Your heart races, breath shallow from excitement, and sweat moistens your back. The road ahead looks ominously mountainous. Could a bicycle make it up that high? You don't doubt it for a second. Without a thought to the danger of falling, you go full steam ahead -- with your cheers -- along with other spectators of the Tour de France.
Throughout the three-week competition, millions of viewers follow elite cyclists through some 2,100 miles of French terrain. People root for their favorite contender and stand in awe of these amazing athletes. And for good reason.
"This is the athlete cream of the crop for bike racing in the world today," says Bob Roll, author of The Tour de France Companion. He should know. He was a member of the first American team to participate in the legendary race.
Roll likens the challenges of the Tour to the trials of everyday life. "The bike racer can slog up the mountains, plunge down the valleys, win, lose, crash, and the guy that gets to the finish in Paris, he's the guy that gets up and recovers from the setbacks."
Cyclist Lance Armstrong is a popular example of someone with an indomitable spirit. After he was diagnosed with testicular cancer that spread to his lungs and brain and was given a very low chance to live, he not only survived the disease, but he went on to win five consecutive Tours. A seventh victory would make him the only contender to ever to achieve such a feat.
Tour contestants have three times the lung capacity and half the resting heart rate. The typical Tour de France contestant reaches a maximum heart rate of above 200 beats per minute on a regular basis, compared to almost never for any other segment of the population, says Roll.
Don't worry if you feel sluggish next to these guys. Mother Nature handed them their remarkable physiology. They were genetically predisposed to have narrow shoulders, large legs, and relatively skinny arms -- the ideal profile of a competitive racer.
Since the Tour's first run in 1903, there have only been 20 to 25 Americans who have ever qualified for the event, says Roll.
But physical prowess can only take these cyclists so far. Willpower, tenacity, and a never-surrender attitude must also be in the successful racer's repertoire.
"The race throws too much at you," says Roll. "Anything can happen out in the road. The weather could be bad, the crowds can step in front of you, the food can be bad, you might not sleep because there are parties outside your hotel all night, you might crash on oil on the road, or you might be taken out by other riders that fall down."
Be Like Lance
You may feel like the most inactive person in the world, but it is possible to achieve your own Tour de France victory.
"Cycling is a great activity that can be performed by a wide variety of fitness levels, body types, and body sizes," says Cedric Bryant, PhD, chief exercise physiologist for the American Council on Exercise.
The benefits are just as generous. According to Bryant, biking can help burn calories, control body weight, and reduce stress, blood pressure, and risk of type 2 diabetes. It can also improve overall cardiovascular fitness, cholesterol levels, and immune function.
Not only that, there's the advantage of being outdoors in the sunlight and fresh air, having adequate cooling, and seeing different terrains and scenery.
And if you enjoy the sport, the pros multiply. "The best exercise that you can select is the one that you enjoy, because you're most likely to do that on a consistent basis," says Bryant. "Don't get caught up in 'Well, this one doesn't burn as many calories as the next one.' The most important thing to consider is, what type of activities do you really enjoy?"
Incidentally, a 150-pound cyclist pedaling a gentle pace of 12 miles per hour can work off 410 calories in an hour (about the same amount as a Quarter Pounder hamburger), says Patrick McCormick, a spokesman for the League of American Bicyclists.
Your own biking regimen, though, may pale compared to the 5,900 average calories burned per day in the Tour and may not work off as much as running. (An hour on the bike may burn about 400, while the same time on the treadmill may burn 700 calories.)
Nonetheless, cycling is a still a great exercise and has its merits. It doesn't strain the knees, joints, and back to the extent that running does. In fact, as many runners age, they become cyclists because the pedaling motion reduces pressure on their knees, says McCormick.
People who bike to work report less stress from having to deal with traffic and say they generally feel good about themselves. Plus, some cyclists have the added satisfaction of being friendly to the environment.
If you're still not convinced, consider this: At age 50, Mary Madison was in the worst shape ever. She suffered from arthritis, complications from childhood polio, and had the beginning symptoms of emphysema after smoking for three decades. She did not think she could ride even one mile on the bike.
Fast forward 18 years, and Madison cycles some 2,000 miles from East Montana to Sacramento, Calif., to her 50th high school reunion. The retired nurse also made the trip back home. She says doctors now can't find signs of her emphysema, and her arthritis and complications from polio don't bother her as much.
What happened? Madison says she just started biking. First, she did one mile, then two, and then five. Gradually, she worked her way up to cycling multiday long-distance rides around her home state of Montana.
"When I biked, it was the one thing that gave me relaxation and help me feel good," says Madison.
Getting Into Biking Shape
To make her cross-country expedition, Madison used biking maps laid out by the Adventure Cycling Association (ACA). The group offers a network of relatively safe bike routes (mainly secondary highways and back roads) through a big chunk of North America. It also provides handy information for traveling bikers, such as location of campgrounds, bike shops, water holes, and general weather alerts.
The ACA's mission is to inspire people of all ages to travel by bike for fun, fitness, and self-discovery. They sponsor 7- to 93-day tours around the U.S. They also offer tour classes, and, at the very least, give interested bikers some tips on how to prepare for a trek.
The organization is only one of a number of cycling clubs around the country. Various groups are geared toward different levels of riders. The League of American Bicyclists posts a list of groups around the country.
A lot of bike groups give information on how to make the most of the sport. Here are a few tips and cautions to get started:
Tailor your effort accordingly. If you want to bike for fitness or weight loss, remember that results depend upon the length and intensity of the ride, your fitness level, or the grade of the climb. The fitter you are, the faster the pace you need to go, the longer you need to ride, or the steeper the terrain you need to tread to get a workout, compared with a nonfit individual.
Stay at the right level. For a cardiovascular workout during cycling, adhere to the talk test, says Bryant. You should be able to speak but not be chatty. If you're too out of breath to have a basic conversation, you are overdoing it.
Have the right equipment. Use a bicycle that has at least 10 speeds so that you can adapt to any change in grade, says Bryant. He also says a helmet is crucial for safety. Other accessories that could make riding more comfortable include padded shorts, biking gloves, and toe clips.
Adjust your seat. The right-sized bike can make a difference. "The bike's seat height should be high enough so that the leg on the down stroke is not quite completely extended," says Bryant, who notes that a saddle that's too high makes it difficult to deliver enough muscular power. A seat that's too low makes pedaling uncomfortable, especially for the knees and quads. Also, make sure you are not constricting any blood vessels in the genital area. If something hurts or is numb, chances are your saddle needs to be adjusted to make biking more pleasant for you.
Properly manipulate gears. Shift them so that you can maintain a cadence of 80 to 100 revolutions per minute, says McCormick. Improper gearing could damage the knees.
Follow traffic laws. "A bike is considered a vehicle, according to the laws in all 50 states," says McCormick. "If you want to be safe, you need to act as though you are driving a vehicle." This means following traffic signs and lights and using hand signals for a turn.
Go for the total-body workout. Supplement biking with resistance training twice a week, suggests Bryant. Working out the lower extremities will help you gain strength for cycling, and strengthening your upper extremities is important for total fitness.
Biking is, indeed, a sport that can be taken up by people of all ages and levels, even for the inactive and not so young. For these people, Bryant has the following advice: "Try to focus on enjoying the scenery, and going at a comfortable pace. Look at it as a positive time to be moving. After developing some consistency with that, then start thinking about challenging yourself."