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Cycling: Kiwi cherished on Tour

Greg Henderson's dream is to bring glory to a team-mate on the Tour de France, writes Andrew Alderson.

"If anyone catches that little mongrel who snuck in2 my room last night w a sledgehammer n went apeshit on my legs, please send him my way." - Greg Henderson, Twitter, July 8 after the ninth stage of the 2013 Tour de France.

That's the daily nature of the extravaganza known simply as "Le Tour" in France, currently showcasing the talents of Henderson, a veteran New Zealand representative at Olympic and Commonwealth Games and world championships. He craved Tour inclusion for years - initially denied by Team Sky who sought success for Bradley Wiggins and current yellow jersey holder Chris Froome.

Then last year, at age 36, Lotto Belisol contracted him to lead out sprinter Andre Greipel. He seized his chance to become just the 10th New Zealander to compete in the race (Garmin-Sharp's Jack Bauer became the 11th in this year's centenary edition). Yesterday, Henderson extended his deal with Lotto Belisol by two years (Greipel extended his contract several weeks back).

Henderson's job entails being the final rider on the end of a train to get Greipel into a position where he can conserve energy by drafting and prepare to sprint to the finish and win the stage. Henderson exhausts himself in the interests of getting Greipel individual glory which, in turn, reflects on the team. There is minimum room for error in a speedy lattice of pedals, handlebars, wheels and chains.

The Herald on Sunday spoke to Henderson as he prepared for Friday's 173km 13th stage from Tours to Saint-Amand-Montrond. He tweeted that the subsequent massage table experience made him feel like they were "extracting the saddle that was firmly implanted in my sphincter all day".

The previous evening the interview was thwarted by Henderson crashing in the last 3km with a suspected broken elbow. He described it as like "being on the bottom of a rugby scrum". Determination, along with the help of his medical team, brought him back for another start, albeit with a left elbow wrapped in a heavy bandage.

It is part of Henderson's commitment to an annual pilgrimage for the world's cycling community.

"Ask anyone in the world to name a cycling race and they say 'the Tour de France'," Henderson says. "When anyone asks what you do for a living it's great to be able to say you race the Tour de France. It's the only race people remember; the biggest race on the planet. It's a travelling circus; there's no question it's the high point of my career.

"I know I've done a fortnight of riding. I can definitely feel it. You enjoy it more afterwards, really. There's so much stress, so much at stake and you've got a job to do. I'm here to help Greipel win stages; without me he can't win, it's an important job."

Henderson has taken most satisfaction this tour when he dragged Greipel through to win stage six: "It was perfect. He came through the way we've done it so many times before [on other tours]. He's hard to beat when he gets delivered like that because he's one of the most powerful guys in the world. It was nice to see a reward for our hard work."

Says Greipel: "Greg is an experienced link for us in the lead-out train. He is always there when you need him. It's not just about him though, the whole team needs to work. Everybody knows how we tick but he gives comments about when to hit the front. He's the guide."

Another word to describe Henderson is "lithe". Any skinfold test would leave the calipers struggling for a grip. He can't have eaten an ounce of extra pasta or placed excessive demands on the team sweets jar. His bike seat will be smiling, even if it is uncomfortably placed after the 13th stage. Still, you can pretty much eat what you want when you're pedalling 3403km over 23 days.

Henderson says his favourite part of any stage is the last 20km where the intensity mounts, aggression comes to the fore and the fight starts for real estate.

"It's full stress, man. You've got to pick what side of the road to be on, watch out for roundabouts and islands. Spectators hang over the side of the road clapping and taking photos. It is chaotic. You just hear a wall of noise, which makes communicating difficult. You can't hear that well but, by the same token, it's a fantastic feeling."

- Herald on Sunday

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