In Sickness and Bad Health – Riding on through the pain barrier

I’ve been ill this weekend. Proper ill. Crying lonely tears through the night ill. Body wracked with every sort of imaginable pain ill. Desperate calls to neighbours for help ill. And whilst I know that what I had was not much more than a seasonal bout of flu and that plenty of fluids and some Ibuprofen would soon sort me out, at times the apparent impossibility of doing anything more than heavily laboured breathing found my delirious mind returning over and over again to the same impossible question. How do riders keep on going when they are ill?

There are tales aplenty – especially in the Grand Tours – of riders suffering a mid-race illness and carrying on; grimly hanging onto the back of the peloton until things improve and they can resume battle once more. Forgive me the indulgence a little further please but I couldn’t walk downstairs yesterday to prepare the most basic meal for my thankfully sickness-free kids, never mind go to work and ‘coast through’ a few hours in my day job that isn’t exactly physically strenuous. How on earth do they operate at even 90% to make the time cut in those circumstances?

magni 56

The list of examples is long – though I am having to work from memory here as even today I’m feeling way too weak to be climbing up on chairs to comb the bookcases. Battling on with an injury is far more common than with an illness as there, we suppose, at least the rest of the body is still operating well enough. Magni’s broken collarbone in the 1956 Giro; Merckx’s shattered jaw in ’75; Hamilton – also riding on with a broken collarbone in 2003 – grinding eleven teeth down the nerves in the process. The list is as long as the sport itself and an integral part of it’s appeal. These scenarios would seem to be ‘just’ about dealing with the pain and, in a sport where hurting yourself more and for longer than the other guys is a key building block of success, there is at least a modicum of understanding that we can take away. They don’t feel pain like we do, or they can manage it in a different way to us.. Fine.. But what about when the whole body is affected and performance suffers. What gets them through them?

Here examples spring less readily to mind. Often riders will be masking their illness to not let their rivals get the idea that they are feeling sub par. Injuries, and the riders dealing with them, are often highly visible and their images etch themselves into our memories of the sport. Illness is much less tangible; it’s the hidden aches and pains, the sleepless nights, the extra fatigue, the loss of appetite – none of which might be seen but any of which could prove a fatal blow to a racer’s chances.

The first which springs to mind – and I realise that this remains memorable because of the graphic nature of the description – is Greg LeMond’s peach. In 1986 the young La Vie Claire rider was supposed to be getting his first shot at TdF leadership with the old maestro Hinault having said he would support LeMond in return for the American’s sterling work in 1985. Things started to go wrong for Greg pretty quickly though and he soon found teammate Hinault presenting himself as his biggest rival. And then he eats a bad peach and his world gets a whole lot worse. A shit-load worse in fact.

Have you ever ridden a bike with diarrhoea? Of course not, that would a stupid thing to do. But that is what Greg had to deal with for the final 60 kilometres of Stage 10 in the ’86 Tour. The incident is evocatively covered in Richard Moore’s ‘Slaying The Badger’ from which the following is taken:

[Kimmage] remembers seeing LeMond, in apparent distress, drop back to the convoy of team cars that follow the peloton. Some ten or fifteen minutes later he reappeared. ‘His team was moving him back up. LeMond was third or fourth in line and the fucking smell was horrendous.”.. LeMond, with diarrhoea already streaming down his legs, borrows a hat from a teammate and, still riding at high tempo, puts it down his shorts and fills it to over-flowing. “When you get that kind kind of deal, it’s a really personal thing and you need isolation.” says LeMond. “You’re dying, I needed to be alone. Sitting in the peloton, like, oooh, I wanna be alone.”

Never a thought of climbing off it seems though. Lemond went way up in Kimmage’s estimation that day for certain and later his team couldn’t believe that he didn’t quit. Kathy, Greg’s wife, simply puts it, “They couldn’t believe [he] wanted to win so badly.” Fortunately for Greg, he felt fine the next day and was able to carry the fight once more. For others that year, their teams weren’t so helpful as the cap-lenders of La Vie Claire. When 7-Eleven’s Bob Roll dropped back to his team with similar symptoms a few days earlier he was told in no uncertain terms terms that he wasn’t welcome in the car and that he should either get on with it or wait for for the broom wagon. Typically – for a pro-cyclist at least – he got on with it, finishing the stage and eventually the whole race in 63rd position overall, his best ever placing.

I once rode a few days after a similar experience and yet still felt so drained that after a short way I could hardly ride straight. 50km in, already dropped by my mates, I caught myself closing my eyes between corners and realised what I doing was foolhardy. I climbed off and sought the nearest train station to get me home. I had no higher motive to ride than the pleasure of doing it – i.e. I’m not a professional doing my job or trying to win a race – so the decision was easy. As the stakes get higher the decision to climb off will presumably becomes so much harder too. No-one wants to give up on the dream that they have worked so long and so hard for.

Chris Froome’s hold on the 2015 Tour was also threatened by the illness that he picked in the final week of the race, which allowed Nairo Quintana to beat him in the final two racing stages and come close to overhauling the lead that Froome had built in the opening 10 days. But Froome wasn’t the only one suffering that year. BMC captain Tejay Van Gardener retired in tears on Stage 17 after realising that his ongoing chest infection had finally robbed him of the power to compete. He had lost 50 seconds to Froome 4 days earlier but had then somehow managed to keep pace with the race leader despite his problems. Ironically, it was after the second rest day that things worsened and that his rivals, sensing his discomfort for the first time, took advance on the first climb of the day, putting him out of the race. The Game was up.

tejay climbs off

Also suffering that year was Cannondale’s Australian Nathan Haas. Roommate Dan Martin remembers, “He had really bad stomach problems just after the start of the Tour. Because of that, he was not able to eat properly and wasn’t getting the calories he needed. He was suffering through each stage as a result. Things worked out for him, though; there was quite a straightforward run of stages leading up to the team time trial, and then he had that plus the rest day to recover. I think if it happened in the mountains he would never have made it through.” Haas later went on a day long break and even chipped off the front to threaten a stage win before all were caught by the bunch.

As always with cycling though, if we look back to the very origins of the sport we find tales of the most incredible suffering and fortitude. In the Giro of 1914, which through a combination of mind-boggling distances and cataclysmic weather is now generally reckoned to have been the hardest Grand Tour of all time – one rider simply vanished in a snowstorm. Just 30 kilometres from the end of Stage 6 to L’Aquila Guiseppe Azzini, leader the race since Stage 3, disappeared. He was only found a full three days later, ‘stricken by a raging fever’, by a local farmer in one of his barns. Even such a harrowing experience as that din’t put him off though and he came back to racing after the War and placed well in Sanremo and Lombardy but never regained the heights of pre-snowstorm form in the Giro, retiring four more times.. He died, of tuberculosis – a common bane of cyclists in those times – in 1925, aged just 34.

And if that doesn’t put things into perspective, nothing will. Right, where’s that bottle of Night-Nurse medicine..?

Lemond Image by Graham Watson

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