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Last Updated: Friday, 29 June 2007, 14:30 GMT 15:30 UK
Tackling Le Tour

The Tour de France is the summit of achievement for any professional cyclist, but how far can an amateur with a fold-up bike get on the course? With the historic race starting for the first time on British soil next week, Claire Heald sets out to see what's in store.

I blame the cobbles.

They juddered the bike wheels, thwacked my behind and pulverised any remaining resolution to carry on. Legs, back, saddle, sunburn - I'd had it. I gave up, which is something Tour de France riders do only when they are scraped up from the road.

Why was I here, slowing to a halt on the road between London's Mall and Chaucer's Canterbury?

Claire Heald with directions in mouth
Tour riders do not have a map in their mouth

The Tour de France is the pinnacle for a professional, a gruelling 3,550km journey, but an impossibly distant dream for any amateur.

With the UK about to host the first stage, I, as a self-certified office fit-nut with a sniff of cycling experience, just had to pit myself against the 203km route.

A week on Sunday almost 200 competitors will zip through the capital, rise out of the London basin and along the Thames Gateway, drop over the North Downs and wind down to Canterbury.

En route there are three sprint sections and three thigh-burning "King of the Mountains" hill climbs. The riders will pass spectators in a blur, the whole course will take them under five hours to complete.

Thousands of enthusiasts try out a stage of cycling's most famous race each year. But training puts a professional Tour cyclist in the saddle for up to 20,000 miles a year. Their heart, lungs, muscles and pure guts are all highly adapted to the sport's demands.

Boys' toys

For me, a 120 mile-a-week commute was punctured in February by the birth of my first child. The climb up Notting Hill and the sprint through Hyde Park swapped for feeding sessions on the sofa.

I could match the average competitor for desire however. After endless sleepless nights and constant responsibility, a day cycling into the distance sounded like the path of least torture.

Big Ben
This is the third time the tour has visited the UK

Part of the joy of cycling is buying boys' toys from cycle shops in the belief that every new bit of kit purchased will increase speed and enjoyment. The tour's bikes are the pinnacle of technology. They're worth thousands but weigh as little as 15lbs.

My trusty commuter bike on the other hand is worth only a three-figure sum. And it's a fold-up. Could it take me to the finish line?

At the start of the route in the Mall, with childcare finally in place and detailed directions on paper clenched between my teeth, I was ready. Expectation was high.

I pedalled off past Big Ben, the London Eye, crossed bridges, on into the City. And my aims faltered as countless red lights, traffic jams and map checkings, as well as the odd interview stop, slowed my progress.

In the tour-decorated bike shop, the staff were all excitement about the Grand Depart. At St Paul's, a group of French expat women were ahead of their countrymen, braving London's roads on a cycle tour. Over Tower Bridge and into Rotherhithe, police and ambulance sirens slowed me down at the side of the road.

Warm-up procession

An hour of effort and I had reached... the official 0km start at Greenwich. That's right. The Tour riders clock up several kilometres of warm-up before the race even begins.

On race day, the cyclists will average around 40-44km per hour and take a steady half an hour for the warm-up procession to this point. In the gridlocked traffic, I was the fastest mode of transport and couldn't come close to matching that.

On I went through the Thames Gateway, rattling over the speed humps at Woolwich Arsenal, towards the first patches of suburb green. At Plumstead I hit my first climb. I scanned the map, was this the first King of the Mountain climb? Disappointingly, no, just a petite incline.

Promotional poster
There is excitement and anticipation on the route

On a tour stage, lead riders are helped by their team, riding in their slipstream to save about a fifth of their energy. I was alone and heading east into an easterly wind.

Riders burn about 6,000 calories during a typical flat stage of the tour and up to 10,000 on the punishing mountain days. With no time to stop for food they refuel on-the-go at feed zones. Outside Dartford, after two hours and 30km, I got off the bike for a suitably French can of Orangina and some chocolate.

Over London's orbital M25 and towards Greenhithe, orange road closure signs flicked past to confirm I was still on the route, albeit on grit-filled cycle paths that ceased unexpectedly in the middle of pavements.

At 42km I reached Gravesend, the resting place of Pocahontas. I pressed on, but climbing the hills above Higham I felt dehydrated. At this rate I would be in Canterbury around dawn.

I tried channelling the lessons from spin class. Thinking about my cadence, cycling speak for the speed at which I was pedalling.

Save my behind

Outside Rochester came the first sprint section of the stage, where riders earn points towards the right to wear the green jersey. Close to five hours in the saddle, I meandered through it, down to the town's historic centre.

And to the cobbles.

I could have saved my behind, stood up out of the pedals and pushed on to Maidstone. But the desire to carry on faded as the North Downs loomed.

Claire Heald in Rochester
Rochester marked the end of the line for the amateur

Beyond them lay another 150km of road, the hill at Tonbridge, a sprint at Tenterden, the Canterbury end point.

In the five hours it will take tour riders to complete the stage, I covered 66km, more than a quarter of the course. One sprint, no King of the Mountains climbs, and a lot less distance than some fellow hacks.

Had I completed it, self satisfaction would still be dwarfed by the scope of the Tour - 2,208 miles in another 19 stages, only to find more cobbles at the finish on Paris' Champs Elysees.

Is it possible for a mortal to tackle just one stage of the Tour? Mais certainement! Just spend weekends in responsibility-free training, head out on a non-folding bike and have childcare arrangements that allow a start before midday on a busy Wednesday.

Or am I just making excuses?

Below is a selection of your comments.

You may not have broken any records, you may not have completed the Stage but you made a brave effort. Rome wasn't built in a day and I am sure that the other 2000+ kms will get easier as you get used to them! ( Or have I got it wrong - you DO intend to finish, don't you?).
Peter, Plymouth, UK

Of course you can do more than one stage of the tour. I'm 36 years old, I cycled Land's End ot John O'Groats last summer (with a good friend) in 8 days - shortest day 99 miles longest 156 miles), cycled to Brighton and back last Saturday (10 of us). So it is possible, it just takes organisation. Getting miles in by cycling the long way home from work, getting in 40 miles, taking in Crystal Palace that kind of thing. Oh, and be prepared to be tired, very tired... We're so stupid that we're in the process of planning to cycle across the states - for charities of course!! Happy pedalling!
Matt Dowse, London

Actually, a single stage of the tour de france is perfectly achievable. The key thing is to spend the time in the saddle. When I first started cycling, I quite quickly got to the point where I could do a 100 mile day without it killing me, and without any excessive training, I got to the point where I could cycle a lot further. In fact, in 95, over a period of about 10 weeks I cycled 7,500km from Spain to Eastern Turkey! That included a lot of the passes the Tour will climb in an average year.

Where my admiration comes in for these riders, is that they do it at such a high speed. Try and ride at race speed for more than a minute or 2 and you will see what I mean. Plus, race speed up a mountain, most people wouldn't manage a single minute before having to stop. Now try doing that for 5 hours every day over a 3 week period...
Dave, UK, London

A very brave and noble effort indeed. At least your attempt did not cause the road closures and general upset that the Tour De France (In the UK??) is causing all over Kent. Quite where the cars are supposed to park is beyond me. Parking in this area is bad enough on a normal day. Now there are notices saying that parked cars will be removed. Smacks a bit of the Olympics to me. Turfing businesses out of their sites to build something that costs a fortune.
Barry, Gillingham

Don't forget the 5000 amateurs who will be covering the course this Sunday (July 1st) on the british cyclosportive london-canterbury ride.
Bernard, London

Well done for the attempt anyway! I rode the length of the Pyrennees on a folding bike 2 years ago - in under 100hrs. It can be done! On Sunday I'll be joining 5,000 other amateur riders on the Stage 1 route to Canterbury. I'm riding for charity - to support Action against Medical Accidents. Hope I make it a bit further than you did or my sponsors will demand their money back!
Richard Barcan , Bristol UK

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