Leaving the Tour de France prematurely is an unpleasant experience, one that I had never tasted until now. I sincerely hope I will never have to repeat it. It is a cruel process, that only adds to the physical discomfort that caused your failure in the first place. In my particular case, I didn’t have any scars to show the press, or broken bones. Just a slow, painful, draining of all my energy. I felt like a water bucket with dozens of bullet holes, I was leaking energy left, right, and centre. All the food and liquid I put into my body seemed to evaporate, and my legs got weaker and weaker as the hours passed. I had no strength, and slipped endlessly towards the back of the race. I knew I was in trouble when I was struggling to hold the back of the group while many of my colleagues were stopping to pee.
The night, my favourite time, became a torture. I passed from sticky, damp sweaty skin, to burying myself deep under the covers in search of warmth. I woke in the morning, feeling more tired than the night before, dreading the day to come and the suffering I knew was awaiting me. My appetite, something that often attracts amazement from observers, was gone. At breakfast I would sit and stare at my food, while my stomach seemed to just want water. More and more water, though the parched lips never left me.
When you are in bad shape, for whatever reason, it is an entirely different discomfort than the one felt by the chap at the front of the race. When you have good shape, hurting yourself is almost a pleasure, you revel in it. You feel how fast you are riding and become curious to see how much faster you can go, its like a spiral. When you are in the doldrums, however, the road and wind seems to conspire against you. No gear ratio is ever the right one, the bike feels like someone else’s, and however you try, you always seem to be on the edge, a pedal stroke away from being ejected from the group.
And then came the final night. I went to bed early, feeling drained from a day holding on the the arse end of a bunch that the press described as being “on a siesta”. But the restful, comforting sleep I know and love never came. I rolled the entire night, from one side of the bed to another, my eyes wide open. I felt as though a mechanic had inflated me to 8 bar, a swollen, sweating wreck. I watched in a daze as the daylight began creeping through the curtains, and waited to hear the mechanics begin to work. I had been awake the entire night. I went to the mirror and saw a hollow faced old man.
And then I did something I have never done, and hope I will never have to do again. I went to our team manager, Marc Sergeant, and told him that I couldn’t go on. The end.
In a matter of seconds, my world changes. I become a displaced being. A rider who doesn’t ride. The rest of the team busies itself with its preparations for the stage, and I watch on, in a daze. You don’t know where to sit, its as though you are always in the way. Then comes the ride to the start, team meeting, fans, press…. its the Tour. But I am sitting on the bus, with the weight of guilt and shame pushing down on my shoulders. In my mind, I forget the state I am in, and start to tell myself I could have gone on. You are a quitter, a failure, a hoax
People don’t know how to treat you, as though someone, or something has died. Some offer a pat on the shoulder, a kind word, and others avoid me, looking away, almost worried that I will infect them not only with my virus, but with my failure. I want to crawl into a hole in the ground, as far away from the Tour de France as possible.
How could it come to this? I had one of the best Giro’s of my career, lived like a monk in June, and came to the Tour full of hopes, and even after eleven years, dreams. How childish and naive of me. Something, I don’t even know what, got into my body and began to unravel all my plans. And the ironic thing is that it is probably something quite banal, like a gastric virus or god knows what. But the fact remains that it was enough to send me crawling home, weak and pale, with my tail between my legs.