19
Aug
09

Covering France

View of Paris' Les Invalides

View of Paris' Les Invalides

The 2009 Tour de France cycling trip that Amy and I took last month was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done on two wheels. The rides were epic, with long, steep cols, variable weather, unbelievable crowds, and limited options. I’m proud of my wife for riding as much and as well as she did, but we both think this will be our last “Tour” trip for a while.

The trip started out pretty well. Amy was due for a relaxing time, and the three days that we spent in Paris, adapting to the jet lag, and temperature changes, were fantastic. We slept, ate at small cafes, walked all over the city, finally went to the Louvre, visited the French Air & Space Museum, and watched the Tour de France, in French, on television. We had the pleasure of staying at the home of one of Amy’s friends while she was out of town, so it was even more comfortable and quiet.

Carpaccio!

Carpaccio!

I think we slept for hours every day. Napping, sleeping in, etc. The town was almost too quiet, though, and we speculated that it must have been because of vacations or maybe even the economy. The tourist sites were busy as usual, but the residential areas were sparse, kind of peaceful, kind of creepy, too. It rained every evening just a bit, and the cooler temps were welcome, coming from our hotter ‘n hades home in Texas.

I have to give two quick shouts out about some things. First off, our host had a ‘Nespresso’ machine, which completely rocked! Here’s a photo of it.

Mmm! Nespresso!

Mmm! Nespresso!

Second, we ate a great meal in MontMartre area, and watched a stage finish of the Tour at the restaurant. The proprietor, however, was a cyclist, and he couldn’t wait to show us his new mountain bike! So here ya go, Frankie! And thanks for the good time!

My friend Frankie

My friend Frankie

Amy and Richard in Montmartre

Amy and Richard in Montmartre

The second half of our trip began on a Monday, when we went in to the Gare de Lyon train station, bike boxes in tow, and loaded up on a TGV headed to Annecy. For those of you who haven’t traveled via TGV bullet train, you really do have to experience it. Smooth and fast transit, with comfortable seats, are the rule, and everything in France is literally within 4 hours of Paris. Amy slept most of the way, but I read a book, and watched the world pass by. I got especially interested once the terrain became more and more mountainous. Several other cyclo-tourists were on the train, and it was a bit of a jumble to get the bikes out, with all the people pressing to exit. But no worries.

We arrived in Annecy right on schedule, and were met by two of our guides, who helped us carry our luggage to the “Hotel d’Annecy”, an awesome 4-star establishment right in the heart of the city. Annecy is a spectacular and scenic town, in the heart of the French Alps. Lac d’Annecy is a cold, clear, glacier-fed lake that is a small version of Lake Tahoe, complete with some casinos. We got our room, moved our bike boxes up to the mechanics to assemble, grabbed a salad at a cafe, and then rested up for an afternoon ride.

Heading out

Heading out

Marty Jemison and his wife, Jill, have been hosting bike trips for almost a decade now, and they still make an effort to personalize each event, and accommodate everyone. While it doesn’t always turn out that way, they certainly do try. However, I think the enormity of this year’s Tour, with the return of Lance Armstrong bringing over a million extra people a day to the stages, led to logistical issues that no one could have adequately prepared for. For us, the tour was good, but it did leave us with fewer cycling options, and the physical demands conspired against Amy the whole week.

Amy at Lac d'Annecy

Amy at Lac d'Annecy

Our first ride was a tour around Lac d’Annecy. It was mostly flat, and mostly on the region’s extensive bike trail system. The day was gorgeous – sunny, warm but not hot, and mild breezes. Everyone stayed together, except on the one significant hill, where Marty and I got up to our old game of ‘rabbit’, where I would go, he would chase me down, and I would then work doubly hard to stay on his wheel. This time, it worked, and I passed him before the final hairpin to get to the top of the hill first. It was awesome! We waited for everyone to arrive up the hill, took some photos, and then descended for the hotel, a quick shower, and a great meal.

Richard in his VES jersey

Richard in his VES jersey

One of the fun things about taking a trip like this is that you get to meet new people and make new friends. This is exactly what happened that first evening with the group. We walked to a great restaurant, were seated randomly, and ended up dining with a couple from Cincinatti, as well as one from Durango.

New friends

New friends

Throughout the course of the evening, Amy and I learned that the Durango couple were native Texans who had fallen in love with the Western Slope, and the Cincinatti couple included a Level 2 coach for USAC. So we had a great evening getting to know each other. The coup de grace was that it was Michael’s birthday, and the restaurant had a unique tradition for celebrating those, which you’ll see in the photo below.

Um....

Um....

We woke up to a cloud-covered, cool day, ate a decent buffet breakfast, and then headed out from the hotel for a trip along the lakeside to Albertville. Once there, we stopped, had some food and drinks, and then Marty led us up a quiet road, surrounded by dark green trees and tall grass, and for the next 93 minutes, we climbed… and climbed… and climbed… AND climbed… up the Col de Roselend. It was awesome! It was epic! It was… SO FREAKING HARD!!! WOW! Holy Cow I never thought I was going to see flat terrain again! At one point, Marty was pulling us, and we went around a left-hand hairpin, and BAM. He just rolled away. One foot became five, then ten, as he and several others passed me, and I had to start dialing it back. I was embarrassed. I was angry with myself. But there was no stopping now! We passed through a town famous for its’ cheese, but I didn’t really see too much else except trees, pavement, grey sky, and other riders’ wheels.

Slowly, and surely, I started to reel people back in, and by the time we got to the ‘Chateau de Roselend’, the first flat spot, but NOT the end of the climb, I was 3rd, behind Marty and a fantastic rider named Victor, from Durango.

Victor made it all look easy

Victor made it all look easy

RW at the Chateau de Roselend

RW at the Chateau de Roselend

I’d climbed most of it alone, but had ridden with some people from our group as I came up on them. We stopped, got some water, waited for a few people, and then Marty and I rode up to the crest of the Roselend Pass together, while Victor basically cruised up past us, finishing first and getting to the sandwiches a good 10 minutes ahead of us. Average power for the first part of the climb was 229w, a solid Tempo pace, for 93 minutes. It still felt like the hardest thing I had done on a bike. Ever.

Roselend Pass

Roselend Pass

We ate lunch, waited for others to make their way up the mountain, and then descended down the back side, over what must have been about 4 dozen switchbacks. We landed in Bourg St. Maurice a few hours ahead of the racers, found a great spot to sit, drink some soda, and soak in the atmosphere, and watched the circus.

And the Tour de France really IS a circus! It’s a 3 week festival of sweat, scenery, support, and unbelievable sights. Think of the race course as a 90 to 120 mile parade route, and almost every meter along the way, you get to see people celebrating and rooting for their team, their favorite cyclist, or just enjoying the spectacle. Motorhomes abound. Children cheer with their grandparents. People from dozens of different cultures around Europe, the US, and Latin America set up tents, listen to commentary on the radio, watch fuzzy TV’s, and wait patiently for the caravan of promoters to come by and deliver what must be thousands of pounds of goodies along the way. And the racers? Um, you get to see them for maybe 2 to 5 seconds, and the whole thing is over in less than half an hour in most cases. Then they pack up and head out and do it all over again somewhere else along the way!

What is that? Oh, a YETI.

What is that? Oh, a YETI.

In Bourg St. Maurice, we were stationed at the 300m mark, and we saw the caravan come through several times. They tend to do this at finish areas – the parade will loop through multiple times before the racers get close, so that everyone gets a chance at a free cap, some “Livestrong” chalk, etc. It’s kind of fun, even if it’s people-watching. And again, the racers? Um, we barely caught their jerseys as they flashed between crowds on either side of the barricades. The cars were there, and we heard the crowd’s roar, but that was kind of it. Not a letdown, just a different perspective of the race.

After that was over, we were all packed in to the vans again, for a climb back up the Roselend Pass, and a descent and turn off to a part of the course for the next day. We then climbed and descended through two more villages, perched on some REALLY steep terrain, and beside some REALLY steep gullies, and some REALLY narrow roads, to get back to Annecy. It had been a long day, and I was definitely ready for the hotel room and some dinner.

Easy way to get carsick

Easy way to get carsick

I’m going to stop here, and post this, along with a few photos, so you can read it and enjoy. I’ll try to catch up some more tomorrow if time permits.

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