Almanack: Saddled with pain

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The Independent Online
AS THE inhabitants of Kent, Sussex and Hampshire must be aware, the Tour de France comes to Britain this week. The British stages run from Dover to Brighton on Wednesday, and a round trip from Portsmouth to Winchester, Andover, Basingstoke and back to Portsmouth on Thursday. Almanack travelled to Dover Castle, the start of the first stage, to sample the course and some state-of- the-art cycle technology.

Team Raleigh provided the bike - pounds 1,500-worth of bonded composites on needle-thin tyres, normally the cherished steed of the Irish star Martin Early, a stage winner on the 1987 Tour de France. They also provided the expertise of their team manager Micky Morrison (an ex-pro cyclist himself), and an authentic racing outfit: garish, skin-tight and sensationally uncomfortable. The key problem area was the shorts. They have built-in braces to keep them snug and the bit they're meant to be snuggest over is thickly padded fore and aft, effectively forming a second saddle between your legs.

Racing shoes are weird as well, having no heels and a peculiar metal arrangement under the toes. They are mighty tricky to walk in, which makes it difficult to postpone the moment of truth. To climb aboard the bike, you find a convenient wall to lean on and hop very carefully on to the aggressively slim saddle. Then you do a kind of wiggle and push with the feet to lock the metal plates on the soles of your shoes into corresponding gaps on the pedals. These are designed to prevent your feet from leaving the pedals at speed. Unfortunately, until you have the knack of wriggling out of the clamps this means that when the bike stops, you fall over still attached to it. To begin with this happened a lot and was funny. Later it happened a lot more and wasn't.

Dover Castle is a brilliant place to start the British stages because it adheres to a classic military maxim: occupy the high ground. The first challenge facing Indurain and Co on British soil is the perilously steep hill that runs from the Castle down into Dover itself. No problem, you think. Not so much fun when you get to the bottom, though. A racing bike weighs next to nothing and when the brakes are applied at high speed it is inclined to perform a somersault. Especially if the front brake (which is on the left handlebar, not the right as usual) is applied first. Ouch. Dover Hill 1, Almanack 0.

Climbing hills is less dangerous. But first you have to master the gear-changing system. Sixteen gears require two levers and two buttons behind the brake levers on each handlebar: you change up with the levers using your index fingers, down with the buttons using your thumbs. The right hand equipment governs the rear sprockets, the left the front. Get it right and it's like playing the harpsichord at 25mph.

The switchgear is mounted on the handlebar grips so the rider doesn't have to reach down and spoil his hillclimbing stance. His what? 'You must have an upright stance when you're climbing,' Micky Morrison said at the bottom of the hill. 'It's the only way to maximise oxygenation. Keep your head up.' Right then. Feet engaged. Head up. Deep breath and away. Micky had demonstrated the way to change gear while swinging the bike from side to side to generate momentum uphill, synchronising the gear changes with the swing and the downward pedalling stroke: remember the way the stars sway up the Alps. The trouble is remembering which gear you are in, and which lever you need to sort it out. Swing, click, swing, click, swing - and the left foot pops out of its binding, the right one doesn't and all fall down . . . Dover Hill 2, Almanack 0.

The next time was better and the summit was achieved, albeit with much sweating and panting and a strange trembling in the calves. At this precise point on Wednesday, the Tourists will have another 128 miles to ride before bedtime.

Riding a fine bike at speed on flat roads is exhilarating. But sitting back on the vicious little saddle makes you realise what the padding is for, and that there isn't enough of it. Another hill-climbing session was almost a relief, or at least a different kind of discomfort. Back on the level, a very personal pain barrier was looming. Almanack hobbled home. We'll see a lot of the Tour de France stars this week: straining, speeding, celebrating. Bet we never see them sitting down.