The Camargue’s salt flats and reed beds extend beyond the horizon until they merge as one with the sky. A flamboyance of pink flamingos starkly contrasts against the white of the wild horses quietly grazing by the road, and on a sunny mid-July afternoon, a solo cyclist is pedaling her way through the hazy heat, wrestling with a conundrum.
Fanny Del Reyer is a relative newcomer to cycling, jumping headfirst into the sport after a shattering knee injury caused by running, but on this scorching summer day, she’s facing an unsettling situation.
What if, after over a thousand kilometres already under her belt, the intense 45-degree heat and blazing sunshine of southern France grind her to a halt? Her temperature sensor keeps blinking that dreaded number at her, silently warning her of three lurking dangers: overheating, dehydration, and sunburns.
This is what riding the original route of the Tour de France looks like. This is also where Del Reyer catches severe sunburns, but she’s only halfway through her ride; the show must go on.
Before that fateful day in the Camargue, Del Reyer had felt mostly confident about her ride. Her only previous setback had been an unexpected thunderstorm on her stage from Paris to Lyon. With only thin Lycra separating her from pounding rain, dizzying winds, and rapid lightning strikes – not to mention low visibility – it’s easy to see how some doubts might have crept into her mind.
However, Del Reyer never lost sight of her objective: to cross the finish line.
Visualising her arrival helped Del Reyer stay on track, motivated, and focused. “Whenever I was tired or fed up, I would tell myself, ‘I have to keep moving forward,’” she explains.
That’s exactly what happened in the Camargue, as well as when she was steadily pedaling against strong headwinds for 500km (310 miles) on her way to Nantes. Add a 17-km (10.5-mile) stretch of major road where lorries sped past her at dizzying speeds, and you have a recipe for potential disaster, low morale, and failure.
Del Reyer was going to put up a fight, though. “Just 100km to go” became her mantra. In her moments of doubt, she would repeatedly tell herself she would stop in a town after the next 100km, grab a coffee or some food, rest for 30 minutes, then carry on to the next 100km stop.
When 100km becomes a “small” number, you know you’re on another level. Del Reyer describes the cocooning effect of taking on such a monumentally physical and psychological challenge as “feeling like you’re in another world – because 100km ends up being a small objective – whereas for most people, it’s a big number.”
However, these psychological tricks of the mind are what helped Del Reyer through intensely strenuous physical challenges, and she mastered them over her 2,428km (1,509 miles) ride.
Another useful approach she used was to strategically play to her strengths. For Del Reyer, that translated to cycling at night. “The roads are quieter, it’s cooler, you are more concentrated, so the time feels like it’s passing by more quickly,” she explains. “I can cycle a lot faster at night, too.”
That doesn’t mean everything instantly becomes smooth sailing. Unfortunately, cycling alone at night as a woman can have its disadvantages. Del Reyer didn’t ignore the fact that she had to be extra aware on her night rides through urban areas. She covered her hair and made sure her bike was tweaked so it would make less noise during her late-night cycles. Even though she is careful, Del Reyer still urges women to go for what they want. “Stay vigilant,” she heeds, “but don’t allow it to stop you from reaching for your goals.”
Del Reyer’s original goal was to complete the ride in 10 days. Shortly after her first day, that goal dropped to eight days. “I just kept going,” she says. “I told myself I would cycle until I got tired,” Del Reyer says, explaining her strategy. That strategy led her to cycle a staggering 22 hours on her first day in the saddle.
Ultimately, she completed the Tour in a phenomenal seven days, averaging about 350km (217 miles) per day.
In 1903, 21 out of the 60 men who started the first-ever Tour de France cycled across the finish line in Paris. One-hundred-and-twenty years later to the day, one lone woman pedaled across that same line, having successfully retraced history’s steps. That woman was Fanny Del Reyer.
When asked what’s next for her, Del Reyer sparks up, and a twinkle gleams in her eyes. “I’m thinking of attempting the original 1909 Giro d’Italia in 2024,” she says. She is readying herself to conquer yet another historical journey that will, this time, take her across 2,447.9km (1,521 miles) of Italian landscape, pushing off from Milan on May 13.