After 10 difficult days of racing, the battered and bruised members of the Tour de France peloton will be relieved to have reached the first of the race's two rest days on Tuesday.
They won't have to pin on race numbers, they won't travel to and from the start, and they won't be mobbed by the fans or media. But they will spend their rest day riding their bikes for several hours with a few high-intensity intervals. Rest days are one of professional cycling's paradoxes.
The rest day is more of a reprieve from the mental and physical intensity of racing than a day off. Within the context of a tour, rest days are like roadside stops on a long road trip, providing a moment to fuel up, gauge the route ahead and work out the kinks that have developed during the trip. In a sport where there are no timeouts and where a rider must finish each stage to continue the next, the rest day is a brief break for the riders in what is quickly becoming a race of attrition.
On paper, the first week of the Tour was the least mountainous, and appeared to be easiest of the three weeks of racing. But all of the Tour's remaining riders will be happy they survived it.
The opening week decimated the peloton. Of the 198 starters 20 riders have abandoned, most of those due to injuries sustained in the numerous crashes, including Canada's Ryder Hesjedal. Two of his eight Garmin-Sharp teammates also crashed out of the race while all the others are riding with injuries. For them, the rest day will be a moment to recalibrate their goals and heal their wounds. On the other end of the spectrum, race leader Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky — the team I race for; only nine riders on the 27-man roster race the Tour — will confidently plan their defence for the coming mountain stages.
The first week of the Tour creates anxiety within the peloton. In the flatter regions of northern France, the wind, the small rural roads, and the still energetic peloton create a nervousness that often results in massive crashes.
This year's first week has been the worst in a series of recent Tours where crashes have eliminated many of the protagonists. Unaware of the severity of their injuries and not wanting to abandon their goals, riders finished stages with punctured lungs, broken bones and shredded skin. Only after the line is crossed do they evaluate the damage to their bodies. Having trained for months to prepare for the Tour and having dreamed of the event since their childhood they pedal until their bodies give out or they are forced to stop.
In the 11 grand tours I have ridden — I'm not competing in this year's Tour de France — I've learned to count the rest days as points of reference within the tumultuous atmosphere of the race. To mentally deal with the demands of a three-week race which will cover more than 3,000 kilometres and takes roughly 90 hours, we break the event down into stages, mountains, sprints, towns and even individual kilometres. A day isn't long enough to recover physically from the race, but it makes it more manageable mentally.
The night before each stage the riders and staff receive a schedule for the following day that breaks down every hour and distance. During the Tour, the teams move incessantly. They'll spend as much time in cars and buses driving from the hotel to the start and from the finish to the next hotel. Often the race organizers schedule the longest transfers on the rest days. The teams will be required to leap from one region to another by plane, train or car to reach the following day's start town. Hours spent in a team bus, stuck in traffic, are far from restful.
On the rest day the riders will be able to mentally disconnect for a few hours, sleep a bit longer and tend to injuries. Along with the time spent on meals, training rides and therapy, the teams will schedule news conferences. It is all part of the job.
With the constant pressure the race applies, our bodies become accustomed to the strain. Our legs, our sleep patterns, our appetites and our temperaments fall in sync with the race. Following a rest day, we sometimes struggle to re-establish that rhythm and feel lethargic and bloated. Our legs will ache and we won't be able to follow riders we might normally leave behind.
To avoid the consequences of going cold turkey, we'll ride at a reasonably high intensity on the rest day. Some riders on the team will push their bodies on a hard climb to simulate the race while others will ride in the slipstream of the team car to mimic the speed of the peloton. Only the ill or seriously injured will stay off their bikes.
On the rest day, we will look for any momentary return to normalcy. Some riders will stop at a cafe in a small town midway through their training ride while others will go for a short stroll in town after dinner. There are few such moments during the three weeks of the Tour.
The rest day is the only day where families and friends can spend any time of value with the riders. Often, however, that means just an hour together in a hotel lobby or terrace. For the both rider and his family the moment is bittersweet: not enough time to reconnect but is long enough to make us homesick. The conversation never flows due to the rider's fatigue and distraction, as the race ahead never escapes our thoughts.
The toughest mountain days are ahead and the race for the yellow jersey has only just begun.