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Posted July 28, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Jeremy Stafford: A new respect for Tour cyclers

By Jeremy Stafford -- jstafford@nvdaily.com

As I swept the loose gravel from my bloody elbow and readjusted the jumbled chain on my 10-year old yellow Mongoose mountain bike, the old adage that something could be "as easy as riding a bike" no longer held any meaning to me.

Especially when the searing pain in my right ankle told me that more of my blood was seeping into the tongue of my worn Saucony.

The crash commenced a bike ride I took this past Friday along the Rock Creek Trail -- which starts at Lake Needwood Regional Park in Rockville, Md., and stretches 14 miles before it zips through Washington along Beach Drive -- which was meant to be a simple 40-mile stroll with my brother, a tenderfoot bicycling enthusiast, and my father, a veteran exercise enthusiast.

But not 500 yards into the trip, I steered my Mongoose down a steep and slippery hill before I lost control of the yellow beast on what must have been a sloping hairpin turn.

For a moment, I heard the sound of tires skidding on pavement before I felt them leap completely off the trail, and my initial fear of crashing onto the concrete was immediately subsided by the sensation of my body scraping down the rest of the paved descent.

The rest of the trip was an agonizing trek of clanking gears and sore rear-ends, cut 10 miles short because we were on pace to spend more than five hours peddling through the suburbs of our nation's capital.

The next morning, sore rear-ends and all, the three of us watched the 20th stage of the Tour de France, which was the final significant stage of the race, and I felt an immediate respect for those riders, especially for 37-year-old and seven-time Tour-winner Lance Armstrong, who placed third despite his return from a 3 1/2-year cycling hiatus.

The look on Armstrong's face throughout the Tour was impeccably impassive, and even after riding a bike more than 2,141 miles over 21 nearly consecutive days -- about 100 miles a day -- Armstrong showed few signs of exhaustion.

Which is all the more impressive since the Tour was ridden on roads designed for automobiles, not bikes, and so traversed through the Alps and culminated in a 1,912-meter climb to the summit of Mont Ventoux on Saturday.

I couldn't help but think of the awful grimaces I must have made through only the first five miles of my trip the previous day; after 15 miles I had to take a much-needed rest for lunch, and after 20 miles I was already more exhausted than I'd been in years -- a sure sign that I'm not only incredibly out of shape, but also that Armstrong and the rest are serious athletes.

The Tour ended Sunday with a champagne-filled ride into Paris and a few ceremonial laps around the Champs-Elysées before British rider Mark Cavendish won the stage and Spanish rider Alberto Contador won the yellow jersey for the second time.

I could only marvel at what they had done. Of course they were professional riders, and they trained just as hard as any other professional athlete, but 100 miles a day for three weeks? Really? Not even a 16-week NFL regular season seems that grueling.

But the riders do it, and they love it.

They love it so much, in fact, that next year, at the age of 38, Armstrong will once again race through France, forgoing the pastel colors of his race-winning Astana team for the presumed red and black colors of an American team sponsored by RadioShack.

And while Armstrong's new team certainly won't attract such world-class cyclists as Astana teammates Contador and Andreas Kloden, there also won't be any question that Armstrong will be the team's leader.

Which is supremely important considering that when Armstrong announced that he was returning to the Tour after nearly four years of retirement, and that he would ride alongside Contador, who had emerged as the world's best cyclist in Armstrong's absence, there was some question within the team as to who would race for the yellow jersey, and who would race as the complementary rider.

That question went long unanswered until the 15th stage, when Contador took the yellow jersey from Rinaldo Nocentini, and ensured that if Astana was to win, Armstrong would have to give up his hopes of rolling into Paris with an eighth Tour de France victory.

Which is why, with the ties between Armstrong and Contador now severed, giving both riders free reign to throw everything they have at each other, next year's race should provide just as compelling and dramatic a story as Armstrong's return had this year.

In the meantime, though, I'll be picking the leftover gravel from my elbow and ankle.

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