Journeying through the Tour de Pain

HE'S patient, eloquent, soft-spoken, reasonable, but it's when he starts talking about the gravel in his knees, and the blood, and the bandages, AND HE'S LAUGHING, that you figure out Stephen Hodge is well, just that little bit insane, too.

ROHIT BRIJNATH

The cyclists climb the Col d'Izoard during stage nine of the Tour de France from Bourg d'Oisans to Gap in France. "Going through all the pain and knowing that winning is improbable, the pleasure is in the brotherhood of teamwork, in sacrificing for the leader," says Australian Stephen Hodge, who has ridden and finished the Tour de France six times in the 1990s.-Pic. DOUG PENSINGER/GETTY IMAGES

HE'S patient, eloquent, soft-spoken, reasonable, but it's when he starts talking about the gravel in his knees, and the blood, and the bandages, AND HE'S LAUGHING, that you figure out Stephen Hodge is well, just that little bit insane, too.

So, of course he is.

What else do you call a man who willingly cycles 3500 kilometres, at an average speed of 40kmph, whose life over 22 days, amidst assaults by cold and heat, is reduced to pedal, eat, sleep, pedal.

How else can you describe a man who rides some days for seven hours, staggering up hills that resemble an unending staircase to hell, then descending at 60-70kmph, in the rain, with a 1000 foot fall on one side.

Insane is a good word.

So this is really my fault. Because I've been looking at TV pictures of the Tour de France, described by Lance Armstrong as a "sport of self-abuse", the most gruelling, lung-challenging, heart-breaking annual competition in mainstream sport (sometimes one-third of 190 odd riders don't finish), but I can't really feel its agony.

It's when I call up Australian Stephen Hodge, who's ridden and finished the Tour de France six times in the 1990s, and ask him: forget tactics, skills, technique, just explain to me about this Tour de Pain.

So he puts his children to bed, and then for an hour takes me on a journey, after which no longer can you look at these faceless men, hunched over bikes, and feel anything but awe.

By the time riders like Hodge begin the Tour they have roughly 20,000 kilometres in their legs for the season, they're the fittest, focussed, best 200 cyclists alive. Most have no chance of winning but it's not why they're here. They're here for the team, to help their best rider win. It's why you go on.

The pain is not always there, but it will come. That is a guarantee. It can arrive like the swollen tendon under his shoulder blade one year, normally as slim as a pencil, now as thick as a finger. "Every day I'd lie down and have it massaged to ease it. Every day for two weeks I was crying."

But you don't stop. You can't.

The pain comes in different forms, as if in some way there is a good pain and a bad one.

"There is the drained state, you try to go hard but you can't. The legs burn, you're hardly coherent, sometimes you get a little light-headed, like you're in trance, your vision comes down to a point, there is no peripheral vision. It's a sick pain."

One year, he has a virus, and his resting heart rate, usually in the 40s, is up to 70, his form is bad, his health sucks. He's on the hills, working for his team, but he falls right back, till the slowest riders hiss past him.

Three days remain, the next stage is the longest, and he's ready to pull out, but the team manager says `think about it', and his team leader is running second, so he remounts, and somehow takes his battered body 230 more kilometres.

But even here, at his lowest, he sees some light. In just not quitting, in his mind achieving this desolate victory over his body, he finds "a new confidence."

Some pain is more pleasant, like when the rider's feeling strong, like when Hodge talks about "pushing into the red," as if his body's a machine to be taken to the maximum, and "you feel a pounding in your chest, and your head and neck and throat are throbbing, and you get a sort of metallic taste in your mouth. It's like the taste of blood."

This is good pain!

I ask about the mountains. Bad idea. For this is "consistent long-term pain." It's also about finding a balance. "If I pedal too slowly my legs burn, if I pedal too fast it makes my breathing lose control, so I have to keep my legs and lungs in balance."

It's hot, it's hard, but you can't pause, not even to take your bottle out and wash out your dry, aching throat, "because it means you could lose a metre or two."

You could lose some skin, too.

One time he's racing down the mountains, and a rock blows his tyre out, and he falls, and he's got "a hole in my knee, and my elbow." So he waits till he gets a new wheel, and there's blood all over, and he's back cycling again.

And this is where you have to think he's crazy.

Because when the stage is over, he takes a brush and "scrubs the wounds." To get the gravel out, to ensure there's no infection. "You start bleeding again, you scrub till it's all out," and then in passing he mentions he once fainted while doing this.

But he's laughing. He tells you his wife used to be a nurse, but he's the better expert on dressings.

And if you're wondering why cyclists shave their legs, it's not just because it's easier when it comes to a massage, or that, he laughs, muscles look better under shaved skin, but because it's easier to get the gravel out.

So, where then, in this pain, in this knowledge that winning is improbable, is the pleasure?

It's in the brotherhood of teamwork, in sacrificing for the leader, in having the great Laurent Jalabert, who won the green jersey one year, say: "I couldn't have done it without Hodgy." As Hodge says, in a way "I'm already a winner."

It's in climbing hills where you can't see the road because the crowd's so thick, and you cycle as hard as you can, straight for them, and they part like the Red Sea, and the cheering is wild, "and it's a real buzz."

It's in the powerful knowledge that by not stopping, by riding through every crisis, "it just makes you stronger for the next time."

And it's in the pure, aching beauty of just finishing, of climbing this personal Everest.

Hodge, who wears his six finishes like badge of pride, remembers the day when he ended his first tour. "I was riding along down the Champs Elysees, and remembering what I'd been through these three weeks."

"And I was crying."