Tuesday 27 March 2007

Heroic Madness: My Translation of a 2005 Story from TOUR Magazine

When the Tour de France first headed into the mountains, neither the riders nor their bicycles were prepared for what was to come. TOUR author Juergen Loehle gets a feel for what it was like as he attempts the Ballon d'Alsace, the first climb in a Tour de France, on a period bicycle.

With a speed of 20 km/h, René Pottier conquered the Ballon d’Alsace. We accompanied this rider with the heart of a bulldog for a full day as he undertook this outstanding yet monotonous mission. What mysterious strength does the human organism possess that allows it to push the boundaries of the possible so far?
From a 1906 account of the Tour de France

Unfortunately, I do not have the heart of a bulldog, but perhaps that would not help much in any event. What I really need and am missing is the leg strength of, say, a bull or at least that of a much-lauded track racer such as Jens Fiedler. Since I do not have either, this is going to be really close. Damned close, even. My lower back aches with every murderous pedalstroke and my quads have tightened up in places that, a mere ten minutes ago, I could not have imagined existed.

But first things first. At my desk, the idea had great charm. The Tour de France would be 100 years old in 2003 and it would be interesting to EXPERIENCE with my own body what it must have been like back then. The eyewitnesses are long dead, but some of the equipment had survived. Besides this, according to my wife, I am of the right age that I can look old even without an historical costume. With a leather cap, that’s how to begin. And now I will ride a bicycle from 1900 up the Ballon d’Alsace, a mountain that in the early years of the Tour was seen in much the same way as the Col de Tourmalet or Mont Ventoux are today–a hard test indeed.

Before beginning, I read up on my history and was astonished at the accounts of men like Maurice Garin or René Pottier, men who lit up cigarettes at the start line to “open up their lungs,” as the thinking went back then. Then away they rode, 400 or sometimes nearly 500 kms, and in the middle was the Ballon. On the stages they drank only a little water, since drinking water was bad according, again, to the wisdom of the day. Instead, one took some beer with sugar in it or a respectable gulp of red wine with an egg beaten into it. Well, if that was the case, it could not be soooo hard, I thought as I read and enjoyed a glass of Bordeaux, without the egg. Now, on the road, it strikes me that the efforts of Messrs. Garin, Pottier and Trousselier can simply be summed up in one word: inconceivable.

The adventure begins in Alsatian Seven, a good 10 km below the pass over the Ballon d’Alsace. The weather is comfortably warm and the streets are as empty as if they have been swept clean (which suits me just fine). A few old people shuffle by on their way to the baker’s on the market square. Nobody takes any notice of the weirdo by the fountain, the guy in the old-fashioned clothing with the strange bike, namely me. This is already remarkable. Sure, the Tour has come through here regularly for the last century, but when the cyclists looked the way I do now, not even the oldest grannies and grandpas here were even born yet. Or only a few of them, at the least.

Well, it makes no difference, so I will look a little more closely a my new black friend here. The technicians say that it weighs 13.3 kg and has a fixed cog, giving me a single gear somewhere between 39 x 13 and 39 x 14. There is a brake, too, a sort of rubber stamp attached to a lever that you can press down on top of the front wheel–if you have the strength of a blacksmith in your lower right arm, that is. The heart of a bulldog could be useful after all, since I understand that bulldogs are fearless.

Let’s go. Handlebar firmly gripped, left foot in the cage, push down, right foot threaded in, and tread again. Surprise–I am actually underway. Bicycle and rider, with a combined age of 150. Great. After a few shaky turns around the market square (still nobody paying attention), we roll out of Seven. To the right a lake, to the left fields, it is actually pretty easy. If I wasn’t so restricted, that is. With every revolution, my knees almost graze my hands on the handlebars: there is only the space of a thin book between them. Even holding the drops doesn’t help. The owner of the bicycle has explained that this positioning is a leftover of the previous high-wheeler generation. Ten kilometers should be about the limit, I think.

Suddenly, the road goes gently downhill and my spinning becomes easier and faster. Constantly faster, now too fast, there comes a wide left turn. Normally you could just coast through, but not with this fixed gear. My legs go around like an out-of-control sewing machine. Good God, this is much too fast, time for the brakes. I reach for the lever and pull it for all it’s worth. There is an unpleasant shrieking, like chalk on a blackboard, but practically no other effect.

The photographer is the only witness to my labours to avoid riding into the ditch. I somehow recall a technique, called counterspinning, that means braking by herculean slow-pedalling. This really hurts my knees and it is fast becoming clear to me that there is NO WAY that I am going to descend the other side of the Ballon d’Alsace with this bicycle. Truly, they were nuts back then. And the whole thing on gravel roads. As I say, simply inconceivable. At least from 1912 on there were freewheels.

I wheel by the photographer with my knees turned out and my right arm cramped up. He is sitting in the field and I am certain that he is laughing more than a little. And so I essay in, shall we say, a half-elegant manner, the left curve. The road begins to climb now and for a few seconds my spinning is beautifully round and powerful, the way cycling is meant to be. I think again about good old so-long-deceased Pottier:

“Even here the King of Climbers did not reduce his cadence by a single spin of the pedals.”

I am able to do this myself for nearly 100 meters, then I came to the foot of the Ballon d’Alsace. Pedalling becomes very hard, then, perhaps 200 meters further along, absolutely hellacious. Out of the saddle now, but that doesn’t help either since my knees keep hitting the handlebars. So, sit back down and push, push, push on the pedals.. My upper body flails from left to right, my arms tearing at the handlebars, everywhere under my skin ache muscles that were never constructed for this kind of effort. I feel as if I am riding the 18 percent grade Stohren hill in southwest Baden, even though the road here must only be between six and nine percent.

It was in this area during the1997 Tour, perhaps in this very serpentine curve, that Udo Bölts famously chastised Jan Ullrich, saying: “Put some effort into it, you pig!”. My photographer encourages me instead with a friendly “You’ll make it!” as he drives by in his car and of course I want to make it up.

So the murderous spinning continues. Two riders on racing bikes pull past, rolling in little gears at a high cadence as they overtake me. They are not going a lot faster than me but they are making progress. Surprisingly, they do not seem astonished by the guy on the museum-piece trying to ride to the peak. “Salut!,” says one cheerily. Thanks a lot.

For every two turns of the pedals I move forward just over six meters but soon no movement at all. My lungs are still okay but my legs are miserable, heavy, hard and tired. Stamp the pedals, wheeze, stamp the pedals. Sitting in such a squashed-up manner makes my back hurt with every turn of the crank. Stop whining, put some effort into it, think of Pottier!

After three kilometers the road passes another lake and it becomes a bit flatter, a bit more merciful. A quick glance over the trees and I see the valley below. So at least part of it is accomplished. Another historical spot, where Pottier showed what I would have liked to: elegance and toughness:
“Now the third kilometer is passed and one after another Petit-Breton and Dortinacq look with tired eyes at the ceaseless spinning of the rear wheel of the leader pulling away.”

I see only a sign telling me that I still have 7,000 meters of torture before I reach the summit. Horrible–1,150 agonizing turns of this big gear. Saint Pottier, will this never end?! In the serpentines, particularly, my speed drifts dangerously close to zero and my legs threaten simply to stop in the middle of the revolution. After the next curve, it is clear to me that the boys back then were harder than steel and I am now somewhat softer than butter. One more curve to go.

On the horizon I see the photographer waiting for me. I have to ride at least that far. I recall suddenly a telephone conversation I had with the aforesaid torture-specialist Udo Bölts. He responded drily to my planned adventure with the words: “You’ll never make it.” We’ll see, I replied. Now it looks as if he was right. “Chew into it!” bellows the photographer. What does he think I have been doing for the last twenty minutes?

“Ringeval lost five meters to Pottier but came up with a great burst of strength, only to fall back again. And that was it.”

Exactly, that was it. A last click of the camera and, with shaking legs, I got off the bicycle and into the middle of a flock of goats that had suddenly appeared. I have a fear of goats ever since one in Crete rammed me in the calf with a horn. Of course, Pottier would have probably throttled the creatures with one hand while riding by, or drunk their milk, or both. Was the term “mountain goat” invented here for climbers?

Whatever. The remaining half of the ten kilometers I accomplish on foot, pushing the bicycle. Back in the old days some of the racers did this too, Pottier excepted of course. Perhaps some of those who were dropped had time for a smoke to get more air for the remaining 250 km to Dijon. I prefer to drink water, even if it was not in at the time, and dream about a Gios Carbon frame and Campagnolo parts. Then down again with the car since, as mentioned, braking on the bicycle is even harder than riding it. You just have to imagine what it must have been like–half-dead on the summit and then strength needed to go downhill as well.

A few days after at my desk. Violent muscle cramps in my quads, all from perhaps half an hour of turning the cranks. In addition, stiff calves as if I had been weight-training, not to mention the backache. I would find it very interesting to know how Lance Armstrong would make out on this kind of bicycle. I root around in the archives and find a nice conclusion from 1906, naturally from René Pottier:

It is a lot easier for me to master the Ballon d’Alsace than to write an article for a newspaper.

Not for me. I also do not know what kind of “mysterious strength” was in good old Pottier to allow him to go over the Ballon at 20 k’s an hour. One thing is clear–whatever it is, I don’t have it. Absolutely not.

A Technical Note

Jürgen Löhle’s “black friend” was a “Permanenz”-brand bicycle built in Dresden in 1898. This model, weighing 13.3 kg, was available until 1905 so it met the condition of being a racing bicycle available in 1903. The equipment list is short: a fixed gear, a lever-operated brake for the front wheel, a cottered crankset, a chain with one-inch links, pedals with cages, racing handlebars with no stem, a leather saddle and a saddlepost adjustable horizontally. From its imitation woodgrain-painted steel rims to its beige tires, the bicycle is in original condition. We thank Tilmann Wagenknecht of Erfurt for the friendly loan.