After more than 88 hours of cycling, 8 seconds separates the top two riders in this year’s Tour de France. That is less time than it takes to boil a kettle, or than most people spend in the voting booth in May.
It is said that the Tour de France has the largest television crew following it after the Football World Cup and the Olympics, and watching Contador and Schleck (on whom I have money) head up the Col du Tourmalet the number of spectators must have easily exceeded 20,000.
But how can we know what they have gone through? To watch from our sofas, a cup of tea close at hand, makes it as difficult to know what they are going through feels like as it is to taste the food Jamie Oliver is cooking through a 3D television.
It was a problem I encountered early on in writing Why We Run, and it was to the printed word that I turned for inspiration. It was late into a party a few summers ago – the sun was already coming up – when someone mentioned Tim Krabbé’s The Rider. It is a short, brutal fictionalised account of one man in one cycling race. Not only does it give a glimpse of the physical toil of what these cyclists put themselves through, but it also reveals the interior disintegration of the four burnt-out walls of their minds as they tilt towards the finish line. The hairs on the back of my neck still stand to attention just thinking about it.
My boy Schleck has one last chance to make a grab for the Maillot Jaune in today’s time trial, but Contador put 1 minute 40 on him here last year, and being the Time Trial Champion of Luxembourg is only so impressive. But if you want to know what they are going through without having to leave the comfort of your deckchair, this is the best place to start.