The thoughts, stories and advice of Bill Riddell.

Le Tour de Armchair Cushion – Part 1

July 28th, 2009 Posted in personal, writing

A Spectator Spends 4 Days Chasing Down Lance Armstrong from the Discomfort of his Own Bedroom and Stationary Bike by Bill Riddell



Over the past few years I have slowly been building a keen interest in the Tour de France, the worlds most famous cycle race. It was started just over 100 years ago in order to increase the circulation of L’Auto, a sports newspaper (now L’Equipe). It worked, the inaugural 1903 race more than doubled circulation.

The race has continued, pausing only for the two world wars. L’Equipe still covers the tour passionately while its parent company, the Amaury Group (EPA), manages the event.

This time last year I was on a health kick and rode along on some stages, shedding weight as I went after spending the previous year’s amassing an impressive collection of body fat. Since Christmas last year I had largely fallen off the bike, pardon the pun, as my weight slowly crept up and my fitness slowly declined.

It was time for action, an Armstrong style comeback.

I figured if seven time champion Lance Armstrong could return after cancer and then another comeback, after 4 years away from the bike, then I could return after just 1 years absence. So I decided to join him.

The odometer on my stationary bike read 2,042km. Sadly, I’m sure only the final 42km had been completed in recent months. Most athletes spend all year, even their whole career, preparing for the tour. I decide to do it 4 hours prior to the 176 riders departing from Monaco for Stage 1.

I knew it was unrealistic to tackle the full 3,500km that the world’s best riders would cover on this year’s tour. I would ride along with my local television broadcast on my stationary bike to the best of my ability.

As follows is my account of the first four days of the tour and my attempts to keep up with the worlds best riders.

STAGE 1 – High Rolling with Lance

I flick on the TV at 11:30pm on the 4th of July. In track pants and a hoodie – I have the TV remote in my pocket and 2 litres of water sits at the ready on a chair next to my stationary bike.

With 8 hours required at my day job the following morning I was relieved to see it would be a short stage so my fellow riders and I could ease our way in somewhat. A 15.5km individual time trial was on the cards, so at least today I won’t feel completely stupid riding alone. What I will feel stupid about is eating a ridiculously large and unhealthy meal of fish and chips just a few hours before.

Passing the famous Monte Carlo Casino, the track winds its way around the world’s second smallest country after the Vatican City. The stage had to cross repeatedly into its neighbouring countries of France and Italy in order to create the 15.5km stage in a country only 2 kilometres square. It would feature a 7 km climb with a bit of level ground followed by a difficult descent.

Since I was brave enough to tackle the toughest race I decided to line up against its toughest competitor Armstrong. We both began cranking the peddles as he rolled down the start ramp, waved off by Prince Albert ruler of Monaco.

Armstrong is quickly out of the saddle as he rides around the casino. His bike had been hand crafted in the US specifically for this stage. My $120 stationary bike looked like a joke and the seat looks like it was designed by someone with no understanding of ergonomics or the idea of comfort.

My first 2 km’s is achived after 5 minutes of riding at a steady 24km/h. As Lance climbs upwards I increase resistance. After 10 minutes peddling my pace is still improving, having covered 4.3km’s.

denis adam de villiers

denis adam de villiers

Armstrong leads the field at the first time check. Disappointed with my own performance, I pick up the pace as Armstrong levels out and descends. I cannot match his frightening 65km/h, topping out at 43km/h as my legs struggle to keep pace with the momentum of the peddles at times.

Shortly after I have ridden 6.5km’s from15 minutes in the saddle. Lance darts through the Grand Prix tunnel, I’m used to seeing Formula 1 cars driven by the likes of Michael Schumacher and Mark Webber blast through at speeds more than three times greater than Lance’s high cadence can produce.

My pace setter Armstrong stops the clock at 20minutes 12 seconds, I’m over half way there – 8.6km down.

After a necessary toilet break I put my head down and crank the peddles. At 25 minutes on the bike I have covered 10.7km’s. 30 minutes sees the distance push out to 12.85km’s.

I finally pass the fictional 15.5km finish line in 36 minutes and 46 seconds – celebrating my achievement of being over half as good as Armstrong by emptying the remainder of my drink bottle over my head.

I follow the commands of the exercise scientist in my head and complete a 1/2km cool down, barely peddling, to remove built up lactic acid in my legs just like the pros do. This is followed by a few more minutes massaging my poor legs, then crashing into bed after Fabian Cancellara topped the stage, followed by Alberto Contador. My countryman Cadel Evans was 5th and my pace setter Lance was 10th, 40seconds off the time of Cancellara.

STAGE 2 – Le Tour is Infections (As Is My Throat)

After a long and stressful day of work, together with a very sore throat, I do not feel like climbing back on the stationary bike. For some reason I don my coveted yellow hoodie and instantly feel no better, but compelled to press on.

Even before climbing back on the bike I feel saddle sore for the 187km ride from the principality of Monaco to Brignoles in the South of France. Mark Cavendish of Colombia is favourite for the sprint to the finish. I was in no condition to match him and the pack – I’d be pushing to ride that distance over 4 or 5 days.

An early group of 4 broke away from the peloton (the pack containing most riders and the general classification leaders) as my local TV coverage started. I begin cranking the peddles at 10:28pm with 116km to go for the breakaway group.



Bareley 10 minutes is all it takes them to cover 5 km, with fresh legs I complete my first 3.25km’s in the same duration.

After just over 15 minutes riding my butt and taint is really saddle sore. I jump from my seat to find a pillow to ease my pain. Shortly after I’m relieved to see Frank Schleck of Team Saxo Bank replacing his bike after an early crash and taking on domestique duty, delivering water bottles to his teammates. I cut myself some slack, having a drink and swapping the pillow for a more padded cushion from the armchair I usually watch sport in – oh the irony.

As the lead group has 100km left I have spent 25 minutes on the bike and travelled almost 10 kilometres. I take a 2 minute break – incredibly sore. Most mechanical breaks last 40 seconds and the riders have little trouble getting back to the peloton. I return to the bike and say a quick prayer to the bike gods that my saddle soreness will ease over the following stages.

Unimpressed with my progress, I stage a sprint after 50 minutes in the saddle – pushing my speed past 30km/h for a few minutes after achieving 10% of the race distance. My speed soon fades, as my body temp slowly rises with my exhaustion, I ditch the mock yellow leader’s jersey – known to the French and tour tragic’s as the maillot jaune.

After 56min in the saddle, to cover 21.6km, I stop for toilet break as riders in the peloton hit the feeding zone and snatch grocery bags of snacks from the hands of team helpers standing on the side of the road, they have 76km remaining. My sore throat, I’m convinced is a persistent throat infection returning. I can’t afford to get rundown during the tour so I snatch a glass containing a berrocca to replace some much needed vitamins.

At 56km to go the breakaway grous is holding a 4:20 lead – I have travelled 30km in just under 80 minute of riding.

Team Colombia takes the initiative with 30km’s left and sends a rider forward to push toward the breakaway. Together with Team Saxo Bank they begin shaving back the gap.

With just over thirty minute to go, lead of 2 min 30 for the breakaways. Sufffereing great pain I take another break. Mylegs are fatiguing but not in too much pain, that is reserved for my sadlle soreness as well as pain in my hips and lower back.

With 10km to go for the field I am struggling and play some tunes to carry me through. The gap rapidly diminishes to 20 seconds before a final push sees Colombia toss aside the breakaways and assume the lead. I take another break and prepare for the sprint to the line.

5km’s to go, the sprinters bare their teeth as the teams pick up the pace. Milram jostles to get Bernard Cholic in place and Colombia keeps Mark Cavenidish in contention. I get my second or maybe 12th wind and push down on the peddles, picking up the pace from barely 20 to 26km/h.

Whole Grain Photography

Whole Grain Photography

Almost 1km to the finish a roundabout splits the field. Colombia keeps the pace as Garmin-Slipstream tries to muscle in with George Henkapie. Colombia peels away a succession of riders at the front; Australian Mark Renshaw is his final lead-out man, launching Cavendish with a few hundred meters to ride. He puts his head down and cranks to the line for the stage victory and the sprinters green jersey.

The riders had peddled for 4 and a half hours to the line, while I had ridden 127minuets covering 46 kilometres, almost 1/4 of race distance in less than half the race duration.

Fabian Cancellara kept hold of the maillot jaune. Behind him overall is Alberto Contador, Cadel Evans is 5th with Armstrong still in 10th.

If you have enjoyed the story so far be sure to read about my efforts on Stage’s 3 and 4 as well as my wrap up of the tour.

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