“Oh my God. Look at the Alps. Just look at the Alps. Just…Look.”
Guess where this ride report begins?
As I’ve mentioned before, our lab has a small but solid contingent of tour de France devotees, so much so that we stream it into our control room sometimes. One of the devotees, Will, had been planning for a while to drive out with his wife and sister (also tour fanatics!) watch stage 19 and 20, an outing I practically begged to be invited to. But there was another adventure in the works: another tour devotee, Daniel, had the crazy awesome idea to go ride part of the stage, and wanted know if I was in for it. Daniel has been working on this silly experiment for a silly long time and is moving back home to Brazil in a couple of weeks. Hence, stage 19 of this year’s tour, a mere two and a half hour drive from Geneva, seemed a lot like the last chance for either of us to see the tour live and to ride the Col de telégraphe plus the Galibier, which combined constitute the longest climb in France. Of course I was in for it. Obviously. No question.
We’d been floating the idea for a while, but the realization of it was of course dependent on things like antiprotons and ultra high vacuums. Weather, also, was also a factor. In the preceding days the forecast had told us various truths and lies, including: snow, near freezing temperatures, partial sun, full sun, and the inevitable rain. It wasn’t until 15 hours beforehand that we finally bit the bullet and made the car rental reservation.
And then there was my bike problem: the person who loaned me my bike has indeed returned to Switzerland, and the bike that has been my means of transport and fun for the last months is now surrendered to him. Work is always crazy, so attempts to access the bike rental place were thwarted due lack of time and funds, and my chances of borrowing Joel’s bike for such a venture were slim to none. My only option seemed to be to beg for day use of the craptastic tank. He graciously obliged. Craptastic tank it would be! While waiting in downtown Geneva outside the rental car agency, I decided to photograph my bike situation, just so you all could see how truly great it was:
You get the idea.
Remembering the title of Lance Armstrong’s book (which I’ve never read) “It’s Not About the Bike,” I convinced myself that well, it had been so many years spent waking up early to watch stage finishes and dreaming about the Alps while in school or at work during summers that I wasn’t about to let poor bike quality steal this opportunity from me. I was actually more than fine, even a little proud, about the prospect of doing it on a mountain bike. Daniel, solidly on team hardtail and knobby tires for “philosophical reasons” would do it on nothing less.
But this brings us back to where this post should have started: the Alps. So much of beauty is in contrast; When you spend a good portion of your life thinking about things so small they’re invisible, there’s something truly to be said about peering out the windshield and discovering that everything in your field of vision is mountain. It is constitutes a saturation of senses, and we drive for a while awestruck and caught in that inconceivable brand of speechlessness. It’s easy enough to overwhelm yourself trying to imagine the force it must have taken to thrust whole sections of the earth up in impossible angles, or tracing the faint arc of a rainbow forming between the clouds clinging to dizzying cliffs and already tasting the fragrance of the air. Surely, you think, a grin slowly curling up the edges of your mouth, this place must be like nowhere else in the world.
Such magic cannot even be vanquished by a frantic phone call from CERN. One of the PhD students lost a wrench under the experiment to pull of the magnetic field. On this experiment, it (whatever ‘it’ is) never ends.
But oh, the Alps, the Alps. As I have remarked before: Mountains Suspended in Sky.
We park the car in St. Michel de Maurianne, a village at the base of the first climb of the stage (a bit more than 11 K from the top), and are instantly surrounded by all kinds of tour fanfare: Carrefour signs, French people eating breakfast, Dutchmen on fancy bikes, and half the population of Norway (God care for Norway right now, seriously, it’s been a rough couple of days). A category 1 climb, the Col du telégraphe starts out like it means it: with an 8% or more grade for the first several kilometers. As usual with me and climbing, the key is to just hit a good rhythm and keep going. Neither of us has bike computers and are thus mercifully spared the knowledge of exactly of how slow we are going.
Part of the way up the Col, the we are greeted by the unmistakable clamor of Cow bells, which we sort of ignore until we are startled the accompanying cries of “Go team ……. !” Our coworker Will, and his sister are sitting on the side of the road next to a stars and stripes, as well as an Aussie flag they’ve unfurled for Cadel. After quick stop and a chat, our legs are magically refreshed by the knowledge that we have friends on the mountain.
A couple of kilometers from the summit we’re stopped by a guard who informs us that we are not allowed pass this point. Fortunately for us, a group of Italians is nearby and one of them, in alarmingly staccato and hand gesture filled French, convinces the guard to allow us to continue if we walk our bikes. the Italian dismounts and begins to clickclac his way up the mountain in his carbon soled shoes.
It’s walking, but hey, we’re happy to still be making time up the mountain, so we follow suit. Daniel makes some crack about how for the Italians, it’s not good enough to break the law; they prefer to bend it. Just as my mind is about to go the direction of ‘geez, talk about bad stereotypes,’ a cheerful (and rightfully so!) Aussie pushing a road bike walks up next to us and remarks, as if on cue, “Now, only an Italian could’ve make that happen.” We all have a good chuckle, and a few minutes later a man riding a bike that matches his kit, europro in the flesh, zips by whilst proudly professing something in Italian about how stupid the police are. All I can think is: I love the world.
Midway up telégraphe: Half Dome, much?
Once out of eyesight of the guards, we also begin to ride again. Ride again, that is, only to be stopped right before the summit. Ideally, we would have liked to continue to the Galibier, but the guards at this point were more attentive and would not let riders past, even if said riders were Italian and ‘walking their bikes.’ So it was decided: the top of telégraphe would be the place we’d see the guys go by.
But first: the Caravan. Possibly the most bizarre commercial endeavor of all time, the tour caravan consists of weird floats from even weirder companies manned by weirder yet people chucking cheap freebies at the crowd. It’s mainly just a way to keep spectators entertained while waiting for the riders, but good lord, the people on the floats throw out goods as if they were ninja stars. More than a couple times I find myself fearing for my life as packets of laundry detergent and chocolate milk powder and key chains and the likes were chucked at my eye level out of speeding vehicles.
We surrendered all of the free crap that we managed to grab (not that much to begin with, actually) to this happy pack of French children next to us on the side of the road, the greedy little buggers.
And this was not even the strangest car.
After the caravan had passed, everyone was on high alert for the arrival of the riders. We find a place were the road going up the opposite ridge is visible, and wait anxiously for the first signs of the peloton. the whir of the tv helicopters begins to fill air…
“Här kommer dem!” the woman in front of me yells. “Här kommer dem! Här kommer dem! kom o titta!” I echo, spotting a distant cyclist and shouting over my shoulder, not realizing at first that this is in fact Swedish. Nevertheless, the sentiment is relayed before I can correct myself (“I mean..Here they come! Look!”) or comprehend the bizarre occurrence of screaming in Swedish at a Brazilian while wearing a Cal kit on this mountainside in France. When it finally hits me, I look down and sure enough, as fate would have it, a blue and gold flag is neatly rolled up and leaning against the roadside wall where the woman and her family are standing. My happiness at this moment (as if this were even possible) increases a hundred fold.
Attacks began early on in the stage, and even before the cyclists reached us the peloton had absolutely exploded. Unmistakable at the front: Andy Schleck and Contador at his shoulder. Contador is a picture of focus, hawklike and menacing. If there ever was a ‘zone,’ he was in it. Andy Schleck is dancing on the pedals and looks, as always, like he’s a smiling twelve year old boy (not far off, actually). All of them are inhumanely fast, and surprisingly shiny (baby oil? the myth must be true…) Seeing these guys in action was nothing short of witnessing Gods (or, ahem, drugs) among men, even if I was more than a little perturbed that Cadel Evans didn’t appear to be in the lead group.
Le next group to pass contains the man in yellow, the malliot jaune: Voekler, who in the span of a couple of days had become a true hero for French cycling. the crowd, even the non French among us, erupts into an avalanche of “ALLEZ” s for the Frenchman with the German name. It’s hard not to be swept up in such joyous madness. Allez thomas Voeckler! Allez thomas Voeckler! Allez allez allez allez!!
After the yellow jersey group come the sprinters, dragging their tree trunk legs up the mountain. I catch a fleeting glimpse of thor Hushvod’s rainbow world champion Jersey and dissolve breifly in to fangirlness.
“Courage! Courage! Courage!” is the cheer of choice for the stragglers who have dropped off the back of the last pack. I can’t help but wonder if they’re loving the cheering or loathing it. Certainly having been in such a position before (last up a climb), I know the feeling of wanting to punch every single person cheering square in the face. When you’re in that much pain, even the most goodnatured encouragement can sound a lot like bitter, sarcastic mocking. Similar sentiments were completely embodied by Contador later on in the day’s stage, when he totally decked an unruly spectator on the slopes of Alp D’Huez:
Respect, Contador. Respect.
Before getting back on the bike I chatted it up with the Swedes, who said they flew into Switzerland and rented a car to spend their summer holiday following the tour. No Swedes in the tour this year, I remark. “Jaaaa, men det är kul ändå!” Is the beaming reply. Ah cycling: bringing Western Europe and some parts of America and Australia together.
We returned to our bikes and in a seated, granny gear sprint through a maze of lingering spectators and errant children, powered across the King of the Mountains line at the top of the Col du telégraphe. We continued down the mountain with the all too short descent into the Alpine valley and toward the formidable base of the Galibier. Our view of the tour for the day may have ended, but the ride, the ride was just beginning.
to be continued…