** Some of the images in this post contain blood and gore **
It's that time of year again. The sun is shining. The birds are singing. And 190 or so men have donned their lyrca, picked up their bikes, and began the most epic sporting event of the year. Le Tour de France!
As its the second (and last) rest day of the race, with another week left of biking to do, I thought it was about time for my annual gushing about the event.
The racers have dropped from 198 to around 176. The number of dropouts include two yellow jersey holders, the first (Fabian Cancellara) after he somersaulted over his bike and fractured two vertibrae. The second (Tony Martin) after he crashed and broke his collar bone. Both men finished the stage before the doctors ordered them to abandon the race.
Many men race on through their injuries, however. Indeed, none of the riders can hope to come out of the race unscathed. One rider, Romain Bardet, rode with sun stroke, vomiting every few miles, and the next day came third on the stage. Another, Jean-Christophe Peraud, took off a vast amount of skin, and found himself (heavily bandaged) in the breakaway the next day.
These men are hard core.
The dedication to their sport is why I love it. They put their bodies through torture every single day, and for many the reward of crossing the line on the Champs-Elysee is enough.
The work the domestiques put in (often to their own detriment) in order to get their team leader in the coveted yellow jersey is epic. It is over twice as hard to ride on the front of the pack than on the second wheel, so these men put themselves in front of their main guy in order to save his legs, whilst they work themselves till all they can do is swing off and slide down to the back. It says a lot about the skill of Geraint Thomas that he is in sixth place whilst his team leader is in first - few domestiques can rank so highly after spending an hour protecting Chris Froome up a 6% climb.
They race at speeds averaging 40kmph. Even uphill. The motorbikes can't keep up with them on the descents.
Its hard not to have respect for those men who race clean and push their bodies to the limits for the love of the sport. When urine was thrown in Chris Froome's face the other day it was hard not to be furious. When Mark Cavendish gave his post-stage-win interview it was hard not to smile with him.
This is a sport that inspires emotion. You only need look at the 10-12 million fans who line the backroads of France to get a glimpse of the race to see that.
If any of this has stirred anything in you, I urge you to tune into ITV4 at 7pm, if nothing else than to hear Phil Liggett's dulcet tones.