Another early morning wake up call. I slept in until 5:15 a.m. One thing about this Trek Travel tour is that we were kept moving with little down time. Although we had one lunch and a couple of dinners “on our own” it was nice to have some private time or grab something quick and not have a group dinner that lasted at least two to three hours.
We boarded the bus at 6:00 a.m. for transport to the train station. It was a private train and it was very long. Breakfast was served by Trek Travel staff – quiche and a chocolate croissant plus orange juice and coffee. Ed Karrels had his Garmin out and at one point we were doing 300 kph – about 200 mph. The major differences I saw compared to Amtrak in the Northeast Corridor was that there was no rocking back and forth, no clickity clack of the train on the tracks and the bathrooms did not smell of urine. It was one place you could pee for free in France.
Train Station in Bordeaux
We arrived the train station and it was immediately noticeable that Paris was more “English-friendly” than Toulouse, St. Lary, Lourdes, or Bordeaux. Most signage had English here as well. That was not the case last night when I went out in Bordeaux and found a place to eat. The menu was only in French and the waitress spoke less English than I spoke French – which is only a few phrases or words. But we managed.
We boarded a bus from the train station that took us to within three blocks of our hotel then we walked the rest of the way. The street was too narrow for the bus to maneuver the turns. After storing our luggage at the hotel, we walked 5-6 blocks over to the Automobile Club of France. I need to find out more about this “club” but we were told this is the one day a year women are permitted in the club. No jeans. No shorts. I always envisioned this is the AAA of France. Guess not.
We had to go through security as we got to the block in which the club is located. Then we passed through a second point and finally, once inside the building, a third check. It is a stately building with wonderful balconies over looking the Champs-Eslysses.
Automobile Club of France
Today is the day Ashley joined me. Her plane was delayed four hours so she did not arrive Paris until 1:30 and then had to make her way downtown. At the worst possible time. But she had met a couple from Tucson, Arizona on the flight and they had hired a private car to take them from the airport to their hotel. As it turned out, their hotel was right across the street from our hotel. I had left the club and gone back to the hotel to wait for her.
After Ashley arrived we went to the viewing at the Automobile Club. We jockeyed around trying to see if being at ground level, the outside balconies, or the higher floor windows offered the best view. We ultimately settled on the highest view and then watched the big screen TV coverage of the final lap.
While we were on the balcony, one of the riders in our group, Paul Sommer, asked me to take his picture, framed with the Eiffel Tower in the background. As I was, a woman and her child just cut through the picture. We politely asked them to hold up for a second and they did. As it turned out, it was Johan Bruyneel’s wife and daughter.
Megan Elliott (middle), Chris Horner, Johan Bruyneel
After the race we went down to the Radio Shack team bus. We waited, along with many other people, to get one last glimpse of Lance Armstrong participating in his final Tour de France. I passed my copy of Johan’s book up to Hollie and Dave Eenigenberg who got him to sign it. But, unlike some in our group, we didn’t go through the rope line and get a picture with Lance, Chris Horner, or Levi Leipheimer.
After returning to the hotel we went to the final event – a dinner cruise on the River Seine. A long day, especially for Ashley, who didn’t get to bed until midnight after flying in from the U.S.
Front (beginning with woman in brown dress): Stephanie Chapman (guide), Susan Alexander, Scott Spector (kneeling), Anne Mader, Donna Thackrey, Dave Edwards (Guide, kneeling)
Middle (beginning with woman in white dress): Marquette Kelly (guide), Hollie Eenigenburg, Aimee Cutright, Deirdre Mullaly, Debbie Jaudon, Todd Mader, Nancy Karrels, Ed Karrels (with arm around Nancy), Barry Sherry, David Thackrey, Paul Sommer, Nicole Kimborowicz (guide)
Back: Dean Cobble, Burt Piper, Peter Pellicano, David Eenigenburg, Tom Michaud, Deron Cutright, Richard (Rich) McCrea, Mike Bandemer, Matthew McDonald, Dennis McDonald Missing: James Hartzberg
At 6:00 p.m. this evening I rode with 100 other cyclists from Pauillac to a spot in the countryside. This time I wore shorts and carried two backpacks. The distance was only three miles (five km) but traffic was completely backed up. We learned to ride like the French. Simply ride into the left lane and when oncoming traffic approached maneuver very carefully back close to the yellow line.
I went to my bike, removed my pedals, seat, and Garmin mount. I am sorry to see our riding end. For the six days of riding, I rode 300 miles and climbed more than 29,000 feet. I am sure I rode more on Wednesday than anyone in our group and today our group of eight went “exploring” (i.e., had a hard time following the Trek Travel directions) and we ended up with even more miles. Plus when I arrived at the viewing location I turned around and went riding on my own. I am sure I rode more miles than any of the 25 people in our group this week. On the bike is the one time I feel good.
We left this morning from Bordeaux with one of the Trek Travel guides, Stephanie Chapman, to bike to Pauillac. When we came to the Tour route at Avenson we were required to dismount and walk across the route. At the other side we waited as the Tour caravan was coming by. This time I was in an excellent position to grab the swag they were throwing. I scooped up three polka dot caps and saw some young kids. I ended up giving all three caps to the kids. To a child in France, they LOVE getting something from the Tour.
Candy. Gave it to the kids. Key chains. Gave them to the kids. The green foam fingers. Gave to the kids. In turn, their mother taught them to say “thank you very much” to their new Santa Claus. I only kept laundry detergent (true) and the L’Equipe newspaper.
Lunch was downstairs through the wine cellars. Both lunch and the location were awesome.
Our viewing location was right on the course and we could cheer and photograph each rider as they came by. Since I kept the newspaper, I was the only one in our group that had the list of riders in order as they were coming, unless they had been passed by the rider behind them.
The most memorable moment was sitting and trying to talk with the locals. Just like soccer parents, they brought their chairs and sat next to the course. They remained seated until Lance Armstrong was coming. Then everybody stood. They truly wanted to see this great champion of their tour. Don’t tell me the French (people) don’t love Lance. They do.
It was well-known this was Lance’s last Tour de France. He had come out of retirement last year and finished third. Bad luck, among other things, had caught up to him and he was well down in the standings (23rd). This would be the last time France would see the Texan.
The roadside locals stood for Lance. It was the only time they stood. They did not for the Yellow Jersey (Alberto Contador) or for second place (Andy Schleck). Only Lance.
Tomorrow I will board an early private train ride to Paris to see the final stage of the Tour de France and to meet Ashley in Paris.
EDIT/EPILOGUE – Fabian Cancellara won the Individual Time Trial (Stage 19). Alberto Contador won the 2010 Tour de France but was stripped of the title in 2012 because he failed a doping test. He blamed tainted Spanish beef for his positive test. Andy Schleck was named the winner of the 2010 TdF.
Our bus was one hour late this morning so we had time to check out Lourdes. I don’t think I will be coming back here soon. (And am not posting any pictures either…)
We had an uneventful ride to the village of Budos where we ate a picnic lunch before our ride through the vineyards to Bordeaux. We had 15 guys trying their best to organize a pace line — that’s what I get for starting it.
While we all were “avid” cyclists for signing up for this event, we had different abilities and levels of experience and it took 15 miles to sort it out. One inexperienced but strong rider would move to the front and then pick up the pace which would blow the line.
Another rider would alternately pedal furiously then coast, near the back, which would send the end of the line yo-yo-ing. It was very tough to follow that wheel.
I moved to the front as we reached the town of La Brede and saw the last “King of the Mountain” opportunity for our group. I picked up the pace and then attacked while announcing “KOM Points!” It so happened that our guide, Dave Edwards, was at the top of the hill and I was caught way off the front and blew the peloton to pieces. It was great! (Credit Dave with these photos.)
It wasn’t until we left La Brede that we had four of us in a nice relaxing line each taking 20-second pulls. Dennis McDonald, Tom Michaud, Peter Pellicano and I formed a nice team.
We had a fifth rider join us, Paul Sommer, who immediately went to the front and tried to do all the work himself. He apparently was oblivious that while he was working up front, we continued our 20-second pulls, sometimes letting him get 20-30 meters out in front while other times we passed him effortlessly. And we laughed the entire way to Bordeaux. (Sorry Paul)
We rode into Bordeaux, checked into the hotel, then went out on the course to watch the finish. The actual finish line was impossible to get near to be able to see (4-5 people deep) but we could stand there and watch the big screen. Instead, Peter and I chose to go to the end of the finishing chute to see riders come by after the race and go to their team buses. Mark Cavendish won the stage. And I got some good pictures including what will be probably my last photo of Lance Armstrong.
Dinner was at the L’Orleans restaurant. I had duck. It was very good and will probably be the last time I ever eat duck. Our evening was a group meal but one of our riders, Susan Alexander, missed it. Instead, she ended up meeting up with Robbie Ventura and Frankie Andreau and eating with them. I think she won the night.
Tomorrow will be the Individual Time Trial and our last day of riding. I am sad to see that end but also just finished chatting with Ashley, who will be flying out tomorrow to Paris where she will join me in the City of Lights on Sunday. One exciting week is drawing to a close while another is still ahead.
EPILOGUE: Actually, it would not be the last photograph I took of Lance nor the last time I would have duck on this trip. And nor would it be the last time I would visit Lourdes.
We were up at 5:00 a.m. for the bus ride to Argeles-Gazost. It was 80 km (50 miles) from St. Lary and would take about one and a half hours. We had to move out early for the opportunity to bike to the summit finish at the Col du Tourmalet. We heard the crowds were large and the Gendarmerie were going to close the summit by 11:00 a.m. (for a 5:00 p.m. finish). People have been camping at the summit for a week before the Tour for the opportunity to see the Tour pass on Tuesday and finish there today. There simply was not room for more people at the top.
We did not have breakfast at the hotel. Instead, our guides were able to get an assortment of breakfast breads and pastries for the bus. They never made it to my seat.
On Tuesday’s ride, we reached our viewing location at LaMongie too late to be allowed to ride to the summit. Instead, we were four kilometers short. Today would be the approach from the other side but we had to be on the road early.
We got our bikes and waited patiently in line at the Carrefour supermarket to use their one toilet. There were two Trek Travel groups on our bus so we had almost 60 riders to go up the mountain. And 50 wanted to use the bathroom. I was in the last group of 10 or so to roll out and we were already 15-20 minutes behind the other riders.
We headed out in a heavy thunderstorm with lightning all around. Rain was coming down hard and we rode through streets with 6″ or more of standing water. I’ve never been more soaked on a bike — which is simply to say completely soaked.
Note: Because it was raining so hard during the day, it was not a day to risk camera damage by taking lots of pictures.
Our guide, Greg, took us to a bike path that looked remarkably similar to the Washington & Old Dominion rail trail in Virginia. It clearly was a former rail line with long straight flat sections along the Gavedepau River. We left the town and got on a road with a slight incline that ran along the river. The river was running high and very powerful due to the storms of the past couple of days — and the one we were riding in.
Along the trail, I had dropped to the back simply to sweep the group. But as the road tilted up slightly I started passing our riders and bunches of riders whom I did not recognize. The road was two lanes but still with wide shoulders as it followed the river.
We turned off the river road and onto a road where the climb began. It was 18.5 km to the summit of the Tourmalet. We went through the little town of Luz-Saint-Sauveur and it was, at times, difficult to maneuver through the people walking in front of us. But once out of the village it was good riding.
The route was lined with campers, cars, and tents. Even though it was 9:00 a.m., cold and raining, some people would stand and clap as we rode by, others shout “Allez! Allez!” All were voices of encouragement. I think.
My preconceived notion was that I would come to France and ride up the Tourmalet while thousand of drunken Frenchmen would hurl insults at us. Nothing could be further from the truth. Well, they may have been drinking, a lot, but all were very respectful of anyone on a bike. Especially, climbing on a bike.
(Actually, I would meet drunken fans but they usually weren’t French. They come from other countries in Europe and often wear orange, if you know what I mean. 😉
France has a culture of cycling. One sees couples in their 70s and 80s biking — without helmets, of course. But I have ridden more than 200 miles here, much of it climbing mountains, and have been passed by hundreds of cars. Not one person has yelled at me. Zero. I have ridden by plenty of HUGE dogs and not one had barked, growled, or chased. Even the dogs like cyclists here.
On Tuesday we had a restaurant in LaMongie which was four km from the summit on the east side of the Tourmalet. I thought we were going to a restaurant today as well. I would be wrong.
For a while, I rode with a young man from Norway until we separated. Then I fell into a Trek group with Scott from Rochester, NY, and Bobbie Jo from Oakland. The three of us chatted while we climbed and it seemed in no time we were at our Trek Travel Tent/viewing area. It wasn’t a restaurant but a tent. A big tent, but still a tent.
We were at kilometer 8.5 and I wanted to continue to the summit. Even though it was cold, raining, and generally miserable, I viewed this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Besides, going up was actually easy. I was generating enough body heat to keep warm.
I climbed through a number of switchbacks all still lined with campers. There was an exceptional presence of Basque people who came from just over the border in Spain although there are French Basque as well.
I reached the 4km to the summit sign and the road was barricaded. No one was being permitted through. Some cyclists tried to scale a hill nearby with their bikes and it was comical to see the hill win as they would fall and slide back down the muddy hill. One reached the road only to be turned away by the Gendarmerie.
Passing the cars and campers was not much different than walking through the parking lot at any NFL or soccer game. It was Tour de France tailgating and the aroma of the grills was great.
I know there are cheaper trips. But today I was glad I was with Trek Travel. After passing the Trek tents and wanting to ride as far as I could until being turned away, I rode with a man from New Hampshire.
Me: “Where are you from?”
Him: “New Hampshire”
Me: “Mount Washington is much tougher than this”
Him: “You have ridden up Mount Washington?”
Him: “I’ve done the running race 11 times but would never try to bike up it.”
He told me he was with another tour company. They would be biking to their hotel on the other side of the mountain after the race. He had a rain jacket but we were soaked. And with the summit already closed, the poor guy had nowhere to get in out of the cold and rain for the next 5-6 hours.
I turned around and descended back to the tent area. It was dry as I began my descent but I could also see in the distance this beautiful cloud in the valley. It was rain. Cold rain. And I had to ride through it.
At the “Trek village” there were three smaller square tents. One contained our travel tote bags we had sent up ahead with our van, one was a women’s changing area, and one was for men. I walked into the changing area and there were wet cycling kits hanging anywhere one could fashion a hanger but mostly on the support poles of the tent. I changed into my dry clothes for the day and went inside the large reception tent and sat down with a bunch of people I never met before.
There were 10 travel groups with Trek Travel doing the last week of the tour and this was the first of three locations we would converge. The other two are at the time trial in Bordeaux and the finish in Paris. Here I sat with Chris Fusco and Lori Rackl from Chicago. Lori is on the “trip of a lifetime” but is also writing a story about it for the Chicago Sun-Times.
Lori wanted to interview some people from the Chicago area and I stood up and rang my cowbell. People became silent and I simply called for Hollie Eenigenburg. Hollie and her husband, Dave, own the Trek bike store in Schererville, Indiana. So Lori did an interview with Hollie with me interrupting occasionally. And then she interviewed Paul Sommer, another rider from Indiana.
Throughout the day the rain came down hard. There was no heat in the tent other than what 250 people will create. Some riders still had wet clothes on or sent only a short sleeve shirt in their bag. They were in trouble.
A few times, the sun came out, and large cheers erupted. But rarely did the sun shine for more than five minutes. But people moved their wet clothes from inside the changing tent to hang them on whatever fences they could find only to be poured on again.
We were served dinner inside the tent and they had four large flat screen monitors where we could watch the riders until they were ready to go by us. Or we could stay in the tent and be dry. To watch meant to go outside and scale a 20-meter steep hillside.
The caravan came by and I climbed the steep hill. I felt silly wearing my referee/Ultimate Frisbee turf shoes on Tuesday while everyone else had tennis shoes or flip flops. Today, I was the envy of everyone who slipped and fell on the hill trying to get up to the main road.
We had front row viewing to Andy Schelck and Alberto Contador going past, trailed not by much by Lance Armstrong. A number of the group then ran back to the tent to watch the finish on TV. I elected to stay in my position and cheer on every last rider making the climb. I waited for the grupetto. I can always watch the tour on TV. How often can I see these guys in person?
The descent afterward was wild. There were literally miles of cars stopped trying to go back down the mountain. Only bikes could fly down the mountain because we used the incoming lane. It was downhill all the way until we reached the bike path and then we rode 18 km to Lourdes where we would check in for the night.
Lourdes is an interesting city. Think Gatlinburg, Tennessee, or Niagara Falls, Ontario. Or maybe Ocean City, Maryland. It’s been referred to as “where the Vatican meets Vegas.” People come here to be healed or buy healing stuff, I guess. There are more hotels per capita than any place in France. People are wheeled down the streets in their wheelchairs, except in the middle of town where they have their own wheelchair lanes. Lots of people limping. And of course, they’re all smoking.
Most moving moment of the day: On the run-up to the climb seeing mile after mile of LIVESTRONG messages painted on the road. Everyone remembers or honors someone with cancer and I’m sure thousands more messages got submitted but not painted. I was choked up and pulled over to gather myself. I hate cancer.
This would be a day that I was reminded that while I am a survivor, cancer will always be in my life. I have good days and bad, mostly good, but the Tourmalet was a reminder that one does not beat cancer without losing part of yourself to cancer. It was a bad day and I will never be normal again. It was part of the reason I elected to stay outside in the cold rain to watch the Tour go by.
UPDATE: It was only after returning home, on August 9, 2010, that I received a message from LIVESTRONG that my message of hope had been one selected to be painted on the road. I don’t know if it was one of the ones I rode across on this day or not.
Andy Schleck beat Alberto Contador in a two-up sprint for the win. The pros raced 108 miles and climbed 15,381 feet.
We woke up to a chilly overcast day. A pretty loud thunderstorm visited in the middle of the night and the low cloud cover was here to stay. Our Trek Travel group met and discussed riding options for the day. At breakfast, a number of people were already discussing taking a day off from riding. And why not? Because the Tour de France is having a rest day there was no viewing location to bike to.
We could climb the Col d’ Azet and Col d’ Peyresourde, eat lunch in Luchon, then return over the Peyresourde. Or skip the Azet and take a valley road leading right to the Peyresourde so only one climb would be needed. And Trek Travel would shuttle people back if you wanted to ride one-way.
People discussed their options. Some were staying back at the hotel and visiting St. Lary to go shopping. Some were staying back but riding locally. Some were going out to the Peyresourde to Luchon. And only a handful, perhaps five, were going to the entire route. Yea, that would be me.
Because groups formed in the parking lot and I was unsure who was in which group, I just sort of jumped in and started asking where they were going. I joined Rich McCrea and James Hartzberg and we went flying down the road to Arreau. We had gone the wrong direction.
By the time we realized we weren’t supposed to be following the other groups, that they were skipping the Azet, we had to turn around and go back to St. Lary to start our climb from there. These are called bonus miles. I love them! We added 14 bonus miles returning to St. Lary before beginning the climb up the Azet.
The mountains had a low cloud cover. The climb up the Col d’ Azet was almost seven miles. We went through a couple old and small villages past farms. We passed some big dogs and no dog yet has shown us any attention. No barking. No growling. No chasing.
At the summit the cover moved rapidly. When I arrived it was covered and I could barely see the sign at the summit 25 meters away. In seconds then entire mountain had cleared. And just as quickly, it disappeared again.
The top of the Azet is a pastoral grazing area and being France, I’m not sure if that means a number of monks are walking around or — yes, judging from the number of cow patties — it is a free-roaming area for cattle. We had to stop and pass carefully by two huge cows on our descent off Azet.
The descent, while obviously steep, was pretty cold. For each climb, it was strip down to as little as possible, sweat your ass off, even though the temperature was around 15°C (59° F), and then stop at the summit to put on as much gear as possible before the descent. Then freeze.
At the bottom of the descent, one comes to Loudenville. We went around a pretty lake and made our way over to the base of the climb of the Peyresourde. This climb was used yesterday in the Tour de France. It was hot, while cold, ascending. At the top was the Trek Travel van where I pulled over to refill my two bottles — both empty. Ate some pretzels, energy bars, and found the super-secret stash of Snickers. Mmm, Snickers.
Actually, the van had been at the top of Azet earlier but because of our bonus miles, we had missed it. But not now.
One of our riders had already decided to ride in the van and he lent his rain slicker to James for the descent. James had only a jersey and arm warmers. I had a jacket with removable sleeves which made it a vest. It rocked.
The descent off the Peyresourde to Luchon could have been great in good weather conditions. But the cloud cover was so thick we were getting soaked descending and were on the verge of hypothermia. This side of the mountain had straight roads but visibility was so bad, plus the roads were wet, one could not let go of the brakes. It was a shame. When you could see the line in the road change slightly you weren’t sure if it was merely a subtle change in the road or a nasty 180° hairpin curve. And I have yet to see a single sign in the Pyrenees warning of a curve ahead and a recommended safe speed to use.
We reached Luchon about the time most of our group was getting ready to roll out. They had just finished a big lunch and some had already called it quits for the day. The van was taking them back. I met our tour guide, Nicole Kimborowicz, plus Matt McDonald and Peter Pellicano who were going back over the Peyresourde. I didn’t want to abandon Rich and James but Rich had basically declared that, after lunch, he was taking a shuttle and James was unsure.
I didn’t want to eat lunch then have no one to bike back with and I was riding back. And I was afraid sitting outside I would get too cold.
So I skipped lunch and jumped in with the Nicole group. That was an excellent idea. The worse thing I could have done was to sit down, get something heavy in my stomach, get cold in my wet clothes, stiffen up, then attack the Peyresourde — the same HC climb the Tour used yesterday.
The same recipe followed — climb the Peyresourde, put on as many warm clothes for the descent, then let ‘er rip. Although not let it go too fast. It was just yesterday off the descent of the Peyresourde that Jens Voigt had his front tire blow out and he crashed hard.
Nicole and I rode together while Matt and Peter flew up the mountain. Nicole probably wanted to go with them but was a good trooper and stayed with me.
After our safe descent of the Peyresourde, my group didn’t want to return the route we came — up and over the Azet again. So we took the valley road back to Arreau and St. Lary. On our way into St. Lary, I went ahead solo through town and climbed partially back up the Azet to take pictures.
I finished the day with probably the most miles (74) and vertical feet of climbing (9600) of anyone in the group today. It was a great day on the bike.
We began our day with a beautiful breakfast spread at the Mercure Sensoria de Saint-Lary-Soulan. One field up for the day, we rolled out of the hotel for seven miles and then began an absolutely gorgeous climb up the Col d’ Aspin. It was quite chilly at the start here in the Pyrenees and many riders wore arm warmers and or jackets.
The excitement was great. Yesterday it was I can’t believe that I am (finally) riding in France. And today it’s we’re going to see an actual stage of the Tour de France. And, of course, ride in France. Climb a major mountain.
We rolled out as a group and stayed together for the first 10 km to the town of Arreau which is where we started yesterday. I noticed that Rich McCrea had dropped off the back to adjust his bike or clothing and I dropped back to pace him back up. Of course, it wasn’t necessary but he appreciated it.
In Arreau we turned onto the climb of the Col d’Aspin. The climb was 7.3 miles long (11.8 km @ 6.5%) but not as steep as the climb yesterday up the Pla d’ Adet (8.8%). When it is a steep climb like yesterday’s up Pla d’Adet, I do not want to stop for any reason but keep my heart rate elevated. This is training for Mount Washington, after all.
But on this climb the scenery was spectacular and the grades, at times, were not that difficult so I pulled over 2-3 times to take photos. It was also like a Reston Bike Lane group ride where I am often called the Ambassador for Cycling by calling out “Morning!” to everyone we pass. Today was no exception. “Bon jour!” “Bon jour!” And I was usually greeted with “Bon jour!” until one young man was beside me and spoke English.
We started talking and I found out (1) he is from England (2) his dad is from the U.S., (3) his mother is from France; and (4) his grandparents have a summer place in St. Lary which is where he, and we, are staying. Actually, Adrian Register, has dual citizenship, U.S. and French. Mostly me, but much of the group adopted him on our ride today. He rode with us up both climbs and we were able to get him to join our viewing. And he returned home with us as well. Meeting him will be one of my highlights of this Tour. One of our group even asked me if he was my son.
The descent down the west side of the Col d’Aspin was great but there were no signs warning the sharpness of the blind curves ahead. They could be sweeping curves or hairpins. The roads were hard to read and, like yesterday, I came away with an appreciation for how fast the pros descend and the risks they take.
We continued our descent until we reached the village of Saint-Marie-de-Campman at which point we began the climb up the Col du Tourmalet. It was crowded here with lots of cyclists, presumably about to climb the Tourmalet. Or maybe this was their viewing location.
Saint-Marie-de-Campman is a weird little town. Many residents have these almost-creepy lifesize dolls or mannequins in their windows or on their porch.
And then we began the 16.9 km climb (10.5 miles). This was longer, much longer, that the Aspin, and about the same steepness (actually 7.4% average). Much like the Aspin, stopping shouldn’t have been an option except the scenery demanded photos. It was so beautiful.
At a bridge overlooking a waterfall and crystal clear stream, we stopped for pictures and met a newlywed couple from Cincinnati, on a bike trip. Dennis McDonald went down to the stream to fill his water bottles. And he filled the bottle of our guide, Dave Edwards, who in turned, filled my bottle.
Better than water from the Laurel Mountains in Rolling Rock Beer, we were told we can drink from any stream pouring down off the mountains. Having contracted an E.Coli infection last year, I probably should have known better than to drink the water, but I did. And it was great!
Ignoring my climbing instincts of never looking up, lest I be mentally defeated, I enjoyed looking for the summit which seemed so far away. It was far away. Adrian and I discussed what we were seeing and eventually decided we could see a snow shed with a number of campers lined up. And we were right.
Just before the snow shed a number of cyclists had stopped. To our right we could see why. The view to the valley jumped out and demanded that we stop and take a picture. It was both beautiful and intimidating realizing that we had just climbed so far up the Tourmalet.
We continued the climb to the ski village of LaMongie. There, Trek Travel had rented out a restaurant which would be our viewing location. We could choose either the rooftop view or street level. Or both.
The front of the restaurant was open to the street. Inside there was an open buffet. Adrian had climbed the mountain, actually two, from St. Lary and was going to look for a viewing location. One of our guides, Marquette, quietly invited him to join us. Trek Travel had 10 trips operating this week and at least two of our groups were at this restaurant. Maybe more, but not all 10.
We were still four kilometers from the summit and it looked so close so Adrian and I slowly tried to make our way through the hordes of people in the street. We had gone about 500 meters when we were met with barricades across the road and manned by Gendarmeries. The race route had been closed to the summit and we had to turn back. But that was OK.
We ate lunch and waited with excitement as the race caravan came through. It’s a parade on wheels as sponsors come by and throw newspapers, candy, caps, and even jerseys, to the crowd. What fun.
Then some team cars rolled through, one by one, not speeding but not real slow either. They were traveling at the speed of the race. When the Astana team car came by, it was met with a chorus of boos that followed it all the way up the mountain.
Yesterday, Stage 15 to Bagnères-de-Luchon, Andy Schleck went to attack but dropped his chain. Alberto Contador then attacked while claiming he didn’t know Andy had a mechanical. Most fans saw that as attacking the integrity of the sport, their sport in France, and they let Team Astana know they did not appreciate Contador’s attack to take the yellow jersey off Andy Schleck.
Although Lance Armstrong came out of retirement (2005) and returned last year and finished third, bad luck if not bad form followed him in this Tour. He was in 38th overall, almost 40 minutes off the lead of Contador then Schleck. He was reduced to stage hunting.
We were watching on the TVs inside the restaurant and saw that Damiano Cunego and Sandy Casar were in the lead group. When they finally came up the climb, there was Chris Horner and Lance Armstrong. I wasn’t even ready to photograph. Lance? You go!
An added benefit of having Adrian with us was he seemingly knew every single rider in the peleton. We knew a few of Radio Shack, Lance’s team, plus a few others but that was it. This guy knew them all.
Contador came through with Schleck and was met with a chorus of boos. I wonder if Andy knew those weren’t for him.
The stage started in Bagnères-de-Luchon and climbed over the Peyresourde. On the descent off the Peyresourde Jens Voigt crashed. Both team cars were ahead so he had no replacement bike. The Mavik neutral support had been supporting a junior’s race and offered what they had – a kid’s bike. How does this happen? When he rode by his he was quite bloodied and bruised.
When it was time to descend everyone had to ride down the Tourmalet. This was a friggin’ blast. Cars and campers lined the road on the way down and hundreds of cyclists went down in the left lane, which was open to oncoming traffic. Sometimes it meant passing 2-3 cars then cutting in while others meant passing 10-20 cars even while entering a blind curve. If cyclists ahead of you go through it one assumes there’s not a camper coming up the road. One can be wrong.
Traffic was backed up solid the last two miles. Advantage: cyclists.
At the bottom there was a bus waiting that Trek Travel had chartered. Anyone who didn’t want to climb the Col d’Aspin from the west side could take the bus back. Many did. I didn’t. And neither did Adrian although that offer probably didn’t apply to him but I bet our guides would have permitted it.
At the top of the Aspin, someone got a race report that Lance was only a few minutes back of the lead. He wasn’t ahead by 40 minutes for the virtual lead so it must have meant that he was simply at the front end of the break. We knew we had time to see the finish if we hammered the descent on the Aspin. We did. At the base of the mountain in the village of Arreau, we stopped in a bar and watched the end on their big screen. Lance didn’t win although he was at the front with about 100 meters to go. Pierrick Fedrigo won the stage in an eight-man sprint. Lance finished sixth (same time), the top end sprint no longer present. Contador remained in yellow with an eight seconds lead over Schleck.
A lasting memory I will take from this trip is that of my grandfather’s cowbell. Many mountain top climbs have people ringing cowbells and Trek Travel handed out very small tiny baby cowbells. I gave mine to Adrian. I either didn’t hear the directions well enough or follow them exactly but we were to pack what we wanted on top of the mountain yesterday for transport ahead of time since it would be closed to traffic at some point. As I was getting ready to go this morning I found the cowbell.
My grandfather, William T. Lowmaster, had been a farmer and before his estate sale, I was able to get a very old cowbell from his barn. This hand made (I think) bell had a wooden clapper. The sound was absolutely super. It was heavy and the sound was solid. When I rang my cowbell, people listened, even the cows on the hillside. I was told some people thought I went and stole the bell from the cows. Not true.
One of our guides, NicoleKimborowicz, transported the bell to the summit so I had it when I was there. Thanks Nicole!!! For a brief time this afternoon, I felt a connection to my grandfather just ringing that bell. And all the Trek Travel bell holders were jealous.
Our day ended with a ride back to St. Lary, saying goodbye to Adrian, and then exploring St. Lary for dinner. It’s not quite Gatlinburg but think mountain village with open shops on the street. It was a GREAT day in the saddle.
EDIT/EPILOGUE – Generally, the cycling community saw Alberto Contador’s attack two days earlier when Andy Schleck dropped his chain as very unsporting. Although Thomas Voekler would win Stage 15, Contador took 39 seconds on Schleck, which was the same amount that he would win the Tour. The title was stripped from him two years later. Andy Schleck was named the winner of the 2010 Tour de France.
Our Trek Travel group met at the Novotel in Toulouse at 10:00 a.m. and rode a bus to St. Lary-Sloulan in the Pyrenees. My first introduction was to Derek and Aimee Cutright from Redding, California. When I told them they probably knew a friend of mine I could see them scoffing. But they did know Tamy Quigley.
Then I met Ed and Nancy Karrels. Nancy was studying museum science and told me about a person she wanted to meet, Nina Simon. I told her I was good friends with Nina. (True). It’s truly a small world – even on our bus.
We drove out to the Pyrenees in the motorcoach. We had a great picnic lunch in a park/square/open green area with lots of dog poop around in the village of Arreau.
We got fitted to the bikes followed by a too-brief intro of the group. I could never remember all the names.
We rolled out of Arreau and stayed together for eight miles as the road followed the valley. I looked over to the mountainside and saw a wonderful road cutting through the mountainside and said I hoped we would ride up that hill. We did.
In St. Lary we turned to find the base to the climb up Pla d’Adet. It was a steep one. It averaged 8-10% most of the way with sections of 12%. It was 6.1 miles (10km) to the summit.
And it was HOT. It was 95° (or 35° C). This was the most I ever sweated on a bike. I was drenched when I reached the summit. BTW, this is where George Hincapie won Stage 15 in 2005. Lance Armstrong also won here, in 2001.
I hadn’t read up on the climb and thought I was near the summit (I wasn’t looking up — that’s an old climber trick) when I saw the sign to the summit — 7km (4 miles) to go. Average grade 9%. Well. it was in French but I knew what it said – “you’re going to die.”*
That was enough to make you want to stop and drink the mountain water coming out of the side of the hills (it’s OK unless it’s marked NON). But I kept going and dragged my butt up the hill.
After 30-45 minutes on the summit, we got to ride down the mountain. I gained a great appreciation for the professional cyclists. I always admired how fast they could climb but going down these roads — wow! — they descend almost twice as fast as me. The ride down was scary. Very technical (lots of hairpins curves that one had to slow down for) and very dangerous. My average speed down was only 20 mph. That was a lot of slowing in sharp curves.
After a shower we went to La Grange, a pretty neat restaurant which took the rest of the evening. And it was non-smoking although I wonder if it was that way just for us. Doesn’t matter. Thank you France!
Actually, I would discover later that all of France is non-smoking in restaurants. However, many restaurants have expansive open areas in the front, sidewalk cafes, and the smoke will find its way back in the restaurant.
Tomorrow: Col d’Aspin (twice) and the Col du Tourmalet. Our private viewing will be in LaMongie, a ski village just before the summit of the Tourmalet. Trek Travel has a private restaurant reserved and may be out on the roof (so I’ve been told) to see them come by. And to yell bad things at Alberto Contador.
___ *In the Pyrenees the signs are marked for the next kilometer. So the sign I saw that was indicating 9% average gradient was for the next kilometer and not to the summit.
I arrived at Dulles and was able to use the American Airlines Admirals Club while I waited for two hours. Maybe real Admirals get better benefits but one complimentary 8 oz. drink? Pretty cheap. And the Internet wasn’t complimentary although one of the staff passed me a super secret code. But the water was free and ice cold. I simply snacked on a pretzel mix until it was time to depart. Money spent at Dulles: $0.
Not quite sure I understand the airlines that have Business Class instead of First Class. On this Iberia Airbus 340 they only had Business Class and it certainly rivaled the First Class I previously flown on American Airlines but not quite to that of Swiss Air. Perhaps this one exception. While it appeared the seats could recline into a full 180 degrees, flat, horizontal position, they didn’t. They “only” reclined to 170 degrees (true). But the difference was pretty much negligible.
After takeoff, we were served dinner, even though we didn’t get airborne until after 9:15 p.m. I chose the beef tips which came with the absolute most delicious Au Gratin potatoes I have ever eaten. If a Spanish airline makes a French dish taste so delicious I can’t wait until I try those in France.
As soon as the meal ended I put on my sleeping mask, reclined, and did my best to sleep. I did OK. I’m not going to venture a guess on how long I slept but it was enough. There were two stretches of pretty rough air where it was pretty difficult to sleep through but thankfully the captain never came on and made a glaring announcement that we were traveling through some bumpy air.
At baggage claim I saw a young boy wearing a Pittsburgh Steelers #43 (Troy Polomalu) jersey. I assumed he was from Pittsburgh. He wasn’t. He and his dad are Spaniards. But he likes the way Troy looks. And he posed for me. Steelers Nation is global.
I caught a shuttle to the Madrid Airport Hilton, checked in, then walked 15-20 minutes to find a Metro to downtown. Cost was one Euro.
The historic downtown area is beautiful. Some streets are pedestrian-only and some streets are covered with a mesh tarp (don’t know what to call it) to protect the people from the sun. Even the streets that have traffic have very little in this area.
I don’t have any pictures but many women carried the folded fans in which to fan themselves. I found a FedEx-Kinkos which offered an Internet Cafe for two Euros for 30 minutes. I logged on and sent my family a message telling them I arrived.
I was going to do the open-air bus tour but by the end of the day, I had walked to most places where the bus stops. A one Euro Metro fare back and manager’s reception (aka dinner) at the hotel. Cost spent in Madrid: 4 Euro (I had prepaid for the hotel in January…)
Tomorrow: Toulouse, France. Things have to get more expensive.
I always wanted to see a stage of the Tour de France. And I always thought I would like to tackle an epic climb such as the Alpe d’Huez, the Col du Tourmalet, or the Mont Ventoux. I was diagnosed with cancer in the summer of 2009. As I sorted through the many treatment options available for me I was also presented with the opportunity to take a Trek Travel tour sponsored by my local bike shop, The Bike Lane, in Burke and Reston, Virginia. Life is too short to wish “I should have while I was still healthy enough…”
I signed up. Not sure of what lies ahead in life and I wanted to take this trip when I could. And since it involves a lot of riding and climbing, I also wanted to do it when I was young enough to ride the high mountains. Maybe more importantly, it became my recovery goal that I started looking forward to on November 9. Or it was Goal #1a along with the Mount Washington Auto Road Bicycle Hillclimb race on August 21.
So I am leaving Friday. Friday, July 16 — Leave Washington-Dulles at 9:00 p.m. and fly overnight to Madrid.
Since I will arrive on Saturday and have to do an extra day somewhere, I decided to do it in Madrid and not France. Saturday will be a day spent sightseeing in the capital of Spain.
Sunday July 18 — Fly from Madrid to Toulouse, France
Monday, July 19 — In the morning we are transported to St. Lary-Soulon and then are fit to our Trek Madone bikes. There are riding options each day and I will be choosing to ride the longest route each day. Our warm-up ride Monday will take us up the Pla d’ Adet. 35 kilometers and 1,000 meters of climbing. That’s a lot of climbing over a short distance.
Tuesday, July 20 — A 100 km ride, 1,500 meters of climbing, from St. Lary – Col d’ Aspin – Col du Tourmalet and return. We then have mountain climb viewing of the Tour at La Mongie which is a ski village on the Tourmalet about 4km from the summit. I’ll be the one with the cowbell.
Wednesday, July 21 — The pros have a rest day and we will ride 100 km, 3,000 meters of climbing including the Col d’ Azet, Port de Beles and the Col de Perysourde.
Thursday, July 22 — A short 50 km in the mountains including a ride to the summit of the Col du Tourmalet and then watching the Tour tackle it twice as fast as we dreamed. Maybe three times as fast. And we’ll be at the mountain top finish.*
Friday, July 23 — Easy spin in Bordeaux in wine country and watching at the finish line of the Tour. 50 km, flat as a pancake. Somehow I think we’ll appreciate this. Maybe we’ll see Tyler Farrar win his first stage at the Tour.
Saturday, July 24 — We get to ride the time trial course and then watch the time trial where the Tour will probably be decided. 50 km.
Sunday, July 25 — A train ride to Paris. We will be at the Automobile Club of France on the Champs Élysées watching the Tour go by us — eight times. As for the riding portion, people ask me how many miles we will ride. Only 250 which doesn’t sound like a lot. A few weekends ago I did 207 in one weekend. While it’s not that much it that will include almost 30,000′ of climbing. On Sunday, Ashley will fly into Paris and join me.
On Monday and Tuesday we will be sightseeing in Paris.
On Wednesday we will leave for Switzerland where we will do a whirlwind tour of the country, seeing Interlaken before ending in Zurich. In Zurich we will meet up with Ben Z, a student we were area reps for a number of years ago when he was an exchange student to the U.S. We (Ben and I) will go bike riding in the mountains.
Sunday, August 1 — Leave Zurich for Madrid then fly Madrid to Washington-Dulles. Life is short. Enjoy the simple pleasures. Life is Good!_
*EDIT/EPILOGUE – Photos added after the fact. The viewing for the Tour was along the route about 10 km from the summit. Wishful thinking had me read that we would be at the finish line. On neither day were we able to get closer than 4km from the summit due to crowd restrictions of the Tour de France.
I did not get to ride with Ben in Switzerland, instead we had a great boat ride in Lucerne.
Oh, Lord, you delivered Daniel from the lion’s den Delivered Jonah from the belly of the whale and then The Hebrew children from the fiery furnace So the Good Book do declare Oh Lord, Lord if you can’t help me, For goodness sake don’t help that bear (Lyrics from The Preacher and the Bear)
I have more than 9,000 miles on my butt riding on the road since I’ve been on a mountain bike. But my niece, Emily Cramer, just bought a new mountain bike and was excited to go riding with her.
In 2003, I rode the Great Allegheny Passage from Pittsburgh (McKeesport) to Cumberland, Md. then on to Washington, D.C. but the section from Meyersdale, Pa. to Cumberland wasn’t open yet. Now it is. I suggested we could do the segment from Frostburg, Md. to Garrett, Pa.
My dad dropped us off in Frostburg as we had left my van in Garrett for our return trip. I took Andrew’s mountain bike and it felt good getting on the trail but I forgot how dirty and dusty it is. The trail from Frostburg heads up the mountain until reaching the Eastern Continental Divide.
We first came to the Borden Tunnel. We didn’t have lights and thought we’d be okay. But once it became pitch black it was weird. One doesn’t realize that part of our balance comes from sight. If you don’t believe it, try standing on one leg for 60 seconds. Then try it with your eyes close and see how you wobble. And so it was as we pedaled. The sense of moving forward disappeared. You could feel yourself pedaling but without seeing trees or walls or buildings it was very hard to tell if you were moving. Except you were pedaling. Weird, weird, and more weird.
We exited the tunnel and came around a corner when we saw it. A pretty large bear up ahead on the trail, perhaps 75 meters. We stopped but I could not get my camera quick enough. And my first instinct was not to photograph it but think about how best to protect us if it should turn towards us. But it didn’t. It looked at us and then turned and continued to cross the trail then head up into the woods.
How wild! I always wanted to see a bear in the wild but always thought, and hoped, it would be from within the safe confines of my car. Not on a bike on a trail.
At this point, we were probably no more than 300 meters from the state line dividing Maryland and Pennsylvania. We had to pass where the bear had crossed the trail and gave a quick look to see if he was still around. I didn’t see him. We came to the state line, took a picture, and moved on. Quickly.
Compared to seeing a large bear, nothing on the ride could then compare. We went through the 3,294 foot (1 km) Savage Tunnel. I was looking forward to seeing a wall of donor bricks but didn’t see any.*
We reached the high point on the trail at Eastern Continental Divide where it goes under Pa. Rte. 2011, McKenzie Hollow Road. I pedaled up this road seven years ago. This was much easier. Although it was “downhill” from there, that’s a 1-2% grade on crushed limestone so there’s no coasting.
And the only pavement on the trail is 50 meters on either side of this crossing.
We crossed the Keystone Viaduct, the Bollman Bridge, passed the Meyersdale train station, and crossed the 2,200-foot Salisbury Viaduct before returning to the van parked in Garrett.
The beauty of the trail is outstanding and it was great riding through and over some of the engineering marvels in the area.
____ *The Big Savage Tunnel Recognition Plaque is in the final phase of review. When complete, it will be erected at the Deal Trailhead.