I just got back from a few days at Niagara-on-the-Lake indulging in a lot of theatre at the Shaw Festival (I highly recommend One Touch of Venus and The Doctor's Dilemma) interspersed with some lovely bike rides along the Niagara Parkway. But I'm back home now and ready to embark on my annual three week obsession with the Tour de France. I am only a recreational cyclist, but no other exercise gives me as much pleasure and pain (or pleasurable pain) than pushing myself and my little foldable bike up a hill, or going a few extra kilometres even when I'm tired. So I have the ultimate respect for this gruelling and dangerous bike race.
To get geared up, I took along a book I'd been meaning to read for a long time - Dutch writer Tim Krabbé's classic The Rider, translated by Sam Garrett - which describes his 1977 particiaption in the one day, 137 kilometre Tour de Mont Aigoual. The book takes you suspensefully through the race, kilometre by kilometre (Krabbé is actually a contender), showing exactly what is going on in the mind of the cyclist at every moment - the superstitions, the strategy, the rivalries, the boredom, the weather, the fear, and of course the pain. Oh, yes, the pain. In the middle of an arduous climb in muggy weather, he describes how "My brains are getting ready to squish out of my ears like gravy rolls". En route are digressions on how he got started (he only became a racer at the rather late age of twenty-nine), humourous or defining moments in the history of the sport, and philosophical mediations on why he keeps putting himself through it all. A great read and introduction to the sport - without the tired muscles.
I also rented Louis Malle's 1962 documentary Vive Le Tour. It's part of Criterion's Eclipse Series that includes a number of Malle documentaries. Though it's only 19 minutes, it provides a very entertaining look at the sport if only to compare how different the race was almost fifty years ago. My favourite scene is of the bikers riding through a small village and stopping to raid a local bar of bottles of beer and wine which they tucked into the back of their jerseys. No helmets then of course, and Malle doesn't shy away from filming injuries. And of course the pain and physical effort remain the same.