Thursday, August 02, 2007

The Pyrenees

After finishing up the first ride of this trip, Lisa and I packed up. We were to go down to the intermediate sprint location and view the race come through, before boarding the nice coach bus and traveling a few hours to our next host destination, a small town in the Pyrenees Mountains called Luchon.

Luchon was one of my favorite places. It’s a ski town sitting in a small valley between many mountains. It’s about 10k from the Spanish border. In fact, there was an optional second ride planned for Sunday that was a short but steep 10K climb from Luchon up a famous mountain to the Spanish border, and then descending back to Luchon. Only three of us plus Eric and Michele took this option. We arrived in Luchon around 6:30pm and headed out for the climb around 7:30pm. It was a steep climb and took me about 40 minutes to reach the peak. Michele rolled up next and took some photos of me standing with one foot in Spain and one in France. The ride back to Luchon was a blast and took only 15 minutes. The switchbacks while descending seemed much steeper than when ascending. Believe me, they were steep when climbing, but your back is turned to the drop offs and views. This climb that we just did was in many previous Tour De France races and it was cool thinking about the great cyclists who had ascended this climb in race battle. I rolled back into Luchon to find Lisa with some of the group enjoying a glass of wine on the patio of a nice restaurant. I showered quick and then joined her for dinner.

Monday’s agenda was quite busy. There were two rides planned, one longer, leaving at 8:15am and going over the new Tour climb, the Hors Category Port de Bales, then going over the Col De Pesourdes, before descending to the actual finish of the stage that day. The shorter ride was skipping the Port de Bales climb. After another late dinner and lots of vin d’rouge, I did something I don’t do that well – I slept! I awoke in our room to look at my watch and see 8am. I flew out of bed and dressed quickly and grabbed my bike, skipping breakfast, and headed down to the lobby to meet the long ride group. It was just myself and Erika, a fun Australian, along with Michele. Erika was very nervous about the long ride and was going to skip it and I said to her “Erika, what are you here for? Take your time but go experience these climbs. It’ll make your dinner taste that much better tonight.” So she headed out with us. The first 30K rolled through a valley, and after 15K, we were on the official tour route for the day, which is marked with yellow arrows. Michele stopped us and pointed at the arrows and then at me and said “you follow jaune ayrow, oui?”

I headed onward and soon turned onto a road with a sign that read “Port de Bales, summit 20km”. This was one bitch of a climb. The hardest climb I road on this trip. Until last year, it was a dirt access road that they paved specifically for this years Tour. It starts out gradual, winding through forest. The road was closed off to traffic since the previous day yet it was crowded with spectators. There were tents set up all over the countryside, and rv’s parked wherever they could fit. There were families with tables set up, having lunch feasts and anticipating the action they would soon encounter when the Tour roared through. There were tons of cyclists ascending the climb. I witnessed lots of kids dressed in full cycling kit, some bungeed to their dad’s bike, pedaling away. There were men in their 70’s dressed in team kits, no helmets, and big backpacks, some with huge baguettes strapped to their back. As I ascended, mostly all of them clapped for me and yelled “allez, allez!”. The energy was infectious.

This is a long ass climb and with around 8 k to go, it gets steep. The last 5 k really kicked up. With 3 k to go, I see James, one of the staff who is driving sag, pulled over talking to a bunch of Frenchman. James is from France, but speaks great English – very proper, and lives in Venezuela where he teaches language at a university. He is extremely generous and helpful and funny. I called him welchy since he had an uncanny resemblance to Greg Welch. James refilled my water bottles and then gave me a push and a pat on the back as I restarted on the climb. I felt for a second like a Tour rider!

The descent off the Port de Bales was crazy! Steep with switchbacks and no guardrails. After dropping for what seemed like an hour, I merged right into the next climb, the 14 km Col de Peyresourde. This is another famous tour stage and it doesn’t disappoint in views. As you reach the 5k to go sign, you look ahead and can see your road in front of you, zig zagging across the mountain in a series of dramatic switchbacks. The Peyresourdes was way more crowded than even the Port de Bales with fans, riders, press, … Many fans were painting there favorite riders name in the road as I climbed. I reached the summit in slight drizzle, the only rain of our week really, besides a little bit in Paris. Lisa was waiting at the summit outside a sag vehicle, with a huge smile on her face. She said to me “this is unbelievable!” I knew I would have a blast on this trip since this is my passion, but I was excited to see Lisa so caught up in the action. She was having a great time.

We descended and all regrouped with 3 k to go. From there, the sun came out, and we had an official tour escort as we rode the final 3 k of Monday’s stage, crossing the official finish line. This was a big deal since the last 3k of road in the stages are closed to riders, walkers, and spectators. The road is barricaded off and lined with fans. I raised my arms when crossing as though I had just won the stage. We were all standing with our bikes at the finish line when Giil said that we could go up on the podium if we wished. The group stood there, a bit hesitant at first, wondering if this would be goofy with all the spectators watching. I didn’t hesitate and jumped up there and raised my arms again like a goofball. Everyone from the group soon joined me.

We were given special access bracelets that got us behind the scenes at the finish area and also given access to a spa that was within walking distance to shower up, or use the spa services. Typical Europe – the spa only allows men to wear Speedos in the pools, no “trunks”. We roamed around the finish area, watching Phil Ligget and Paul Sherwin broadcast and purchasing some souvenirs. They had a roped off section for our group directly at the finish line and we watched the race come through. Vino one the stage – this was the day before he was kicked out. After the riders came through, we caught many of the riders at their team buses. I’m a bike geek and loved checking out all the rides on top of the team vehicles. I snapped Lisa’s photo with Jens Voight and Johan Bruneel. We then boarded our bus and headed back to Luchon for a great meal. What a day!!!

At dinner that night, Giil was discussing the agenda for the next day. The Tour was having a rest day, so we were going to pack up, then take the bus to the bottom of the Tourmalet and ride up the Tourmalet through La Mongie to the summit, where we’d reboard the bus’s and head to our next destination in Mercues. I knew that there was a route from Luchon that took you over two major climbs, the Col de Peyresourdes once again, then the Col D’Aspin, before reaching and ascending the Tourmalet, and if I could do this. After some discussion, they decided they were cool with this. I told them Giil that I knew he had to keep things organized and tight and on schedule, and that I am quite independent and would be fine and not hold them up. I told him that I came on this trip to experience everything I possibly could and needed to do this ride. Their main concern was me getting lost so they gave me a bunch of maps, co2’s, bars, and electrolyte drink and wished me luck.

The next morning, I awoke at 6am, downed 2 cliff bars, prepped my bike, packed up my suit case, and by 6:45am I was riding. I put my Ipod on for this since I was alone. As you leave Luchon, you begin ascending the 14k Col de Peyresourdes right away. The clouds were sitting low in the mountains, framed in by the blue sky and The Foo Fighters “best of you” was playing in my headphones. I thought to myself “how cool is this!”.

What a contrast from the day before on the Peyresourde. All the rv’s were still there yet everyone was sleeping. The road was empty of people and cars. It was as if I had the road all to myself. What was amazing is that there was no litter on the road at all – remarkable considering the chaos that took place there 15 hours earlier. My legs felt pretty good, especially considering the amount of climbing I did the previous two days. Next up was the Col D’Aspin. This is another famous climb of the tour and the fainted painted names still on the road proved it. There was “Go Lance” painted in a few spots and many “Virenque Allez”. This climb winds around the mountain up through the clouds. Its gradient wasn’t bad at all and I was in a nice tempo. One side of the mountain would be bright and sunny and the other would be thick with clouds. Huge cows wandered the roads as I ascended. The descent of the Col D’Aspin was one of my favorites. It went through pine forests and switchbacked and the views were fantastic. I didn’t have to break too much and hit 60 mph in a few spots.

Two climbs down, one to go – the infamous Tourmalet.

The Tourmalet is a 20K climb that goes through the ski town La Mongie and it has quite the history in the tour. The switchbacks between La Mongie and the top were tough, due to not only the gradient but the high altitude and wind. The group was to meet on top at 12:30pm and I reached the summit much quicker than I anticipated, getting there at 10:45am and quite cold since I only had my “eh” vest. (Funny, I wore my “eh” uniform all week (no, not the same one) and received some great compliments. On top of the Tourmalet, one French guy asked me “Vat iz dis “ehhh”?”.) There is a small restaurant on top of the Tourmalet and I ducked in there to get out of the wind and cold (it was in the 40’s on the top of the mountain) and had a double espresso. As I sipped my coffee, I took in the pictures framed across one of the walls of the restaurant. There were pictures of Eddy Mercx, Greg Lemond, Miguel Indurain, Lance, to name a few, all ascending the Tourmalet. Again, it was another surreal moment. I thought I’d head out and ride down a bit and climb back up with some of the group but when the wind and cold hit me, I headed back in for another double espresso. Between the time I arrived and noon, there must have been 1000 cyclists that came up both sides of the mountains – no exaggeration. It was cycling mayhem. After my third double espresso, I started to descend to see if I could ride up with the group. I was shaking so bad the first 2 K, a combination of the coldness and the caffeine. Thankfully James came rolling up in the sag! Lisa was there as well.

Pretty cool that in 36 hrs, I did some great rides with over 80 k of climbing. We were leaving the Pyrenees for the Bordeaux region of France later this day so I had to take advantage of my time in the Pyrenees…

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