Now that I’ve entered my fourth year of retirement I must say, there are still things I miss about the Tour de France, an annual 21-stage bike race that traverses around 3,500 kilometers (2,200 miles) in and around France. I still cycle recreationally and continue to tackle new challenges, but the Tour remains close to my heart. When I think back on the 17 times I raced it, these memories rise to the top.
1. The Bond of Brotherly Camaraderie
When you spend nearly a month with a great group of men, you go through a lot together. My teammates and I shared triumphs, agony, and a lot of laughter. We won and lost together, survived crashes and sketchy situations, and helped lift each other up during low points. We trained, ate, and lived in such close proximity that we became a band of brothers, not just teammates riding together. Looking back, I laugh when I remember the times we all had road rash. Needless to say, the feeling of surviving the Tour as a group was special and unique.
2. The Perks of Fresh Gear and Gadgets
Arriving at the Tour each year was like waking up on Christmas morning; I always had the opportunity to try out new sports technology. We’d get new bikes—often with a special paint job just for the Tour—and new helmets and shoes. We’d also get a completely new kit, the cycling term for our jerseys and shorts. The opportunity to try new performance gear never got old. Even during my last Tour, at age 42, I still loved that feeling. Let’s be honest, who doesn’t like free swag, am I right?
3. The Feeling of Elite Fitness
When you’re surrounded by teammates you admire, and you’re placing high among a group of elite athletes, you wake up thinking you can take on the world. The feeling of knowing you’re among the fittest and strongest people on the planet is unbeatable. You trained all your life, got selected for the Tour, and now it’s your chance to show the world what you’re made of. Proving yourself on a global stage is full of pressure and expectation, but it’s also a major adrenaline rush.
4. The Power of Being the X-Factor
Every rider on a team has a role, and mine was dishing out pain. One year, while riding the Giro d’Italia, I spoke with British rider Charly Wegelius. As we talked about the role of each rider on the team, he said, “You’re like the nuclear warhead in the Cold War. Everyone is happy to have it as backup, but actually no one dares set it off.” That was one of the best compliments I’ve ever received. I prided myself on being the not-so-secret weapon in cycling’s premier events; I played that role in the Tour, too. I loved being someone who could put fear in others and help carry my team to victory.
5. The Flood of Emotions
The Tour de France is an emotional rollercoaster. You start the Tour full of pride and excitement but also a whole lot of respect and fear. I still remember the morning signing-in ceremonies, where fans would welcome each rider with applause and admiration.
The positivity of the send-off was followed by the harsh reality of the challenge we were about to undertake. Every year about a quarter of the starters do not make it to the finish line in Paris due to things like crashes, illness, and burnout. Out of my 17 Tours, I’ve finished 14 times. And each time the Champs-Élysées “victory lap” has been a huge highlight. Hundreds of thousands of people wait until the race has ended to see you do one easy, relaxed lap of honor on that famous street. The feeling? Pure goosebumps.
In the end, you’re overcome with a huge sense of relief but, shortly after, you’re awash in sadness that another adventure has come to an end. It’s during moments like that when I remember thinking: “This is what I trained for; this is why I’m alive.”
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