It's that time of year, when channel- hoppers and shoppers passing window displays of televisions catch glimpses of impossibly lean men staring at each other's bottoms as they course through countryside in garish streams of tanned limbs and Lycra. It's the Tour de France! The world's toughest race reaches its climax on the Champs-Elysées on Thursday after more than 2,000 miles of sweat and peeing into cups proffered by anti-doping officials.
Cycling fans have been stationed on their sofas for days now, while the majority observe the tour with all the interest of a Breton cow in a roadside field. I fall somewhere in the middle, glancing up at a screen over my desk, but frequently stifling a yawn unless there's a duel playing out, or an errant Labrador causing a pile-up. The general view is of a mass of faceless riders, but something about this scene struck me last week: the beauty of the pedal stroke.
If there is grace in road cycling (and there is, until they start gurning and elbowing their way to the line) it's best illustrated by the motion of the feet. There's a tendency among cyclists to stomp while heaving and swaying, but the seasoned rider, equipped with shoes fixing foot to pedal, applies pressure throughout the stroke. The hips stay level and the upper body becomes still but for the pulsing of the heart and lungs. Below the waist, there is something hypnotic about the rhythmic rotation of the feet, cosseted by a shoe as dainty as a ballet pump yet carrying great power to the road.
The French have a word for this, of course: la souplesse (suppleness), which defines a fluidity that takes hundreds of miles to attain. When it clicks, it can feel as perfect as it looks. There are moments, riding over the smoothest asphalt with a silent chain and tyres as hard as the road, when the line between man and machine becomes magically blurred. With the slight articulation of the slender ankle and gentle flex of the leg muscles, levers of flesh and bone combine with rings of steel to propel the rider in a way as effortless as gliding. Think about it next time you're on your bike – or appreciate it from your armchair before reaching for the remote control.