2009 Tour de France trip – Part 2 (deux)

Depart from Flumet

Depart from Flumet

Remember how I said that climbing the Col de Roselend was probably the hardest thing I’d ever done on a bike? Up to that point… yes. Well, the next day topped it by a HUGE margin.

There were two options to ride on this day, and since I am never one to shirk from tough efforts, I elected the more sadistical of the two. We started off in a steep, tiny village called Flumet, and then rode in the shadow of Mont Blanc over three incredible passes – a Category 2 (Cote de Aranches), and then two Category 1 climbs, the Col de Romain and finally, the Colombiere.

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The start was fairly tame. We rolled through the closed course at a moderate speed, trying like the dickens to stick together. Our guide on this day was the Frenchman, and while I enjoyed him, I think he was also somewhat overwhelmed by the size of the group and the different levels of fitness we all showed. Within about an hour, two guys had gone off the front, some of us had gone the wrong way, and we were bogging down, before even really hitting the first real climb. But we finally got to the foot of it, and I caught the two guys, along with Victor, the billy goat from Durango. Once again, he basically soared away, but I was still feeling pretty darned good, and I climbed the Cat 2 climb in just over 20 minutes, I believe.

Going for the Sprint

Going for the Sprint

Then, the rain hit.

And I took a wrong turn.

And the descent was filled with steel plates on the road that were just begging to break someone’s hip.

And I did have a jacket, but not nearly enough energy drink.

And the stuff I did have, well, it soured in my stomach….

Yet we carried on.

At the top of the Cat 2 climb, and the wrong turn, I realized that another member of our group was right behind me. The woman, who was from Guam, was riding really strong, and we decided to buddy up as best as possible, for the next two hills. Victor also met us at the bottom of the Col de Romme, and together, we all started our ascent.

The Col de Romme basically goes from dead flat to STRAIGHT UP, with a couple of sharp hairpin turns, and several narrow kilometers of road, where you have a wall on your left, and a cliff on your right, as you make your way. The steepness kept me within sight of Victor for about a 1/3 of it, but it became clear once the % grade went from 10 to about 6, that he was once again going to just walk away from both of us. I continued my climb on my own pace, but was a little disheartened to see my wattage start to drop down below the 250’s. We climbed in and out of rainstorms and ever-thickening crowds, and on one turn, I noticed the ubiquitous Devil’s Pitchforks in the road. DIDI!!

Didi is an icon of the Tour de France. For decades now, he’s been attending the major Tours, dressed in a Devil’s suit, to goad the athletes, especially on the steepest cols. He travels in the sparest of campers, and the rumor is that he specifically won’t shower, so he can add to the mystique of his incredibly strong body odor. I didn’t see him (it was raining), but I yelled out, “DIDI!”, and almost immediately, from one of the campers on my right, he poked his head out of a door, dividing the kitschy hanging plastic rubies, complete with horned cap, and stuck his tongue out at me, glaring and cheering, “HE HE HE HE HE HE HE HE HE!!!!!” It pretty much made my hour.

The top of the climb was pure, complete chaos. There were people and tents and parties everywhere, and the storms had contributed to the chaos, whipping up a wind that had tossed some chairs and tables around. I went a little bit beyond it, to the start of the descent, and then got off the bike to relieve myself. My gut felt like it had mercury in it – I had probably set my concentration of EFS gel too strong for the day – and as I was standing around, deciding whether I should venture back to the crowd for some food and water, I absent-mindedly checked my rear tire pressure…

Uh oh. Soft tire. The weather had brought out all the microscopic glass and debris on the roads – stuff you couldn’t sweep away. One of those was in my tire, and I wasn’t taking it out, for obvious reasons. I had been wondering why I was not climbing so well, but I thought it was my gut, the terrain, or the weather. This was just icing on the cake.

It wasn’t flat per se, but it certainly wasn’t full, and I was NOT going to descend a 30-minute hill with a soft tire and end up in the back of a 4-wheeler somewhere. So, I unzipped my saddle bag, whipped out a Co2 cartridge, and filled up the tire, saving the cartridge for the inevitable re-inflation I’d need in an hour or so.

About that time “X” met up with me, and we decided to descend together after she got some water. I told her about my dilemma, and we agreed to ‘punch it’ up the Colombiere so we could get over the pass and down in to Le Grand Bournand, and get some real food. I also wanted to see my wife, who had done the ride that went straight from Annecy to the finish and back. The descent went okay, though it was still wet (there were no steel plates this time), but when we got to the village at the base of the Colombiere, I sort of lost all hope. “X” was with me, and I eventually told her to go on. My tire, the weather, and my flagging energy were leading to a major bonk.

But I had no choice. I gathered what I had left, and I climbed. I climbed at 170 freakin’ watts. That’s slow for me. That’s slow slow. And slower riding is actually harder than faster riding. I started cursing the crowds. I started cursing the weather. I started cursing the climb. I started cursing the trip… I started to lose my mind.

Looking back down the Colombiere

Looking back down the Colombiere

Almost exactly an hour later, after literally CRAWLING and refusing to get off my bike, I crested the Colombiere. There must have been 100,000 people on this section of the course alone. But panic had started to creep in – my gut wasn’t working with me, and no matter what I drank or ate (not much of either), I started to get gut cramps, and slow down. This put me up against something even MORE serious – a closing of the course. That meant I would be stuck at one location for about 3 or 4 hours, until the race completely passed by. When I got to the top, I could see a Gendarme rolling tape across the road, closing it off. With every last bit of energy I had, I bolted between the officer and the retaining gate, and slipped over.

Top of the Colombiere

Top of the Colombiere

About 100 meters past the fencing, I pulled over, got off, went to the ditch… and barfed. I hadn’t barfed on a bike in YEARS. A few Gendarmes witnessed it, but paid me no mind, and honestly, it did make me feel better. I had nothing but a miniclif bar to get the ick out of my mouth, so I chewed on it for a while, then spit it out, climbed back on the bike, and began my descent.

Now, remember – I was up against the clock. The Tour de France officials will close courses well ahead of time to try and ensure the safety of the cyclists’ and the caravans that come before and after. I was maybe 10k from the finish line, and was looking forward to a Coke to settle my stomach, and something really bad for me, like an entire pizza or sandwich or even a freakin’ pasta plate. So I started to descend, trying to blitz my way through crowds walking UP the descent, dodging the puddles or slick spots, and basically trying to keep my head up.

But two events foiled my plan.

The first was this. As I was descending, I came upon Dory Holte, another infamous icon of the Grand Tours who has popped up in recent years. You’ve probably seen him with a pair of Texas Longhorns, or elk antlers, or even Eagles’ wings, as he runs up beside the pack and let’s them know he’s their #1 fan. Most of the time his jersey is a Montana jersey, with “Leipheimer” on the back, but he’ll also show support for Lance and other Americans with a HUGE flag of the “Stars & Bars”.

Dory Holte, the "Raging Longhorn"

Dory Holte, the "Raging Longhorn"

I had to stop and talk with Dory. I mean, it was only a minute, but you know, he’s almost as famous as Didi the Devil, but he’s different, and… He’s an American. So I called out to him, pulled over, and said hello. I got his website (raginglonghorn.com), got some photos, gave him a slap on the back and went on my way down. It took maybe a minute, but that was all the Police needed. They were shutting down the course.

I BLITZED through road checkpoint after road checkpoint, until finally, I was halted to the point of injury by a little girl in a reflective vest and Gendarmerie cap, a huge whistle, and some sort of taser on her hip. We were 5k from the end.


I looked around, saw “X”, and then, right behind me, a whole bunch of cyclists from another Jemison tour got stopped by the same girl. There was nothing we could do. We could almost see the end of the course, but we knew that there were more police further down, and since there was only one road in this steep valley, there was no way we could sneak past them. I could almost taste the food and drink, but we were stuck.

We spent the next 3 or more hours praying that it wouldn’t rain, getting to know each other better through dialogue, making friends with the 50 or so people who had been stopped there as well, and begging the parade caravans to drop food, drinks, or whatever, down to us so we could stave off human sacrifice and a “Lord of the Flies” meltdown. I will say this – French versions of “Cheetoh’s” absolutely SUCK.

Caravan of Dreams

Caravan of Dreams

But eventually, the helicopters showed up overhead, and I got several INSANELY cool shots of Alberto and Lance,

Venga Alberto! Venga Venga Venga!!!

Venga Alberto! Venga Venga Venga!!!

Lance vs Liquigas

Lance vs Liquigas

and we were finally cleared to descend after the “Lantern Rouge” cyclist passed through. Then, we joined the throngs of spectators (about 150,000 of them), descending, braking, bike-walking, and just desperately trying to descend on this poor little tiny town that usually held maybe 20,000 residents. I won’t go in to details, but suffice it to say that more chaos ensued, and I lost contact with the gang with whom I’d spent the afternoon, and finally, my French guide and one other rider showed up at the appointed spot, where we waited futilely for others to arrive, and finally rode back to Annecy on our own.

We arrived at the hotel starving, cold, and a little angry. I was REALLY upset. I wanted to see my wife, I wanted to eat, and I wanted to get warm, but everyone seemed nonplussed about it. We finally dined at around 9 o’clock, but my epic day had sort of been spoiled by a lot of little things, and I was only slightly mollified by an interview I gave with a reporter from the Wall Street Journal, about, guess what, power and epic climbs and energy. Marty and Jill were as great about the situation as they could be, but honestly, this was a bit overwhelming, and we later learned that the gal I’d spent the day riding with, had gotten separated from everyone, and eventually rode back to Annecy on her own or something like that.

Lance on the Colombiere

Lance on the Colombiere

Still, I have to reflect. This was almost certainly the hardest day of the Tour de France – the infamous “Stage 17”, and I’d conquered (barely) 3 of the 5 cols, and had climbed the back side of one of the cols the previous day. This is what we’d paid for. This is what we should have been expecting. It gave me a new level of respect for the athletes who compete and even just complete the Tour de France. The energy required, day after day after day, is almost supernatural. I can understand why people would be suspicious of these athletes and the history of performance-enhancing drugs at the Tour. Just to recover from a day like this day would have been epic. I continue to be awed by the capacity of this sport to impress me.

I’ll stop here for now and will post up Part 3 later on. Business beckons, and I just learned last night that my dear Grandma has just passed away. I’ll be in South Texas for the funeral on Thursday, but I’ll try to post up again soon.

More to come. Thanks for reading.


2 Responses to “2009 Tour de France trip – Part 2 (deux)”

  1. 1 Dore Holte
    2009/08/29 at 10:34 pm

    Greetings Richard!

    Great summary of misery in part two Tour de France. Sorry I delayed your food or bust descent.
    You seemed to be in no stress when I met you. It turned out to be a terrible day for myself as the road closure at the summit did not allow me to pass and descend to an uphill sprintway.
    Interesting online coaching program you have created. Overall this was a Tour full of challenges and struggle. Glad to be home.
    If you and your wife get out to Seattle with your bikes we should ride.
    Great diary of the Tour and thanks for writing.

    The Elk Man

    • 2009/08/30 at 5:21 am

      Dore, man, that day and its’ difficulties had nothing to do with you, and honestly, you were THE highlight! I think the funniest line of the day was one you gave me, “Lots of unpaid leave!” I chuckled about it for weeks. But I agree – this was arguably one of the hardest week’s of riding I ever did, and the trip was more adventure than vacation. Still, I’m confident in both Lance and Levi for next year, and I think Horner will sign as well (other rumors aside). That plus Bruyneel will make a tough squad, and maybe they can get Kloden for the finale.

      Let’s get you a real website or blog, and a dedicated e-mail addy, so we can support your activities even more. You’re an icon, man, and the culture has been changed by you significantly!! E-mail me at info at onlinebikecoach.com and we’ll chat off-list. We’ll also be in Seattle over Christmas, so let’s shoot for a Virginia Inn crabcake rendezvous and beer. Ca va?

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