Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Making the grandest tour

The Tour de France is the most arduous of the world's sporting events. Riders cover more than 2,000 miles in three weeks at an average speed of around twenty-eight miles per hour. The race can seem more like a test of simple endurance than a display of athletic prowess. The sheer physical effort involved makes it easy to write about its champions in terms of epic poetry.

The race defies ordinary explanation. It is a team sport in which an individual wins. It is an athletic event that actually harms the athletes? bodies. (Racers cannot consume enough food to replace the 6,000 or so calories burned off by each day's stage. Most finish the race with less muscle mass than they began with.) The race's founder, Henri Desgrange, wanted it to be so tough that there would be only a single finisher. He never got his wish, but the sport he set in motion takes such a savage toll on its riders that studies show that the life expectancy of a professional cyclist is barely more than fifty years

Robert Messenger

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