L’Étape du Tour 2007

This is a reprint of My Trip to France!, posted August 1, 2007 upon my return from that trip.


Okay folks, this is a long one! A lot has happened over the past couple of weeks on my trip to France to follow the Tour and ride in l’Étape. I’ve been without internet access during the trip, so the journal entries have been piling up. Rather than try to make separate posts for each one, I’ve just compiled them all into this one, humongous post. For those of you without the time or inclination to read it all, here is the “cliff notes” summary: I had a wonderful time, rode my first mountain pass, and did pretty well in l’Étape. Scan through the pics and you’re done. For those of you who want details, read on.

Pre-race preparations
The training is done and the plans are set – the weeks of preparation leading up to l’Étape du Tour 2007 have come to an end, and it’s time to see if they’ve paid off. After last Sunday’s tough JeffCo ride I did my usual Monday recovery ride, rested completely on Tuesday, and did one last tempo ride on Wednesday to keep the legs fresh before beginning my journey to France on Thursday. The flight to Paris was great – I got upgraded to first class, popped an Ambien, and slept the whole flight. Mike Weiss, Terry Vacek and I all arrived in Toulouse (southern France) within a couple hours of each other on Friday afternoon and were met at the airport by John Goldsmith, our American-who-lives-in-France guide for the week. From there it was a not-too-long drive to our hotel in the village of La Bastide, just 15 minutes or so from the Étape start city of Foix. The hotel was small, and in back of the hotel were several recently built 2-room, pre-fab cottages where Terry and I would be staying.

Home for the next few days

We were all anxious to get out for a ride, so right away we got down to unloading the bike boxes and building up our bikes. The sun was hot, and as we built our bikes other cyclists continued arriving at the hotel – it was cyclist central! Most of the other cyclists were older French men – they had that lean, tanned, weathered look that comes from decades living a cyclist’s lifestyle. As we started our ride an evening crispness began to set in. We started out on a short 25-km loop from the hotel, and as we turned off the highway onto a little road to Mas d’Azil it suddenly hit me that I was riding in Europe – I’ve dreamed of doing this for so long and now it’s happening. The loop wound through rolling terrain of forest and pasture and eventually up into the forest on a nice little sustained climb of ~4 to 5 km. The grade was only ~3 to 4%, but the length of the climb eventually had me shifting into my 24t cog, and I began wondering how in the world am I supposed to do the 10 to 20-km climbs in l’Étape! At this point it is fear of the unknown – in all my training up to this point I’ve never climbed a hill longer than ~1.5 miles.

Saturday our preparation for l’Étape began in earnest. The 198.5-km course begins in nearby Foix and climbs five mountain passes (Col de Port, Col du Portet-d’Aspet, Col de Menté, Col du Port de Balès, and Col de Peyresourde) before descending to the finish in Loudenvielle. Our plan was to survey the harder, latter part of the course on Saturday to get ourselves acquainted with some of the climbing, do an easier ride on Sunday on one of the easier stretches, and drive whatever stretches we didn’t ride. Saturday morning we picked up the course at Saint Girons (km 65, after the 1st climb) and drove over the Portet-d’Aspet, a relatively short (6 km) category 2 climb that starts off mildly but ends with a few pitches of up to 11%. It looked hard!


Mike and Terry at the start of the Col du Portet d’Aspet

Shortly after cresting the climb we stopped to pay our respects at the Casartelli memorial, near the spot where Fabio Casartelli crashed during the 1995 TdF. It’s easy to see why, with tight switchbacks through dense forest on pitches of up to 17%! Casartelli died from his injuries, and a young Motorola teammate of his named Lance Armstrong, driven by the emotion of that loss, dropped his breakaway companions a few days later to win Stage 18.

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Casartelli memorial on the descent of the Col du Portet-d’Aspet
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We finished driving the descent and immediately found ourselves ascending the Col de Menté, another relatively short (7 km) but much harder category 1 climb with an average gradient of 8% and sustained stretches approaching 10%. The road snakes up a steep valley, with sharp switchbacks seemingly folded on top of each other – it looked so absolutely frightening that I almost forgot to enjoy the spectacular views of the surrounding mountains! I remember thinking it could not be possible for me to do such a climb, and then telling myself that many normal people have done just that so I must be able to.
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View from the summit of the Col de Menté
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The descent from the Menté was long, but it didn’t look as difficult as the previous descent, and soon we found ourselves in the town of Saint Beát. At this point (km 127 on the course) we decided to start riding.
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Saint Beát – a short 10 km ride to the Port de Balès
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We found a place to park, kitted up, and began making our way towards the centerpiece of this year’s Étape – the Port de Balès. This is the first year this hors categorie climb has been included in the Tour de France, and by all reports it is a beast – 19 km long, with numerous 10-11% pitches during the latter 12 km of the climb! For me, this would be my first ever mountain climb – I found it ironic that it should be an hors categorie! I rationalized that everything after that would seem easy (though I didn’t really believe it). The early part of the climb was mild enough, as we crossed through beautiful forest and pastures in the lower part of the valley. The further we went up the scenic, forested valley, the harder things got and the more I had to downshift to keep my cadence up. At ~7 km we made a left turn, and that’s where things changed! The pitches immediately increased to the 8 to 11% range, and after a few kilometers of this I was trying to find a balance between taking it easy and continuing to move forward! I didn’t want to dig too deep with the race in 2 days, but how easy can you take it in such terrain? I ended up in the 27t cog (my bottom gear) for the majority of the climb, and while I never felt like I was giving it a max effort, I sure felt like I had to work harder than I wanted to. On the other hand, climbing my first col was an unforgettable experience, and I’ll never forget the feeling and the magnificent views as I approached the summit.
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Port de Balès a few km from the summit
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John had reached the summit a little earlier, and Mike and Terry arrived shortly afterwards – we took in the moment and enjoyed the views for some time, then pressed on.
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Mike and I at the summit of the Port de Balès
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There was a reward for climbing my first mountain pass – my first mountain descent! I love descending and have always felt like a natural at it – no fear, relaxed, “at one” with the bike and all. But in Missouri even the longest, steepest descents last only a minute or two. The 10-km descent from the Port de Balès would last maybe 12-15 minutes! I was a little nervous at first and took a rather conservative line on the narrow though newly paved upper section with its numerous, tight switchbacks before reaching some longer straight-aways where you could really pick up some speed. By the time I hit the lower sections I felt comfortable with my technique and was letting it rip! At the bottom of the descent, a right turn led straight into the Col de Peyresourde, and we began the 10-km ascent to the summit. Again, I didn’t want to dig too deep, and the lower part seemed to be almost as difficult as some of the upper stretches of the Port de Balès. But the pitch eased (slightly) about 3 km into the climb for a short time before settling into a rather consistent 7-8% grade for the last 6 km to the summit. I saw another rider about 200 m up the road and used him to pace myself – I needed the 27t cog but never felt like I was going too hard. We were going up along the left side of a long, treeless valley, and I could see the four switchbacks up ahead that cover the final 2 km to the summit.
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Switchbacks of the Col de Peyresourde
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At the summit!
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As I hit the switchbacks, I had to keep reminding myself to hold back – it was so tempting to pop that final stretch. Mike and Terry made it up a little later, and we refreshed ourselves at a little café at the summit before taking the final descent into Loudenvielle. No holding back this time – I was ready to let it all out on the descent. I had my technique down for the switchbacks and was flying on the straight-aways, reaching speeds of ~80 kph. About halfway down, the course made a hard left turn off the highway and onto a gentler but more twisty, turny stretch into town, with a mean little 35-m climb right before reaching the finishing straights. The actual finish was blocked off at ~200 m to go, so we turned around and found a place to stop by the lake to relax, eat, and re-live the day. I was happy – I had climbed and descended my first two mountain passes, and while I was tired from the day, I didn’t feel like I had needed to do any really extreme efforts.
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The approach to the finish line in Loudenvielle
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Sunday, the day before the race, we went to the start village in Foix and picked up our bib numbers, then drove the course over the first pass of the day (Col de Port). The opening stretches out of town looked narrow and technical, with a number of hazards in the traffic lanes and roundabouts. I imagined trying to navigate the roads alongside 8,000 other amped up racers and could only envision chaos! I began to get nervous again. Within 10 km we reached the bottom of the Col de Port. The climb looked manageable enough, but the descent gave me even greater cause for concern, as it looked very technical with lots of closely-spaced twists and turns through dense forest that limited line-of-sight. The race would still be very crowded here, which only added to my growing nervousness. In addition, my hip flexors were rather stiff from yesterday’s ride, which was not something I had really experienced before – had I burned too many matches just two days out? At the bottom of the descent is the cute little town of Massat, and we stopped there along the banks of L’Arac river for lunch before kitting up and riding the 25 km to Saint Girons, where we had begun our course reconnaissance yesterday. This stretch of road cut through a fabulously beautiful, thickly forested, winding valley and through the gorge of Ribaouto before reaching the open plains around Saint Girons. We had a gentle tailwind all the way from Massat, and with the slightly descending false flat we were able to maintain some good speeds without too much effort. After reaching Saint Girons, we turned off the race course and took the highway heading back towards our hotel. We had intended to ride the distance, but it was further than we realized (another 25 km from Saint Girons) with stiff headwinds, so we called it a day about halfway back and loaded up the bikes on the van for the rest of the ride back to the hotel. The rest of the day would be spent refueling, rehydrating, and keeping the legs in the air while watching the day’s Tour stage (Gerdemann wins!).
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L’Étape du Tour 2007
Sunday evening I was feeling nervous. The recon ride over the Port de Balès and Col de Peyresourde had calmed my fears about being able to do the climbs, but I was still a little concerned whether I was geared low enough – I had needed the 27t for much of both climbs with fresh legs, would it be a low enough gear when I did those two climbs after 140 km of racing? Moreover, the thought of starting near the back of the field (bib #7743) and trying to get through the narrow roads and technical descents early on had me a little intimidated. Terry was originally slotted in the back of the field with me, but Mike had switched his higher number (in the 2,000s) with Terry to help marshall me through the pack early on (and also make it easier for Terry to reach the elimination points in time). My legs were still feeling a little stiff and my hip flexors a little sore from the previous day’s climbing – I started thinking maybe I burned too much fuel when I should have been resting. The race would start at 7am in the morning, so that also meant no matter how well I slept I would be short on sleep (wake up at 4:30am). John had offered to swap cranksets – his compact (50-34) with an 11-26 cassette would provide a slightly easier bottom gear. I considered it, but in the end I decided to stick with my standard crankset and 12-27 cassette – I was trained enough or I wasn’t, and whatever would happen would happen.
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When I awoke in the morning, however, I felt calm, with none of the pre-race jitters that I usually experience. Acceptance of fate, perhaps? We drove to near the start city, made final preparations, rode our bikes into the city, and after finding our starting block took our places. In a field of nearly 7,000 riders, there couldn’t have been more than ~60 behind us! This would not be a problem for the results since it is a timed event – each rider’s scratch time (total time from start to finish) would be adjusted to a real time by deducting the time elapsed between the race start and the time that the rider actually crossed the start line (and, thus, activated his timing chip), resulting in both a scratch placing and a real placing. It did mean, however, that we would have to move through a heck of a lot of riders if we were going to get out of the crowds on the race course. While we awaited the start, we learned that Greg Lemond was at the race, but we weren’t sure whether he was actually doing the race or just attending. At any rate, the start gun fired promptly at 7am, but it would be another 20 minutes or so before Mike and I were able to click in and start moving forward. When we crossed the start line (and our timing chips were activated) the race was already 25 minutes underway. Amazingly, once we crossed the start line we really were able to begin racing! The pace instantly picked up, and Mike and I began the process of trying to move our way forward. It was not as difficult as I feared it would be, and since Mike had previous experience he took the lead and started picking his way through the riders. I got on his wheel and stayed there, and we continued to make steady progress through the stream of riders on the road. He kept looking back at first to see if I was there, but I was on him like glue so after a while he just put his head down and jammed, weaving right and left to pick free lines through the crowd. At one point another rider squeezed in between Mike and I, so I just came around him and squeezed back in. He looked at me insultedly and said hautily with a British accent, “What are you doing?” “That’s my wheel,” I said. “Well you don’t just push me off like that,” he retorted, to which I said, “Hey, you pushed me off!” “Well, that’s just bloody childish!” he whined, and accelerated off in a huff. I guess the fact that Mike and I were wearing identical team kits and following precisely the same line as we blasted through the crowd wasn’t enough of a clue that we were riding together. Anyway, poetic justice was served – just 1 or 2 km up the road we passed the doofus as he was on the side of the road changing a flat tire. I couldn’t suppress a chuckle! After only 6 km we hit two nasty little uncategorized climbs that caused a lot of bunching, but we stuck to the left side and were able to move forward amidst the sound of crunching gears. The descents were straight and not clogged, so we were able to blast them at full speed. At the bottom of the second descent the course diverted off the narrow road and onto a 4-lane highway – we had not picked up on this in our course reconnaissance, but we made good use of the gentle descent, wide space, and tailwind to blast our way up the left side of the peleton. Mike was doing a monster pull with me on his tail, and while I noticed a few riders grabbing my wheel, by the time we reached the exit that took us back onto the town roads none remained.
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We continued making progress as we approached the day’s first categorized climb (Col de Port). The lower slopes of the climb, though gentle, were enough of a challenge to cause lots of riders to start slowing down. Mike had told me before the start that he’d get me as far forward as possible, but that when we hit the 1st climb if I felt like I needed to take off I should go for it. I had checked the gold/silver medal times when we picked up our bib numbers and was confident I could make the silver medal time (9hr 15min for Men 50-59), but I wanted to try for a gold medal (7hr 50min). I wasn’t sure I could do it, but I knew I’d have to ride agressively from the start if I were to have a chance. As we got further up the climb a small group of riders came by on our left – I decided it was time to pick up the pace so I gave Mike a pat on the shoulder and latched onto them. Eventually they also seemed like they were going too slow, so from that point on I was on my own – picking gears that I felt like I could spin comfortably while continuing to pass people. The road was still heavy with riders, but I just worked my way up the left side and found most people obligingly moved over a bit when I announced my intention to pass. By the time I reached the summit I had passed what seemed like hundreds of people with a fairly comfortable effort. I knew this was only the first and the easiest of five climbs on the day, but I figured the climbs would be my best opportunity to advance my position. I crested the summit and began the descent, but there were lots of riders with descending styles ranging from what can only be described as nervous novices to overconfident kamikazees. The drastic difference in their speeds, and the unpredictability of their maneuvers on the steep pitches and tight hairpins had me grabbing the brakes more than I wanted to. The last thing I wanted to do was crash, and I wasn’t going to worry about losing a few places this early in the game – they would be easy enough to make up on the next climb. About a third of the way down the descent it almost happened – I was preparing to pass someone when he suddenly veered off his line and almost caught my front wheel. I don’t know how I avoided it, but a quick grab of the brakes and leftward throw of the front wheel saved me. My heart fluttered while guys nearby shouted at the moreon. I would see a number crashes on the descents that day, and I can only count my blessings that I didn’t end up in one of them.
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After surviving the descent we zoomed through Massat, where for the first time I noticed the crowds along the sides of the roads watching and cheering on the racers. Like on our reconnaissance ride through the valley below, we had a gentle tailwind that made for some fast riding. The riders were organizing into groups, and I would just latched onto one and then jump ship whenever a faster group came by. I remembered John’s admonition during our race preparation – “Never pull!” – and dutifully avoided ever being on the front of a group. As we entered Saint Girons the crowds were even thicker along the roadsides, and we were moving so fast that I felt like I was really riding in the Tour de France! By this point, we had done 70 km, and the first of three food stops was located here. Against the advice of everyone who I talked to before the race, I decided to skip the feed stop and continue on – I still had plenty of food, and I knew from our course reconnaissance that I could fill my water bottles with much less delay at one of the many town springs before the next climb. Leaving Saint Girons we entered the open plains, and for the first time I could see the high peaks of the Pyrenees off in the distance. Winds were tough along this stretch, so I just kept myself tucked into one of the many small groups that had formed. The only way to gain places along here would be to continually bridge from one group to the next – that would be far too great an effort for only small gains, so I just bid my time until the next climb.
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The lower slopes of the Col du Portet-d’Aspet were relatively easy and followed a valley that was sheltered from the winds, so I started using the small groups of riders to hopscotch up the road and filled my water bottles before the real climb began. When it did the road once again became clogged with riders, so I repeated my strategy from the first climb and steadily passed riders all the way up the climb. Again, I never felt in any real difficulty, and I was starting to feel pretty good about my chances for reaching a gold medal time. The descent was less crowded than the Col de Port, so I had an easier time maintaining speed and started being more aggressive in the hairpins. Passing the Casartelli memorial reminded me not to take too many chances, and – as if to drive the point home – just down the slope from the memorial I had to slow down for an ambulance who was attending to a badly crashed rider.
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The Col de Menté was the first real test of the day – it was a truly epic climb that really set the stage for the tougher climbs that lay ahead. For the first time today, I had to settle in my bottom gear (39×27) for most of the climb. The switchbacks seemed interminable as I slowly counted down the km markers to the summit. Despite this, however, I continued to pass riders at a rather constant rate. There was nobody around who seemed to be holding a pace that I felt comfortable with, so I just kept to the left side and concentrated on gaining places. As I got further up the mountain, I found it more comfortable to stand up while upshifting a cog or two to maintain my speed with the slower cadence, then sit again while going around the switchbacks. At first I was taking the outside on the switchbacks for the slight pause in grade, but I eventually found that I could take the inside comfortably and gain a lot more places on each turn. The climb was not quite so crowded as the previous two on the day, so I was having little problem now getting by people. I slogged steadily up up the climb and eventually reached the summit, where the 2nd food stop of the day was located. This is where I made my first stop. The lines were crowded, made worse not only because everyone stradled their bikes in line rather than lay them by the side of the road, but many people, once at the front of the line, would stand there and eat their food and drink rather than move out of the way for others – moreons! I got a sandwich and banana and filled my water bottles and quickly ate them so I could take a necessary stop and get going on down the mountain without losing too much time. I looked at my time – 3h 45min with half the distance and half the climbing done. That was still on pace for a gold medal time, but with the hardest climbing still to come a gold medal time of 7h 50min was looking like it would be a challenge.
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Descending the Col de Menté
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The long descent down to the town of Saint Beát was not very crowded – I made up a few places, but by now most of the bib numbers were in the low thousands so there weren’t too many novices left this far up in the race. After finishing the descent to Saint Beát, small packs again began forming due to strong winds – I hopped up from group to group, making sure I didn’t bring anybody with me and never pulling in any of the groups. I had gotten into a small, fast group when we made the left turn that began the approach to the centerpiece of race – the Col du Port de Balès. Amazingly, as soon as the gradient began to turn upwards I found myself on the front of the group. I didn’t want to pull them up the first part of the climb, but even with a comfortable pace they were dropping off, so I pushed a little harder and got away from them. At this point, the gradient was only ~4 to 5%, but already I was starting to pass riders at a fairly constant clip. I was also beginning to feel the day’s effort in my legs. I was running low on water, but I knew there was a spring up the road – before the steep climbing began – where I could top off the bottles, and things had thinned out enough by now that I was able do so with little delay. I ate some prunes, sucked down a gel, and waited for that left turn where I remembered things changing so drastically during my reconnaissance ride. When it came, instantly it seemed I was in trouble. I dropped into my 27t cog and began the steady slog up to the summit – still 13 km away! The 8 and 9% stretches were okay, but it wasn’t long before I got into the 10 and 11% stretches, and that’s where things got really tough. I just focused on keeping the pedals turning. I was continuing to pass people, and for the first time on the day I saw riders beginning to walk their bicycles. I couldn’t imagine resorting to that, no matter how hard things got, but as long as I could keep the pedals turning I would do so. As I made progress up the mountain and checked my time, it was becoming clear that a gold medal time would be difficult to achieve. I estimated how much longer it would take to climb and descend the Balès, plus how long it would take to climb the Peyresourde, and it looked like that would take all the remaining time left with no time for the final descent to Loudenvielle. I began to get a little frustrated that I might not make the gold medal time, and for the first time on the day I began to really suffer. The climb was interminable and seemed so much harder than the first time I’d done it. The skies had been overcast for much of the ride, which kept temperatures moderate, but by now the sun was out and it was so hot the tar on the road was beginning to melt in spots. I started squirting water on myself, and several times onlookers obligingly drenched me with their water bottles. They were cheering, but I hardly heard it I was so focused on the effort. It took me over an hour to do the last 13 km of the climb while grinding in my 27t cog, but eventually I reached the summit. The last food stop of the day was there, and with the field well-thinned by this point it was no problem eating and refilling the bottles quickly before beginning the descent.
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Climbing the Port de Balès
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The descent was a blast – I was able to take every stretch at full speed and rocketed down the mountainside as quickly as I could. The fun, of course, was short-lived, as a sharp right turn at the bottom of the descent led straight onto the Peyresourde. By now it was clear that I wouldn’t make a gold medal time – the Port de Balès was just too hard and had taken too much time. Without that to worry about anymore – and a silver medal time easily in hand – I instead began focusing on just turning in the best time I could. The bottom slopes of the Peyresourde are steep, and once again I had to downshift into my 27t cog for a comfortable (relatively speaking!) cadence. Nevertheless, I continued to pass riders, and the field was so thin by now that I used each rider I saw up the road as a carrot to keep moving up. A slight easing of the pitch around the 3 km point provided a little relief, but when the pitch resumed a rather constant 8% or so I began to suffer – badly! The skies had clouded up again, thankfully, so the temps had eased a bit, but unlike the previous four climbs there was a stiff headwind that added to the difficulty. I kept the pedals turning, but it was becoming harder and harder to maintain my cadence. Other riders were bailing left and right to walk again, but something inside me refused to do that – to me that seemed like quitting. I continued pressing, and then I felt it – that unmistakeable feeling in the pit of my stomach – the bonk! I thought I had refueled enough at the last food stop on top of the last climb, but apparently not! I remembered bonking on my 1st century and how horribly I suffered on that final stretch of miles. I wanted no part of that, so in a last ditch effort to save myself I immediately pulled off to the side of the road, scarfed down two cereal bars, gulpled a Gu, and washed it all down with plenty of water. I watched ~20 to 30 riders slowly pass by as I refueled, then quickly got back on the bike and resumed the climb. I immediately felt better, but I knew even a short break would make me feel better at least momentarily. The real question was had I done enough – quickly enough – to prevent the bonk. I started passing the riders that had gone by while I was stopped, and before long I had passed them all and was beginning to pick up new riders. I continued to feel better and kept pressing the pedals. I could see the four switchbacks stacked on top of each other in the distance that represented the final 2 km of ascent to the summit. As I approached them, the crowds began to get really thick along the sides of the road, and the further into the switchbacks I got the more the crowds cheered and shouted, “Allez, allez!” I honestly think some of them, noting my very high bib number amongst the mostly low numbers that had made it this far in the race, were yelling, “Bravo!” directly to me. I acknowledged their gestures with a smile and a nod, but at the same time I was almost counting the pedal turns as I approached the summit – 400 m to go, 300, 200… As I passed the 100m to go mark, I wanted to give a little sprint but just had nothing more to give than what I was already doing. Eons later (it seemed) I crested the summit and began the descent. At that point, I knew I had made it – I had staved off the bonk and would finish with a reasonably good (if only silver medal) time. I didn’t know it yet, but I was also about to experience one of the most flat-out thrilling descents of my life!
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Going over the summit I sat up briefly to zip up my jersey, got back down in the drops, and then began to fly. With almost no riders on the road around me – and the relief of knowing the finish line was only 10 km down the road – I began an all-out attack on the switchbacks and the long straights in between. I was flying, reaching speeds of well over 80 kph! Anytime I saw a rider up the road, I gave it everything I had to catch, and then pass them. With 5 km to go I approached the sharp left hand turn and saw a rider approaching the turn – I wondered if I should wait till he went through or attack – I attacked, slicing through the inside line and bolting out of the turn to leave him behind before he even completed his turn. The milder, more technical lower stretches of the descent invited even more aggression, and I made it my mission to pluck off any riders I could see up the road. I had to hold up briefly for two riders going through a chicane, then bolted by on the left after they went through. I looked back, and one of them was on me – I had started something with him! I just kept jamming, knowing that the small but painful last little rise about 2 km from the finish would decide this one. I began the climb, downshifted as my momentum declined, and spun a fast cadence. Halfway up I looked back, and he was gone – I’d dropped him! There was a small group of riders further up the climb – more places to pick up – so I kept the spin going as I passed them and then ramped back up for the final stretch into town. The crowds really started getting thick as I passed under the red flag at the 1 km to go mark, and the cheering made me push even harder. I wanted to finish and look strong, and fortunately I had the strength still to do it. I came around a bend after the 300 m sign and saw one more rider up the road – could I take him? I stood up with my hands in the drops and began sprinting as hard as I could down the barricaded finishing straights, caught the rider within ~20 m from the finish (he probably hates me, now!), and threw my bike across the line – more out of elation I think than necessity. I almost had to slam on the brakes to avoid blasting the chutes where race officials immediately removed our timing chips. I checked my time – 8hr 17min – I was pleased, as it seemed like a respectable time, but I was also a little disappointed about not qualifying for a gold medal time. My actual ride time was 8hr 01min, so the short amount of time I had stopped to take on food and water wouldn’t have made a difference.
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I found John afterwards, got a much needed meal at the food tent, and found a shaded bench to scarf it down. Mike came in about an hour later, and we went back to the van to clean up a little, change clothes, and relax a bit. I was pretty happy with how I did, especially when things got tough, and most especially that I had prevented the bonk. Mike mentioned he had seen the results and that my scratch placing was 600-something, meaning I had passed more than 6,000 riders on the day! He didn’t know my real placing, so I was anxious to find out. We could see the finishing straights on the other side of the lake from where we were parked and watched riders continuing to stream in. Terry had called John before I finished – he had had some difficulties and needed to stop for a while, so we were hoping he would be able to make it in before the elimination time and rode back to the finish when that time approached. We stopped by the results tent, found my name in the scratch placings, and looked over to see my real placing – 494th place! I was ecstatic. Going into the race I was holding an outside hope of finishing top 1,000 – I didn’t consider top 500 even possible! I also saw that I was the 99th finisher in the Men 50-59 category, but they didn’t have real category placings listed yet. I figure there had to have been at least 1,500 riders in my category, so my real placing could be within the top 5% – I gotta be happy with that. I didn’t feel so bad anymore about not getting a gold medal time, which now seemed to be something only a select few riders could accomplish. As we studied the results, Mike said, “Hey, you beat Greg Lemond!” He pointed to the results sheet, and there 8 riders down from me in the scratch placings was Greg Lemond, bib #1. So Greg really did do the race, and I had beaten him! Now granted, Greg is no longer riding competetively and has in recent years appeared rather heavy. Still, he is an ex-pro and a 3X TdF champion who has raced in these very mountains on numerous occasions – I’m sure he would want to at least make a descent showing. Plus, a SRAM guy we talked to had mentioned he had seen Greg in March and that he looked like he’d lost quite a bit of weight since then. And, I’m older! The dreamer in me would love to think that he was the one who got on my wheel and tried to mix it up with me in that final stretch before the small climb, but more realistically I think he was probably in the small group I had passed going up that climb. I had been looking all day to see what was the lowest bib number I passed and had seen several in the low double-digits, but in those final moments I was so focused on the finish that I didn’t even notice I’d passed #1.
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L’Étape du Tour 2007 is without question the hardest thing on a bicycle I’ve ever done in my life, but it is also one of the most thrilling and rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. I’ve never raced anywhere that distance, and climbing mountain passes was an especially new challenge for me. But I feel that I prepared well for it – about as well as I could given the type of terrain available to me where I live. Even more important than the climbing was training how to eat and drink and how to pace myself. I don’t know if I’ll ever get the chance to do l’Étape du Tour again, but I certainly hope so. I’d like to thank my loving wife for giving me this trip (what a way to celebrate turning 50 years old!) and, along with my daughters, for putting up with all the time I spent training. I’d also like to thank those who gave me advice and encouragement – your tips and suggestions helped greatly to prepare me for what to expect. Special thanks go to Jose, my faithful training partner on four consective century-ride weekends leading up to the trip (and also for loaning me the hard case and the 27t cassette); to Mike for inviting me to be part of the group and for the awesome leadout he gave me during the first 10 km of the race; and to John, our tour guide and a fantastic rider himself – his itinerary for the 2 days prior to the race provided about as perfect a race preparation as possible.
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The Mediterranean Coast
With l’Étape behind me, it was time to start experiencing the Tour de France itself and some of the other delights that France has to offer. I had ridden nearly 350 km in the past 4 days, but I still felt like my trip was just beginning. Training for and doing l’Étape was a lot of fun but was also stressful at times – now it was time to start decompressing and look forward to another 2 weeks in France with nothing to worry about really except just enjoying myself. The night after l’Étape we stayed in the nearby town of Arreau. The plan for the following day was to drive to Cassis, on the Mediterranean coast just east of Marseilles, to do some riding and kayaking and follow the TdF as it came into that area. A recovery ride the next morning, however, was definitely in order, so before hitting the road we did an easy 37 km ride from Arreau to the nearby town of Montréjeau. There we enjoyed lunch and a dip in a public pool (with the Pyrenees Mountains as a backdrop) before starting the drive. The TdF was just hitting the Alps on that day, so mid-afternoon we crashed a hotel lobby and watched Solero win Stage 9 before completing the drive to Cassis. There, we found our hotel perched among unbelievable white and red cliffs at the edge of the Mediterranean. A beach across the street offered even greater beauty, and the three of us asked ourselves, “Why do we live in St. Louis?”
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Cassis waterfront
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The next day our plan was to get in some good riding during the morning before hooking up with the Stage 10 route as it passed through on its way to the finish in Marseilles. John said, “See that cliff over there? We have to get to the top of it.”
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Route des Crêtes from a distance
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Piece of cake, I figured – hey, I’d just done five cols in the Pyrenees! How hard could 300 m of climbing be? WRONG! Immediately after leaving the hotel we started up a 20% climb that had us switchbacking like 10 yr olds on single speeds. Mike and I looked at each other like, “What the fuck was that?!” But it only lasted for a couple of city blocks, so things would be cool. WRONG! Annoyingly, we dropped right back down, rendering our first heart-attack inducing effort pointless, and started up the climb that got out of town. Not only was it also 20% – but it was twice as long! Damn, can’t an old guy even get warmed up first?! John and Sam, his equally skinny friend who had just joined us for the rest of the trip, danced up the climb like mosquitos, while Mike, Terry, and I heaved our much heavier corpses to the top. I swear I could hear John and Sam laughing at the dirty they’d done on us. As if that wasn’t punishment enough, we got to the “top” only to find that it was just a way to get to the Route des Crêtes that would take us the rest of the way to the top. We would have to climb about the same distance we had just done, and while not quite as steep it did contain one short section of 30% gradient. I don’t remember much about that small section of road – my oxygen-deprived brain went blank about the same time my eyeballs burst! It was now clear to me that John had been purposely mum about this morning’s ride – surely he was concerned about a mutiny! Eventually we did make it though, at which point we enjoyed some of the most spectacular road riding scenery one could imagine. The nicely surfaced road weeved and bobbed through craggly pine woodland, offering spectacular views of the Mediterranean coast on one side and the grand valley through which we would be riding on the other.
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Sam, Mike, Terry and I make it to the top
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Looking down on Cassis from Route des Crêtes
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Route des Crêtes follows the coastline
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Looking back on Route des Crêtes
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A thrilling descent led to the town of La Ciotat, where a bit of challenging but fun, urban bushwhacking got us onto the rather longish Côte de Ceyreste up the other side of the valley. While not nearly as hard as the cols we had just done in the Pyrenees, it was still a challenging climb that had me spinning my 24t cog at threshold much of the way up. It was a gorgeous, sunny day in the dry, Mediterranean climate, and with my legs nicely recovered from l’Étape it was fun cutting loose again and joining in on the “Department” sign sprints (2 for John, 1 each for Mike and I). We picked up the Stage 10 route partway up the category 3 Les Bastides Climb. The road would be closed to traffic a few hours before the Tour came through, so we scarfed down some pizza and watermelon before skidaddling past the Gendarmerie and on up the climb.
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Which one is melonhead?
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Level, shady spots to watch the peleton come by were scarce, as savvy locals had already snatched them up much earlier in the day, but about 1 km from the summit we found a nice spot rounding a bend after a small dip before rising steadily to the summit. There was a rock wall to sit on, spotty shade from scattered pine trees, and a nice looking Dutch MILF with hubby and her two pre-teen daughters across the road. It would be a few hours still before the peleton came through, so in the meantime we kept ourselves occupied by talking to the MILF’s hubby and leering at her whenever she and hubby weren’t looking. I caught some pretty cool beetles, too – I think Mike always knew that side of me existed but was a little disturbed to actually witness it. Eventually the Tour came through – first the publicity caravan, which is pretty cool to see for the first time – and later the peleton itself. There was a 9- or 10-man break that included ultimate breakaway survivors Patrice Halgand, Cedric Vasseur and Jens Voight (how many breakaways do you think those three veteran workhorses have been in together over the years?). Right as they came around the bend at the bottom of the dip Halgand was launching an attack that had each of the breakaway riders just flying within 2 feet of me as I stood on the inside of a bend with my back against a rock wall. My first view of TdF riders in person, and it was quite a rush.
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An attacking Patrice Halgand whizzes by!
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Eventual stage winner Cedric Vasseur chases Halgand’s attack
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Not long afterwards the peleton came through with a great whoosh – I was able to pick out of few of the riders, most notably Fabian Cancellara (being the time trialist I am). Then, it was over. We got on the bikes, weaved through the quickly growing traffic jam, and followed the stage route back to Cassis, stealing a TdF road arrow along the way.
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The peloton comes through about 10 minutes later (nice pic from Sam!)
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The next day we went to Marseilles for the start of Stage 11, and John had gotten us passes into the start village and hospitality tents. It was a blast getting to mill around the team buses while looking at the bikes to find which belonged to the different riders. Eventually, the riders themselves began to emerge from the buses, and I was amazed at how close we were able to get to them. I’m not normally a groupie-type, but I just couldn’t resist taking pictures of them when I had the chance, including great close-ups of my favorite sprinter Thor Hushovd and eventual G.C. runner-up Cadel Evans, as well as Hincapie, Fast Freddie, Chris Horner, Popo and Gusev, and previous day’s winner Vasseur.
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Posing with the ‘yellow jersey’
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George Hincapie – resplendent in his U.S. road champion jersey
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Big Thor Hushovd chats with T-Mobile GM Bob Stapleton
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This is a very fast bike!
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There was a big crowd waiting around the Astana bus, but eventually the team emerged and I got some good pictures of Vino (even if he is a doping cheater), Kloden, and Salvodelli. Mike and I also got to talk with Bob Stapleton, General Manager of T-Mobile who was recently featured last month in VeloNews magazine for the strong anti-doping policies he has implemented within the team. Things had not gone well for T-Mobile lately – the team had gained the yellow jersey on Stage 7 but promptly lost it and two riders as well the very next day – team leader Michael Rogers, who had to abandon after crashing, and Patrick Sinkewitz, who broke his collarbone in a collision with a pedestrian following the stage. It was later revealed that Sinkewitz had failed a team doping control in June and summarily fired. Bob basically said it was further evidence that the riders involved in doping are doing it on their own and that it will take awhile before the actions can catch up with the message. We left once the race started, but there would be no riding for us today. We were nearing the end of our time in Cassis, and for a diversion to cap it off we enjoyed an afternoon of kayaking in the Mediterranean exploring the fabulous white cliffs known as “Les Calanques” between Cassis and Marseilles. For Mike and Terry, tomorrow would be the end of their trip as they traveled back to St. Louis. It would be a travel day for me, too, but my trip would be far from over. Instead, I would fly back to Paris to meet my wife, Lynne. We would spend the next week in Paris and in the Loire Valley near Tours before joining another tour group to follow the final three stages of the TdF.
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Paris & Loire Valley
I met Lynne in Paris on Friday afternoon, and we found our hotel in time to watch Stage 12 as the riders entered La Jeante Climb. We were in Paris to do some touristy things, but I also wanted to ride, and Mike and John had told me about a non-stop, circuit race-style group ride that runs continuously around the Longchamp horse track at Boulogne Park on the west side of town. As it turned out, our hotel was not too far from the park, so Saturday morning I bushwhacked through the streets of Paris and found the park. The roads around the horse track were closed to traffic and filled with cyclists all going in one direction but not appearing to be riding all that hard or even together. I started soft pedaling with them trying to figure out what the deal was when a fairly large group came by. I jumped on with them, but it was soon apparent that they weren’t riding that much harder. I asked one of the riders if he knew where the fast groups were, and he said just wait, one will come by. I took off and rode a bit faster, and before long I saw a group closing in fast, so I ramped up and jumped on as they came by. This was the real deal – these guys were pushing hard. The circuit was ~3 km around the track, with a rise into the headwind on one side and a tailwind descent on the other. Riders were jumping in mostly at the bottom of the rise and then hanging on as long as they could. There was a core group of about 6-8 riders that did most of the work up front, while few of the remaining riders were able to hang on for very long. It seemed like kind of a weird dynamic to me at first – I really couldn’t figure out the logic behind the attack etiquette, as guys would generally ‘attack’ at the bottom of the descent when everybody was going full speed rather than going into the rise. I sat in the front of the rotation for a couple laps or so and then started hitting it hard going up the rise – this caused a big turnover in the group, as most of the non-workers popped while guys with fresh legs jumped on behind the core group who stayed on my wheel. We went on like this for a bit, I would just follow wheels on the downhill attacks and then get my workout on the rise. It was good fun getting some speed work for a change, and with about 30 min of warmup and cooldown riding to and from the hotel I ended up with a good 2 hr workout. I returned Sunday morning, but there weren’t quite as many riders as the day before. A group of four came speeding by, so I jumped on and started doing my ‘hard rise, easy descent’ workout. After a couple laps I noticed they were attacking hard (again, at the bottom of the descent – I just don’t understand that strategy), only this time in coordinated fashion – like they were trying to ditch me. Perhaps I violated some Parisian rule of etiquette – I don’t know – but I figured bike racing is bike racing, so I caught their wheels and the next time heading into the rise hit it hard and burned it all the way to the top. I looked back and they were gone! A couple laps later another group of three comes by – the guy in 3rd wheel is from the previous group, and when he sees me ramping up to jump on he obligingly waves me in in front of him. I was nicer this time, and the four of us did some good pacelining around the course for a while before I called it quits and headed back to the hotel. Of the touristy things Lynne and I did, my favorite was the Catacombs, an abondaned quarry where the remains of ~6 million Parisians were moved during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. I like bones! It was way cool getting to see so many real skulls. I also enjoyed the Museum of Natural History, especially the Hall of Paleontology, with it’s impressive collection of dinosaur and prehistoric mammal fossil skeletons. Complete skeletons of a wooly mammoth and an equally huge megadont poised against a tree trunk were my favorites, but the 250 million year old, 20-m long crocodile was a close second.
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The Eiffel Tower lights up for the evening
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The Catacombs of Paris
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On Monday Lynne and I drove southwest of Paris about 250 km to the small town of Noyant-de-Touraine, just south of Tours in the Loire Valley. It rained all day so it was another day off the bike, but I didn’t mind being couped up in our beautiful suite in Château de Brou to watch Vino (the doping cheater) win Stage 15 into Loudenvielle while Contador (weakly implicated as a doping cheater) repeatedly attacked Rasmussen (lies like he’s a doping cheater) on the switchbacks of the Col du Peyresourde that I had just ridden one week prior. At the time, I was even awed by their ability to attack on such climbs while all I could do was just try to keep the pedals turning (though now it appears I should maybe be more impressed with the effectiveness of their ‘supplements’). Tuesday and Wednesday were dry (though cloudy and coolish) and I was able to get out for a couple of leisurely, enjoy-the-scenery type rides after we did our sightseeing and then watched the ends of Stages . The first day we visited Chenonceaux Castle – it was pretty cool, though I start getting bored when we have to go through room after room of antique paintings and furniture. I’m much more interested in the architecture and layout of the castle itself, even preferring ruins to restored structures.
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Chenonceaux Castle
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It was an enjoyable day though, and when we got back to the chateau I got the bike out for a ~60 km ride over small roads northwest to the town of Azay-le-Rideau and back. Along the way I passed through the small village of Villaines-des-Rochers with dwellings cut into the cliffs – many were obviously abandoned, but a few still seemed to be in use. I would later see this commonly throughout the Loire Valley.
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Villaines-des-Rochers
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A nice place to stop in Azay-le-Rideau
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The next day we visited several wineries in the towns of Montrichard, Amboise, and Vouvray – the tours of the cellars were interesting, with one containing grape presses dating back to the 17th century. Today, however, was Stage 16 of the TdF. We wanted to watch as much of the stage as possible, so after we had enough of the tours we rushed back to the chateau and enjoyed live Eurosport coverage in English, catching the race in time to watch the showdown between Contador and Rasmussen on the Cols de Marie-Blanque and d’Aubisque. It was a thrilling stage to watch – I knew Contador would have to shake Rasmussen at some point if he had a chance to take yellow in the final time trial. When Rasmussen sprinted away in the final half kilometer for the win, I said to Lynne, “It’s going to take a miracle for Contador to win.” Neither of us like Rasmussen for reasons – at least then – that we couldn’t explain. Of course, that miracle came later that night (though we didn’t find out until the next day), when Rasmussen was revealed for the doping cheater that he really is (or at least revealed lying about things only a doping cheater would lie about). I never liked the guy, and now I feel vindicated for it. After the stage I went out for a shorter (~50 km) but tougher ride – I headed east from the chateau towards the village of Loches. I was at once enjoying a nice tailwind and fretting about coming back into it on the return. My concerns were well founded, with the ride back becoming an unending push against the wind that didn’t allow for much enjoying of the scenery.
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Angoulême & the Champs-Élysées
Thursday was a travel day to return to Paris to meet up with our Sporting Tour group the next morning. We had planned to visit another castle or two near Tours before completing the drive back to Paris, but our rental car ended up breaking down on the highway. Avis was good about sending a tow and then a taxi to take us to the nearest office where we could pick up another car, but by the time we got through all this there was no time to do anything but finish the drive to Paris. I had planned to go back to Longchamps for another go at the circuit, but this also wasn’t possible, and I would end up with another annoying day off the bike. Friday morning we met up with the tour group at the hotel and began the bus ride down to Angoulême to watch the finish of Stage 18 later that day. Several – but not all – of us on the tour had brought bikes, for which people the tour guide would drop us off at the town of Ruffec, about 40 km to the north of Angoulême, so that we could ride down to the stage finish. I was a little concerned – none of the people on the bus that were riding looked all that strong, and with yesterday being an off-the-bike day I was in the mood to do more than just 40 km. It was also an unguided ride – the tour guide gave us road maps, but it would be up to us to find our own way. I’m quite capable of bushwhacking my way around on a bike, but I wasn’t so sure about these other people, and the last thing I wanted to do was become ride leader for a bunch of hodey-dos. I told the group I would probably look for a longer route – maybe 70 km or so – and I could see most of them wanted nothing more to do with me! This was even more apparent when we discussed plans to do the same thing tomorrow, and I said I might just ride from the hotel in Pottier for what looked to be a little over 100 km. They all looked at me like I was crazy! After lunch with Lynne in Ruffec, I came back to find that all but one of the others had already left. The one guy remaining was my age and looked strong enough – he asked me if I had a longer route picked out and if he could join me, so I said sure and we took off, eventually finding our way out of town and south towards Angoulême. The terrain was gentle at first and then turned into big rollers, with some good little digs coming out of the towns closer to Angoulême and a long, fast, fun final descent into town. Colin McCloud was his name, a Scotsman living in Canada – he had good power on the flats though not so much on the climbs. I had to hold back some near the end, but we were in no hurry and I still ended up with a pretty good workout while enjoying his company. Once in town it was easy to find the Stage route, and we rode in following the yellow arrows on the route until about 1 km from the finish, where the Gendarmerie looked menacing enough to force us off the route and into the crowds. I found Lynne about 400 m from the finish, and we watched the French crowd erupt with joy as Sandy Casar won the stage. The funny thing is, we got to Angoulême about a half hour before the other riders from our group – one of them apparently was having some cramps, causing the group to ride at what had to have been a painfully slow pace. I don’t care, if I was in that group I would’ve ditched ’em.
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The next day Colin asked if he could join me on my long ride from the hotel in Pottiers to the Stage 19 time trial finish in Angoulême. I kinda wanted to go solo, but I didn’t want to seem like an ass so I said okay – he was certainly an enjoyable enough person, and I just hoped he would be strong enough that we didn’t have to go too slow. We set out from the hotel while the other riders boarded the bus to be dropped off at Ruffic for their 40 km ride. It was a long and tough day in the saddle, as the actual distance turned out to be 130 km, and we had some stiff headwinds nearly the entire way until we got close to Angoulême. I stayed in front most of the time to protect Colin, and he did alright until we got to Ruffec (~80 km), after which he lost all power on climbs of any kind. I did the right thing and helped nurse him along, but I was starting to get worried that we would miss too much of the time trial – I didn’t mind missing the riders low in the general classification, but I did not want to miss the higher placed riders because I had to caretake a weak rider. By the time we got to the long descent into town, he was even having trouble keeping up with me on the descents – I figure we were close enough by now that he was good, so when I got ahead on the final descent I just kept going and then really jammed the final few km into town. I found the stage route about 5 km from the finish – less than half the riders had come in by that point, so I was still good for seeing most of the good time trialists and G.C. contenders. After watching a few riders go by, Colin showed up – he was friendly and didn’t seem upset so I figured we were good (I’m even thinking he totally understood!). I decided to make my way to the finish where Lynne would be waiting for me and figured the best way to get there was on the course! There were no barricades yet, and people were walking along the sides of the road, so I didn’t see any harm in riding on the side of the course. I came to a gentle descent and began to build up speed with the aid of a stiff tailwind. The crowds started cheering, laughingly, as I rode along the course, and the further I went the stronger the cheers became. It was really getting funny and I couldn’t help start laughing as I was riding along the course. I figured I’d play along with it and got down into an aero tuck while pedaling, looking back over my shoulder every now and then to see when the motorcycle escort for the rider would appear so I could quick get off the course. About 2 km from the finish the barricades and Gendarmerie forced me off the course, so I picked my way through the crowds and found Lynne at the 25 m mark. It was too crowed there for my taste, so we went back down to about 185 m from the finish, where there was plenty of room to get right up against the barricade and watch the riders contending with a 500 m rise to the finish line. It was an exciting time trial, with the drama of Leipheimer trying to overtake Evans, Evans trying to overtake Contador, and Contador trying to keep the yellow. We checked the watch each time one of them went by and then waited for the next to see if they would make it in time. It was great fun, and I got lots of good pictures, with the following being some of my favorites:
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Patrice Halgand on his LOOK 496
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The excitement builds as the top 10 are about to start coming in
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Levi Leipheimer storms past 3-min man Carlos Sastre en route to his 1st TdF stage win
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G.C. leader Alberto Contador secures his 2007 TdF championship
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Saturday was back up to Paris for Stage 20. Lynne had purchased grandstand seats on the Champs-Élysées, so after walking around for a while soaking up the atmosphere we found our places just inside the 150 m mark with a fabulous view of the finish and an unobstructed view of the big screen on which we were able to watch the race in its entirety. With the riders doing eight laps around the circuit, we would get plenty of opportunity to see the riders and watch the finale of the race develop.
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View of the finish line from our grandstand seats at 135 m
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The ‘yellow jersey’ arrives on the Champs-Élysées
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Watching from the grandstands was well worth the cost – the crowd was surprisingly well-behaved, and even though everyone stood everytime the riders came by, nobody rushed the front to block the view. I really thought the breakaway had a chance when, despite tremendous efforts by the whole Barloworld team on the front of the peleton in an effort to bring it back for their sprinter and Stage 11 winner Robbie Hunter, the break continued to gain time. This changed when Crédit Agricole joined the chase, despite having a rider in the break. Eventually it all came back together, and it was clear in the final lap that Lampre was setting up Daniele Bennati for another stage win. I thought they might have burned themselves up too soon, as their numbers dwindled towards the end while Crédit Agricole looked strong setting up my man Thor and Boonen still had a teammate driving the front, but Bennati exploded off Boonen’s leadout in the final stretch and took the win. Of course, our eyes were on Disco and Contador the whole time to make sure he was staying safe on his way to become the 2nd youngest tour winner ever behind Ullrich. Let’s hope he doesn’t make the same mistakes that Ullrich did (or Rasmussen, or Vino, or Moreni, or Basso, or Landis, or Heras, or Mancebo, or Hamilton, or…)!
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The 2007 TdF champion with his team in the team parade
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All told, this was quite a trip. It was harder to follow the Tour in person – watching live coverage everyday with Phil and Paul and the convenience of Tivo is certainly easier, but there is no substitute for being there. This tour certainly had it’s share of drama and controversy, which seems to be the norm more and more, and a small part of me continues to wait for the other shoe to drop regarding additional doping violations. I’m glad I got to see it, though, and I’m glad I got to take part in l’Étape du Tour as part of the experience. In the end, I got in almost 900 km of riding during those 2+ weeks, and right now I’m feeling as strong as I ever have. I even lost a few pounds, despite liberally enjoying the culinary delights France has to offer. Thanks again to my loving wife, Lynne, for making this all possible and sharing it with me.
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One Response to L’Étape du Tour 2007

  1. Pingback: R.I.P. « Bikes Bugs and Bones

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