Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Tour de France 2006

July 14, Friday: Travel. Argh. Don’t you love it. Flight delays lead to missed connections, blah blah blah. The best thing about today is that we get to Lyon, France at about 7 p.m. (many, many hours late, but who is counting?), and our bags arrive with us – including bikes! – and we get checked in to the hotel without any more problems.

Our first French experience is to turn on the TV in our little cell-like room, and we get to see the end of today’s stage! It’s a replay, but that’s really the beauty of it. French TV gets into the Tour, and this channel will replay each stage finish ad nauseum. We have dinner in the hotel, and meet our tour director and another cyclist. I’m thrilled that the waitress doesn’t speak any English, and gives me credit for much more French than I can actually understand, but it’s all part of the experience of being here. And then we return to our room and watch the tour finish all over again. Ah yes. It’s good to be in France, especially when the Tour is on.

July 15, Saturday: We have a typical French breakfast, then put our bikes together in a conference room in this hotel. A gecko watches us from the corner of the room. Bike assembly goes remarkably fast. Then we load up the van and hit the road, heading for Provence.

It’s just a small group today, and I’m happy with that. Two years ago, we traveled with the same tour operator, and the group was much too large for my liking. This year our tour group is just nine people, plus Dick and Marilyn, the tour director and his wife. Five of the folks in our group were on the Pyrenees tour, too, and they are already in Provence this morning. Dick has picked up four of us at the hotel at the Lyon airport: Mick and me, and Aaron, from New York, and Zoli, from Fort Erie, Ontario.

The drive from Lyon to our hotel in St. Didier – in Provence – takes much longer than planned, because this is Saturday morning and we’re traveling on a major thoroughfare that heads to the Mediterranean coast. But Dick allows for plenty of stops along the way (French freeway truck stops are nothing at all like truck stops in the US), and I’m already warming to my traveling companions. Add to that the fact that the scenery is great: you know those beautiful views of sunflower fields that you see on coverage of the Tour? We’re driving through country just like that. Who can complain about an extra hour or two in the van?

When we get to St. Didier, it’s already 2 p.m., so we quickly unload the van, check into the hotel, and change into cycling clothes. The rest of the group is already out riding. The four of us newbies take Dick’s advice on routing for a shakedown ride, and head down the road. Dick and Marilyn (who greets us in St. Didier as soon as we pull into the courtyard of the hotel) mention that there were thunderstorms yesterday afternoon, and speculate that there might be a repeat occurrence today. We take this as incentive to skip the search for lunch – we’ve been snacking along the drive – and get busy riding.

Within five minutes of leaving the hotel, we’re lost. But who cares? We’re in Provence, and it’s beautiful and absolutely incredible. The air is redolent with the fragrance of ripening fruit, and there are vineyards and orchards everywhere you look. My sense of smell is typically pretty lame, but the aromas in the air here are heavenly, and I wonder what a sensory overload it must be for someone with better faculties than mine. It’s hot and sunny and dry, and there are insects buzzing all around us. At one point, as we’re meandering along the narrow backroads that we’ve lost ourselves on, the largest bee that I’ve ever seen hangs in the air directly in front of me. I figure that the bee will move, but at the last moment, I have to maneuver my bike in a quick turn to avoid a major collision. First time I’ve played chicken with an insect and lost, but these are no ordinary insects. These insects feed on some of the most famed fruit in the world.

Our first destination – which we find easily, after reconnecting with the numbered roadways - is the walled hill town of Venasque. It’s just a typical little medieval European town on a hilltop, and it has all the requisite charms: the short but steep climb to the entry, the arched entryway, the fountains and churches, the narrow cobbled streets, and the vistas that go on forever and ever. We’re all in awe, drinking in the Frenchness of it all, and we stop over and over again for pictures. One element of the landscape that we all view wide-eyed is the vision of Mont Ventoux in the distance. We’re riding up Ventoux tomorrow, and we all know its reputation. We linger over the view, and then head off in the direction of the gorges.

The riding is beautiful. We climb through a breath-taking gorge, with rock walls on both sides, and rushing water below, alongside the very kind and mannered French traffic. French drivers are polite and patient – a far cry from the average American 4x4 driver who honks and gestures and screams as they pass cyclists, acting as if you’ve entirely ruined their day, if not their life, by asking them to share the road with you. Not so in France. The law in France requires drivers to give cyclists at least 1.5 meters of clearance, and most drivers comply with this happily. You seldom hear an angry horn beep in France. Mick and I know this from our last trip here, but Aaron and Zoli are just getting introduced, and they are amazed.

We’ve been hearing thunder in the distance for awhile, and we’ve all been ignoring it, hoping that we’ll finish our little ride before the storm hits. But we’ve misjudged – and badly. Just as we crest the summit of the climb through the gorge, rain starts to fall. We keep riding. I’ve already firmly established my place as the Lanterne Rouge (last rider) of our group, so I fall behind Mick and Aaron and Zoli as we start the descent. And then the rain starts for real. It comes down in sheets and buckets. I ride on, but I’m getting wetter and wetter, and more and more frightened. I test my brakes early on, and discover that the rain on the hot pavement is not a good match for my skinny tires, and I slide all over the place. It scares the dickens out of me. So I resort to riding my brakes just to keep my speed under control, but it’s storming for real. When my sunglasses experience a flood, I know that it’s time to get off the road – not to mention that the road is quickly being flooded with rocks as well as water. But where are the guys? And will I lose them if I stop?

So I keep riding, completely freaked out. It’s a major thunderboomer, and the lightning and thunder are major scary. There is traffic on the road, too, and that scares me even more. Finally, I round a corner, and see the three guys standing under a tree off on the side of the road, and I join them there.

I’ve been caught out in the rain before in Colorado, but never in anything like this. We stand under than tree for thirty minutes or more while the storm rages around us. We’re all soaked to the skin – it’s dumping buckets. At first, the rain is warm, so although we’re wet, nobody is in danger of hypothermia. After all, just a few minutes ago, we were all sweating like crazy in the dry heat! But then the wind whips up, and it swirls around. Then there’s more lightning, a strike that sounds like it is right on top of us, and the clap of thunder makes us all jump. We look up and across the road as a miniature levee that has formed with the rain lets loose and there is a minor mud and rock slide across the road. The rain lessens a bit for a moment, and we debate about getting back on the bikes, and then the storm seems to have a second thought and returns and starts dumping buckets again. It takes a while, but finally I get cold and start to shiver uncontrollably, and notice that Aaron – who is serious cyclist and very lean, and also standing directly in front of me – is shaking badly. This is not good.

We wait it out, and hope that the storm stops, but we finally decide that we should try to ride out of it rather than stay here and die of hypothermia. So – against my better judgment – we all get back on our bikes and continue our ride down. It’s freaky riding, with rain and rocks and all other kinds of debris littering the road. The good news is that it’s not far before we reach the bottom of this little descent. The bad news is that we discover something we hadn’t realized before: there is another climb in front of us. And the rain continues to fall.

There’s a minor traffic jam at this juncture at the bottom of the hill, since there is a lane here leading to a tourist attraction – a famous local abbey. So there are lots of cars and tour busses backed up by the rain, but we ride around them and start climbing.

If I wasn’t entirely freaked out earlier, it doesn’t take long for that to happen now. As we start to climb – in the driving rain – I see that the road here drops off precipitously to the right, with just a 10 or 12 inch little rock barrier for protection. On the left, the rock wall goes straight up. The road is really a single lane, and we’re riding up, with traffic coming at us from above and trying to overtake us from behind. More thunder and lightning, and I think that we’re entirely exposed, and I just want to get out of this area, and I ride like the wind. The oddest thing of the entire time in France is that, while I’m riding uphill in a major storm with torrents of rainwater rushing down the road, I feel like I’m flying. Maybe dementia has already set in.

But then somebody honks in back of me, and it’s annoying. What happened to those great French drivers? This road is too narrow for me to pull over easily – and I want to just keep moving anyway (and I’m afraid that I might not get started again if I stop along this stretch of road) – so I just keep riding. The car behind honks again, and I resist the urge to curse or make hand gestures, and decide that I’ll pull over at the next pull-out along the road. The guys are all getting quite a lead on me anyway, so it will be better to dispense with the rude driver behind.

Suddenly, the driver pulls alongside me, and I look over to see Marilyn’s face in the passenger side window. Rescue! The “rude” driver was none other than our tour director, come to rescue us! I have never felt so relieved to see anyone in my life. Soon I’m in a car with a dry sweatshirt as a towel, and Dick is attending to getting my bike squared away. Three other of our tour members have been caught in the same storm, and have waited it out in the shelter of a passing Good Samaritan French couple, who took them – dripping wet – into their car without question. And our country theoretically does not like the French? Sez who?

Dick and Marilyn have come to rescue us in the small van, and only have room – squeezed in at that – for four of us. Mick and Aaron and Zoli seem happy enough to pedal on, but I’m thrilled to be rescued, and to make the very wet and close (four dripping wet adults sharing the back seat of a small Kanga is an odd way to meet) and then (soon after) steamy acquaintance of three more of my tour group. They have been caught in the same storm, riding in the opposite direction, and have been initially rescued by the French Good Samaritans. They put in a call to Dick and Marilyn, who had just decided to come looking for all of us, but were running errands in the small van, so ergo, room enough just for the four of us.

Mick and Aaron and Zoli survive the ride, and are proud to make it all the way back to the hotel on their own (although Dick attempts to pick them up later and give them a ride back – they are having none of it). They stop in the scenic village of Gordes – our destination, which I glimpse very quickly through the steamy windows of the Kanga – and dry themselves once the storm passes, and warm themselves on hot chocolate and chocolate éclairs. By the time that Mick gets back to our hotel room, I’ve spent a long leisurely time under a hot shower, and I’m recovering from the ride. Mick is raring to go. We have a great group dinner at the hotel, where we share our stories of today’s stormy adventure.

Tomorrow is Mont Ventoux.

July 16, Sunday: Ever since I heard Lance Armstrong say, “there’s no ride like Mont Ventoux”, I’ve wanted to climb this mountain. After all, what about this mountain could command such respect from the great one himself?

Mont Ventoux is notorious for crazy winds (hence the name: in French, Ventoux means “windswept”). It’s also notorious for being the only mountain to rise from the rocky hillsides of Provence. Since we arrived in Provence yesterday afternoon, we have been in the shadow of Mont Ventoux. Everything in Provence is in the shadow of Mont Ventoux.

Today is the earliest wake-up call of our French vacation. In an attempt to beat the weather that forms over Ventoux, we all plan to summit sometime in the morning. That means that we assemble outside the hotel just after 6 a.m., where Marilyn has arranged for an impromptu breakfast, since the hotel breakfast won’t get going for another couple of hours. We get hard rolls and juice and some fruit and yogurt, but no coffee. Still, it’s better than nothing, and our entire group heads out on our day’s ride before 6:30.

We ride the first 20km of the day mostly together. It’s a gentle grade on narrow roads that take us past vineyards and orchards, and through a couple of small market towns. We’ve been planning to stop for coffee and croissants at a café in the market town of Bedoin, which is the demarcation for the actual climb up Mont Ventoux. But by now, the group has stretched out a bit. I’m following Mick and Aaron, and by the time I realize that we are completely out of town and have started the climb, the guys have left me behind. I’m guessing that the rest of the group has stopped in Bedoin, but I’m reluctant to turn around to join them, since it would mean giving up precious elevation already gained. At the same time, I’m peeved at the guys for not sticking with the plan. It’s not really an ideal way to start a major mountain climb: low on caffeine and calories, and completely pissed off.

So I pedal along, thinking that this ride is not as hard as I’ve heard it would be. The first few kilometers are very gentle, and then the gradient notches up a bit. Still, these first 7 kilometers all average 6% or less, so I have lots of spare energy to feed the anger that’s lodged in my brain. I’m really craving a cup of coffee. And a quality croissant. I try to tell myself that I’m on an epic ride, so I should work at enjoying it a bit more.

But then the road turns steeply upward, and I have to put all of my energy into the climb. Aha! Here’s the steepness of Mont Ventoux, I think to myself. The nice gentle three then five then six percent gradient has given way to a wicked near 11%.

The pictures that I’ve seen of Mont Ventoux are all misleading, since they all show the top six km of the ride, all above tree-line. But this first part of the ride – the first 14 km out of a total 20 km of climbing (more than 12 miles) – is all in deep forest. The road curves and winds through the trees, and you can never see much beyond 50 meters or more up the road. I keep straining to see a point where the road flattens out in the distance, but it doesn’t come. At each curve, I anticipate that this rate of incline will relent. But it doesn’t. It just keeps going up and up, steeper and steeper, and I dig deep into reserves. I’m having deep regrets that I haven’t trained on more hills before coming to France. I’m very sorry that Ride the Rockies didn’t have lots more serious climbs. I’m suffering.

On many of the mountain roads in France, there are markers along the roadside every kilometer that give you a sense of where you are on the climb. The markers are generally concrete, and shaped like grave markers, so we call them “tombstones”: it seems appropriate on most climbs. On this road up Mont Ventoux, the tombstones also are marked with the percentage gradient for the next uphill kilometer. I’m going extremely slowly – under 4 mph! – so it seems to take forever between tombstones, and I start to anticipate each marker with hope. Surely the next one will tell me that the gradient has lessened.

But no. The tombstone readings almost make me cry. 10.5, 10.7, 10.9, 10.3, 9.7, 10.6. This gradient is relentless. There is not a single flat spot, not a place to recover even a tiny bit. It’s all up and up and up. My legs ache. I have no doubts in my ability to summit this mountain, but still. I’m not so sure how much more I want to suffer like this.

The ride is beautiful – or would be, if you could appreciate it. It’s green and thick with foliage deep on both sides. It’s a quiet, early-Sunday-morning world here, almost no auto traffic at all on the road, and the few cars that do go by give me a wide berth. Every once in a while I get passed by a guy pedaling in the same direction, and we’ll exchange Bonjours; frequently the guys will also utter Courage! I pass a couple of guys going even slower than I. But mostly, it’s just me in this dark green forest, pedaling along by myself.

Since the road heading up Mont Ventoux did not originate in Bedoin, the kilometer markers don’t really tell me what I desperately want to know: how much further to the top? I was not paying close enough attention coming out of Bedoin to be able to accurately pinpoint how far I’ve pedaled. I do some mental calisthenics to estimate how much further, but I’m afraid that I’m far underestimating.

By now, I’ve forgotten about my need for a coffee fix. In fact, I’m thinking it might be a good thing that I didn’t have any java, since just the thought of it at this point makes me want to throw up. I’m drinking lots of water and lots of bad Gatorade, made from a powdered mix. And I’m praying for just a short stretch of flat roadway. Oh please oh please oh please.

Dick and Marilyn, the tour operators, go by in the van, and honk and yell encouragement as they pass. Another guy passes me by, and after we exchange Bonjours, he yells back at me in British-accented English, “Are you having fun yet?” I figure that my jersey must have given me away as an American. Either that, or the fact that I haven’t seen a single other woman out here riding. Don’t European women cycle at all???

The tombstone markers now promise gradients of 9-dot-something for a couple of consecutive kilometers, and I start to think that it’s pretty sick when you start to think of a 9 percent gradient as flat. But it’s better than the nearly 11 percent that seemed to go on forever, so I’m grateful.

A couple of guys ride by me, and they yell back greetings in English. I take a desperate stab: “do you know how much further to the top?” I ask. “Is it less than ten kilometers?” I think that if they say it’s more, I might just get off my bike and lie down on the road and die right now. Happily, I don’t have to do this, as they yell back, yes, definitely less than ten.

Then finally, a 7 percent gradient for the next kilometer, and what a relief! At the end of this kilometer, I come to the first – and only – flat spot on the entire climb. It’s a switchback that turns in front of a café at le Chalet-Reynard, just at tree line. Dick and Marilyn are sitting outside, enjoying some coffee, as I go by, and they yell encouragement to me. I hear Marilyn’s hearty “Courage!” as I make the left hand turn and start up the final six kilometers of this climb.

Now, I’m riding Mont Ventoux as I’ve seen it in pictures and video: all rocky moonscape above treeline, just a road cut across the rocks, with switchbacks up to a tower at the highest point above. Thankfully, the gradient stays more modest for several kilometers – 6 and 7 and 8 percent. Now that the road is exposed, I can see a progression of cyclists and cars preceding me up the hill, and now I’m meeting cyclists heading down. This is truly a pilgrimage for cyclists.

I hear metallic tinkling, and wonder for a moment if something hasn’t gone wrong with my bike. But then I make the connection between the odd pellets that I’m dodging on the roadway and the tinkling sound, and look uphill to my right and see a herd of sheep, bells at their necks. The landscape is so rocky and spare that it seems incredible that they could find enough food for forage up here.

And on and on, and up and up. I pass the Tom Simpson Memorial, where people are gathering for photos. Tom Simpson was a British professional cyclist who raced in the Tour de France in the 1960s. In a stage of the 1967 Tour, he famously collapsed on Mont Ventoux, just 3 kilometers from the summit. He is reputed to have said to the crowd, “Put me back on my bike!” He pedaled on for a ways, and then collapsed again, and died. The autopsy showed amphetamines that, combined with this horrendous climb, worked together to make Mont Ventoux his final bike ride ever. At this point, I know I’m going to make it to the summit without a Tom Simpson moment, and I’m getting a bit stoked about it.

Mick and Aaron are just heading down, and so they turn around and accompany me to the top. The last kilometer is nasty again – 11% - but I can see the summit, and I go for it. On top!

This ride is grueling, and when I unclip from my pedals, I’m shaking. For the last ten kilometers or so I’ve been thinking: check this off my life’s list of things to do, I’ll never have to ride Mont Ventoux again! Now, at the top, I stand all shaky and panting and sweating, just trying to stand up without toppling over. A group of British guys stands nearby, and they recognize me. “You made it!” they say, and I think there is some respect. In the last couple of kilometers of the climb, I passed a couple of women on bikes, but this is decidedly a very male pilgrimage. I start to get all teary-eyed and emotional, but I’m really far too tired to cry for real.

The views from the top of Ventoux are incredible, and we’re lucky to be here on a very clear day. You can see all the way to the valley floor; I almost get dizzy looking around. There is barely a breeze, which is very unusual for this mountain; again I think that we’ve come on the perfect day. Mick brings me a cold bottle of water from a little shop at the top, and it’s perfect.

The Brits are all leaning on their bikes, too, just enjoying the triumph of being up here. “Well, I won’t have to do that again!” I say to them. They laugh and say, right, and proceed to tell me about a guy they’ve heard about who rode the climb three times yesterday. Three times?!? In one day? And then more cyclists get involved in the conversation, and the local legends fly, and the talk turns to how long it took everyone to get up here. That crazy voice from somewhere deep in my brain starts to say, “next time, if I’m really trained for a climb, I could ride it in …..” Yikes. Next time. I know I’ve been at altitude too long, and it’s time to head down.

Just as we’re ready to start our downward journey, Zoli comes riding up to the summit. He unclips from his pedals, and breathing very hard says, “That was stupid!” Well put, Zoli. And now it really is time to go.

Mick and Aaron and I ride down to the café at le Chalet-Reynard, and stop for a coffee and a chance to refill water bottles. We take a different descent, to the Provencal village of Sault. Mont Ventoux is a rarity among mountain climbs in that there are at least three paved roads leading to the summit, so we have our choice of ways down. The descent to Sault seems much gentler than our ride up, but then, descents have a way of changing your perspective.

Partway down, we encounter our first lavender fields, and stop over and over again to take photos. It’s beautiful! We find an outdoor cafe in Sault, and it’s good to refresh – off the bike – for a nice long lunch. Dick has mapped out an optional ride home through the Gorges de la Nesque, but has advised against this route since it will add significant mileage and additional climbing. We decide to forego the warnings, and head to the Gorges.

It’s a short climb from Sault to the Gorges, and well worth the effort. The Gorges are spectacular in Black Canyon of the Gunnison kind of way – not quite like the Grand Canyon, but still impressive. The ride, after a brief climb, is a delight, since we head downhill at a gentle grade for kilometer after kilometer. The road hugs a side of the canyon, and takes us through many tunnels and arches. We stop over and over again for pictures.

By mid-afternoon, there are clouds gathering overhead again, so we hightail it for St. Didier and our hotel, getting there before the late afternoon storm comes. It’s been an exciting day in the Tour, and we retreat to our hotel room to watch the finish on TV. The Tour riders are pedaling their way closer and closer to where we are, and to where we’re heading tomorrow. It’s just now starting to hit me that we’re in France, and it’s the Tour de France.

Tomorrow is Alpe d'Huez.

July 17, Monday: Not as early today as yesterday – we actually get to have breakfast in the hotel dining room – but still we’re up early. Pack up the vans and load the bikes, and we head up the road several hours to the Alps! We stop along the route for snacks, and to buy nougat. Apparently, nougat is a big thing in Provence – something I didn’t know before – and now I have an all-too-healthy appetite for it. Somebody in our van gets the chocolate-covered variety, and then passes around the bag. After tasting this most wonderful concoction, I beg Dick to go back so that I can buy cartfuls of the stuff, but Dick is hell-bent on getting us to our destination for the day: Alpe d’Huez.

We arrive in Bourg d’Oisans at mid-day, and unload bikes and people. Bourg d’Oisans is the village at the base of the climb to Alpe d’Huez, and it’s already teeming with activity: people, campers, bikes, tents, cars, more bikes, more people. The stage will pass on the periphery of Bourg d’Oisans tomorrow, just before the riders climb Alpe d’Huez for a mountaintop stage finish. Today, it’s just plain craziness. But that’s exactly what we’ve been looking for – Tour-de-France-mania. And here it is, right at the base of the climb.

A few of the folks from our group immediately take off, riding up to our hotel at the ski station village of Alpe d’Huez. The rest of us meander into Bourg d’Oisans to visit the very famous bike shop there. The town is a beehive of activity – but it’s not nearly as crazy as it was two years ago, when the Alpe d’Huez stage was a time trial up the mountain. It seems nuts, given the number of people and the level of activity, but this is very tame in comparison.

Several of us make our way to the bike shop and make our requisite purchases of Alpe d’Huez jerseys. Oh Lord, soon I will be one of those obnoxious cyclists on the roads of Colorado, wearing an Alpe d’Huez jersey. But how can you NOT bring home this souvenir? I resisted two years ago because it was just too damn crowded in the bike shop. Today it’s just a marginally annoying line at the bike shop – not out the back door – so I give in to the temptation.

Dick and Marilyn are very accommodating, and have come into the town with one of the vans in order to carry our purchases up the mountain for us. Zoli, in the meantime, has had new gearing put on his bike in order to make the ride up l’Alpe a bit more pleasant than his ride up Mont Ventoux yesterday. Given the speed and ease with which the bike shop accomplishes this task, we’d guess that it’s an everyday event for them. We drop our bags with Dick and Marilyn, and then we make our way back out to the turn-off to l’Alpe and to the start of the fabled climb.

Dick runs an informal time trial up Alpe d’Huez, and some in the group (ahem, might that be Mick?) take this time trial very seriously. For me, this just means that I need to keep track of my time from the start of the climb to the finish line in front of the tourist office just as you enter the village of Alpe d’Huez at the top. For Mick, it means attacking the mountain full on.

We stop just before the “Depart” banner at the base of the climb, and adjust bike computers. Mick holds Aaron’s bike so that he can get a good, clean time trial start, and then Aaron is off. Mick offers to hold my bike, too, but it seems too funny. A few seconds expended clipping in will not affect my day, so I roll away and start my time trial on my own.

The first several meters of the ride seem easy – too easy, in fact – but then I turn a corner and realize that the climb has not yet started. You can see the start of this climb, and it’s very intimidating: the road simply turns uphill with no prior warning. It looks like a wall. And no wonder – after a very mellow start at the base, the first real kilometer of climbing is at 11%!

Stuck in my mind is a replay of the last time I rode this route, and I keep expecting the same people, the same traffic, the same sights and sounds. But this year is different. It’s still exciting, and the road is teeming with activity, but it’s not the same ride as two years ago. At the start, it’s a bit of a letdown, since this climb seems harder than I remember it to be – but then again, two years ago I didn’t climb Mont Ventoux the day before, and the ride was kind of surreal, a dream come true. Today, it’s still a momentous occasion, but less of a life-changing event, more of a cycling challenge.

And so what to tell from this year’s climb? The traffic going up is fairly heavy, but nothing like the traffic of two years ago. On that climb, I was forced to stop a couple of times because of traffic jams that I just couldn’t pedal my way through. Today, the traffic is not so onerous, so I’m never forced off the bike.

The campers and walkers and cyclists and all of the people lining the route are still the major story. It’s incredible. You have to be constantly on guard for traffic going every which way on the road. Road painters are getting a start, and it’s clear that partiers have been at it for quite some time. Campers line the road. Tents are pitched at incredible angles on precarious spaces. Tailgate parties are in full bloom.

It’s hot today – and we’re riding in the hottest part of the day – but I’m not too concerned since I have two full water bottles. But somewhere early on the journey upwards, a group of partiers offers to pour water on my head, and I give them the thumbs-up, and it’s good. I get pretty wet, but it’s wonderfully cooling. Several kilometers and many switchbacks later, there is a group of American guys with flags aflyin’ standing on the side of the road. They recognize me as a fellow countryman, and offer water again, and I nod yes, and I get another full dowsing. The cool is wonderful! Now I’m completely soaked. One of the guys decides to give me a hand, and he runs behind me and gives me a big push. If only the uphill pedaling could be so easy for the rest of the way!

There are people of all nationalities parked along the roadside, flying their country’s flags, displaying signs in support of their favorite racers. It’s a huge multi-national cycling Woodstock. At one camper, there is a sign, “EPO: 10 Euros”. All along the route, there is writing on the road.

The switchbacks are, famously, marked in descending order as you make your way up l’Alpe d’Huez, so it takes some of the guesswork out of knowing where you are at any time. The first turn is #21, and then it’s all downhill – well, really, uphill – from there. The beauty of the Alpe d’Huez experience is that the road is in nearly perfect shape, and the switchbacks are dead flat as you make each turn. Even though each turn is very sharp and short, the brief respite from relentless steep uphill climbing is a welcome relief.

Having ridden this two years ago, and having ridden Mont Ventoux yesterday, I’ve somehow expected to find this climb easier today. Wrong! What was I thinking? While this ride is shorter than the journey up Ventoux (14 km compared to 20+ km), Alpe d’Huez is slightly steeper and clearly is more difficult to negotiate, just owing to the traffic. It’s work and more work, but the biggest advantage I have is knowing that I made it two years ago – and knowing not to despair when I get close to the top, where it looks just way too steep to ride.

Another group of partiers is standing on the roadside, offering cups of water. My water bottles are still plenty full, so I point to my head, inviting someone to dump a little more water on top. In fact, I’m still dripping from my last dowsing, and I’m shocked – cold therapy – when all four of the guys with cups of water simultaneously shower me with cool H2O. Brrr! Now I’m officially soaked, and since there are some clouds moving in, I decide that maybe I should decline further offers of showers.

When I get within site of the last couple of switchbacks and see the steepness ahead I have to remind myself again that I’ve ridden this before and will survive. This ride is cruel: the first couple of kilometers are very steep – 11 and 10%, and then it gets “easier” with many kilometers of 8 and 9% gradient. But then just as you reach the top of the climb, it gets crazy-steep again, up over 9%, and it just looks nasty. But there are so many distractions here – the road painting, Tour signs, people along the side of the road, cars and bikes going by, you name it – that the ride goes by quickly, and soon enough I’m at the top. Alpe d’Huez! Home for the night. Everyone – everyone! – is excited to be here.

It’s a rest day for the guys on the tour, so we relax in our hotel room and catch replays of the previous day’s stage on TV. It feels like a huge letdown to not have a stage finish to watch on the tube. So instead, we walk around the village and get some ice cream before dinner and gawk at all the trappings of the tour arriving here tomorrow. How can you not love Alpe d’Huez?

July 18, Tuesday: Well, how you can not love Alpe d’Huez is when you ponder the choices for how to spend the day today, and decide that none of them is optimal. What a quandary – what to do?

The primary problem is one of how to get off the mountain after the stage. We leave Alpe d’Huez later today, because the Cofidis team will take over our hotel sometime in the morning. This means that not only do we have to check out this morning, but we have to check out fairly early. Tonight we’ll be at a new hotel in Albertville, almost a hundred miles away. Dick and Marilyn will drive off the mountain while the roads are still open, but traffic on the mountain will be closed to traffic as the tour approaches.

This means that we essentially have three choices for the day. First, there is Dick’s recommendation: find a place on the mountain to watch the stage, and then ride down a back way through Villas-Reculas to meet up with him for dinner at a restaurant where we have reservations. Another option is to skip the Tour altogether, and to ride from Alpe d’Huez to Albertville, leaving early in the day since it’s a long haul, and takes you over the very tough Col du Glandon. The final option is to ride down the mountain in the morning, watch the stage from the base of the climb, and then to meet up with the group for the pre-arranged dinner.

I don’t like any of the options very much. I’d love to stay on top of the mountain to watch the finish of the stage, but the ride down the mountain post-race scares the beejezus out of me. The road through Villa-Reculas is reputed to be incredibly steep with dramatic drop-offs and very narrow roads and no guardrails. Add to this the post-race traffic, and I know it’s a scenario certain to either land me in the morgue or the looney-bin. Riding over the Col du Glandon to Albertville would be a nice ride, but it would mean missing the stage entirely, and isn’t that why we’re here? So we end up going with a modified option number three, and decide to ride down the front side of the mountain just before they close the road, and to watch the stage – as much as possible – from the base of the climb. Not ideal, but it’s the best of the three options.

Mick really, really wants to ride back up Alpe d’Huez again today, since he’s not all that happy with his time trial result from yesterday, so we adjust the plan to allow him to do that in the morning hours. He takes off to make a round trip down and then back up the mountain just after breakfast, and I take off running. I run on a paved road that leads upwards from the main village. I ran up this road two years ago, and remember that I liked the run. I’m not disappointed today.

The weather is perfect – sunny and warm, but we’re on a mountaintop, so it’s not too warm. The road is lined with yet more campers, all nationalities, but more sparsely situated than down on the race route. A few other folks are out on bicycles, riding up this road as I run up. I run to the end of the paved road – completely enthralled by the scenery and the vast system of ski lifts, trams, and cable cars – and then back to the hotel. I like the run so much that I do a second lap. Each lap is just over 5 miles, so it makes for a nice round 10 mile run.

I’ve stowed my bike gear in the ski check room at the hotel, and give myself a quick sponge-bath before changing into my cycling clothes, and stuffing my sweaty running gear into my camelback. Mick arrives back at the hotel – happier with his time trial performance today – just as I sit down at the outside tables with a rare bottle of Powerade. It’s noon straight up. And we need to head down the mountain if we don’t want to get stranded up here.

You would think that riding downhill would be easy, but it’s just not the case. Have I mentioned that this road is steep? If you think it’s steep going uphill, just try it going downhill at a very controlled speed – very hard to do! The traffic today on the route is insane. There are cars coming uphill, cars going downhill, bikes going every which way, walkers, runners, people with dogs, people with walking sticks, people still painting the roads. I ride with one foot unclipped from the pedal for the first several kilometers, and I stop often just to let my frazzled nerves settle down. This is turning out to be the hardest ride of my life.

All the stops do serve multiple purposes. In addition to letting me gather myself together (so that I don’t become a raving lunatic), the stops also allow us to cool our rims – we’re both braking excessively – and to take photos. It’s really hard for me to stop for photos while I’m climbing a mountain, since stopping really screws up your rhythm – not to mention that when it’s steep, it’s hard to get going again. So now is the perfect time for me to OD on photos of the switchbacks, and of the Tour de France signs, and of some of the prodigious road painting, and of the hoards of people lining the road.

After a few kilometers, the crowding on the roadway clears a bit so that I can finally clip in and actually ride my bike instead of just sort of scooting along. Downhill auto traffic on the road slows, and then stops altogether; now, the only cars coming up the road have official stickers. Ah, to be so close to the Tour! We stop and chat with people on the way down. Mick and I are both wearing jerseys that people recognize from Colorado events, so people yell out at us from time to time. We see a couple of guys camping alongside the road with a CU banner on their car, so we start to chat with them for a while. It turns out to be a really fun ride down the hill.

We reach the base of the climb, and decide to head into Bourg d’Oisans for lunch. It’s amazing: this town that was teeming with people at this time 24 hours ago is now a ghost town. We have our choice of restaurants with plenty of immediate seating. We find our way to a café that has a TV and coverage of the race, and we plant ourselves among the locals. We linger over lunch, and watch on the small screen as the Tour rides ever closer and closer to us. We talk about the optimal time to head back out to the race course, but it’s hard to drag ourselves away from the television coverage. Then we start to rationalize. If we head back out to the road to Alpe d’Huez, we will be too late to find a good spot. We’ll be consigned to the flat bit before the climb starts, and the racers will go by in a flash. We won’t be able to really see anything at all. And, what’s more, it has now clouded up outside, and it looks like it will start to rain at any moment. In fact, the lead group in the race, as we watch on TV, is now riding in a downpour. The truth of the matter is that, while seeing the Tour first-hand is terribly exciting, if you’re interested in the race itself, the best spot is directly in front of a tube.

So, in the end, we talk ourselves into watching the race from here in Bourg d’Oisans. It’s the oddest feeling: to be so close to the Tour, and yet to watch it all from a short distance – maybe a kilometer away – on TV. We’ve heard a rumour that there is a bar that has an English language channel covering the Tour, and go in search, but it’s not to be. The best we can do is to park ourselves at the Dutch bar up the street. This bar has a TV set up on the outside patio, and we can sit in the shelter of a huge awning and watch the race, along with various other non-conformists.

We watch this great stage until the very end, and then watch some of the post-race coverage. We’re thrilled that Floyd Landis is now in the yellow jersey – and many of the friends that we’ve made at the Dutch bar are in agreement. All hail the new patron!

Outside, on the street, people are streaming past, having seen the Tour go by, and are now heading back to cars parked for miles along the approaches to this little village. Eventually, Mick and I get on our bikes and head to the restaurant where we’ll meet the rest of the group for dinner. We ride on the side of the road along with hundreds or maybe thousands of other cyclists who have just watched the same spectacle that we’ve seen. Even though traffic is heavy, tonight I’m not afraid of it at all. This is the world capital of cycling. How could any harm come to me here?

July 19, Wednesday: We start the day in Albertville. It was a beautiful drive here last night, over the Col du Glandon.

There are lots of options for rides today. Dick, the tour director, suggests that we pedal down the Isere River valley, and then up the Arc River valley to St. Jean de Maurienne, where we could plant ourselves at a café and watch the Tour go by not just once, but twice. Today’s Tour route is a killer: the course corkscrews around on itself while going over four major mountain passes. Our tour friend Zoli chooses this option, and has a grand time, just as Dick has predicted.

But Mick and I are both ready for something less crowded, and a bit further from all the hubbub. So we choose to ride the Col de la Madeleine. This sounds like a good plan to Aaron, also, so the three of us ride together. Or, more accurately, Aaron and Mick ride together, and I trail them. They stop to wait often enough so that I’m not riding completely solo.

Mick and I rode parts of the Col de la Madeleine the last time we were here, but never the entire climb. It’s amazingly quiet and pleasant for this climb. We have a short stretch along yet another river valley – actually, it’s just the Isere, but on the other side of Albertville – before finding our turn for the climb. And then it’s straight up once again.

This climb is 26 kilometers, and averages about 6-7% gradient. I haven’t studied the elevation profile, so I’m a bit intimidated when we start up the mountain on a 10% gradient. But the lovely thing about the Col de la Madeleine – from this direction – is that the terrain varies quite a bit, and there are lots of opportunities to recover in between steeper pitches.

It’s casual, unhurried riding for me today. We stop frequently to take pictures, or drink water, or just to regroup. No auto traffic to speak of on the road, and even fewer cyclists. It’s sunny and beautiful. Behind us there are views of Mont Blanc. In front of us, roadway leading up and up.

After some gentle inclines in the middle of this climb, the last several kilometers get steep again, but with the buildings at the top of the col in sight, it’s easy to stay motivated. We reach the top together – Mick and Aaron ride the last part of this climb with me, going slow so we can all enjoy the last pitch together.

We stop inside a restaurant at the top for lunch, and discuss the rest of the day. Mick and I have both been silently thinking the same thing: let’s just turn around and go back to Albertville from here. We’ve ridden down the other side of the mountain before, and we know we’ll hit more traffic – especially since that direction would take us closer to today’s stage in the Tour. We’re also anxious to get back to Albertville to watch the finish of today’s stage, which has been largely heralded as the toughest stage of the Tour. It’s settled easily, then. Aaron leaves us to complete the circuit, and Mick and I have a nice long descent back to Albertville.

Or mostly a nice long descent back to Albertville. The biggest problem with any ride out of this small city is that with these hot days, you have strong – and hot and dry – headwinds as you head back to the city center in the afternoon. It doesn’t matter from what direction – it’s an artifact of the hot air rushing up the river valleys to the cooler higher elevations. So the last part of our trip home, which I’ve mistakenly thinking will be easy, is actually quite a hard ride, and it takes quite a bit longer than we’ve expected.

We hurry to our room to watch the stage finish, and watch in disbelief as Floyd Landis bonks and falls off the back of the peloton. It’s heart-wrenching to watch. It’s a huge disappointment to see America’s chance of winning another tour go down in flames. I go to sleep thinking that it must be horrible for Landis tonight, going to sleep knowing that you’ve just lost the Tour de France.

July 20, Thursday: But what do I know? Another day, another ride. And another stage of the Tour. And in-your-face evidence that I clearly don’t have the same mind frame as a Tour de France champion.

Today is our day to watch a stage, on the Col des Saisies, which is a relatively easy climb out of Albertville. Mick and I take this chance to sleep in a bit – the jet lag having finally caught up to us completely – and we miss most of the rest of the group at breakfast. Two years ago, we rode up the Col des Saisies, so we know what to expect. Well, mostly know what to expect: last time, because we wanted to get back to Albertville to watch a stage finish on TV, we didn’t have time to go to the top. But we know aht it’s a fairly mellow climb leaving Albertville, with fairly steep pitches intertwined with flatter stretches. This ride takes us along side a pretty tree-lined gorge with the Doron River flowing alongside us.

It’s mid-morning when we get rolling, and there are already folks set up along the roadway as we ride. The Tour will come through Albertville today, and will follow this exact same route. People are scattered along the roadside, some in little RV encampments, and even more in tailgate settings. They’re all primed for cyclists going by, and they yell encouragement. Allez! Courage! Once, when Mick has stopped to wait for me to catch up to him, an old Frenchwoman along the roadside watches me as I approach and stop next to Mick. “You are very tired!” she says to me in French, and I just nod and smile. Not really very tired, I want to say. Just slow. But I don’t have the energy to translate my thoughts into the French words.

There’s a turnoff from this road, and then the real climb begins. The roadside is completely lined with Tour fans now, and it’s fun to ride by them. It seems much, much more tame than the crazed fans on l’Alpe d’Huez. People yell encouragement. Allez! Courage! There is a little auto traffic here – very little – and a little bit of bicycle traffic. Very tame indeed.

We’re riding along at a comfortable rate when we hear something approaching from behind. Le Caravan arrive! Says a loudspeaker on top of a car. There is a flash of police vehicles going by, and the gendarmes motion for us to dismount and get off our bikes. And in a very short moment, the Caravan arrives, and it’s pandemonium for the next half hour.

The Caravan is a parade of Tour sponsors that precedes the Tour every day. This is a chance for the Tour sponsors to get some additional advertising time, and they’ve perfected the process over the years. The parade consists of all kinds of cars and floats and odd little one-of-a-kind vehicles decorated with the sponsor’s name and logo. Many – if not most – of these vehicles also throw out schwag along the course. It’s mostly junk, but junk with a high “dive-for-it” value in the moment, and it makes watching the Caravan go by into an aerobic sport. Mick and I gather multiple hats (both polka-dotted bike caps as well as Skoda hats), bunches of magnets, many sample-size bags of coffee, a few rubber bracelets (a la LiveStrong bands, but sponsored by a tire manufacturer), some lanyards, and a few other odds and sods.

After the Caravan passes, the road is officially closed, so we are theoretically stuck at this point, until after the Tour comes through. But the gendarmes vary in their enforcement, so it’s possible to continue to ride up higher on the mountain a bit. On these mountain stages, there are French gendarmes stationed all along the route. We ride past one gendarme, who lets us continue upwards, and then hear of a Nazi manning the next corner, who won’t let anyone through any further. So Mick and I get off our bikes and hike up across a field, missing the Nazi’s switchback.

At this point, we’re at a great vantage spot – we can see several switchbacks below us, and a short distance above us. There are views of Mont Blanc off in the distance. We declare that this is our destination, and we get ready for the arrival of the Tour.

It’s odd, this waiting, with no idea of what is going on in the Tour. No radio, no TV, no commentary. The only indication of the approach of the Tour is the activity of the helicopters. We first see – and hear – the helicopter that hovers high above in the sky. Then gradually, we hear the thwap-thwap-thwap of the helicopter that is following the Tour down close to the ground. Eventually, we can see this helicopter, and it’s an odd experience, since the helicopter is below us! You can trace the progress of the lead rider(s) by watching the helicopter move to and fro, even though you can’t see the contours of the road.

Finally, we can see them coming on a switchback below us. Here they come! The lead cars, the motorcycles, all of the vehicles, and then a lead group flies by. Who was in that group? I can’t tell! How many people – maybe as many as 10? I’m standing almost directly on the road, and it’s amazing not only how close I am to the riders, but also how soon they are gone.

Then there is a lone rider approaching, and I see him heading straight for me. I mean straight for me! Here I am, standing on the inside of a gentle sweeping curve, and I feel I’m about to be run over by the approaching cyclist. But then it hits me – I know who this is! In the midst of yelling Allez! Allez! like the rest of the crowd, suddenly I am shouting, Go Floyd GO! There goes Floyd Landis, all by himself. We have no idea why he’s out there on his own – was he dropped by the lead group? Is he catching them? I’m amazed at how close I am to the guy. He’s little. I mean, really small and slim. Not only could I reach out and touch him, but I could pretty easily knock him off his bike. That is, if I had thought of it in time. But he was here for an instant and now he’s gone. Wow.

The peloton arrives and passes by quickly. It’s so hard to pick out individuals when they go by so quickly. And this is on a mountain climb! I can’t imagine what it’s like to see them on a flat stage – gone in a blur. I congratulate myself for recognizing a few of the guys, but other than that, it’s an impression, just a moment in time, a huge wave of energy headed uphill.

There are not many laggards today, so soon the “fin de la tour” vehicle goes by, and the crowd on the side of the road starts to disperse quickly. Mick and I grab our bikes and head back down the mountain. Two times riding the Col des Saisies, and two times we have not reached the top; this leaves us something to look forward to on one of our future return trips. But today it makes much more sense to hightail it back to Albertville, hoping to elude some of the traffic.

But we’re hungry, and it’s just hitting 2 p.m., and we arrive in the little village of Hauteluce just in time for a late lunch. It’s one of my favorite meals of the trip, more for its simplicity and the pure enjoyment of sitting outside in a beautiful setting on a picture-perfect day, having just watched one of the most spectacular athletic competitions in the world, up close and personal. I feast on an omelet and Mick has a cheese sandwich (somewhat more appealing when it is a “sahnd-wheech avec fromage et tomate”), and we both drink Cokes. I rarely drink any kind of soda, but when cycling in France, Coca-Cola becomes my Gatorade (which you can’t find anywhere on the European continent). By now we’re remembering to order it “avec beaucoup des glacons” (lots of ice cubes), and it goes down so cold and sweet and smooth. Perfect. Just perfect.

We have a nice ride back into Albertville, and I wait at the door to the garage at the hotel, where we will store our bikes before heading up to our room to watch the finish of this stage that we’ve seen in person. Mick arrives with the hotel owner to unlock the door, and excitedly the two of them tell me that Floyd is 7 minutes out in front of the peloton. It’s unbelievable! Even if you are a Frenchman – like our hotel host – you can’t help but stand in awe of this kind of never-say-die spirit. Mick and I hightail it up to our room to watch the rest of this most incredible stage. I sit on the edge of the bed and yell at Floyd: go Go GO!!! It has to be one of the most inspiring performances that I’ve ever seen in my life. It leaves me wanting to go out and ride again, right away.

July 21, Friday: Our tour director has recommended a route for today that requires riding in the van again. Dick and Marilyn will transport the group to the base of the Col du Telegraphe so that everyone can ride up the Col du Telegraphe, then down into Valloire, and then attempt an assault on the Col de la Galibier. These are great climbs – we rode them two years ago – but I’m not that excited about spending yet more time in the van. So Mick and I come up with Plan B.

Plan B means that everyone else takes off early in the day, and Mick and I get a bit more leisurely start. We retrace our ride from yesterday, out of Albertville, and up past the turnoff to the Col des Saisies. Today we remain on the main road, which takes us up to the town of Beaufort, where we take a short break. Beaufort is one of those quintessentially quaint and pretty little villages with alpine architecture and huge baskets of flowers in front of every building. Beaufort is a famous cheese in these parts, so the town attracts lots of tourists. This is where France starts to feel a bit more like Switzerland, and you expect to come across Heidi as you pass the high pastures.

Our destination for the day is the Cormet de Roseland. Dick has pointed out this climb on our maps, but he never really described it, which is a shame, since it turns out to be the most scenic of all our rides this year. After Beaufort, the road turns up steeply, and we end up climbing more than I had bargained for. But it’s okay, since the scenery is well worth the effort. After a long pull up this quiet road, we’re at the Barrage de Roseland – a dam and reservoir – where the water reflects the blue sky that is dotted with big white clouds. Riding alongside the reservoir, we get a couple of kilometers of flat road before it turns steeply upwards again. Suddenly we’re climbing above treeline and into a craggy rockscape. These are some of the wildest and most impressive scenes that we’ve seen during our entire time in France. It feels like we’re on top of the world. You can see Mont Blanc from the summit, and it feels like you can see all the way down into Switzerland and Italy.

We take our time on the ride back to Albertville (this is an out and back ride), stopping for a leisurely lunch at an outside café on the lake. There are wildflowers everywhere, and some ancient road writing, and I stop often to take pictures. Even before we get to our final drop back into Albertville, I’m starting to feel nostalgic. This is it for our rides on this Tour de France trip – our final day of riding these spectacular mountains - and I want to stay forever.

July 22, Saturday: Today is a day of travel and watching the final time trial of the Tour. We load up vans early in the morning and drive to Lyon, where this journey started; it seems that the time has gone by far too quickly. Many of our new friends have flights this afternoon, so we all break down our bikes and pack them up when we get to the hotel at the Lyon airport. The group starts to go its separate ways, and Mick and I are left with the rest of the day to figure out on our own.

We take the bus into central Lyon and try to get a train to the time trial – not that far away, but just not quite doable by train. So instead of boarding a train, we have lunch at a little café and then head back to the hotel. We get there in time to watch the time trial on TV, and we’re thrilled with the results. When I’m at home a week later, I’ll watch many of these stages again on OLN (I’ve recorded them all) and I’ll love the Phil Ligett-Paul Sherwen spin. But for one stage, I prefer the French TV coverage, and it’s today’s time trial. The graphics, the comparison as the race progresses, and the in-car coverage of Floyd’s Director Sportif are all far superior on French TV. Mick and I are both thrilled when Floyd takes the yellow, and is bound for glory in Paris tomorrow.

The French don’t believe in air-conditioning quite as much as Americans do; our non-air-conditioned hotel room feels like a sauna as the Tour coverage winds down. We head down to the hotel lobby a bit later just to sit and read in air-conditioned comfort. Another of our tour group, Jim, has had the same idea, so we hook up with him and have a drink together, and then wander into the dining room for dinner. During this trip to France, I’ve felt more comfortable with the French language than ever before, and as a result, I’ve become the appointed translator in our little group. Our waiter for dinner doesn’t speak any English, so I do the honors when he has questions for any of us. After a few exchanges, he looks at me and, recognizing my foreign accent, asks, “American?” When I assent, his expression changes and he gets all excited. “Floyd Landeez!!!” he says, with great enthusiasm. We all nod in agreement. It is, in this brief moment before a doping scandal hits the press, a communion of different cultures, all recognizing some common respect for excellence. For a moment, I have hope for the world. And a very fleeting extreme pride in my country.

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