I began the day having to find the beach and swim in the Mediterranean. Monday on Alpe d’Huez and today would be the only two really nice weather days I had in France.
I found the beach and went for a brief swim. The water was much colder than I expected. It was the Mediterranean Sea, after all.
I parked along a beach access road and decided I would follow a bike path to the town I could see about 4-5 miles away. I followed the path until it came to a small town and then to a harbor.
I turned and went back and flew right past the car without realizing it. The path ended and I entered a town and spent 30-40 minutes wandering about the small beach town, enjoying seeing the carnival atmosphere and wondering where in the heck I was.
I was lost. I stayed in the town looking for a way out and couldn’t find any. Three or four times I thought I found an exit only to be fooled. The entire time I had believed that that I was on the right beach road but had yet to come back to the car. Along the beach with hundreds of cars parked along the road, they tend to all look alike. I finally decided that I had passed the car so I would have to turn around and find it.
I remember a private tent or building on the beach and could spot it in the distance. I went by it and figured I was close to the car.
I passed the car. I didn’t see it.
I just went by the car again. Two kids on bikes were on the bike path, which was next to the road, blocking my path and laughing. They were about 11-12 years old and were challenging me to a race. I didn’t know French but I knew they wanted to race. I guess all Frenchmen race. I gestured back and pointed to my grey hair. They continued.
Then I came to an opening in the barrier which separated the bike path from the road. I went through the opening and just took off. The kids never had a chance. I was gone.
Inside I laughed but I still had to find the car. I soon realized I had been here before, turned around, and found the car. Thoughts of spending extra time in France because I lost the rental car now left me. I drove on to Toulouse.
At the airport Novotel I watched the TdF on French TV. Then I went to return the rental car to the airport. I removed everything from the car except my bike as I would bike back. I followed the signs to the airport and a big “oh shit” moment hit me. I didn’t have the car’s Garmin with its French maps. And I was on a limited access highway that did not permit bikes. I hoped it wasn’t far but soon went 7 km and made many turns then three or four roundabouts. And there was no way I could find my hotel using surface streets. And it was getting dark.
When the women working at Hertz couldn’t help me I went inside the airport to the information counter and called the hotel and had them come pick me up. I took the wheels off and sheepishly put the bike in the hotel van. What a way to end cycling in France.
Back at the hotel I carefully packed the bike and then my two suitcases. My 4:30 a.m. wake up call would come soon. And although I was first on the shuttle at 5:30 a.m., I needed all that time to catch my 7:30 a.m. flight to Madrid. Only once I boarded the plane could I really relax.
In the airport at Madrid I was in my comfort zone. After all, Ashley and I ran through this airport one year ago only to miss our international flight by five minutes. Or less. I got this.
I found the Iberia Business Class lounge with their wonderful spread of free food. What a nice way to end this trip.
This is the best ice cream in the world.
I came to France thinking that I would ride perhaps 500 miles. I rode 276. But I did climb up the famous Col du Tourmalet, Mont Ventoux, and Alpe d’Huez. Now I don’t know if I will ever return. I hope I do but if I don’t I have great memories, both with Trek Travel last year and with my solo venture this year.
It was cold and rainy at the Col du Lautaret which is the last Col before Galibier. I knew my options were to either climb Galibier in absolutely miserable weather without knowing if more snow was falling like yesterday, or to go over to Italy and ride the climb to Sestriere and watch the Tour go by. So I left.
I figured I didn’t really need to climb the highest finishing climb in the Tour de France (2645 m, 8678 ft) in these conditions. Besides, I have climbed America’s highest paved road, Mt. Evans, Colorado (4300 m, 14,000 ft). Take that, France!
I borrowed a spoke tool from Trek Travel on the Tourmalet and returned it here
I got so chilled yesterday I didn’t want to risk doing it again, especially with a 5-hour drive ahead of me. On Sunday, 200 cyclists had to be rescued off Galibier when the snows blew in and they weren’t prepared. I left Lautaret in the cold rain and first drove down towards Briançon and saw many cyclists headed up the mountain.
Partway down the mountain I abandoned the idea of watching this stage of the Tour in Italy. I knew traffic coming back through Briançon would be a nightmare and I was just too tired to stay that late. Garmin’s ETA was never close to reality in the Alps because the roads are not conducive to traveling 90 kmh which is what Garmin uses to calculate time.
If I could do it over I would have stayed one more night in the Alps (tonight) then used tomorrow as an all-day drive day (7-8 hours). Or paid more for a connecting flight from Grenoble instead of returning from Toulouse.
When I turned around to head back to Montpellier I went back up the mountain. I saw many of the same cyclists I passed headed back down. I think they realized how nasty the conditions would be.
On the way back to Bourg d’Osians I saw and talked with one of the riders from Evolution Cycling Club in Reston. Seems they had a group of six riders here this week.
Turtle. I remember him from a group ride two years ago.
Near Grenoble I saw a man fixing a flat (bike) in the rain. I did a U-turn and pulled up with a floor pump. He knew no English but gestures said it all. He was happy to have someone stop with a real pump.
Just helped this Frenchman by lending him my floor pump
So I left the Alps behind today and am now on the Mediterranean coast of France in Montpellier. I am staying in a 15th century building. A Best Western.
Actually, my room was part of the old butcher shop.
This entrance is just to the right of the main entrance to the hotel
I went for an afternoon ride trying to find the sea but couldn’t. How big is it anyway if I can’t find it?
I’m sure close but don’t know the connecting roads
On the map it appears that I was close but so far away. It looks like only a highway which does not permit bikes, crosses over to the beaches. I’m probably wrong.
Montpellier is the fifth largest city in France. Not sure why I wanted to come to a city. With tram construction and a traffic pattern that predates city blocks, it is pretty difficult to navigate. It gave both my car Garmin and my bike Garmin fits trying to route me to my hotel. But it is a nice city.
Interesting grass in the trolley tracks
Reflecting, I climbed the Tourmalet, to the summit this year, and from both sides as I went down to the point I had come up from the other side last year. I got chased by the Devil. Twice. And cows. And llamas. I climbed Mont Ventoux in 50 mph winds at the summit. And I climbed Alpe d’Huez. That’s a pretty complete week.
Last year when I signed up for the Trek Travel tour of France I was glad to bike Pla d’Adet, Aspin, Tourmalet, Azet, and Peyresourde. But I always felt that I haven’t been to France until I biked up Alpe d’Huez. Now I have.
This has been a great trip although I have ridden far less than I planned as I have driven far more than I planned. But the great climbs made it worth it even if I left one on the table. It can stay there.
My trip last year was my cancer-recovery/celebration tour. My trip to France was part about the cycling and part about the viewing of the Tour de France. We had one major climb on that trip – the Col du Tourmalet. Of the 18 kilometers to the top we climbed 14, having been stopped four km from the top. On two days, no less.
This year’s trip was about the climbing. I had four bucket list climbs to achieve: (1) Col du Tourmalet; (2) Mont Ventoux; (3) Alpe d’Huez; and (4) Col du Galibier. Having accomplished the first three, I needed only the Galibier.
La Grave is just 17 miles up the road (literally) from Le Bourg d’Oisans, the base of Alpe d’Huez. I stayed at the Hotel Castillan, an older hotel with a great view of the glacier across the road. The rooms were cheap – even cheaper if you got one without a private bath. They did have common shower areas (men’s and women’s). While the hotel wasn’t a 4-star hotel in accommodations, the staff was wonderful.
I chose La Garve as it would be a great starting location for my bike ride up the Col du Galibier. However, last night I checked the weather forecast and it did not look good. The high temperature for La Garve was forecast to be just 10℃ (50℉) with rain, heavy at times, moving in about noon. Up to one inch of rain was forecast. La Grave, at 1,135 meters (3,724 feet) is significantly lower than the Col du Galibier which sits at 2,642 meters (8,668 feet).
I got breakfast at the hotel, packed my bags, then checked out. I grabbed my warmer cycling clothes. I had only brought summer riding gear with some spring/fall accessories. I did not bring winter riding gear.
Depending on which direction one crosses the Galibier, one has to first summit the Col du Telegraph or the Col du Lautaret. From La Grave, it would be the Lautaret. At 9:53 a.m., I started my ride. I was cool, or cold, but dry. That would not last.
Light rain started almost immediately as I left La Grave. At 4 km I thought about doing the prudent thing and turning back. But I didn’t. I also knew that I was climbing the entire time so my return time would be four to five times as quickly once I made the decision.
I kept climbing and the weather kept getting worse. The winds and rain both picked up and it was cold. On the Tour de France broadcast later that day announcers on EuroSport were saying it was the worst weather they have ever seen for the Tour. And they weren’t on the climb to the Galibier.
A van from Thomson Tours passed me and pulled over. When I reached the van the driver asked me if I needed anything but I politely declined. I always remembered his kind act. I wasn’t part of his tour or any tour and he just stopped to offer assistance.
I sensed I was getting near the summit and I saw many campers pulled over in anticipation of Thursday and Friday’s stages which will go through here. I saw a camper with a Colorado flag. I had seen it on the slopes of the Tourmalet and then met the owner (renter) of it in St. Gaudens. With rain coming down hard and cold too, no one was stepping outside to say hello.
I continued 1,000 meters to the top then stopped and took a picture. Although I had a full jacket, arm warmers, Under Armour, full-length gloves, shoe covers, and leg warmers, I was freezing. These were not my winter clothes. I turned around and could not wait for the descent to end.
I was freezing, literally, as I was cold and soaked. Shaking at times, I descended as fast as I could to get back to La Grave. Of course, the faster one goes the colder it gets from the wind chill but the sooner one gets back to the start. I had a hard time controlling the bike I was shaking so much. The roads were wet and treacherous and there were many switchbacks. Once I reached the tunnel that goes into La Garve I felt a sense of relief.
In La Grave, I went back to the hotel, and although I had already checked out, I grabbed a clean towel from their cleaning cart and ducked into an open shower stall. I quickly got out of my soaking wet clothes and changed to dry clothes. I did not stop shaking for 40 minutes.
Still very cold but dry, I got in the car and decided to drive up to the Galibier. I figured that may be the only way I would ever see the summit. I knew the rain was very cold as it was hitting me but didn’t realize how cold it was until it hit the windshield. The rain drops were forming a splat pattern. This was snow.
I normally don’t make wise decisions when riding, especially when I’m tired. But today was one of my wisest. I was thankful that I made the decision to turn back.
On my drive to my next hotel, which was at the summit of the Col du Lautaret, I had been so cold I didn’t even notice that I had just biked to it. Back at the summit of the Lautaret, I decided to keep going up the road to Galibier. The snow was falling heavily and the road was soon covered. Driving an unfamiliar car with a stick shift, I was getting scared just being on this road. I looked for a spot to turn around but any open space was already occupied by campers. So I drove carefully to the summit.
I saw one guy on a bike trying to make it up but on my way down I didn’t see him. He must have wisely turned around or gone over the edge. Hopefully, he turned around. While it would have been hard pedaling up in the wind and 2″ of snow on the road, it would have been far worse descending.
I never want to be defeated by a climb but was sure happy I didn’t attempt this. Foolish and perhaps deadly.
I made it to the summit of the Col du Galibier, but not the way I would have chosen.
I came to France to ride the Col du Tourmalet, Mont Ventoux, and maybe more than anything else, Alpe d’Huez. Anything else, including Col du Galibier, is just icing on the cake. I don’t need more icing.
The first, and probably last, beautiful day I have had in France. Forty-seven degrees (9 C) at the start, Brian Hutchins and I rolled downhill from our chalet for about six miles to the base of the climb in Le Bourg d’Olsans.
The climb is beautiful. There are 21 hairpin curves and each is marked with a sign. On the signs are the names of one of the winners of a stage of the Tour de France that finished at the summit. The lower section seemedis steeper than the upper section. The contour is basically a ramp to a switchback which is flat, followed by the next ramp.
We passed many cyclists and got passed by many. Probably got passed by a few more than we passed. They cheat.
Near the top, they were setting up barricades about 3km from the finish already. It was surreal to ride through them. Barricades. For us. And while it is still four days before the Tour comes by, every spot where one could stop and park a camper had already been claimed.
At a curve in the village of Huez, was a large contingent of Dutch fans. This was the famous Dutch Corner. They had one week’s supply of beer and were already partying even though the race didn’t come through until Friday. They had their music BLASTING and were having a great time.
Unlike the fans in the Pyrenees, very few fans on this Alp cheered as we went by. However, in contrast to even the Tourmalet, there may have been 100 times as many cyclists going up the Alpe. If they cheered everybody they would soon lose their voices.
Brian and I rode together most of the way, but once we got inside the barriers I went ahead and I reached the summit maybe 500 meters before he did. I’m not bragging or anything. For years Brian was one of the fastest players in our lunchtime Ultimate game on the Mall. He’s younger than me. He’s faster than me. But the truth is I ride a lot more than he does. And I wanted to get a photo.
At the top, I was able to wait for him and get a picture of him coming to the summit. Maybe I should have let him go first and take my picture.
Actually, it wasn’t the summit but the ski town. We would continue another kilometer through a tunnel and one more climb to the actual finish.
After the climb we did a little shopping and went to lunch. Then came the fun descent back to the valley. Neither of us ripped it. We stopped at a few locations for photos and just to admire the view.
Col du Tourmalet (to the summit this year); Picture with the Devil; What the hell (I can say that), a second picture with the Devil; A TdF Route directional sign; Mont Ventoux; and now Alpe d’Huez. If I do nothing more in France, I will still be very happy.
EDIT – “Unless you’ve actually ridden up this climb on a bike you don’t realize how horrendous it is. It never gives up. It is relentless. And once you even get to the little town halfway up, the town Huez, it still goes up. What really smacks you in the face once you look up – you can see the chalets above us and say ‘Oh my goodness me do I have to go up there?'” – Paul Sherwen, July 25, 2015, NBCSN
I met two guys from West Chester, Pa. (near Philadelphia) in Bédoin, which is the little village before the base of the climb. We agreed to ride together until James and Brian decided that I (1) had already ridden too many climbs this trip, (2) was suffering from sleeping in the car last night and having no breakfast*, and (3) was much older than them. They had just arrived and were looking to follow the Tour. Too bad they didn’t wait for me because I had lots of useful tips. Philly fans.
Traffic circle outside Bédoin
So I started the climb on my own. It started raining part way up. Still, I was in short sleeves until I pulled on my vest with about 10km to go.
The lower wooded section is beautiful. Climbing higher I saw few riders but did pass one from Denmark. Apparently his wife was with him for support. She would pass, go ahead 200-300 meters and wait until he passed her.
Visibility near the top dropped to 10 meters. On the last turn to the summit I was hit by 50 mph (80 kmh) winds which ripped my glasses right off me. Goodbye glasses. The wind blew me across the road but I stayed upright, worried only about a descending car.
Couldn’t lift the bike the wind was so strong
It was only about 50 meters more to the summit. I stayed at the summit no more than 2-3 minutes. I think severe hypothermia would probably set in by spending no more than an hour there. It was nasty on top. The temperature was probably 40 F (5 C) and the winds seemed to be sustained at about 50 mph.
I was content to take a picture of the summit sign but three women from Germany drove up and offered to take my picture. Thus I have photographic evidence of being here.
I had passed the memorial to Tom Simpson just a couple hundred meters from the top. I did not want to stop and lose momentum so I kept going. This memorial is to drugs, no? Tom was high on amphetamines and alcohol and pushed himself beyond the limit of his body and died on this mountain during the Tour de France. But yet, he’s a hero.
At the Tom Simpson Memorial
On the way down I stopped to take a photo. Seems like the thing to do is to donate a water bottle. I didn’t.
A guy going up saw me taking a photo and offered to take mine. He did then I took his. I also gave him a push to help him clip in and get going again.
My photographer. Does he look like a turtle?
Despite being dropped by my Philly friends, I was passed by four cyclists going up and I passed 17. On the descent I was passed by no one and passed four more cyclists and two cars. I was freezing on the descent (I did put on arm warmers), went through sleet then just pouring rain. I went as fast as I could safely go just to get down quickly.
Oh yea, Frenchmen must have a complex because they sure like to paint penises on the road quite a bit.
*I had made a reservation at a bed and breakfast near Mormion. There was no house number for a street address. Garmin got me close then had me go up a back alley that soon narrowed and wasn’t big enough for the car. I asked three different families who were walking and none seemed to no for sure where it was. Eventually, I found it, and took just my backpack to the door.
I used the door knocker. Heard a dog bark but that was it. They had a bell with a long rope. I pulled it repeatedly. No answer. I was scared. I was literally in a back alley.
I found my way to the main street and there was a pizza shop about to close with a couple sitting out front. I started talking to them and found out they’re from England. He was kind enough to use his iPhone and call the place for me. Answering machine. He then sent an email. After 15 minutes the pizza shop closed and the owner went with me and he too, and no luck getting an answer.
I drove to the major city, Carpentras. I found a Best Western that was about to close for the night (11:00p) and a sign on the door advertised they were full. I asked anyhow if they knew of other vacancies. The desk clerk told me that every hotel he knew was full since there was a festival in town.
I asked if he would be so kind to let me log onto his WiFi and send my wife a message that I was OK since I hadn’t messaged her at all today. Of course I was scared to death but wouldn’t tell her that. He walked outside with me and secretly handed me a slip of paper with codes to the WiFi signal. He showed me the imaginary line where I would be outside of camera range because he would get in trouble if his boss saw him helping me. (True)
I thanked him, got my laptop as the rain started to fall lightly, and ducked in a protected area close enough but not able to be seen. I found the signal but could not connect. Damn shame.
I got in the car and started driving. I looked for “all lodging” on the GPS and it brought up campgrounds as well. I thought that might be an option. One was close and a bit secluded. I arrived and went through a security gate. I parked then explained my situation to a young man who quickly ran and got his sister because “her English is perfect.” It wasn’t, far from it compared to many people I met in France, but it was adequate. And it was 10 times better than my French. Her mother, the campground owner came over as well.
They were full. I offered to rent a site but they had none available. Then she asked if I had a tent. Well, no. All I was looking for was to park for the night and sleep in the car. Someplace safe from criminals and the police (in case it was somehow illegal).
They willingly agreed and offered me a blanket and pillow. And a shower. I declined all but the owner brought me a blanket anyhow. I’m glad she did.
It wasn’t a relaxing sleep in the Fiat and morning came soon enough. I went to meet and thank the owners and this time there was a man there. I returned their blanket and couldn’t thank them enough.
He had fresh croissants delivered and I bought one for my breakfast then decided to drive to Bédoin rather than bike there because I was very unsure of the direction. Thus I had suffered from sleeping in the car last night and having no breakfast, save for a croissant, which is hardly the energy food for climbing such a mountain.
I saw a mountaintop pass of the Tour, I’ve been at the finish for another, and today would be a day to see a start stage. Stage 14 of the Tour de France is from Saint Gaudens to Plateau de Beille.
Adiran Register and I drove to St. Gaudens, parked, then used our bikes to try to find the team buses and sign-in. The streets were narrow and confusing but we eventually found a long line of buses. Much of the interior of the center city was blocked off for guests with private passes. VIPs.
We decided to hang out at the Leopard-Trek bus as Adrian Register has a “Shut Up Legs” t-shirt he tried to get autographed by Jens Voigt.
No one was coming out although a few people seemed to have good luck handing items to be sent in the R.V. and signed. By whom is the question.
Unlucky to get any autographs, once the riders departed for the stage start, we tried to get to the roll out. A number of “fans” saw Adrian in his full FDJ kit and wished him good luck. It was pretty cool that they thought he was a pro rider. No mistaking me for a pro rider though.
Tour de France Souvenirs
We missed the roll out, probably because we went in the opposite direction, but we followed the course for a few kilometers just stretching out our legs. Just as we were ready to turn back into town, I spotted it. A Tour route sign that had not been claimed.
I was not willing to take one down before they went by but this was on a signpost – right in front of two Gendarmes. I looked at Adrian and he looked an me and I knew I had my prized souvenir. Except we had nothing to remove it with. Adrian asked the Gendarmes if they had wire cutters. They didn’t. But removing a tool from my toolkit on my bike, and enough twisting and pulling, the wire holding it finally broke loose.
I now have one of the prized signs. Vive le Tour! *
After the stage we drove back to St. Lary-Soulan and I said goodbye to Adrian while meeting his grandparents. Cool thing: As we pulled Adrian’s bike out of the car his grandmother grabbed the loose rear wheel and put it right on the bike.
*UPDATE July 8, 2017 – Almost six years after acquiring my prized possession, I let it go. Rather than sit in a box in the basement, it deserves to be displayed.
I took it to Bicycles and Coffee bike shop (and coffee) in Purcellville where everyone can see the sign.
Nicole was so appreciative she gave me a copy of her book, Under the French Blue Sky.
Yesterday I had a problem with a loose spoke on my rear wheel and the wheel was out of true. I blamed the wheel rubbing on the brake for my dragging up the Tourmalet and really suffering up that climb.
The local bike shop in St. Lary opened at 9:00 a.m. so Adrian Register and I decided we would see if they could true the wheel before today’s ride. They couldn’t (the wheel was cracked.) Since we didn’t get on the road until after 9:00 a.m. by the time we reached Lourdes we knew our original plan of a 70-mile loop ride would not occur.
We wanted to ride and to see a stage finish and by the time we got rolling, we knew our best course of action would be to ride out and back. We would have to keep an eye on the time to be back by the time they closed the roads at 2:00 p.m.
A real surprise to us occurred less than 10 km from Lourdes. We were on a flat part of the course when I spotted the tell tale signs of evil. Freshly painted on the asphalt was the Devil’s pitchfork (or trident). I looked up and saw him and stopped. Photo time.
Many people come to the Tour and hope to see the Devil. Getting a picture is an extra bonus. I got a picture yesterday and now, another one. I wonder if he recognized me from yesterday? I told Adrian no matter what happened, I was happy. My day was complete. My Tour was complete.
We rode out to Argeles-Gazost where the road turned up. Steep, but this was not the climb up the Col du Soulor. We hit a plateau and went through a small town. I got laughing as I passed a house where some kids, probably ages 10-12, we’re yelling out “hello” to passing riders. They were practicing their English. So I greeted them with a cheery hello as well. And they were pleased.
We were watching the time and it was shortly after 1:00 when we turned up the climb to the Soulor which would lead to the Aubisque. If we continued we would be stuck in place so we decided to turn around and get back to Lourdes.
At Lourdes we were able to ride inside the barriers until the 1km flag. At that point the course was closed. We walked our bikes for the final kilometer but it was very slow going through the massive crowds. We found the team buses and our plan was to be at the chute where they pass through although we couldn’t get close to that.
Back in town, we took up position on the barriers to watch the caravan go by. It was quite comical because seemingly anything thrown to a French kid would bounce off their hands and into mine. It helped growing up playing sports where we used our hands. And as I did last year during the Tour, anything I caught I handed it to a kid. I’m not a jerk. Usually.
After watching the caravan go by we moved to the 1K “kite” (generally known globally by the French name, flamme rougue, or red flag). Here we could watch them fly by and watch the last few hundred meters of the race on TV.
There were a number of Norwegians on our corner but Thor Hoshovld had to overtake two French riders to win. I knew the Norwegians would cheer when Thor made his break but it seemed like everyone was cheering when Thor went ahead with 2k to go.
When we saw Thor fly by, we made our way to the team buses to see most of the riders come back.
It was a different way to see the tour but got us close to many riders. We heard Thor win but couldn’t see him. We were in the bus area where the riders would be going to their team buses.
We ended up next to Leopard-Trek bus. We saw Fränk Schleck come out (or just before he went in) and sign some autographs.
The route for Stage 12 today would be similar to last year’s stage over the Tourmalet. That happened to be my first time watching le Tour and we looked forward to climbing the Tourmalet. In contrast to today’s chilly or cold weather, last year was a bright and sunny day. When we reached our viewing location in La Mongie, a ski village about four kilometers short of the summit, we were told no more cyclists were being permitted to go through to the top.
While it was disappointing not to make the climb to the top, we did have a great viewing location with lunch while we waited for the Tour. I have no estimate of the crowds of this year versus last year. The weather today wasn’t nearly as nice but it is also Bastille Day.
Last year I was with Trek Travel with a specific destination including departure time. This year I was riding solo, actually double, as I met up with Adrian Register in St. Lary. Adrian and I had planned out a full day of riding and viewing. We would leave St. Lary then head over the Tourmalet to Luz Ardiden to watch the finish of the stage. It was more than 50 miles one-way so we would have a century ride ahead of us.
We would be leaving early enough to beat any road closures so this time I would be able to ride up the Tourmalet. Unlike last year when the Tour went over the Col d’Aspin the peloton would go over a ridge parallel to it called the Hourquette d’Ancizan. The Hourquette is a less traveled road, very narrow, compared to the main road that went over the Aspin. Both roads get you over the mountain.
We began the climb of the Hourquette. It appeared to have been recently repaved for the Tour. It wasn’t a smooth asphalt but clearly was new pave. Main roads have markings on either side at the edge and a center line. Narrow back roads have only the markings on either side. “Really back roads” don’t have any markings. The Hourquette had no markings.
Adrian and I started early, shortly after 7:00 a.m. so we could get over the Tourmalet before it closed to all traffic. While we had ridden to La Mongie, I never reached the summit and never felt comfortable telling people I had cycled up the Tourmalet. I hadn’t. Nor could I buy one of those Tourmalet jerseys. I mean I could but I wouldn’t feel right about it.
At the summit of the Hourquette four cars pulled over to allow an oncoming car to pass. When they did, a car beside me pulled sharply to the right – right where I was precariously perched on the side of the road with a sizable drop and no guard rail. I held onto the car, even grabbing the mirror to steady myself. I heard the passenger yell at the driver. No harm.
It was a very nice 10km (six miles) descent down the Hourquette. At the end of the descent we stopped as some free ranging cattle were moving. Apparently, they get frightened if you look at them, a challenge I suppose, and I took their picture. Oh oh. They went stampeding by but did not charge us. The Gendarmes were not amused. But then again, they never are.
We had another four miles of descending to the Village of the Creepy Dolls (St. Marie-Campon). Then the climb began. The ascent of the Tourmalet went slower than I remembered. And was more difficult. At the end of the second snow shed I told Adrian I had to stop. There, painting on the road, was the Devil! I had to get this once in a lifetime opportunity.
Only a few hundred meters after the Devil encounter, I spotted the Trek Travel tent on top of the restaurant in La Mongie. It was the restaurant “we” ate at last year. Adrian had jumped in our group and Marquette, our wonderful Trek Travel guide, made sure he could join us. I told Adrian that I wanted to stop. At the tent, I fit right in wearing my Trek Travel jersey. One of the guides, Shaun, even offered to take and store my (Trek) bike.
I laughed. I told them who I was, that I had been on the trip last year, and was just stopping for water for my bottles. Then filled it with energy mix. And ate three bananas. And took some energy bars. I was good to go. This Trek Travel stop was my oasis in the desert.
I’m not sure if the last four km were steeper than the rest of the climb or if it was the cumulative effect of climbing but I was suffering. I cramped when I got out of the saddle and Adrian rode ahead. When I reached the summit I could barely get off the bike.
We both had to dismount and walk through the crowd of cyclists that had already gathered at the summit. After a few minutes and some photo taking, we mounted and headed down the other side of the Tourmalet on our way to Luz Ardiden.
I stopped after about 500 meters. Something didn’t feel right and was making a sound. I discovered that my rear wheel had been rubbing on my brake. Crap. No wonder it was so hard getting up the mountain. My brakes were on!
I opened the brakes to stop the rubbing and we only went another couple of kilometers before stopping and watching a herd of llamas go by. After a discussion of the amount of time it would take to return from Luz Ardiden, we decided to return to the top of Tourmalet and watch the Tour from there.
We froze. We were perhaps the only people on the summit without jackets. And it was cold. We were woefully underdressed if not dangerously underdressed. The barriers were in place for the last 70 meters to keep the crowds back and designate the King of the Mountain points. Between the barrier and a stone wall which was about 1.5 meters high we squeezed in with our bikes and at times, crouched down to let the barricades block the wind. It was a perfect viewing location. And it blocked the wind.
But then – the Gendarmes. One came over and told us we couldn’t be behind the barriers that were erected for keeping people behind the barriers. We ended up sitting on the wall.
A great tradition of the Tour de France is the publicity caravan. It is a parade at the speed of the Tour. One of the vehicles in the caravan was advertising Vittel water. Their float was a giant water bottle with a person sitting on it with a long sprayer in hand. On hot days it is great to spray the crown but today was cold. Everyone, except Adrian and me, were bundled up and did not want to get wet. I really thought that common sense may prevail but he looked at the small crowd and sprayed us. Jerk.
As the people on the floats in the caravan threw items, two young French girls jumped down between the wall and the barrier to pick up some of the items that had been thrown. Watching them, we reasoned once the Tour came by, if we jumped down behind the barrier the Gendarmes couldn’t reach us to make us move. And as the first riders came up the climb, we moved back in behind the barrier. Best spot in the house.
I understand that a number of my friends saw me on the television broadcast that day. I did not. But I was there in person. Shivering.
One of the floats in the caravan was the L’Equipe newspaper. As they threw papers I grabbed two even though I could not read French. As the race came over the top I handed a newspaper to Stuart O’Grady. Pretty cool that he took it and put it in his jersey. Actually I held out a newspaper for anyone to grab and it was Stu who grabbed it. And I saved a paper for my descent too. It helps.
Once the road was reopened after the Tour went by, we first descended to La Mongie and stopped again at the Trek Travel location. There I borrowed a spoke tool and tightened up a loose spoke which helped greatly. The wheel wasn’t true, but much better than it was. At Shaun’s insistence, I kept the tool and promised to return it to Trek Travel in the Alps.
On the way home we decided to take the Col d’Aspin instead of the Horquette. Adrian says it was easier from this side but I’m not so sure about that.
On the day it was cold, wet, and miserable, but sure full of memories.
As I came into St. Lary at the end of the day, I found a pizza shop.
Race Notes: First the last four kilometers of the Tourmalet were about the same as the rest of the climb. My suffering was the cumulative effects of the entire climb.
Arriving in St. Lary-Soulan I passed through Arreau which was our start location for riding last year when I was on a Trek Travel trip. I was driving a small portion of tomorrow’s stage to Luz-Ardiden. I noticed the tour route signs and thought how neat it would be to have one after the Tour goes by.
I met Adrian Register at the Hotel Mercure in St. Lary and we drove over to Luchon. It was chilly, perhaps about 60° (15° C). We drove through town and were having a hard time finding a legal place to park. We found a space on the street and Adrian talked to a small business owner whether we could park there or not. He offered to let us park in his small parking lot in front of his store. Very nice.
Adrian and I planned to ride the Port de Bales. But Adrian talked to the business owner and he advised against it. A heavy storm last night brought down a number of rocks on the road. We changed and decided on Superbagnères. He advised our proposed climb was “pretty easy.” We think he was being sarcastic.
We left town and started climbing immediately. The scenery was stunning even as a light rain started to fall. Conditions turned worse. We talked about turning around but wanted to finish the climb.
Superbagnères is a ski station The climb is listed as 18.5 km and climbs 1,170 meters (6.3%). It rises to 1,800 meters (5,905 feet). It has been used in the Tour six times, most recently in 1986 when Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault battled up the slope and again in 1989.
The cold rain started on the descent. We were unprepared. We had to be careful on the wet roads but hurried back to Luchon as fast as we could.
We were both so cold and wet when we got back to the car we kept the heat on high all the way back to St. Lary.
We also noticed as we passed through Arreau that the directional signs were gone. And appeared in the windows of the campers along the route. I would never remove the sign before a stage but apparently many do. These are the best souvenirs from the Tour. My mission would be to find a sign after the Tour. A very difficult mission for sure.
Today I parked near Dulles Airport and rode to Loudoun County H.S. in Leesburg to join a 60 mile ride around Loudoun County visiting quaint little towns celebrating the 4th of July. By visiting I mean rolling through without stopping.
I was better suited to a solo ride today. A solo ride affords me the opportunity to stop and take pictures and the little towns were sure beautiful, all decorated in red, white, and blue. And there was no better picture than a beautiful red barn outfitted in American flags. But I stayed with my group.
We rode through Waterford to Lovettsville, then Hillsboro to Round Hill. At Round Hill I broke off from the group. They had planned to ride down to Airmont then back to Purcellville. That would give them 60 miles.
I headed back on Rte 7 through Purcellville and Hamilton and back to Leesburg cutting a little off the ride knowing I had an extra 20 miles in my legs.
In contrast to the 100 miles in America’s Most Beautiful Ride, today my legs felt awful. I hated not to stay with the group although our group was down to four riders. But I knew to listen to my body.
I stopped by Loudoun Golf and Country Club. But my son-in-law, Byran Snow, the golf pro there, was on vacation.
I stopped in Leesburg for a Gatorade. I stopped on the trail just outside of Leesburg looking for more water. It didn’t work. I stopped at Smith’s Switch Station where at least they had water.
In the end, 70 miles was enough today. Recoup. Rehydrate. And celebrate another year of life.