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Defining moments 7: Tom Simpson initiates cycling’s war on drugs

An occasional series looking at the defining moments which explain why sport captivates us so much …

Sometimes professional sportsmen and women do their job too well. They make it look so effortless that it underplays the scale of their achievements and the dedication required to reach the peak of their powers.

For all its benefits in making sport more accessible to the viewing public, television is something of a double-edged sword. Great achievement becomes commonplace. Brief highlights don’t do justice to a batsman who has batted all day to score a century. You don’t appreciate just how fast Formula 1 cars go round corners. Television allows us to see more, but in some crucial ways we also see less.

But every now and then sport lays bare just how far its participants are willing to push themselves to the very limits of human endurance – and sometimes beyond.

Tour de France, July 1967

Unless you’re a student of cycling history, you have probably never heard of Tom Simpson. And yet he was voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year, Sportswriters’ Personality of the Year and Daily Express Sportsman of the Year in 1965 ahead of such luminaries as Bobby Charlton and Henry Cooper.

And rightly so, for Simpson was a trailblazer. He won a bronze medal at the 1956 Olympics aged 18, to which he added a silver at the Commonwealth Games two years later. He then became the first Englishman to break into the closed shop of professional cycling in continental Europe, racing to fourth place on his World Road Race Championship debut in 1960.

The highlight of his career came in 1965, when he became the first British rider to win the World Championship. This was a remarkable achievement, even more so considering he had fallen in that year’s Tour de France and raced on against doctor’s orders for several days before finally abandoning, shattered, with an arm so badly injured it almost had to be amputated. Tom Simpson epitomised the British ‘stiff upper lip’ with his refusal to admit defeat. It was an admirable trait. Unfortunately, it would also cost him his life.

Despite his many successes on the circuit, the Tour de France was the one Tom Simpson longed to win above all others.

On stage 12 of the 1962 race, he became the first Brit to wear the coveted yellow jersey, after which he said:

My lucky number is 13. My daughter was born on Friday the 13th, my wife also. Perhaps Friday, stage 13, will be lucky too.

It wasn’t. Simpson relinquished the yellow jersey after just one day. He would never wear it again.

Simpson slipped back to sixth that year – still a huge achievement, the highest finish ever by a British rider at the time (and since bettered only by fourth places for Robert Millar in 1984 and Bradley Wiggins last year). Subsequent years, however, were less successful, with only one finish in the next four years, fourteenth in 1964.

However, the 1967 Tour was more promising. Simpson was in good form, having won Paris-Nice and placed well in other races. After twelve stages, he was lying seventh and optimistic of further progress.

The 13th stage on the 13th day of July was the climb up Mont Ventoux, perhaps the single most challenging peak on the Tour itinerary. An excruciatingly slow and soul-destroying 22 kilometre climb to a peak of 1,912 metres, in those days the ascent was made during the hottest part of the afternoon, with roadside temperatures in excess of 50°C.

From the early stages of the climb, it was clear Simpson was in difficulties. Never the best of climbers, he was unable to keep pace with the leaders as he wobbled unsteadily in pursuit, heat and exhaustion clearly getting the better of him.

Photographs of Simpson on the way up Ventoux clearly foreshadow what was to come. The heart was still beating, the legs still pedalling, but the pallid, ghostly face and the cold, blank eyes betrayed the truth – Tom Simpson was dead already.

About three kilometres from the summit, Simpson fell, having reached the limit of his endurance. He urged spectators to help him back onto his bike, and struggled on for a few hundred metres before falling again into the boulders by the side of the road. This time he did not get up.

His mechanic, Harry Hall, was first on the scene, closely followed by Tour doctor Pierre Dumas. Their repeated attempts to revive the stricken cyclist via mouth-to-mouth and cardiac massage were in vain, and Tom Simpson was officially pronounced dead at Avignon Hosptial later that afternoon. He was 29.

The terrible truth behind Simpson’s death soon began to unfold. Post-mortem investigations revealed he had been the beneficiary of ‘scientific training’ (to use one of the euphemisms of the time). His bloodstream contained traces of amphetamines, three vials (two empty, one containing further pills) were found in the pockets of his race jersey, and a subsequent search of his luggage uncovered further supplies. There was no doubt he had been using drugs to augment his performance.

Although the autopsy reported the official cause of death as dehydration, lack of oxygen and overexhaustion, it was clear Simpson had charged himself up with amphetamines to help him ride harder for longer, as a result of which his body simply did not know when to stop.

As a final footnote, compatriot Barry Hoban was allowed to win the following day’s stage unopposed as a mark of respect by the peloton for a fallen comrade. Tom Simpson’s widow, Helen, is now Helen Hoban.

The Tour remains a dangerous – occasionally fatal – event. As recently as 1995, Fabio Casartelli (a Motorola teammate of a young Lance Armstrong) died from head injuries sustained in a fall on the descent from the Col de Portet d’Aspet. However, Tom Simpson remains the only rider to die because the physical punishment he endured exceeded what his body was capable of handling.

The Tom Simpson memorial on Mont Ventoux (image courtesy of schoeband)

Sadly, Simpson’s name has, to many people, become lost in the mists of time, although it is ironic that he is perhaps better remembered on the continent (where fans affectionately referred to him as ‘Mr Tom’) than in Britain. Today, a small granite memorial by the side of the road marks the spot where he died along with his dreams of winning the Tour de France, a shrine that is lovingly observed by cycling fans of all nations whenever the Tour passes by. A second memorial was built in the Nottinghamshire town of Harworth, where he lived and is now buried.

Tom Simpson was an extreme and tragic example of the risks sportsmen are willing to take when body, mind and spirit alone aren’t enough. His story is a reminder that sport is never easy; on the contrary, the better you are, the harder it is. Sportsmen will do whatever it takes to find that little bit extra – occasionally by illicit means, but usually through years of sacrifice and hard work. That is something to admire about all competitors, no matter how easy they make it look when we watch them. We should never forget that.

For me, the tragic death of Tom Simpson is one of the single biggest defining moments in sport. Why? Well, you have to consider it as an early link in the chain of events that leads us via the systematic programmes of the Eastern Bloc countries in the 70s and 80s, and sprinters Ben Johnson and Marion Jones, to a sporting world today where any extraordinary performance is immediately regarded with the utmost suspicion.

Simpson’s death changed the public’s view of cycling forever by exposing the culture of widespread drug use long before it became an issue in other sports. It forced the Tour to introduce testing procedures, and the spectre of performance-enhancing drugs in professional cycling has never disappeared since; indeed, a number of drug-related scandals in recent years have periodically threatened to destroy the credibility of this most demanding of sports.

It is a situation where the authorities in many sports have historically turned a blind eye to even the possibility of performance-enhancing substances, only to have to hastily introduce testing procedures when someone is exposed. Despite already having rudimentary processes in place, Ben Johnson was not caught until after he had been presented with Olympic gold, despite having produced similarly eye-popping performances for more than a year. Marion Jones too. And the late Florence Griffith-Joyner was never caught, despite setting records which have never come close to being broken in 22 years since.

Simpson was one of the very first professional sportsmen to be exposed for drug use. In some ways, we have a lot to thank him for. But the exposure of sport’s dark underbelly means that we will never look at great athletic achievement with trusting, innocent eyes again. If that isn’t a defining moment, I don’t know what is.

(For more on the story of Tom Simpson, I would recommend the book Put Me Back on My Bike: In Search of Tom Simpson by William Fotheringham.)

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‘Defining moments’ is a series of blogs looking at the defining moments which explain why sport captivates us so much. For more entries in this series, click here.

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Defining moments 4: Armstrong’s last stand (repost)

(This is a repost of an article originally published in December 2009.)

An occasional series looking at the defining moments which explain why sport captivates us so much …

In sport, you often hear competitors talk about “110 per cent effort” or similar to emphasise that they’ve given absolutely everything. While one might quibble over the mathematics of such a statement, it’s nonetheless a valid reminder that sportsmen and women do push their bodies to the very limit of their capabilities, and sometimes beyond.

Nowhere is such single-minded effort more necessary – or indeed more obvious – than it is every July at the Tour de France.

There’s something about the Tour that sets it apart. It provides the most strenuous examination possible of speed, stamina, strength and sheer obstinacy, with its long flat stages, savage mountain climbs, and against-the-clock time trials stretched over a gruelling three-week schedule.

To put this challenge into context, here are some basic facts and figures about the 2003 edition, which provides the setting for this post. That year’s race comprised 21 stages over 23 days, covering a total of 3,428km, roughly the same distance as Paris to Moscow. The furthest covered in one day was 231km (London to Cardiff), and the longest stage took over six hours to complete. En route, there were fifteen climbs higher than the peak of Ben Nevis, Britain’s tallest mountain. And at the end of it all, the race was won at an average speed of 41kph. At this pace, you would run the hundred metres nearly a second faster than Usain Bolt.

Three weeks. Two wheels. One living hell. Welcome to Le Tour. This is not an event you choose to participate in unless you are the hardest of masochistic hard men (or doped up to the eyeballs, but that’s an entirely different topic).

I can’t stress enough just how tough the Tour is to even complete, let alone win. It may share the same means of propulsion as a Sunday afternoon bike ride, but it has about as much in common with it as the marathon does with my walk home from the corner shop.

Over the years, the Tour has provided a plethora of memorable images and defining moments, many of them involving Lance Armstrong, the most successful Tour rider of all time. This is my favourite.

Tour de France, July 2003

No matter how good a climber you are, this is the kind of day you know is going to hurt in a way that no amount of training can truly prepare you for. Covering 160km and culminating in three major climbs – the Col d’Aspin (the warm-up act at a mere 1,489m above sea level), the Col du Tourmalet (2,114m) and finally the finish at the top of Luz-Ardiden (1,715m) – this is four-and-a-half hours of intense suffering for the very best; an extra thirty minutes or more for many others.

The American Lance Armstrong is seeking a fifth consecutive Tour victory, but he has not dominated this race in the manner of his previous wins, looking vulnerable in the Alps and conceding a massive 96 seconds to Jan Ullrich in the individual time trial three days earlier. His advantage over the German is now a wafer-thin 15 seconds, with Alexandre Vinokourov just three seconds further behind. Armstrong’s objective today is simple, at least on paper: build his slim cushion over Ullrich and Vinokourov, ideally to a minute or more, ahead of the potentially decisive second time trial.

The slopes of Luz-Ardiden are to be the battleground for Lance Armstrong’s last stand.

Four hours into the stage, the leading riders are bunched together at the foot of the final climb. They are watching each other, waiting for the attack they know must come soon.

Sure enough, the yellow jersey eases into position at the head of the group, the orange-shirted Spaniard Iban Mayo and Ullrich at his shoulder, the others a few metres further back. And then suddenly, inexplicably, Armstrong’s bike twitches violently and he crashes to the ground, taking Mayo with him. (TV replays will later show his handlebars had caught the straps of a spectator’s bag.)

A second passes, then two, then three. Is his bike broken? How badly is he hurt? Is it all over for Lance Armstrong – just like that?

The wait is excruciating, like watching a jelly-legged boxer struggling to beat the referee’s count. Ullrich and the other leading riders cycle past. Armstrong is clearly dazed and shaken as he picks himself up and rights his bike, pausing to refit his chain before setting off in pursuit. A TV camera zooms in on his bleeding elbow, then pans up to his face. His wide-eyed, adrenaline-fuelled fury tells you everything you need to know: I will not let it end like this!

Armstrong strains every sinew to regain the lost ground, but not without one further flirtation with disaster. Charging up the mountain in pursuit – out of the saddle, standing on the pedals, maximum effort – his right foot slips out of the pedal, and he lurches forward precariously, his balance utterly compromised. For a moment it looks as if he’s either going to lose his manhood on the bike frame or else come off his machine altogether. Fortunately he does neither. He instinctively catches himself, regains his balance, and quickly slots his foot back into the pedal. A hiccup, no more.

At this point, any ordinary human would probably be content to thank their lucky stars and follow the pack to the finish. But professional cyclists are not ordinary humans, and Lance Armstrong is no ordinary cyclist. He has been in this situation – hunted, disrespected, written off as lacking a winner’s quality – before, and he knows what to do.

The leading group is now back together again, and almost immediately Mayo launches an attack, his tired legs developing an instant burst of speed in an attempt to put a decisive gap between him and the others. Armstrong’s response is immediate, surging forward to catch the Spaniard’s breakaway, and then without pause for breath he does what he has always done best – launch an attack himself. A devastating burst of acceleration, a quick look over the shoulder to see if anyone can respond – they can’t – and he’s away, a yawning gap opening up rapidly behind him: five seconds, fifteen, thirty …

Literally and figuratively, Lance Armstrong never looked back again. He finished 40 seconds ahead of the rest that day, but it might as well have been 40 minutes. The war was not yet won, but the key battle had been.

Put firmly on the back foot, Ullrich would go on to crash in a torrential downpour during the final time trial in a desperate attempt to make up time, confirming Armstrong’s fifth Tour de France victory. The American would go on to win the next two Tours; Ullrich would never get as close again.

Armstrong’s stirring fight-back on Luz-Ardiden was potentially the difference between him losing his stranglehold on the world’s greatest bike race and becoming its most successful ever participant. On such critical, defining moments are sporting legends made.

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‘Defining moments’ is a series of blogs looking at the defining moments which explain why sport captivates us so much. For more entries in this series, click here.

Defining moments 6: Shane Warne’s ‘ball of the century’

An occasional series looking at the defining moments which explain why sport captivates us so much …

Sport’s superstars often arrive on the scene in a blaze of youthful glory, producing outstanding debut games or seasons. Football has given us teenage sensations such as Wayne Rooney and Lionel Messi, cricket the likes of Sachin Tendulkar (Test debut at 16, a centurion at 17, captain at 23), and women’s tennis a production line of prodigies from Tracy Austin to the Williams sisters.

Some, like Austin, have departed almost before they have arrived, but many have gone on to be dominant figures in their sport for many years.

The sporting annals are littered with examples of great debuts. Few, however, can claim to have had such a profound impact – not just on a match, but on his entire sport – as the showman fittingly nicknamed ‘Hollywood’.

England v Australia, 1st Ashes Test, Old Trafford, June 1993

MW Gatting b SK Warne 4

These are the bare facts as recorded by the match scorecard. In cricketing circles, though, it is referred to in hushed tones as “the ball of the century”. No other ball is as well remembered as Shane Warne’s first ever delivery in an Ashes Test match.

It’s the second day of the first Test. England have started well in their attempt to regain the Ashes – 80 for 1 in response to Australia’s modest 289. The blond-haired wrist spinner is brought into the attack for the first time. Warne measures out his run-up for his debut over against England and measures up the opposing batsman.

The pugnacious, bulldog-like face of Mike Gatting stares back at him. The former England captain is an excellent player of spin bowling and is hugely experienced. This is his 73rd Test, two days short of his 36th birthday, and he has seen pretty much everything there is to see in cricket.

But he has never seen anything like this. Warne’s first ball pitches well outside leg stump, then darts sharply back like a spherical stump-seeking missile to clip the outside of off stump. Bowled!

Gatting stands aghast, unwilling to believe the evidence of his own eyes, before finally acknowledging the umpire’s signal and trudging off the pitch, still shaking his head in bewilderment.

Just in case there are any thoughts that the ‘Gatting ball’ is a one-in-a-million fluke, Warne wastes little time in proving otherwise. The first ball of his second over is a carbon copy. Robin Smith misjudges the ball and edges to slip. Seven balls, two wickets! In the space of less than ten minutes, Shane Warne has set the tone for the match, indeed for the entire series. England’s batsmen will never really get to grips with his magician’s tricks throughout the summer, and the Ashes are as good as lost already.

Warne finishes the match with eight wickets, and goes on to claim a total of 34 victims and the Man of the Series award as Australia romp away with the series.

Ashes Tests are supposed to be intimidating affairs for the uninitiated; after all, this is one of the oldest and most intense of all sporting rivalries, dating back to 1877. An Ashes debutant isn’t supposed to march brashly in and destroy the opposition on their home turf. But that’s exactly what Shane Warne did in 1993, and it all started with one ball.

Not bad for a beginner.

Warne’s legacy

It’s all too easy to attach clichéd labels to Shane Warne such as ‘prodigious’, ‘phenomenon’ and ‘reinventing the art of spin bowling’, but then to look at Warne is to see something of a cliché anyway. He resembles not so much a modern, professional cricketer as a stereotypical Aussie who has wandered into the SCG after catching the morning surf at Bondi, with his burly frame, bottle-blond hair and macho, fun-loving brashness. So let’s work with the clichés.

In all honesty, there are few words that describe Warne’s ability to spin the ball so extravagantly as well as ‘prodigious’. He produced the equivalent of the ‘Gatting ball’ – no more than an extreme version of his standard leg break – repeatedly in his career. Warne frequently left batsmen bamboozled, groping futilely at thin air as the ball spun past the bat. What was particularly impressive was his ability to bowl long, tiring spells with sustained control, accuracy and aggression.

Was he a phenomenon? Unquestionably. To announce your arrival on the Ashes stage in the way that Warne did at Old Trafford and sustain that level of success for more than a decade showed that he is no flash in the pan. He stands second on the all-time wicket takers list (708 in 145 Tests), was voted fourth in Wisden’s Player of the 20th Century poll (being both the highest placed bowler and contemporary player), and has been described by no less an authority than Richie Benaud as “the best leg spinner I’ve ever seen”. Glowing praise, indeed.

Did he reinvent the art of spin bowling? Perhaps not, but he certainly changed people’s perceptions of it. Prior to his arrival, spin was becoming an increasingly rare and largely defensive art outside of the Asian nations. Warne turned that on its head by presenting spin bowling as a genuinely attacking – and, in cricketing terms, positively sexy – option. You need only look now – virtually every leading Test nation has a spin bowler who is single-handedly capable of turning (if you will forgive the pun) a match. Shane Warne’s legacy extends far beyond the Australian coastline or the time defined by the length of his career.

I was fortunate enough to see the 1993 Old Trafford Test live on television, and I can vividly remember my reaction to the moment Warne delivered that ball. I empathised with Gatting’s disbelief, then, watching the replay, I found myself quietly applauding in the solitude of my own living room as it began to dawn on me that I had just witnessed something truly special. It didn’t matter that it had cost my side a key wicket; such moments of sporting genius transcend something as petty as mere competition. I just knew that I had witnessed, as it happened, one of those precious moments that people would talk about for years to come.

Defining moments 5: Nicklaus defines true sportsmanship

An occasional series looking at the defining moments which explain why sport captivates us so much …

The English language is a peculiar beast. While the words ‘sports’ and ‘games’ are broadly similar, ‘sportsmanship’ and ‘gamesmanship’ have distinctly different meanings. The former is all about playing fair and giving consideration to your opponent in the heat of competition; the latter suggests a more conniving attitude that seeks to maximise any available advantage short of outright cheating. For instance, a snooker player who deliberately slows the game down in an attempt to disrupt the rhythm of a dominant opponent is employing gamesmanship; another who points out to the referee that he has touched a ball with his waistcoat, thereby committing a foul, is displaying exemplary sportsmanship.

Sporting gestures are frequently small things, such as a footballer kicking the ball out of play so an injured player can receive immediate treatment, with possession being returned at the restart.

Sometimes such acts occur on a more humanitarian scale: for instance, Niki Lauda’s terrifying crash at the Nurburgring, where other drivers stopped to pull him from the wreckage of his burning car, acts of selflessness over self-interest which saved the Austrian’s life.

And occasionally, displays of sportsmanship can be so magnanimous as to sacrifice victory in favour of doing the right thing – a simple matter of gentlemanly honour.

Royal Birkdale Golf Club, September 1969

The 1969 Ryder Cup started amid a less than gentlemanly atmosphere.

The Americans had enjoyed a long period of dominance over Britain (it would not become ‘Europe’ until 1979) in the competition, having won 12 of the previous 13 meetings, including the last five. The 1967 match in Houston had been as one-sided as the final scoreline of 23½-8½ would suggest. However, with a strong, young team and the added benefit of home advantage this time around, captain Eric Brown was confident Britain stood a genuine chance of securing only its second Ryder Cup win since World War II. So keen was he to grab every possible advantage that he even ordered his players not to help the Americans look for their balls if they were lost in the rough, setting the tone for a series of niggly, ill-tempered spats between the teams.

In spite of this, the match itself developed into a classic, with 17 of the 32 ties going to the final hole and the British side matching their American counterparts shot for shot and point for point. With just one game left to complete, the match score was deadlocked at 15½-15½.

In keeping with the rest of the match, the final rubber between Britain’s Tony Jacklin and the USA’s Jack Nicklaus – arguably the two best players in the world at that time – is closely contested. The tie see-saws first one way then the other as they wrestle for the initiative, neither leading by more than one hole at any point.

With three holes remaining, the pair are level. Nicklaus wins the 16th to edge ahead, but Jacklin then sinks a monster 50-foot putt to send them down the last hole of the last match of the Ryder Cup all square.

As they walk down the fairway together after their tee shots, the American asks his opponent how he is feeling.

“I’m petrified,” Jacklin admits, to which Nicklaus responds, “If it’s any consolation, I feel exactly the same way you do.”

By the time they stride onto the 18th green it resembles a tiny, tightly-packed gladiators’ arena, with the entire crowd gathered several rows deep around its periphery, straining to glimpse the climax of three days of competition. Jacklin’s ball is further from the hole, meaning he must putt first. His attempt from around 25 feet away is perfect in line but not distance, agonisingly stopping just over two feet short. A valiant try, but now he must watch, powerless, as his opponent lines up a putt to win both the tie and the Ryder Cup outright.

Great player though he is, even Nicklaus is struggling to control the adrenaline surging through his veins. He strikes the ball aggressively and watches aghast as it sails past the hole and rolls on a further four feet. Now the shoe is on the other foot; he has to go first, and if he misses and Jacklin succeeds then it will be Britain and not the USA who will claim the Cup.

Big pressure putts are familiar territory for a top golfer; the added expectation of representing a team and a nation in such a historical and prestigious event is not. The situation might destroy a lesser man, but not Nicklaus, who nonchalantly rolls the ball into the centre of the hole and breathes a massive sigh of relief. Now he can do no worse than draw the tie and the overall match, and if nerves get the better of Jacklin, he would claim outright victory for himself and the USA.

One can only imagine what thoughts are racing through Jacklin’s mind as he watches Nicklaus hole out. The putt he faces is relatively straightforward under normal circumstances, but this situation is anything but. This is pressure at its most intense, and with everyone’s eyes trained on him he has nowhere to hide.

However, of all the scenarios playing out in his brain, the one he has not considered is the one that actually occurs. Nicklaus picks his own ball out of the hole, pauses, and then reaches over to pick up his opponent’s marker, conceding the putt. He goes over to the Englishman, offers his hand, and explains, “I don’t think you would have missed that putt, but in these circumstances, I would never give you the opportunity.”

The two golfers leave the course together with an arm around each other’s shoulder to heartfelt and deserved applause from the crowd. It is a fitting end to an honourable match between two great rivals.

In the final analysis, Nicklaus and Jacklin halved their match, and the overall score finished 16-16, the first tie in Ryder Cup history. Under the competition’s rules, this meant the USA, as the current holders, retained the trophy. Nicklaus knew this; he knew it made no material difference to the fate of the Cup whether he himself won or drew. The concession cost nothing in competitive terms, but was of immeasurable sporting value.

Nicklaus explained later, “I believed good sportsmanship should be as much a part of the Ryder Cup as great competition.” Jacklin has always been quick to agree, calling it “the greatest single sporting gesture in golf”.

Not everyone involved saw it that way. American captain Sam Snead was apoplectic: “It was ridiculous to give him that putt. We went over there to win, not to be good ol’ boys.” Fortunately, others were able to see the bigger picture. Leo Fraser, President of the US PGA, graciously agreed the two countries should each retain the trophy for a year, contrary to tradition.

The events of 1969 were echoed eighteen years later when the Americans were defeated on home soil for the first time ever after Larry Nelson graciously conceded a two-foot putt to Bernhard Langer. The captains that year? Nicklaus and Jacklin.

Jack Nicklaus demonstrated that sportsmanship is as much about the way you win as the way you play the game, and that it can even be infectious. Conceding Tony Jacklin’s putt was an instinctive act, a small yet grand gesture from one of golf’s true gentlemen, and one which has deservedly earned a place in sporting legend.

Defining moments 4: Armstrong’s last stand

An occasional series looking at the defining moments which explain why sport captivates us so much …

In sport, you often hear competitors talk about “110 per cent effort” or similar to emphasise that they’ve given absolutely everything. While one might quibble over the mathematics of such a statement, it’s nonetheless a valid reminder that sportsmen and women do push their bodies to the very limit of their capabilities, and sometimes beyond.

Nowhere is such single-minded effort more necessary – or indeed more obvious – than it is every July at the Tour de France.

There’s something about the Tour that sets it apart. It provides the most strenuous examination possible of speed, stamina, strength and sheer obstinacy, with its long flat stages, savage mountain climbs, and against-the-clock time trials stretched over a gruelling three-week schedule.

To put this challenge into context, here are some basic facts and figures about the 2003 edition, which provides the setting for this post. That year’s race comprised 21 stages over 23 days, covering a total of 3,428km, roughly the same distance as Paris to Moscow. The furthest covered in one day was 231km (London to Cardiff), and the longest stage took over six hours to complete. En route, there were fifteen climbs higher than the peak of Ben Nevis, Britain’s tallest mountain. And at the end of it all, the race was won at an average speed of 41kph. At this pace, you would run the hundred metres nearly a second faster than Usain Bolt.

Three weeks. Two wheels. One living hell. Welcome to Le Tour. This is not an event you choose to participate in unless you are the hardest of masochistic hard men (or doped up to the eyeballs, but that’s an entirely different topic).

I can’t stress enough just how tough the Tour is to even complete, let alone win. It may share the same means of propulsion as a Sunday afternoon bike ride, but it has about as much in common with it as the marathon does with my walk home from the corner shop.

Over the years, the Tour has provided a plethora of memorable images and defining moments, many of them involving Lance Armstrong, the most successful Tour rider of all time. This is my favourite.

Tour de France, July 2003

No matter how good a climber you are, this is the kind of day you know is going to hurt in a way that no amount of training can truly prepare you for. Covering 160km and culminating in three major climbs – the Col d’Aspin (the warm-up act at a mere 1,489m above sea level), the Col du Tourmalet (2,114m) and finally the finish at the top of Luz-Ardiden (1,715m) – this is four-and-a-half hours of intense suffering for the very best; an extra thirty minutes or more for many others.

The American Lance Armstrong is seeking a fifth consecutive Tour victory, but he has not dominated this race in the manner of his previous wins, looking vulnerable in the Alps and conceding a massive 96 seconds to Jan Ullrich in the individual time trial three days earlier. His advantage over the German is now a wafer-thin 15 seconds, with Alexandre Vinokourov just three seconds further behind. Armstrong’s objective today is simple, at least on paper: build his slim cushion over Ullrich and Vinokourov, ideally to a minute or more, ahead of the potentially decisive second time trial.

The slopes of Luz-Ardiden are to be the battleground for Lance Armstrong’s last stand.

Four hours into the stage, the leading riders are bunched together at the foot of the final climb. They are watching each other, waiting for the attack they know must come soon.

Sure enough, the yellow jersey eases into position at the head of the group, the orange-shirted Spaniard Iban Mayo and Ullrich at his shoulder, the others a few metres further back. And then suddenly, inexplicably, Armstrong’s bike twitches violently and he crashes to the ground, taking Mayo with him. (TV replays will later show his handlebars had caught the straps of a spectator’s bag.)

A second passes, then two, then three. Is his bike broken? How badly is he hurt? Is it all over for Lance Armstrong – just like that?

The wait is excruciating, like watching a jelly-legged boxer struggling to beat the referee’s count. Ullrich and the other leading riders cycle past. Armstrong is clearly dazed and shaken as he picks himself up and rights his bike, pausing to refit his chain before setting off in pursuit. A TV camera zooms in on his bleeding elbow, then pans up to his face. His wide-eyed, adrenaline-fuelled fury tells you everything you need to know: I will not let it end like this!

Armstrong strains every sinew to regain the lost ground, but not without one further flirtation with disaster. Charging up the mountain in pursuit – out of the saddle, standing on the pedals, maximum effort – his right foot slips out of the pedal, and he lurches forward precariously, his balance utterly compromised. For a moment it looks as if he’s either going to lose his manhood on the bike frame or else come off his machine altogether. Fortunately he does neither. He instinctively catches himself, regains his balance, and quickly slots his foot back into the pedal. A hiccup, no more.

At this point, any ordinary human would probably be content to thank their lucky stars and follow the pack to the finish. But professional cyclists are not ordinary humans, and Lance Armstrong is no ordinary cyclist. He has been in this situation – hunted, disrespected, written off as lacking a winner’s quality – before, and he knows what to do.

The leading group is now back together again, and almost immediately Mayo launches an attack, his tired legs developing an instant burst of speed in an attempt to put a decisive gap between him and the others. Armstrong’s response is immediate, surging forward to catch the Spaniard’s breakaway, and then without pause for breath he does what he has always done best – launch an attack himself. A devastating burst of acceleration, a quick look over the shoulder to see if anyone can respond – they can’t – and he’s away, a yawning gap opening up rapidly behind him: five seconds, fifteen, thirty …

Literally and figuratively, Lance Armstrong never looked back again. He finished 40 seconds ahead of the rest that day, but it might as well have been 40 minutes. The war was not yet won, but the key battle had been.

Put firmly on the back foot, Ullrich would go on to crash in a torrential downpour during the final time trial in a desperate attempt to make up time, confirming Armstrong’s fifth Tour de France victory. The American would go on to win the next two Tours; Ullrich would never get as close again.

Armstrong’s stirring fight-back on Luz-Ardiden was potentially the difference between him losing his stranglehold on the world’s greatest bike race and becoming its most successful ever participant. On such critical, defining moments are sporting legends made.

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