September 2005

LeTour, la France
Or how I spent my
entirely too short summer vacation
by Mimi Sheean


It being possibly the magnificent number 7 Tour for our hero Lance, what better excuse did I need to jet off to France for a week of cycling, eating, and watching lots of very fit men in scandalously tight clothing suffer? After a very brief internet search, I opted to go with a tour group I’d used before, Experience Plus. They even remembered me from last time, which was comforting. For this trip I chose their Pyrenees tour, having seen the Alps last time. Besides the promise of climbing up several infamous TDF climbs, we were also to enjoy the company and counsel of Joe Friel (yes, that Joe Friel), and we would be staying in the town of Lourdes (yes, that Lourdes). Lourdes, as it turns out, is very well situated between some of the most famous Pyrenean peaks: Col d’Aubisque, the Tourmalet, Col d’Aspin, Hautacam, Luz Ardiden, Col de Marie Blanc, and others. A mecca, in fact, for both cyclists and the faithful. I would see many tour groups in Lourdes, including Backroads, Stephen Roche, VeloSport, and Trek Travel.

Mimi Sheean, 2k from the top of the Aubisque

J’aime la France (Vraiment!)

There is always a certain amount of culture shock when one first arrives in France. The wafting odor of Galloise cigarettes. Strange toilets. $3 cups of espresso. Tiny cars on tiny roads. The inexplicable persistence of the French in speaking their own language. And the biggest shock of all, the heat and humidity. It gets hellishly hot here, and hideously humid. A real bad combo when riding a bike, and it makes two of France’s other national quirks - a serious lack of air conditioning, and no window screens - all the more annoying. There is not a window screen in the entire country, so when it’s hot and humid - that is to say, all summer - and you’d like to open the windows because there is no air conditioning, you can’t because there are no window screens to keep all those airborne insects from instantly converging into whatever interior space you are occupying. To be fair to Experience Plus however, our hotel in Lourdes did have air conditioning, if not window screens.

Day One, the Aubisque (Heat and Hurt)

After arrival and the usual hub-bub of putting bikes together and getting settled, our esteemed tour guides decided to get our week off to a rip-roaring start by giving us the option of a 40-mile jaunt, a 75-mile excursion, or a 90-mile death march for our very first, jet-lagged ride. All involved climbing the hors categorie, 1709m Col d’Aubisque, and then just varying degrees of additional hurt depending on one’s own masochistic bent. (I toyed with the idea of the 90 mile option, but when the time came for me to choose between the detour up the Col de Marie Blanc - 24k up and back, 9%-ish grade - and heading straight on to the Aubisque, I must admit chickened out and headed straight for the Aubisque.)

The ride began through the magical Forêt de Lourdes, just west of town. The clouds were hanging low, and as we rode out into the countryside, the surrounding mountains were shrouded in mist and the air was heavy with moisture, giving the landscape a soft, fairytale-like quality. The roads were narrow and rough, meandering over the gorgeously green farmland. Cows were grazing, birds were winging, the river was burbling, it was a truly beautiful.

I hit the base of the Aubisque after about 65k. I had ridden mostly by myself, having early on passed all the slower people and gotten dropped by all the faster people, ending up in no-man’s (or woman’s) land alone. The 18K climb up the Col started off very civilly, 4%, 5%, not a problem with my brand new 50/40/30 Campy Record triple. The foot of the mountain was forested and lushly green, the road recently repaved, a gorgeous place to be on a bike. Steadily and relentlessly though, the grade ramped up, and by the time I’d hit the town of Eaux Bonnes, it was easily over 8%. I can say this with conviction because the French have this sadistic tradition of posting signs every kilometer telling you just what to expect, gradient-wise, in the next K ahead. So cruel.

I steadily climbed out of the cool forest into the bright sunlight. The scenery was simply magnificent, with the green mountains standing up against the brilliant blue sky. The air became warmer and the grade steeper as I ascended, passing the many fans already parked and waiting for the peloton that would come by here three days hence.

As I crawled up to Gourette, the ski area 4k from the top, the sun had burned off any residual cloud cover and was now searing my very bones. I dumped water on my head. My form was shot. I barely looked up at the beauty around me. Why in heaven’s name had I not put a long-throw derailleur and a 27 on the back? 9.5%, 10.5%, no let up. Further up, past the ski area, the asphalt itself was softening under the brutal rays. I kept thinking I had a flat, but it was just the squishy tarmac grabbing at my wheel.

The last 2k were over 10.5%, and I was toast by this time. Finally I saw cows, and I knew I had to be there. The big white beasts were placidly grazing on the Col, ignoring the dozens of cyclists heaving their way to the top.

Thankfully the French are very civilized, and there were two restaurants at the summit, each filled with cyclists in varying degrees of physical distress. I got an ice cream and an Orangina and happily sucked them both down. After about 20 minutes of rest I was getting ready to get back on the bike, when I saw him. Joe Friel crested the top and pushed right on over the other side, not even putting a foot down or pausing to look at the cows. I had ridden briefly with him earlier, right before his ascent of the Marie Blanc, and here he was already at the top of the Aubisque. I couldn’t believe it. I leapt on my bike. Delirious with lactic acid poisoning, I thought that if I descended well I could catch him. I plummeted down the other side which was like going over a cliff, steep and twisty and completely devoid of guardrails. Wow, this is technical, I thought. Once again my appreciation for the pro peloton was confirmed. After a series of tricky switchbacks, the road swept along the mountain face, a thin ribbon pressed against its hulking mass, then through two pitch-black tunnels, and onto the top of the Soulor, sister peak to the Aubisque. By the time Joe reached the top of the Soulor I was right behind him, which I cannot explain. Maybe it was the water from Lourdes.

While Joe stopped at the Experience Plus support van for some food, I decided to plunge on alone - the sugar spike from my snack was peaking. The descent off the Soulor was screamingly fun - steep with sweeping turns and the occasional large bovine and slimy bovine byproducts in the road. Woosh-woosh-woosh, down-down-down. I’d earned this descent, by golly.

After a few more miles and a straight shot down the bike path south of Lourdes, I rolled into the bike garage, 75 miles and 6 hours of riding after I’d rolled out. Of everyone who had done my ride option, I was the first to finish. Must be that water.

Joe Speaks, #1

Joe Friel is a certified cycling celebrity. He is 62. He looks 42 - a really, really fit 42. That night he spoke to us about cycling nutrition. He pointed out that he had burned over 4000 calories that day, and, doing the math, he needed to consume 250 calories each hour to stay ahead of the glucose depletion curve (It made sense at the time). He also said maltodextrin was the best sugar source. He drank two cokes while telling us all this. Once you’ve finished riding, anything goes I guess.

Day Two, Pla d’Adet (Le Bebe Alpe d’Huez)


Today was the first of our three days of watching the Tour. We were shuttled over to the town of Arreau, and rode from there to the Pla d’Adet, the final climb of the hardest stage of the tour. It was a hot, humid day, with no cooling clouds. I was following our French guide, Pierre, who was riding a clunky old Cannondale with three large Experience Plus flags strapped to the rear rack and flapping away as he rode. An unapologetic flirt, Pierre is quite handsome, with blue eyes and dark blonde hair. He does not appear exceptionally fit, but he hit that first 13.5% grade and just zoomed up, big clunky bike, flags, and all. I struggled to keep up with him, but the heat and gradient sapped the strength right out of my already tired legs. The steepness, switchbacks, heat and pain were very much like what I’d experienced climbing Alpe d’Huez two years ago. Pierre staked out an excellent viewing area at the 5k mark, about halfway up, and we spent the next hour fending off interlopers while waiting for the rest of the group to arrive.

Jan Ullrich climbs the Pla d’Adet


The number of people climbing that hill was astounding - just thousands and thousands. Very few were like me, a fit cyclist decked out in full club kit regalia on a high-quality road bike. Most were actually on foot, carrying coolers and other accoutrement for their day on the mountain. Others were on a very wide variety of bikes - mountain bikes, old road bikes, lots of old heavy clunkers - bikes you would never want to try to ride up that nasty climb. And they were indeed making it up, at their own pace, with no concern about how they looked in their cut-offs and tennis shoes. True fans of the sport. By the time the peloton would come through there would not be one foot along that 11k climb without someone standing on it. And a quarter of those people would be in Euskatel/Euscadi orange!
After quite some time the Tour sponsor caravan finally rumbled up the mountain, a welcome diversion from the tedium of waiting for the race to come by - although when you've seen one caravan you've seem them all. There is something exciting about getting free schwag though, even if you do have to humiliate yourself diving in front of old people and small children to snatch Laughing Cow Cheese refrigerator magnets off the pavement.


Ouch!


At long last from our viewing spot we could see the peloton descending the mountain across the valley from us and follow it’s progress over the flats towards the Pla d’Adet by the position of the helicopters in the sky. We heard that there was a breakaway with Hincapie, Oscar Pereiro and others, 8 minutes ahead of the lead group with Armstrong, Basso, and Ullrich. Time ticked by. Finally, with helicopters hovering practically at eye-level in the void before us, we heard the roar of the crowds below, getting louder as the breakaway pushed higher up the switchbacks. And suddenly there they were, powering past. They looked determined and strong, not like men who’d just ridden over one hundred miles and 5 category-one climbs. Soon enough came Armstrong and his adversaries, tightly bunched and ceding nothing to one another. After that various stragglers, including Rasmussen, Landis, and Leipheimer, followed finally by first one big pack, then another. I saw Freddie Rodriguez at the back of the second pack. Some of these guys looked pretty beat, hardly surprising. We heard Hincapie had won, how cool was that? Lance lost no time to his chief rivals. That was very good. (That night on Eurosport it was apparently decided that Europeans would much rather watch synchronized diving live from Montreal than a tape delayed wrap-up of the day’s Tour stage. Imagine my joy.)

Later, back at the hotel, I found out that the woman who was my roommate on the trip, Taraneh, had been knocked over in the crush of people on the tricky descent off the hill, fallen hard and broken her finger. She was to spend the next two nights in the hospital, ultimately flying into Paris for surgery to repair a crushed joint. What a way to spend your vacation.

Day Three, the Tourmalet (Rain and Regret)

Today was a rest day for the Tour, so the guides send us off to climb the infamous Tourmalet. We were shuttled to the town of Campan, 24k from the 2115m summit. Just when we parked our driver suddenly remarked; “Oh, I forgot to tell you, it might be raining on the mountain.” Well, don’t tell us that NOW, for heaven’s sake! Thankfully I had thought to bring my jacket at the last minute, thinking it would be handy for the descent off the top. We set off from the vans and the first 8k were fairly flat and easy. The day was quite overcast and cool, the low-lying clouds completely shrouding the Tourmalet. Ahh, this will burn off I thought, just like it did on the Aubisque, I will enjoy this while it lasts.

The higher we climbed, the foggier and drizzlier it became. It felt like the Aubisque in steepness, in the 9% plus range. There are other tour groups on the climb, including Backroads and some people somehow associated with the Discovery Team. I cheerfully passed them one by one. Higher and higher I went, losing sight of the riders ahead of me in the cloud. At one point Joe Friel passed me at a good clip, standing on his pedals. “There she is, in her pink jersey!” he said, disappearing into the gloom. I was glad I was wearing that jersey, since it was visible in this murk and there was plenty of traffic on this road. I remembered my bar-end lights, and switched those on, thankful I hadn’t had time to remove them as planned.

Up and up, colder and colder, wetter and wetter. I bet, I thought, that we will burst above the clouds at some point, and it will be gorgeous. Doggedly I pushed on, turning the pedals over rhythmically, trying to ignore the ache in my lower back. The visibility was very poor, less than a dozen yards. Suddenly I saw huge white cows looming in front of me, lumbering across the road. Yikes. One I saw was a bull. Yikes again. I carefully rode around them—one wrong move and I’d be crushed like a bug.

After a few more K I definitely noticed a lightening in the sky and felt warmth on my back. Ah hah, I thought, I knew it. I heard the clanging of bells, the kind of bells put around the necks of sheep to keep track of them. I looked up to see in fact a herd of sheep, running down the slope towards me, jumping onto the road and then plunging down the other side. More yikes, I was about to be stampeded by a bunch of scruffy, wooly ruminants. I zigged-zagged through them and continued up, waiting for the anticipated break in the clouds.


But the break did not come. In fact, it was getting colder and the cloud even denser. I could hardly see anything. There were some riders ahead. As I passed them I heard their South African accents. I grunted something at them in greeting. Next I passed a group of Americans. “Are we having fun yet?” I stupidly asked. Grind, grind, grind. Only one K left, 10.5% on the sign. I wondered if it was better or worse that I couldn't see anything and so had no idea where the top actually was. I suddenly realized that I was really, really cold, in spite of all this effort, and stoped to put on my thin wind jacket. My original plan was to get to the top, don the jacket, and then descend down the other side the 18k to the town of Luz St. Sauveur where an excellent patisserie is said to be found. But when I finally reached the top, marked by a giant statue of a cyclist appropriately grimacing in pain, I decided I had to get something hot to drink in the restaurant that I spied dimly through the mist.

Finally at the top of the tortuous Tourmalet


Inside the restaurant was an amazing scene. Dozens of cyclists were there, drinking café cremes and eating viennoiseries. The walls and ceiling were covered with cycling paraphernalia, old photos of past Tours de France, flags, and even bikes. There were photos of the Tourmalet, and I was distressed to see how beautiful it was for right then I couldn't see any of it. I got a coffee and sat for a while with some fellow Experience Plus people, hoping my wet clothes would dry out a bit. Soon enough I decided it was time to press on, but when I walked outside I was slammed by the cold air. Wow, I thought, it’s really, really cold, I’m really, really soaked, and I’m not sure this is a good idea. Suddenly I saw my old friend Joe Friel again. He had ridden back up from the other side. He got in one of our vans, not planning to descend any longer. He said he couldn't see anything, that it was too dangerous. Well that’s good enough for me, if Joe could wimp out, so could I, and into the van I went.


Driving in the van down the hill towards Luz St. Sauveur however, I felt like a loser for not having given it a shot. There were plenty of cyclists descending I soon saw. Phooey on me for my lack of intestinal fortitude. Once down at Luz St. Sauveur, and after our pastry break, some decided to tackle Luz Ardiden, but I decided one out-of-category climb a day was enough for me, and headed the 32k down the beautiful Gorge de Luz with the racers from Tucson, Jack, Bill, and Kevin Daly (yes, that Kevin Daly) back to Lourdes.

Joe speaks, #2


Heading down the Gorge de Luz w/ Jack, Bill
Tonight Joe talks to us about climbing. Divide your weight by your height in inches. Anything below 2 means you should be able to easily stand while climbing. Lance, he tells us, is a 2.1, so he can stand a good deal of the time. People over about 2.4 usually need to climb seated. I figure out that I’m a 1.75, which means, I reckon, that I should be able to levitate up the hills. Tomorrow I will try this.
Day Four, Soulor, Nay or Ferrieres, depending (R and R)

As it turns out, Lourdes is a party town, and the party starts as soon as I go to bed each night. Must be all those Carmelite nuns cutting loose at the end of a long day tending to the sick. I hadn’t gotten a real good night’s sleep yet on the trip for all the street noise, and this morning I woke up real tired and just in no mood.

We were supposed to climb up the backside of the Soulor to watch the Tour come through. The thought of climbing up what I rode down two days ago then waiting around for hours in the heat for the race held no appeal for me. After breakfast I decided what I really needed was more sleep, and headed back to my room to get it.


The beautiful road to Ferrieres to watch the Tour


I slept a couple more hours, then awoke to realize that I wanted to go riding right then. Everyone else was gone already, some up the Soulor, others towards Pau to watch the peloton come in over the flats. I decided I would go meet those people, my fellow wimps. As I rode out through the forest I came upon some other Experience Plus-ers, stopped with a mechanical. The woman had tweaked her chain badly. I handed her husband my handy multi-tool, which he struggled with for while. Suddenly up rode another tour member, another Kevin, this one the hunky Irish-Catholic fireman from Boston, right out of central casting. Kevin apparently had the same idea as me, more sleep, less climbing. He repaired the chain for them with the tool, but they opted to ride back and not push their luck. Kevin and I then rode on together to find the others.

We rode up the pastoral Gorge d’Ouzom, with a recently resurfaced road that was like silk under the wheels. We were trying to find the town of Nay, which was supposed to be at about 18k up this road. We start passing Gendarmes and sprint markers and waiting fans. Further on we rode, well past the 18k mark. Gendarmes yelled at us to get off our bikes. We got off and walked for a while, then hopped back on when we got around a bend and out of sight. Supposedly our group in Nay had commandeered a café, and we were looking forward to eating lunch there. Where was this Nay place?

Finally we got to Ferrieres, at the base of the Soulor, which rises up from the edge town. Ferrieres is filled with cycling fans waiting for the peloton to descend off the mountain. The Gendarmes would not let us go forward, nor would they let us go back. They barked this at us in French, which I translated to Kevin, to which the Gendarmes said “Yes, that’s right!” in English. The whole town is closed, and all we had to eat was some beef jerky, two oranges and some Clif bars (which I just couldn't face). Kevin finally mentioned that he had a map. You have a map?? We looked at it. Somewhere along the line we made a left instead of right, and we were nowhere near Nay, nowhere near our friends and the café and lunch. Kevin lay down on a bench to take a nap, out of humger I suppose, and I watched for the helicopters which would signal the coming peloton. The sooner it came through the sooner we could eat somewhere.

Before long I heard the whupp whupp of the helicopters. I saw them way, way up in the air. Slowly they sank earthwards, following the riders as they descended the mountain. Soon they were very close and I went to wake up Kevin, who sat up with a start. The entire town was gathered around a curve in the road, and from here we could see the bottom of the switch backs coming off the mountain. The racers would be sweeping through this one corner, then diving into the narrow street that snaked between buildings and away down the gorge. Suddenly, here they were, hurtling down the road and through the turn at an alarming pace. It was Discovery rider Salvodelli and others in a breakaway. In a second it was over, but such a rush of excitement! Soon enough it was Lance and his usual entourage of Basso, Ullrich, et al, with Hincapie right there with him. Swoosh, and they were gone. One by one, group by group the peloton careened by us, bouncing over the uneven road and disappearing around the bend. One of the last to come by was poor Roberto Heras. Finally the Balai Voiture, or Broom Wagon, went by, signaling the end of the peloton. We hopped on our bikes and pedaled madly down the road towards a restaurant we had seen earlier, desperate for some food.

At the restaurant, the charming Moulin Ferreries, complete with water wheel and many garden gnomes, we ate local cheese and marmalade crepes. I saw Nick Flannigan there, the Englishman who ran the Pyrenean cycling hotel in nearby Biert where I stayed a few years ago. He told me he sold it, but it's still a cycling hotel. It was so good to see him.

The ride back through the countryside was very lovely. With the sun out the ride was completely transformed from the misty, other-worldly one taken three days ago to one of breathtaking brightness and pastoral beauty. Our short, easy ride to Nay ended up being a fairly serious 48 miles, but I think getting lost was the best thing to do that day. Later I heard that Salvodelli took the stage. Very, very cool.

Joe speaks one last time

Tonight Joe talked about pedaling technique. He talked about pedaling in circles, feeling the tops of your shoes on the upstroke, striving to even-out the pedalstroke for the most power and efficiency. Very interesting. Perhaps this should have been the first lecture.

Day Five, Pau (Bikers and Bedlam)


Today, our last day riding, we were shuttled close to Pau then rode in to see the start of the stage. It was the usual zoo, with thousands of fans crowding around trying desperately to see someone, anyone, on a bike. I was floored to discover that they actually provided portable toilets for this event, unheard of in France. When the Discovery bus showed up, near pandemonium broke out as people tried to get a glimpse of Lance, or even better, Sheryl. We were not disappointed, for soon they did appear. There was an 11 year-old girl on our trip, here with her father. She managed to get the autographs of both Lance and Sheryl on her polka-dot Champion hat. We all congratulated her and told her how great that was, but secretly we were burning with envy.


The Discovery Bus inching thru the crowd, Pau


While walking around trying to get a better view I ran smack into Richard Virenque who was conducting some sort of interview for French (I presumed) television. I walked to within 6 feet of him and took his picture. He is still cute, and somehow larger than I expected.

After much milling about and straining to see over people's heads and having little old ladies boldly cut in front of me (Hey!), the racers finally shoved off. They looked so relaxed and happy before the race began-I wondered how long that lasts.

Because it was only 11:45, we had to wait around until noon for any restaurants to serve lunch. No matter that there were thousands of hungry people ready to eat at that moment, this was France, noon is noon and it was not noon yet. My new friend Kevin and I found a nice little café and I had my first and only Croque Monsieur of the trip, a kind of French grilled-cheese sandwich. It was fabulous, if not really the best pre-ride meal.


Richard Virenque talks to the media


Everyone got on their bikes for the ride back to Lourdes. The 35 miles were only eventful for the brief swim Kevin took in the icy waters of the Gave de Pau, the river which runs between Lourdes and Pau and then on to who knows where. We made one last trip through the beautiful, beautiful countryside, up and over the green hills, below the watchful mountains, through the farmlands, past the old churches and tidy farmhouses. One last ride through the forest, past the sanctuaries and the grotto where thousands of Catholic faithful gather to pray and honor the Virgin Mary who appeared there to Bernadette. One final ride down the crowded streets of Lourdes, with their myriad souvenir shops and rivers of people, both ambulatory and not. One last trip into the bicycle garage, one last walk from there along the river and over the bridge to our hotel. Quel dommage!


Kevin the Fireman dips in the Gave de Pau. Brrr!


Day Six, Parting (Is Such Sweet…)

The next day we all gathered for breakfast for the last time. Many were continuing on to Paris to see the final day on the Champs-Elysées. I will be shuttled back to Pau where I will spend the night in a miserable little hotel situated between two traffic circles and with neither air conditioning nor window screens, but conveniently close to the airport. Then I will fly home very early the next day. We all said goodbye and it was very sad-everyone was bonded now by the glue of shared pain and pleasure, and now the friendships must come to an end. I said goodbye to Bill and Jack and Kevin and Kevin and Pierre, and all the great people I'd come to know in this week. It had been a fabulous trip, well worth every pain endured and penny spent. I'd enjoyed every precious moment. Even those moments I didn't enjoy, I really enjoyed.

Au revoir mes amis, a bientôt!



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