Esquire

DOWNHILL RACER

A mountain bike isn’t the most efficient machine for riding up a Tour de France climb, but it still gives you a good feel for the utter pain and misery involved in competing in the world’s ultimate masochist’s festival. Take the 11 km, 1,349 metre Col de Menthe near Luchon in the French Pyrenees – a relatively minor climb by the standards of ‘Le Tour’, but by the third kilometre, if not before, you start to know what pain on a bike is all about.

And if you ride the pass just before the Tour comes through, you can rest on the summit after your exertions and see how it’s done by guys who can ascend in 35 minutes what took you one-and-a-half hours. Where you sweat and gasp and roll from side to side, the likes of Lance Armstrong and Marco Pantini sit upright and relaxed, churning away at the pedals like robots, eyes fixed ahead, looking out from a hidden world of pain all of their own.

And at this stage of the race the riders may be less than half way through the three week long Tour; they may have ridden 60 miles or more today and could have another hundred to go, including climbs worse than this; and the Alps may also stand between them and the finish in Paris. And you felt pleased with yourself for having made it up ONE climb.

But, you may ask, why make it even more difficult by riding up the mountain on a mountain bike rather than a road bike? Because from the top you can reward yourself with an off-road downhill par excellence. Blast across alpine meadows with soaring views of Pyrenean peaks; clatter across the rocks of sunny mountainsides; hurtle along luscious single track snaking through cool pine forests; zip through the narrow cobbled streets of remote mountain hamlets; and eventually come to a sweaty, mud-splattered, idiotically-grinning halt right back where you started from.

The rush of all this is only exacerbated by the effort made to obtain it, although whether you’ll be up for climbing the mountain again for more of the same the next day is a moot point. But that needn’t be a problem – there’s always the easy option of heading to Luchon and taking the ski lift up into the mountains to attack 70 kms of marked trails, all of them downhill.

 
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