2nd July 2014 - Michael Barry
Michael Barry's 14-year career as a professional cyclist took in all the elite races and saw him compete in three Olympic Games. His first book, Inside the Post Bus, was published in 2005 was presented as an insider's candid perspective on the US Postal Cycling Team spearheaded by Lance Armstrong. In 2012 he accepted a six-month ban for his involvement in the team's widespread doping scheme.
Michael joined Team Sky in 2010, giving him his chance to compete in his first Tour de France. His new book, Shadows on the Road shares his experiences of riding alongside giants of the sport such as Mark Cavendish, Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome and explores the varied riding cultures of the different teams for whom he has ridden.
In this exclusive blog for Foyles, Michael shares the reality of finally competing in the race whose promise had fuelled his training sessions for so many years.
We were no longer chatting like colleagues at the water cooler. The banter had been replaced by ruthless aggression as the peloton swarmed toward the final climb. To be in position at the front of the peloton for the finale, we used every inch of tarmac. We rubbed elbows, we yelled, we swore. Some riders ploughed through the gravel shoulder, and jumped on to the sidewalks. Anything to move up. Like in every other race during the 10-month season, the panicked charge to the finish line had begun. Every rider knew that he needed to be near the front by the bottom of the climb and every team's directeur sportif, who were following the peloton in the team cars, barked at their riders over the two way radios we each wore. The order was the same from all of the nearly 200 riders: race into the front positions. The result was the ultimate bottleneck, which inevitably led to crashes, and more tension. But, to the fans at the roadside, and the television audience, distanced from the harried angst, we were racing beautifully past green pastures, through the idyllic towns and into the serene snow capped peaks. To them we were gladiators, lithe and courageous; our task was super-human. To us, in this moment, it was a job, and we had to meet expectations. This was the Tour de France, a race that captivated and inspired nations; for us it was also the race where the stakes were the highest.
In the midst of the chaotic charge, I glanced to the left, as we raced through the small town of Bonne. We passed the antique shop where I had bought my father a vintage bicycle from the '40s, a Terrot, for his collection. We passed the patisserie where I would stop, shaky from the intensity of my training efforts, for a pastry and Coke. We sped past the farm where I spent afternoons in the sun with friends, my legs up on the chaise longue, trying to recover and rest for the next races. We were on a road, near Geneva, that was taking us up to the peaks. As a amateur 15 years earlier I had trained, alone or with teammates, several times a week on the Route du Fer a Cheval. Back then, as I pedaled my way up to the mountains, I imagined that I was in the Tour, racing into the hills to take the yellow jersey or win a stage. Now I raced up it in the Tour de France peloton.
The images fuelled my training sessions; I had a dream and a goal that took me from Canada to France, pushed me to ride on ice cold days, and to keep going when I was bashed up after crashing. Now, in the midst of the peloton, the goal had been accomplished, on the bike, in the race, with my teammates, with my work colleagues, many who were good friends, it felt like any other race in our long season. I had always imagined the Tour would be different, perhaps even a magical experience. But the physical demands were no different than the Giro d'Italia or Vuelta a Espana. The environment that surrounded the race, however, was electric and never seemed to relent. Even late into the night, as we slept, fans partied in the streets, journalists typed their reports on the victories, defeats, heroics and tragedies, barriers and banners were torn down and put up in the next town, and the mechanics worked away at our bikes. The Tour is an international circus, moving from town to town, rolling through France; the cyclists are the act.
As we ascended the final climb, I could hear a familiar voice cheering in a crowd of a hundred or more. The sun belted down. Shirtless fans ran alongside the group, the scent of beer wafting as they yelled. This was their picnic, their party, and their summer vacation and they had been on the slope for a day or more, waiting for our arrival. Eventually, I found the face to the voice. It was Gabrielle, with her husband Gerard. They had been my landlords when I lived in the area as an amateur. More than that, they had cared for me like a son. Seeing the joy in their faces, hearing the ebullience in their voices, and watching as they jumped with excitement, brought me back to my small apartment, to the conversations we had over the dinner table, to the hikes we did in the mountains I was now racing over. They, like so many others, had faced and were facing their own trials and difficulties as a family; for a moment, the Tour had eclipsed all of that, had brought them pure joy. And, that is what differentiated the Tour from the every other race.