Editor's note: Jim Caple is spending two weeks on Page 2's dime, traveling through Europe for a firsthand look at, to name a few, Wimbledon, the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, and how far he can carry his wife.
ALONG THE ROAD TO BLOIS, France -- Lance Armstrong and his teammates rode the 42-mile fourth stage of the Tour de France in 1 hour, 10 minutes, 39 seconds. It took me 3 hours, 13 minutes, not counting breakfast.
Then again, Lance and Team Discovery draft for each other, ride specially engineered bikes so light they could be made of helium, had the entire route cleared of traffic for them, and never once stopped for a bottle of wine. My bike, on the other hand, was one step up from a paper boy's Schwinn, with saddlebags slung across the back wheel weighing me down and increasing my drag. I had no toe clamps. Instead of passing throngs of cheering fans lining the roadsides, I occasionally had to ride off the shoulder to escape a speeding semi. I also had to stop to consult a map.
And, of course, they're world class athletes and I'm a 43-year-old sportswriter.
You can't play in Yankee Stadium. You can't play on Lambeau Field. And you can't play Augusta National unless you are incredibly rich or a close friend of Hootie Johnson. But the wonderful thing about the Tour de France is that you can ride the route. All you need is a bike, a detailed map and the desire to do so.
The Tour de France might be the world's premier bike race, but it's a difficult competition to appreciate when you're standing by the road as the cyclists whiz past. To gain a better appreciation, I rented a bike and rode the Stage 4 route from Tours to Blois the day after the race. Granted, this was a very short and very flat stage, but it was the only one that fit into my Lost in Translation Tour schedule of European sports.
So I loaded up the needed maps, pulled a LiveStrong band over my wrist, stuck a Jim Deshaies baseball card in the spokes of my wheel (I didn't want to damage a valuable card) and pedaled away
8:31 a.m., 0 miles: OK, sue me. I'm cheating. I'm in Saint-Pierre-des-Corps, about two miles from where the stage started in Tours. I'm starting here because from my map, it appears the stage's start was on a major motorway. No one is closing that road for me; and as much as I want to duplicate the stage, I also want to live. I'll make up the missing miles on the other end.
I start out on Route 751, averaging 18 mph.
8:46 a.m., 4.6 miles: One of the interesting things about the Tour de France is that there is almost no sign of it the day before or the day after a stage is raced. The only indication the Tour came through here at all is the occasional piece of graffiti on the road. It's like the Super Bowl arriving one morning to play the game that afternoon, and then packing up and moving on to another city overnight -- without leaving behind so much as a souvenir T-shirt or a player arrested for soliciting a prostitute.
|Jim Caple's Lost in Translation tour
In fact, I tried to buy souvenirs from a Tour van at the end of Stage 4 the day before, and they'd already shut down to move to the next stage.
"We're closed," the vendor said. "Unless you want to buy 40 key chains."
9:22 a.m., 14.9 miles: I can see Amboise and its magnificent chateau rising above the town. There's just one problem. I suddenly realize that I'm on the north bank of the Loire River and the race was on the south bank. Somehow, I made a wrong turn and have ridden the past eight miles, at least, on the wrong road.
|LOST IN TRANSLATION|
Take a look back at Jim Caple's European vacation thus far:|
While England slept
Strawberries, cream and Maria
Get off my back, honey
The amazing race
French fried over Olympics
A pit stop at the Tour de Lance
The good news: I've already made up those two miles I missed at the start.
9:30 a.m, 15.6 miles: I stop at my hotel for breakfast. And I don't worry about overdoing it on the Cocoa Krispies -- cyclists eat more than 6,000 calories a day on the Tour, or roughly what Ted Washington calls an appetizer.
10:38 a.m., 20.6 miles: Here's one reason the Tour de France is superior to the Super Bowl -- there are wineries along the route. I stop for a quick tasting at a little cellar carved directly into the chalky slope and buy a lovely Sauvignon for $6. The bottle will be hell on my aerodynamics; but as Lance says so often, you have to suffer in cycling.
Wine in my pack and a countryside dotted with vineyards and wheat fields -- the only way this ride could be more pleasant would be if the Philadelphia Eagles cheerleaders were on the side of the road.
11:13 a.m., 25.9 miles: Forget what I said about the scenery and the enjoyable ride. The route crosses the Loire River at Chaumont sur Loire, and my trip instantly gets unpleasant. I start riding into the wind, which drops my speed considerably. Worse, I notice the Deshaies card has disappeared.
11:29 a.m. 29.6 miles: The roads are not clearly marked, and I fear I've missed a turn. Armstrong might be a six-time winner of the Tour de France, and he might have averaged 36 miles per hour during this stage; but I now have to do something no American male has ever done before: I stop and ask for directions.
My wife will be proud. Not that she'll ever believe it.
11:59 a.m., 34.8 miles: As Armstrong details in "It's Not About the Bike," a spent rider, after finishing one of the mountain stages when they were first added to the Tour, stopped in front of the organizers and screamed, "You're all murderers!"
There are no mountains on this stage, but there are a series of slopes near the end that the cyclists refer to as "rollers." If you were driving a car, you would barely notice them. I notice them, however. Especially when my map flies out of my hand and I have to turn around to retrieve it, then bike back up the hill with no momentum.
And to think it all looks so easy on television.
12:26 p.m.: 39.7 miles: I'm at the edge of Blois and near the finish. And as I speed downhill through the traffic and pedestrians, I feel like an actual Tour cyclist. Unfortunately, that cyclist is Dave Zabriskie, who lost the yellow jersey here a day earlier when he suddenly crashed with a mile to go.
12:35 p.m. 42.2 miles: I coast past the finish line. Or what had been the finish line. Yesterday, there were thousands upon thousands of fans watching the finish here. Now, there is nothing but an empty parking area. No fans, no TV crews, no podium and, most disappointing of all, no Sheryl Crow.
12:41 p.m., 42.3 miles: I'm pretty sure the start of Stage 5 is at 1:15 in Chambord, about 12 miles away. I doubt that I can ride there that quickly, but the start might actually be at 1:30. In that case, I can make it in time to see the riders off. Either way, I need to try. If nothing else, the additional mileage on the bike will give me a better understanding of what a longer stage is like.
1:23 p.m. 54.5 miles: I'm just about at Chambord when I notice a very long, steady stream of traffic coming toward me. I believe I'm a little late for the start.
I've come this far, though. There is nothing to do but continue the rest of the way. At the very least, there should be a concession stand where I can get something to eat. I'm starving.
1:29 p.m. 56 miles: There is no concession stand. They are, however, selling key chains for $8 each.
1:54 p.m., 56.2 miles: As soon as I point my bike back toward Blois and ride away from Chambord, I receive a very unpleasant surprise. There is one helluva headwind blowing solidly in my face. I averaged 17 miles per hour most of the way to Blois, and 15 mph most of the way from Blois to Chambord. But with the wind kicking me in the teeth, I can't get the bike above 10.
I'm tired, thirsty and hungry. And then it starts to rain.
2:22 p.m., 61.6 miles: I am going so slow that Pee Wee Herman just passed me.
2:30 p.m. 62.8 miles: I walked the marathon course at last year's Olympics in 104-degree heat, but this is much, much worse. I'm not joking. I really am miserable. My legs aren't the problem. They're tired, but not particularly sore. It's my shoulders and back that ache from leaning my weight on the handlebars for the past six hours.
2:37 p.m, 63.8 miles: @&$%! @&$%!@&$%!
2:44 p.m., 64.6 miles: I've hit the wall. My heart is racing but I am slowing. I have less than five miles to ride, but it doesn't seem possible that I can make it. I stop by the side of the road and lie flat on my back, absolutely defeated. My bags have a bicycle pump, but what I really need is a defibrillator.
Lying on the ground, I vow that the next time I want to experience a sport, it will be NASCAR, harness racing or anything else where I don't have to supply the muscle.
2:55 p.m. 64.8 miles: I'm back up on the bike and feeling better. The speedometer increases to 12 mph. I think I'll make it if nothing else happens.
2:57 p.m. 65 miles: I ride through an enormous swarm of tiny, black gnats, which coat my arms and face with dark splotches. It could be worse, though. The way this ride is going, they could have been locusts.
3:26 p.m., 68.8 miles: After a long, slow push up the hill into Blois, I finally arrive at the hotel where I am to return my bike. I have ridden almost 70 miles, about three times as far as I ever go in a day. I want to spread my arms wide and celebrate like the guy at the end of "Breaking Away" when he wins the Little 500. I can't lift my arms though, so I settle for collapsing in a heap.
I feel like a pile of dirty laundry. And I suspect I smell like one, too.
I am completely wiped out. But what really exhausts me is thinking that the Tour riders will go the same distance, plus another 46 miles. And they'll do it in less time. Factoring out the few breaks, I rode for about six hours and gained a new appreciation for competitive cycling.
As well as an uncomfortable rash around my private parts.
Jim Caple is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His first book, "The Devil Wears Pinstripes," is on sale now at bookstores nationwide. It also can be ordered through his Web site, Jimcaple.com.