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Tour de France 2017: How cycling with the pros in Dusseldorf got a bike rookie hooked

As the 104th Tour de France heads for the mountains, novice biker Sally Newall reveals how she took on the route in Dusseldorf, where the action began over the weekend

Sally Newall
Thursday 20 July 2017 12:21 BST
The wheel deal: the peloton breaks away from our novice rider through the Neander Valley
The wheel deal: the peloton breaks away from our novice rider through the Neander Valley (Sally Newall)

I realised I was out of my depth as soon as I arrived in the lobby of my central Dusseldorf hotel. Standing out from the buzzy melée of bearded hot-deskers and minibreaking couples was a tall, athletic-looking bloke with a cycle helmet in one hand and a bike-shaped box in the other. It would be very unfair to call my companion a Mamil (Middle-Aged Man In Lycra) as he looked around my own age and wasn’t actually wearing Lycra, but something told me he had a decent stash of the stretchy stuff in his duffelbag.

I should say now that it was me who was more the fish out of water here, given I’d come to Dusseldorf to cycle.

The city in western Germany was the venue for this year’s Grand Départ, the starting point of the 104th Tour de France. Over three weeks, riders will tackle 21 stages, with 53 leg-burning climbs, covering 3,540 kilometres across Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg and France. There are 198 riders in 22 teams this year, with our own Chris Froome going for his fourth yellow jersey in five years.

The 2017 Grand Depart took place along the Rhine

And I was in town to sample an iota of what Froome, Mark Cavendish and the rest go through by way of tackling a 40km section of the route, tackling the first (albeit very gentle) climb of the Tour and heading east through the Neander Valley.

Germany does not have the happiest history with the Tour. The country’s only winner, Jan Ullrich, the champion in 2007, was reportedly not invited to this year’s opening celebration after being involved in the doping scandals that rocked the sport in the Noughties. So the Dusseldorf tourist board is on a mission to sweeten the population’s relationship with cycling, both during the competition and beyond. Authorities are attempting to follow in the footsteps of Copenhagen and Amsterdam and become a cycling city, building expanded dedicated networks and improved facilities for anyone choosing to bike.

Cycling city: Dusseldorf’s Old Town, where biking is increasingly popular thanks to improved networks and facilities ({Name Ihrer Agentur})

There’s the Tour-themed Café Velo, a pop-up in the centre of town where I caught up with the others who were joining the peloton. Nearly all were cycling writers; all found it amusing that I was going to try the ride, given I’d been on a road-bike once – in central London, for about five minutes, before I decided the drop handlebars weren’t to my taste and went back to my trusty hybrid.

I was also technically flouting the ride’s requirements. We were told in the pre-trip correspondence that we must be able to cycle at 22km/h across a 40km route (with an elevation of 400m), and we should bring our own pedals and shoes.

Now, 22km/h wouldn’t be a problem to your average Mamil – but, people into road biking tend to be keen. Very keen. My companions filled me in on The Rules – a list of mantras for road cyclists written by online community The Velominati. The 95-strong list (though its “keepers” accept new submissions) covers attitude, attire, nutrition and much more. Sample diktat: “It never gets easier, you just go faster.” Shorts should be black, eyewear cycling specific and aggressive tan lines are encouraged. The Rules are pernickety, geeky, a bit silly and by no means followed by the majority, but the fact they exist and are hotly debated illustrates that half measures don’t seem to exist in this sport.

If I was feeling intimidated about my Tour de Force, arriving at Schicke Mütze (translation: “Chic Cap”) didn’t help matters. It’s a bike shop, workshop and café, for those who worship at the altar of road-biking. These guys have a thing for retro steel-framed bikes (rather than the lighter, faster carbon fibre ones), good-looking gear and glossy, coffee table-worthy bike magazines. Everyone was very well turned out – apart from me, horribly underdressed in some kit borrowed from my mum.

Schicke Mütze co-founder Konrad Gläser and fellow cyclist outside the shop looking the part (Sally Newall)

Schike Mütze co-founder Konrad Glaeser, sporting a black (obviously) get-up with a broad rainbow stripe, took one look at my gym leggings and non-regulation eyewear. “We are going race pace, will you keep up?” He asked for my pedals and I handed over the ones my Dad had given me, with toe cages rather than the clips all the others had. For the uninitiated, pedals with cleats – for cycling shoes that clip in – helps a more efficient transfer of energy so you can go faster. If you are not used to them, it can also mean a few embarrassing falls when you forget that your foot is attached to your bike. My cages were supposed to be a compromise. I sensed it was a bad call.

Grim-faced, Konrad put my remedial pedals on a Hugo Rickert Spezial classic steel-framed bike, a legendary German frame builder, apparently. The guys were admiring of my wheels, at least.

Another of our companions, dressed to impressed (Sally Newall)

Our ride was part of the Tour’s second stage. Technically, it runs 203.5km from Dusseldorf to Liège in Belgium. The route includes the first climb: the Grafenberg. For fans of statistics, it’s 1.4km at 4.5 per cent – small fry compared other climbs in the race, but more than enough for an amateur on a first proper road bike outing.

“Your body is saying this hurts, that hurts, slow down,” says Froome, about the Tour’s later steep gradients – “And you just have to go faster. I’ve always loved that feeling of my body being on the limit. Feeling empty, having no more to give, but still pushing your body. I enjoy that, in a sick way.”

And sick is exactly how I was feeling as we snaked our way out of the city – me struggling to keep my feet in my toe cages, losing ground on the Mamils with every stroke. “How much road-biking have you done?” a German companion enquired, as I tried to cycle along with the pedals upside down and the plastic from the cages occasionally scraping the tarmac. As we started up the Grafenberg, my gears whirred as I struggled to find the right balance and my legs were working far too hard for the gradient of the hill. The harder I pedalled, the more the peloton seemed to pull away from me. In reality I was probably only about 30 seconds behind, but seeing all that retro-coloured Lycra become more dot-like was demoralising.

Not quite all the gear: Sally on her bike in the Neander Valley (Sally Newall)

Sensing that I was not quite up to "race pace", Konrad gave me my own escort who delivered a primer on the gears and a motivational chat, reminding me to enjoy it (I didn’t remember that being on the Velominati’s list). When I’d vaguely mastered the correct gear for the right terrain, I could relax enough to at least look at the surroundings – not in the spirit of the actual Tour, I know, I don’t suppose Cavendish stops to take scenic snap. We went through Mettmann, past the Neanderthal Museum and pleasingly German-feeling water mills that looked liked they should have ladies in folk costumes herding goats outside. As I breathed in the fresh country air, warm for March, I remembered another rule: “Free your mind and the legs will follow.” And they did. I pedalled back to the city, heart singing, legs screaming, but I’d managed a not too unrespectable average speed of 18km.

The peloton, minus Sally, take a break on the ride, part of the route of the second stage of the Tour de France (Nigel Roe)

Back at Schicke Mütze, Konrad asked me how I’d got on. “I loved it,” I said. “I’m going to buy a road bike.” He looked delighted that he'd converted me to the shop's - and Dusseldorf's - cause. Later, our motley peloton reconvened for lunch on the banks of the Rhine. The Mamils were keen to hear how I’d fared, and happy to learn that I might soon join their gang. Granted, I crawled back to the hotel aching all over, and was asleep in about two minutes – but I was hooked.

Now, as I’m glued to the telly to see the pros tackle the Tour, I am awaiting the arrival of my new baby: a Trek Lexa 2, with a 47cm frame. And as soon as I’ve got used to her, I plan to master the art of clipping in. I probably will never stick to The Rules, though.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Eurowings flies from London airports from £85 return.

Staying there

Me and All Hotel is a new boutique hotel in the heart of Dusseldorf. Doubles from €77 for room only

More information

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