can agree that Quintana has certainly chosen the right sport, and the others too: None of them would have much of a career as an NFL tight end, or as an NBA center. What matters with cyclists isn’t their size but their energy-to-weight ratio, their internal organs, and their capacity to turn oxygen into strength. Miguel Induráin won the Tour five times in succession from 1991, and really was a kind of freak. His lungs were a third larger than average for a man of his size, his cardiac output was twice that of many cyclists, and his standing pulse rate was as low as 28 (I’m happy when mine is 65). Unfortunately Induráin was also a client of Francesco Conconi, another infamous “sports doctor,” who is now best known for his pioneering work introducing the blood-enhancing drug EPO to bike racing (and maybe other sports).
Which brings us back to this last week of the Tour. It has been as dramatic as expected, if not more so, on and off the parcours. Even Tuesday’s comparitively tame stage was controversial. In third place was Alberto Contador, twice a Tour winner and once disqualified for doping after finishing first, who crashed during the stage. This indirectly halted, and nearly brought down, the race leader Chris Froome, who took it badly. Contador “was taking too many risks down there. He couldn't control his speed.”
In the following day’s 32-km time trial Contador gave his reply. They ride off in reverse order in a “contre le montre”, so that the lanterne rouge or overall last man goes first and the yellow jersey goes last. Contador rode a blistering race to post the fastest time—until Froome, whose astonishing ride, nine seconds ahead of Contador, won him his third stage of the race and strengthened his hold on the yellow jersey.
And set the stage for Thursday’s intolerably gripping stage, which went up the frightening Alpe d’Huez climb not once but twice. In between came a descent as scary in its own way, or so Froome thought. "It's a dangerous descent, if it's raining it will be even more dangerous," he said the day before. “If it rains I hope the organisers will take the decision to have the finish on top the first time." It didn’t rain, they did go up the great climb twice, and Froome did not enjoy it.
About 5 km from the finish he was clearly in trouble and put up his hand, suggesting that he had a mechanical problem. He had been crucially kept company all the way by Richie Porte, his teammate and wingman, who now dropped back to collect something, and then hand it to Froome. But it wasn’t “a mechanical”. What had happened was that Froome was on the brink of défaillance, the dreaded “bonk”, as English cyclists call it, when blood sugar is exhausted and a rider feels as if he has hit a wall. “Richie was definitely feeling better than I was today,” Froome said somewhat superfluously afterwards, while confirming that he had been given a sugar gel that revived him.
All this took place several minutes behind the day’s leaders. It looked as though Tejay van Garderen was going to make it an American victory, until he was caught with two kilometres to go by Christophe Riblon, to intense French relief: This was the first stage win this year for the country that gives the Tour de France its name. The other hero of the day was the beetle who flew: Quintana attacked to break away from Froome, finishing more than a minute ahead, and moving into third place.
What Froome had done when the bonk hit him was strictly an illegal “re-feed”, which is not permitted inside the last five kilometres, and he was duly docked 20 seconds. He can shrug that off, as he enters the final three days more than 5 minutes ahead of Contador, and seemingly unassailable. And there is another silver lining. Froome and Dave Brailsford, his team manager, have been unable to shake off the endless insinuations: no one who performs as superhumanly as Froome did in the Pyrenees and on Mont Ventoux can be managing it without illicit stimulants. After all, Lance Armstrong used to leave the field standing here on Alpe d’Huez, and we know how he did it.
Well, to watch Chris Froome wavering on that same horrifying climb was to see someone who isn’t inhuman or “extraterrestrial” at all. He is a great athlete, but all too human.