NO PUNTER OF THEpeloton has fully experienced the trials and tribulations of riding on the rivet until he or she has hyper-extended their jaw in that desperate moment just prior to oxygen-debt and inhaled a bug. I use the term “bug” in the broadest sense of the term with no real care for entomological accuracy, for the truth is folks, more often than not, the critter in question will remain an Unidentified Flying Object. It is now universally accepted that Frank Schleck’s chances of donning the maillot jaune in the 2011 Tour de France were dashed during the Stage 2 Team Time Trial when he swallowed a “bug”. Sure, the media continued with the charade that the older of the two Schleck brothers was still in the mix, but the experience clearly rattled him.
“I panicked a bit at first,” Frank told an Associated Press cycling hack after the stage. “The bug stung me in the throat and I swallowed it. It was painful.”
In a moment of confusion, the parochial Luxembourg Anti-Doping Agency jumped the gun by releasing a statement asserting that Frank should only get a twelve month ban because he “had not ingested the substance intentionally”. But to everyone else present, the gravity of the situation was obvious: Frank had suffered the full seven stages of bug inhalation.
STAGE 1: denial. Despite the distinct sensation of an insect of some description entering the oral cavity, for a mere nano-second the cyclist embraces the improbability of it all. Seriously, what are the chances? You. A bike. A long ride. An average speed of 16 miles per hour. A steady cross wind. An otherwise insignificant bug with no set agenda.
Immediately after denial comes STAGE 2: the sublingual salivary splutter. In the belief that the intruder has not ventured far, the body engages in a frantic bout of forcibly ejecting saliva from the front of the mouth in a spitting fashion usually associated with brushing one’s teeth.
STAGE 3: the guttural sprog. Having conceded that the bug is in fact much deeper than first hoped, the cyclist draws upon the muscle memory developed in one’s teens to gather all of the available phlegm from that dark place where the functions of the nose, ears and throat collide, and then propels the assembled mass of mucus out into the world in a concerted effort to evict the unwanted creature.
The failure of an old school golly leads to STAGE 4: the reflex gag or dry retch. Things are now getting desperate. The whole body is starting to rally behind the cause and the physically convulsing pedal pusher emits husky-sounding exhalations that resemble a severe case of kennel cough.
STAGE 5: the surrender swallow. At some point the intellect decides that it is time to confront the physiological spectacle unfolding before it. If the bugger won’t come out, it’s time for him to be banished to the lower depths of the gastrointestinal tract. Without missing a pedal stroke, the victim will usually reach for the most accessible bidon and begin gulping its contents.
The freshly ingested liquid combines with that thought to produce STAGE 6: the micro-vomit. Much like a baby burping, the cyclist turns the head sideways and squeezes out a mouthful of whatever has just been consumed from the bottle.
This results in the final chapter of the whole sorry affair, STAGE 7: the psychosomatic symptoms of bug inhalation. At this point there is no way to be sure if the bug has been expelled or swallowed, and the cyclist spends the rest of the ride in various states of spitting, sprogging and dry retching.
It has been a bad season for swallowing bugs in my bunch, the Old Cranks. The reaction has been swift and innovative.
Bob “and Weave” Williams has let his moustache grow beyond the top lip to provide a kind of natural insect screen. Tezza bought a standard issue WW1 gas mask which he found in the back corner of an old wares dealer at Blackheath. And Miguelito “El Dingo Loco” de Pared carries a snorkel and goggles for the unlikely event of finding himself submersed and lost in a locust plague somewhere beyond the Hawkesbury valley.
I’m the only punter with a first aid certificate and, while I take my duty of care seriously, it requires a focused mind with clear intentions to comfortably and confidently perform the Heimlich manoeuvre in lycra without provoking some kind of misunderstanding.
Amongst the pros, the animated Frenchman, Thomas “Le Tank Engine” Voeckler has proven to be the most entrepreneurial when it comes to dealing with the issue of bugs. Prone as he is to wild gesticulation and facial gymnastics that often leave his mouth ajar, Thomas decided to master his biological reflexes and deliberately detain any unidentified flying object under his tongue until the end of each race. He is now one of the most highly regarded amateur entomologists in Europe. Cycling fans can see a special exhibition of Voeckler’s collection of critters at this year’s Tour Down Under, which includes three previously unrecognised species of dung beetle captured during last year’s Grand Tours.