Tour de France. Three mythical words that make all cycling fans think of the greatest sporting heroes. The Tour de France has become the summit of cycling. You have to have ridden in “Le Tour” if you wish to be considered a real professional bike rider—this could well be an exaggeration, but I’ll leave that out there for the moment.  Professional cyclists can certainly be affected if they do not get to ride in the Tour de France. Or they do get to ride it, but have to retire from the race, just before they reach Paris.

A goal in life

That latter misfortune overcame my father, Alain Desaever. He was a professional bike racer from 1976 to 1985. During his career he won more than 10 professional races, as well as a host of top positions in regional races. He finished all the classics in Belgium and abroad. He rode the Giro d’Italia, Vuelta à España and the Tour de France several times. His reputation in the peloton was that of master support rider. A man who could keep his leaders out of the wind for hours by riding hard at the front.

But after his career was over, one fact still gnawed in his memory. He rode the Tour de France in both 1979 and 1980 yet failed to reach Paris on both occasions. The 1979 edition bothered him the most, as he was forced to retire due to stomach problems the day before the peloton rode along the Champs Elysees.

My father’s disappointment has become my latest life goal: to complete the 1979 Tour de France. My father died of cancer in 2014. His death affected me greatly. I lost both my father and my best friend in one go. We used to cycle together for hours in the Westhoek area of West Flanders, and we would talk endlessly about the races he had ridden, and all the things he had experienced as a pro cyclist. So in order to honour his memory I aim, 40 years after the event, to complete the 1979 Tour de France. Project TDF7919 is born. I aim to honour my father’s death and cope with my loss by completing his so-called failure and ride the entire route of the 1979 Tour, copying the original route and time schedule as much as possible.

Tour de France 1979

The Tour de France 1979 route map.

20,000km a year

After my own very brief career in cycling, I realised at the age of 22 that my chances of becoming a professional were zero. So I went back to study and passed my diploma to become a teacher. I still enjoy cycling as a hobby, and I always get the bike out when I have some free time—every year I set myself a goal to cycle 10,000km. After my father died, I got back on the bike again. My annual goal has now doubled to 20,000km. This forms the perfect foundation for my Tour de France goal (TDF7919) 40 years after the event.

My preparation for this challenge began in earnest in the summer of 2018. I did some serious extra-long training sessions during the summer holidays, to see how my body would react to daily consecutive rides of around 200km. Luckily I was spared any knee problems, which used to plague my during my earlier foray into competitive cycling. In the Alps my goal was to get to know a couple of the serious stages, with varying degrees of success—I totally ran out of energy on the Alpe d’Huez after 200km. At the end of August I rode the “Eight hours of Francorchamps” around the legendary Spa racing circuit and ended as 4th solo rider after 256km. Following that, I decided a welcome period of rest was in order.

My poor performance on the Alpe d’Huez opened my eyes. I would not underestimate the preparations I need to make for the TDF7919. After the rest period, I picked up the serious preparations by starting my twice-weekly core stability training sessions with my physiotherapist, Peter. After a test using the Redcord Neurac muscular training system, it was clear that I was going to have to train differently and more than I had originally thought.

Kenny Desaever TDF7919

Kenny Desaever in training.

Concessions

My first visit to a nutritionist also gave me a pile of homework. (Overweight I ain’t, at 71kg and a height of 1m 80cm.) But Tom informed me that my body fat percentage of 14% was too high for the undertaking I was planning. By changing a number of my eating habits, the regime began to show results and I made positive progress each month.

The chocolate spread sandwich in the morning and the chocolate banana cake snack have gone. Since September, the day starts with porridge oats and a banana. The weekly Friday date with a tasty koffiekoek pastry has been scrapped, he menu has been pretty much purged of crisps and sweets, and fridge raids are a thing of the past. I was never a big fan of alcohol, so my resolution to not touch a drop from January to the end of my Tour isn’t a major sacrifice.

Even so, I will still visit a good snackbar almost weekly when I rewarding myself for my good work! The goal to achieve a fat percentage of between 6% and 8% by early July should be do-able. (The number’s around 9% at end-February.)

In order to avoid doing the wrong things, or overtraining, I have employed the services of a trainer. I already know that I have a tendency to train too hard, so some supervision is definitely in order. Stefan is a young and motivated trainer who gives me time and space to work on my ultimate goal in the summer.

The high volume of training required, plus a full-time job isn’t simple to combine. In order to achieve the weekly dose of training, I have to grind extra kilometres after the day job is done. Days become a blur of work, train, sleep. And even the average Monday isn’t so average anymore. An hour’s warm-up on the bike to work. Then a full day’s teaching, followed by two hours on the extended return journey from work. Then an hour’s Redcord session awaits. You can imagine how good crawling into bed feels after that…

On Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, long endurance training is on the menu. In order to be available for the family at some point, I try to be out of the house by 7 o’clock in the morning, so that I can be at home again by around 2pm and do something with them.

The home front

How does the home front see this endeavour? Well, it’s not always simple to achieve the right balance between training, work, free time and the family. Mentally, it’s at times difficult to see how little time I spend with my wife, Inge, and our daughter, Aiko. I do feel I’m missing out on free time. I also feel like I’m abandoning my family and friends by going training all the time. And any time I do have left over, I mostly just want to sit in a chair and get some rest!

Luckily for me, everyone is very understanding and they all support me wholeheartedly. They also know that this is not a never-ending process, and that they will get their husband or dad back 100% once this is over.

What began as a small project is getting bigger and bigger. In order to create another goal for this whole adventure, we have also decided to ride in aid of the children’s cancer charity Kinderkankerfonds. Thanks to donations, organising the TDF7919 Quiz and a cycling event in our local town centre I hope to raise as much money as possible for the charity.

There is still a lot of work ahead, but thanks to the warm support from everyone around me, I hope to achieve my goal and finish the TDF7919.

Time will tell whether or not it is too much of a challenge. I still haven’t found the correct balance between free time, full-time job, training, rest and the family. But nothing is going to stop me going through with this; we are going to continue until I can finally crown my father as the wonderful rider he always was!

Are you curious about the project’s latest developments? You can follow TDF7919 on  Facebook and Instagram.

~ This is a column by Kenny Desaever