A reflection on a first and painful Tour De France
“The only way I’m leaving this race is by ambulance or not making time cut.”
Well that’s some famous last words I’ve had to eat. Entering the team bus at the start of stage 18 to see your bag packed, hustled off to a train station, and the tour ends with the antithesis of fanfare in which it began.
Stage 17 was the end of my debut tour de France, toughing it out over 2 and a half weeks of illness, teammates breaking bones, utter chaos and long transfers. About 50k into stage 17, just 4 stages away from finishing in Paris, I threw in the towel. Ever seen a skin suit covered in vomit? A few too many days of that, and my body truly couldn’t go anymore. I used to think the mind was enough, but I’ve learnt that the body wins over the mind, no matter the will.
I was once told you either have excuses, or results. So when I tell this story, filled with what to me are reasons, nay, facts, I know others hear it as excuses, so it’s hard for me not to feel like I failed. I wasn’t exactly sure what the TDF meant to me, cliché I know, but once I got there I had this overwhelming feeling that everything I had done in my life had been working to this moment. I felt the warmth of every memory of suffering and hardship swinging back around, I had reached the pinnacle of something. I had done something for me, for my family and for the hundreds of people who had helped me get to this point in my life. All I had to do now was be myself and trust that the last 3 grand tours I’d done would prepare me for this. All I kept reminding myself was that it can’t be harder than the 2014 Giro when we all went down in the opening TTT, It can’t be harder then getting through that… simple right? How fickle.
Rewind 2.5 weeks: First road stage: insane. This race is another level. It’s not faster then other GTs, the difference is that it just never slows down. Simple as that. I rode well, In fact, I road very well. I saved Talansky after a crash with a performance that I felt was world class. I knew my form was more then on. Energy within the team was high, the seal was broken, it was no longer about getting to the race, we were now there to win. And in all honesty, it was starting to feel somewhat destined for a breakthrough. My body felt incredible, and in my mind I knew that I had done the work. Destiny was about to unfold.
That night however, something wasn’t sitting right. Murphy’s law states that “if something can go wrong, it will,” worse than rain on a wedding day, is rain through Dutch farmers fields as the shit hits the non proverbial fan of spokes and tends to fly into one’s mouth, which in cross wind Belgium is always pretty wide open. Knocked down like a fist to the jaw I was reduced to the toilet that next morning. Choosing to ignore the reality of the situation I chose to see this as a one off. The next stage, I ran out of juice earlier then expected, and then worse the next. Finally, stage four saw the beginning of something. A moment in my life I’d rather forget if I’m honest, and that was the Tour de Spew. Every time I went hard on the bike, bamn. Vomit.
My only hope was to get to the rest day after the team time trial. I had managed to somehow keep doing my job for Talansky and Martin. In fact, I think it was because we had a goal I could keep pushing myself to this limit and past it every day. The team time trial was the hardest however, at about half way the feeling of food rising out of my stomach came, but I pushed on. I was told to sit on by the directors, but I cared more about what we had been working towards more then the suffering. The deeper I dug every turn only made me hungrier to suffer more. The struggle was actually fueling me. I was an animal yes, but a digestive fluid laden one. Eventually, 3 quarters of the way in, the vomit choked me. I lost the wheel and then it’s all over.
Reality hit. Internal voice: chill man. This is fucked. Just make time cut, tomorrow is a rest day, you’ve got this. Screw that guy in my head with his positivity, those final km’s were some of the loneliest of my life. The crowds will cheer you, but it only makes it harder. When you can’t even lift for the moment, momentum is perilous, desire is darkening and suffering is pronounced. This isn’t the TDF, this is just life, but something about this stupid race seems to bring it to the fore.
After a self induced coma on the rest day, seeing me awake for less then 6 hours total, I felt like I was coming around. The medical team were on it, and I can only thank them for their efforts. I was told to just sit in the peloton and recover for the next while, which also brought both my body and mind around. Even just one day without the stress of positioning is like a holiday. Like I said earlier in the story, all I thought I had to do at this race was be myself and trust it, so I listened.
Stage 13, I had eyed it off for months. This was the stage the break could win, and I will be the guy in it. Fuck being sick, Fuck the stress and fuck these guys, this is my day. I remember waking that morning and hardly talking. I was more focused then I have ever remembered. I readied myself, left the bus and sat in the gutter behind the event village to find some solace. I remember making the joke to myself, to twist a phrase, that we are all actually in the gutter, but some of us are about to go make history. I looked down t my arm, where I had written a note to myself for the day in big, black marker. It read ‘HAVE FUN’ because I think sometimes at this highest level we forget why we started riding. Now to the race, when the flag went down I went with the first attack, and then the next and again the one after, it was all uphill and the lactic pain was something else. I knew the string was about to break and It was hurting. And I mean hurting bad. At one point I was about to crack and I noticed De Ghent moving on the right. He’s one sneaky bastard, so I knew when he moves, it’s the one. So one last dig to follow and that was that. I’d made the break. Objective one, tick. Next thing objective was ride this break with brains. You never win by being the strong break away, you win by being the break that tricks the peloton.
One thing on our side however was the weather gauge, my Garmin was reading over 50c, official temp was 47, so to say hot, well that feels weak. We had the cars behind us so getting bottles and ice was easier then for the peloton. In these races where heat is major factor its so hard to lift the pace in the final for the peloton so I knew if we blew the gap open towards the final we might just hang on. My group slowed and I felt I needed to attack to keep their heads on, so I did. I was away for a while, but was happy to be caught with a group that was now in ‘final’ mode, we were moving fast! But so was the peloton now. We were caught under flame rouge, standard story, there are no gifts in the Tour. But I was happy. I had fun and I thought the body was fixed. Mental suffering over and time to just suffer for stage wins. Yea. Dream on.
So after this my body shut down again, I’d cooked the goose. Was it heat stroke? Was it my stomach virus returning? Combination? Who knows but it was bad again. Fast forward to the start of stage 17.
The second rest day in Gap, things within the team weren’t great. We were off GC, we hadn’t won a stage and we were hearing sad news that Bauer needed surgery on his broken hip, Langeveld left with a stomach virus, team sponsors were putting pressure on us, as were the directors, and I was in a dark place. Physically, but mentally, I never thought I could be weak like this. I always thought I was tough, but now I look back, that isn’t an easy memory. Anyhow, Stage 17 was a repeat of a monstrous stage from this years Dauphine so I knew what I was up against. Hell. Terrain aside it was not a good day to be suffering. Timing was a bitch. TJ van Garderen who was 3rd on GC was being dropped on the first climb so the hammer went down to dispose of him. He later withdrew from the stage, so it was drama filled. However, for me, I was once again, a hurling mess, today was particularly bad but even worse, my head was saying fight, but my spirit just couldn’t overcome the pain. It gave up. I gave up. I was crying. Already 15 minutes behind the peloton alone with 110kms to go I had one last moment of clarity. I reminded myself that I do not leave this race without either being in an Ambulance or by missing time cut. So there it was, a lonely 110kms, a challenge and a sad yet powerful end to my story.
30km’s later, not being able to hold down any fluid, my cramps started, my jaw locking, my stomach convulsing, it was time to bid the Tour adieu. The hardest part about the moment was not getting off, it was not having the privacy to do so.
About 5 photo bikes were behind me for the last hour hovering like vultures waiting for the inevitable. Fuck the Tour I was thinking, it had lost it’s beauty at this moment. It had won and with the media, it felt like it was just rubbing it in my face with every space invading shot. Even thinking back to it now as I type hurts me, because I always felt that I was stronger then this. It turns out it’s not so hard to loose your way.
That night was hard, twitter blowing up, Facebook, email, yes, thank you to everybody for the wishes, but nothing fixes the moment. I was in isolation because the medical staff thought maybe I had a new virus and didn’t want me to be around the others just in case. So I didn’t even get to say bye to the guys I’d gone to war with for 18 days, let alone the months before preparing. Alone in my room I sat, booking a train from gap the next morning to see my girlfriend, who most people forget about how hard the role of a partner is, something hit me, the tour wasn’t just only over for me, but I was out of the tour. My spot on the bus packed, my ticket out, deleted off race email thread, bam you’re out. From one day being the focus to the next: irrelevant. I don’t like to think I have an ego, but that’s a hard-hitting moment. A hard lesson to learn, but the truth is we are just pawns in a game. But it’s a good lesson to learn. Perhaps one that can redesign the way in which I focus on myself. Cycling team works a bit like a mid-air emergency, you have to put the oxygen mask on yourself before you can help others. In this case, there was no mask for me, and I had been thrown out of the plane.
I wanted to finish that Tour down to my last bone. I wanted to ride in on the Champs Elysees, I wanted to end my fourth professional season having completed the biggest race in the world. And lets be honest, I don’t love grand tours so finishing would have been a great closing so that I didn’t feel I ever had to do this again on a needs basis, rather by choice. Now I feel like I am left with no choice but to fight again just to finish this beast of an event. Even though I see through the facade and myriad of media and glory, I need to do this because I hate losing. I hate losing more then I like winning. So The TDF will never sit at ease in my heart until I come back and hunt it.
I spent the next 3 days in a small French village near Aix le Bains licking my wounds. It was hard to avoid the tour however, in France it’s bloody everywhere, but these days were good for the soul. My outbound travel took me through Paris, Sunday to Monday. My plan: avoid the race at all costs, be done with it, move on and reset.
The tour had other plans, it wanted to hit me one last time, with both knees already out, hardly standing, all that was left to be taken from me, my heart. Turns out there is not much open in Paris on Sundays. My idea to run away from the race, to get lost in alleys off Haussman boulevards was not to be, and soon after I saw myself wandering through the “zone technique” just behind the finish line. I could hear the announcers, the screams of the crowd as “La Course” women’s race was completing. And I watched the team busses park in the place de Concorde… To boot, I wasn’t even allowed in. Classic moment.
Nothing can quite describe the bitter taste of my salty tears. Perhaps maybe bitter isn’t even the right word…It’s a sadness, and an avoidance, an excitement for my friends and teammates but an anger at myself for what I will always see as a disappointment. An attainable distance away from something I had in the grasp of my hand, a sting of what seems an injustice, a acidic feeling of rejection and a sweet reminder that something meant so much to you, without you even knowing how much. Walking back to my hotel with the race over all I could think about was the juxtaposition between how my teammates felt that hour, having finished in Paris, whereas I felt finished. Over dramatic perhaps? Yes, perhaps, but the hormonal swing you get from a grand tour is nothing to laugh about. It’s not human to do what we do, so we can’t expect to stay human every moment of it.
I wonder what its like for ex pros, who remain in cycling industry, to see Paris from the other side…. Will it always be a lust for more? For me right now it is, but I at least have the future on my side. I guess it’s not as easy to be on the other side as I maybe first thought.
A year on now, finally recovered medically from the stomach issues, I think I’ve recovered emotionally. Which I think is the true struggle. Has it made me stronger? I don’t want to harp on with some self-empowering feel good bullshit, but what I will say is I have experience. You cannot write what you have learned because you can only feel what you have and for me it’s more empowering to leave it unsaid, because ‘the essential here is unsayable’. What I can say though, is that everybody is your friend when the going is good, but what I truly did learn from this, is that the people who called me after the tour, after all the shit, because they cared for me as a person and not an athlete, they are important people to me, they know who they are, and I can’t thank them enough. And what is lovely about this, is when I get to fight again, I know who and what I am suffering for.
Words: Nathan Haas