How do you retell the story of two thousand miles? 2,210 miles to be exact. How does one describe each mountain top? 56 of them, plus countless uncategorized others. How do I share every foot climbed skyward? All 148,393 ascended. Nothing I write can come close. There’s just no way to relive it. There are too many kilometers, too much discomfort, too much happiness, too many tears, too much joy and far too many pedal strokes. It was painful. It was incredible. It was the Tour de France.
It wasn’t the race but an attempt to replicate the entire course, mile for mile, just like the professionals. We started a full week before the peloton, on a Saturday from Mont Saint Michel. 21 stages in 23 consecutive days. Clearly, as amateur enthusiasts, the pace was a fair amount slower. Not that it made things easier on the chamois but it did improve conditions slightly for the legs. Plus, we had rest stops, up to four a day. We started the morning with a light breakfast, stop 1 and 2 provided nutrient dense snacks, stop 3 was a proper lunch and stop 4 was calorically positioned to limp us to the finish. We peeled ourselves off the bike, mechanical issues addressed, aches attended to, showers taken, dinner scarfed, instructions for tomorrow’s stage doled out. Finally, tucking into another ingloriously uncomfortable hotel bed barely rested enough to do it all over again.
There were bright yellow arrows to show us the way. There were vans to transfer the luggage and buses to shuttle us to the next start line. There was staff to organize room keys and count heads. We just had to pedal. And eat. Pedal and eat. During week 1 the eating was easy and the pedaling hard. Week 2 was easier to pedal and harder to eat. By week 3, we finally got the hang of both. The human body is an incredible machine. It may take a while to learn a new task, but when repeated long enough; stops complaining and gets to work. Properly rested and sufficiently fueled, it is capable of amazing feats of endurance. It is also susceptible to a dizzying array of discomfort. By day two, I hurt in the usual places. By day five, in places I didn’t know could actually ache, rub or burn. By day nine, those were all replaced by new annoyances and by day twelve, had forgotten that anything hurt at all.
I’ve been asked mostly about the weather. Was it hot? Yes. Was it windy? Yes. Did you get to make it to the top of Ventoux? Why, yes. If there was ever a day I had wished for a bit of wind, that was the one. Unlike the pros, who endured catastrophic blusters, we experienced the phenomenon known as the “oven”. No movement of air, not even a puff. Heat so stifling, we risked riding on the wrong side of the road for what little shade the trees on that side were casting. Here’s me mumbling a tiny prayer to the Beast of Provence to grant me a breeze and I swear that mighty mountain answered. Not much, but enough to keep my wheel from melting into the tarmac. Some stages witnessed headwinds so fierce; it was like 10 hours on the rollers with an industrial fan blowing in our faces. As such, I shall never complain about the wind again. I will, however, always complain about being wet and cold. I banked on being soggy at least a few days out of the 21. What I didn’t expect was being soaked for most of Normandy and the Limousin and again in the Pyrenees. I hear they are beautiful. I can only speculate, as I ascended most of the Tourmalet with 4 feet of visibility in front of my wheel. Actually, climbing mountains in the rain and fog is quite magical and an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything. I would trade the bout of hypothermia in the Alps, which is a rather unpleasant experience. Though I was rewarded for the trouble by two days of perfectly clear, cool skies with an unimpeded view of Mont Blanc and friends, an experience I was told was exceptionally rare for the season. The Tour gives you nothing for free. To experience the thrill of the decent, you must first drag yourself up the climb. If you want perfect temperatures and a postcard view, you must first suffer the extremes. You relent to these mysteries early on. Soggy chamois notwithstanding.
The Tour is also a rolling slideshow of spectacular scenery. I started watching it on television 15 years ago just to get glimpses of all the perfect French villages. I somehow expected riding it to be the same…a continuous display of medieval architecture amidst picturesque landscape. I certainly saw my fair share of those, along with hundreds of church spires and crumbling farm houses. We passed countless fields of wheat and barley and corn and carrots and potatoes and sunflowers and grapes and herbs. I also greeted roughly 9,000 brown-eyed French cattle with “bonjour vache”! What I didn’t work out beforehand was the vastness of the French interior. We constantly romanticize the mountain stages and when we discuss the Tour, it’s their names that roll of the tongue. I’m eternally grateful for the firsthand views from the summit of cycling’s greatest climbs. They really are as spectacular as you hope them to be. Bigger, grander and more lovely because they were finally made real and not just an image on the screen. Though, I’m just as thankful for the humble landscape that connected those revered peaks. The thousand miles of rolling farmland dotted with bright gold rolls of wheat straw. The sulfurous rows of ancient vines bearing their infant grapes. The countless streams and glittering rivers whose names I recognize but can’t place. The people waving from their windows above the village square. Snarling traffic and temperamental drivers during rush hour, nonplussed with us clogging up their commute. Like I said before; to get the quiet country lanes, you must ride a few congested miles.
By the bye, on the subject of congestion, Paris is no cake-walk. Not even on a Sunday. Although it wasn’t the worst offender on the scariest-places –to-ride-a-bicycle top ten (that honor is shared equally between Montpellier’s roundabouts and Switzerland’s tunnels), it was just terrifying enough to only ever do once in my life. Two laps around the Arc De Triomphe by bicycle were plenty, thanks. We even managed an impromptu photo shoot without being side-swiped by a moped. As risky as it now seems, it was worth it. The experience would just not have been the same. There would have been no closure. Sure, we have Strava to prove we made it but without the harrowing journey across the cobbles, in the shadow of that great hunk of marble, the very symbol of triumph itself, it would have just been another 2,210 mile ride.