Matt Crane at Sunny King Criterium, April 2010
Matt Crane at Sunny King Criterium in Anniston, Alabama, April 2010. (Photo courtesy: B.G. Andrews Photography)
I was a professional cyclist for the better part of a decade, yet during the Tour de France each July, I became a shameless groupie for my own vocation. The awe and pleasure inspired in me by this special race did not diminish even after I had found the global stage of sport. For this, I was regularly teased by teammates throughout the years. When I would ecstatically comment on Tour action they would only gape at me, incredulous — how could I idolize our competition?
The Tour de France is what Casablanca is to film; myth and adoration have brewed to bestow a veneer of singular splendor upon the event. Think of the three weeks of competition as 21 individual battles — stages — tied together by a campaign for the overall victory, awarded to the rider with the lowest cumulative racing time. To win a stage is a massive feat and an instant career highlight for any rider. (The legendary Eddy Merckx of Belgium holds the record with 34 total stage wins).
This year's event will depart from the Netherlands with a short time trial, and will enter France on the fourth day of racing. To commence outside France is not unusual; it has long been rumored that the organizers have their eye on a U.S. start. Look to the steep climbs of Stage 3, and the wicked cobblestones of Stage 4, to cause time gaps between groups of riders, crashes and surprises right from the onset. In the second and third week, there will be spectacular action on the high mountain roads of the Alps and Pyrenees. American dark-horse contender Andrew Talansky will shine on these climbs, and Virginia's own Ben King may be instrumental in aiding his challenge.
The Tour de France sits on a lofty pedestal among the Tours of Spain and Italy as one of the three grand tours of cycling. To ride in one of these events is a career goal for just about any racing cyclist, and was certainly one of mine. Although I never lined up for one of the big three, I certainly raced a large swath of smaller stage races across the globe. (As a stage race specialist with a knack for time trials, I’ve made trips to the podium at races Europe, Asia, and all over the United States. My career highlights include representing the United States at the 2004 UCI Road World Championships and winning the Most Courageous Rider jersey at the 2009 Tour of California.)
A single day of bicycle racing, in very conservative numbers, might look something like this: 100 miles ridden at an average speed of 26 mph; 3,500 calories burned and 22,800 revolutions of the pedal. In order to repeat this feat over multiple days, I learned to actively wrap myself in proverbial cotton wool to maximize my body's ability to recuperate. From my first season with the U.S. National Cycling Team, I can recall an eight-day race in Normandy, France, during which I was very nearly sent home for daring to walk one mile to a gas station (I needed a bar of chocolate). My coach was incredulous that I dared waste my precious energy on such a frivolity!
For a professional rider, some of the days in a stage race are completely pedestrian; the race finishes without much undue strain, and you feel as if you have put in something akin to a “day at the office.” If you are like most in the pro ranks, you might reach for a cold soda, wipe yourself off with a towel, and head to your hotel for an attack upon the race buffet before a 30-minute deep-tissue leg massage.
Cycling would not have its well-deserved reputation for soul-sucking brutality were all days quite so friendly to the human condition. Take, for instance, my experience during Stage 6 of the Mount Hood Classic in June 2008. On that day of racing, we were thrust upon wide-open and sun-saturated pseudo-desert roads before tackling a massive climb to a ski resort. The air temperature was well into the 90s by the first hour or racing, and I could see white lines of dried sweat forming already on my black shorts. It wasn't long before the first of my teammates cracked from the heat and the cumulative effects of the week's racing. By hour two, we had lost two more riders, and I was now one of the sole remaining domestiques (French for “helpers”). With any more attrition in the ranks, we would need to start using the team's precious big-gun riders to protect our leader. Apprehension for the steep roads ahead, coupled with the cruel heat, was quickly turning the screws on my already strained capabilities. I put myself to task, drinking as much Coca-Cola as possible — it's rocket fuel for a bike racer — in the hopes of riding a sugar and caffeine wave until I could be relieved.
I fell off the pace with 40 kilometers (about 25 miles) and that one giant, final climb left to race. I had punched the clock, but my workday was far from finished — I still had to make it to the finish line within the time cut in order to have any hope of starting the next day. By this point, my body was devoid of all fuel, and as so often happens in cycling, it was grit that carried me through the day. Singing Bob Marley songs to the wind, half-delirious, surrounded by the stunning pine-rich natural beauty of the West Coast, I somehow delivered myself to the finish line and to the remnants of my waiting team. No one said a word, not even to point out that we had won the race, as I lowered myself into a folding chair in the shade of our team van. My legs alternately streaked with red sports drink, road grime, brake dust and vomit, I put my head down and immediately wept with abandon — sobs wracked my whole body. I wasn't upset or sad; I was simply at the end of my mental and emotional rope from having willed myself, in agony and exhaustion, up that final climb.
This is where we get to the real pith of the stage race: I had to do it all over again the next day! There is insanity in this, yes, but in these big bike races, there is a daily affirmation of the human spirit and the superhuman heights we are capable of accessing in only the most special of circumstances. This drama is at the very core of my love for the sport, knowing as I do what these riders are capable of pushing themselves to do.
I will be thrilled to watch the colorful pageantry of cycling unfold across France this summer, and as always, I will keep a close eye on the faces of the riders to glimpse that gritty magic of top-flight bicycle racing. I enjoy the spectacle perhaps a little more now that the days of suffering are safely in the vault of memory; at the very least, I am free to exercise my fan-dom for this beautiful sport without inviting ridicule from my co-workers!
Currently director of development with the nonprofit Richmond Cycling Corps, Matt Crane helped establish the nation's first inner-city high school cycling team out of Armstrong High School in Richmond's East End.