When time runs out
Emily Newsom reflects on what it means to finish outside the time limit at the Tour de France Femmes
As the stages of the Tour de France Femmes continued on, my body responded more and more reluctantly. I had spent a lot of energy in the beginning days working to cover moves as well as initiating a few on my own.
I could tell I wasn’t reacting to the strain as well as I expected from myself. Whether that be hormones, jet lag, or simply a normal ebb of the body, I didn’t know, but the objective remained clear; give everything I had for the team.
Stage 7 had been looming since we began the Tour, its arduous climbs looked at by some with anticipation, and for others, like myself, trepidation. The morning of the stage our sport director took me aside to tell me that the outcome of that day did not matter in regards to my performance. I had accomplished what they wished with my multiple breaks and now it was time for the climbers. I appreciated confirmation of what I knew to be true. I had done everything that had been asked of me, but still, I wanted to give more.
I’m a strong believer in the power of positivity and the strength found in confidence. But pre stage 7, try as I might, I could not grasp how this mountainous day could turn in my favor. It was like trying to pin down a fish. My weary mind simply could not fathom putting forth the effort needed to stay with the main group. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe I was capable of it. I knew on another day I was, but today, in this time, it seemed impossible. As athletes, we know the feeling of being ready for a challenge. We sense it with excited nervousness knowing we are ready and the body will respond strongly, equipped with hours of preparation. It is the feeling I had before Unbound, and on that day I could dig so deep and rejoiced in the strength I found. What I felt on this 7th stage of the Tour de France Femmes was markedly different. I felt hollow, emptied, but somewhere far down, there was an unwavering certainty that I would never give up.
"We are fallible, full of beautiful cracks and puzzling calamities. Never had I felt so exposed, so vulnerable, as I did on this day."
We lined up and rather than moving swiftly to the front during the neutral to cover the first moves, I remained mid pack to help our climbers with positioning. As soon as neutral was over, the pedal went to the floor and I found myself shooting backwards and hanging desperately to the final wheels. Soon the inevitable happened, my tired legs simply could not match the speed and as I fell back into a small group, I braced myself for the beginning of a long day.
As we turned onto the first of three long climbs, I focused on keeping a steady power, hoping to be able to ride into feeling a little better. I was soon alone, some from our small grupetto having abandoned, some falling behind, and some riding ahead. My back began to tighten and I became painfully aware of my upper glutes protesting at every pedal turn. Ignoring the discomfort as best I could, I doggedly continued on.
In many ways it would have been much easier to simply stop and climb into the broom wagon. This way I could hide from the eyes of the spectators and have that open ended DNF beside my name. Anything could have happened: sickness, crash, puncture, etc. I could have avoided passing by the team support in the multiple feeds and seeing their kind and concerned looks as I silently took a bottle. But somehow I couldn’t. Whether this was my last day on the bike or the beginning of a determined launch into even stronger form, it wasn’t in me to stop.
Pedal stroke by pedal stroke I worked my way up the climbs, past the cheering fans. As a QOM came closer the cheers would be louder, their pounding on the barriers vibrating through my body. I was amazed at the resilience of these people, waiting for hours for the first riders to appear, then faithfully cheering until the last woman passed, sometimes 30 or 40 minutes later. At times I felt a little resentment at their cheery cries of Allez, allez, wondering if they knew the sort of pain I was enduring. Other times I fought feelings of shame that I was so far off where I worked so hard to be. I imagined myself back at home, delighting in my beautiful daughter, guiding her and loving her. I thought of the joy I would find in being once again in my own space with the ones I loved near to me, holding me dear no matter what I did or did not accomplish. My mind wandered to the years I had spent in this sport, tirelessly working day after day, month by month, striving to better myself. I felt sadness that I was not fighting at the front, bewilderment over what more I could’ve done. All the while, the kilometers ticked by slowly, and eventually I found myself at the base of the final climb.
I will not deny that I kept hope that I would finish within the time limit. But I also knew how difficult that would be solo. Although being alone on a climb is not so detrimental in terms of peloton speed, in the descents and the one notable flat section I would be many kilometers an hour slower than a group. With the anticipation of finally being done a little sharper, I began climbing once again. Nearing the top, I was fatiguing more and more, and my mind narrowed to the simple rudimentary task of turning the pedals. As I toiled away followed by a long caravan of team cars coming from the last feed along with that dreaded broom wagon, the crowds seemed to match my waning strength with equally renewed vigor. Shouting encouragement, a man ran beside me pushing me forward. As he left off, another picked up, hurling me up the hill. A big smile creased my face as one by one people pushed me along for a stretch of perhaps a kilometer. Finally it was up to me again, and I flew along the final downhill section leading into the finish. I crossed the line, still being cheered on.
I wasn’t surprised to learn I had missed the time cut. I didn’t feel anything. I was empty. But as the days pass, my natural optimism has slowly begun to emerge. I remembered all I had done and though the Tour didn’t end as I dreamed, I had every reason to be proud of myself. Despite not feeling as strong as I know I am, I poured myself into the team. I respected my effort and I understood that I could not have done more than I did at that time. We are not machines, we are human. We are fallible, full of beautiful cracks and puzzling calamities. Never had I felt so exposed, so vulnerable, as I did on this day. And I was met with open hearted love not only from my team, but especially from friends and family around the world, reaching out to make sure I was ok. My imperfect performance touched others because it was relatable. And to inspire a fellow person, to give hope to another because they see themselves in you, what more can I ask for than that? I may have been the last rider across the line, but what I saw as an empty cup is filling with more meaning than I could’ve ever known.
A special thanks to Emily for writing this article about her experience at the Tour de France Femmes.