TRAVEL: At Le Tour With Alex Stieda
As Lance goes for #7 this summer, history will again be made – and one way to watch it happen is with Alex Stieda’s Cycling Tours – as the first North American maillot jaune – he knows more than a few things about how to experience this race…
Seeing a big European race live is something every fan should do. Of course once you start you keep going back, and thousands of fans choose the Tour de France as their summer cycling getaway. Those of us who’ve seen it know just how much of a rolling circus it is – but once you’ve been under this Big Top you wouldn’t trade it for the world.
Last month we read part one of Karl Wilberg’s personal account of the 2003 Tour de France with Alex Stieda Cycling Tours – and we left our “hero” hauling his carcass over the famed Tourmalet – let’s rejoin the action as Karl remembers it…
The top of the Tourmalet awaits – there’s just the matter of those few switchbacks and that nasty headwind at the top…
Actual events described – and lived – by Karl R. Wilberg
Is this excruciating situation the result of jet lag, the heat, the huge effort, or a stomach bug? Downhill ski pro, Mark Stein, upon seeing the first dizzying grades of Col D’Aspin, had said it best: “Just wrap me in a flag and send me home.” However, years of endurance sport experience gave me one card left. I lied to myself. “Just get to the next road sign,” I think, “and you can quit.” Of course, it worked. Soon after, Guri Randhawa, Alex’s other helper, roars past in a van, halts and gives me cool water. The glass starts to refill.
”Come on, it’s just fog…” Alex doesn’t want guests doing anything he wouldn’t do himself…
Anyway, you can’t quit. The race fans won’t let you. Even though the stage is two days away, they’re already camped out. There are thousands, picnicking, playing cards, listening to the race, and watching the scores of riders, like me, sweat their way up. They all cheer, and if you’re looking good, shout, “Allez.” Or, if you’re in a bad way, they say, “Courage.” At this point, I’m hearing a lot of courage, and not so much about allez.
I hook up with an older rider, and we plod through the lush forests of the valley, and then to the alpine. We pass through snow sheds, and I get some relief from the shade. Soon, I break through to the high country above the trees. The air cools, the fans thicken, and the cheering buoys me along. I can see the top, but Alex appears, and stops me.
The view from whence you came… rather satisfying.
Have I embarrassed him, and have to go home? No, it’s the OLN camera crew, with host Pam Fletcher. They learned Alex, a former yellow jersey, is running a tour, and want him to show us off for the North American audience. He herds us together, and we circle for the cameras, brave climbers all. If only Pam knew the truth.
At the Tourmalet summit I’m slumped over my bike. Chris is draped over me, holding me up, and thumping me on the back. I look up, and see the summit monument: a silver cyclist, spine twisted and face contorted. I immediately sympathize with the poor fellow. Henceforth, he is known as “Torture Boy”. Eventually, my head deflates and I look around. There’s a festival going on. This pass is already festooned with power cords, camera tripods, and signage.
The feeling is that this stage will be the critical one of the race. The fans sense it, and they’re massing here. (Two days later, events prove this to be correct. On this stage, on the anvil of these mountains, Lance Armstrong will forge an insurmountable lead over Jan Ulrich.)
At the top, Alex’s helpers, Tom and Guri, replenish our bottles, and give us Clif bars to stuff in our pockets. Throughout the ride, they hover at vantage points to resupply us, or if necessary, to cart us home. Today, unsupported, I would not have made it this far. The day is not done however, and Luz Ardiden is next.
A summit worth seeing – the Tourmalet.
Too soon, Chris says let’s go, and we plunge down over 4500 feet. Near the top Curt hits a rock, crashes. I am so delirious that I happen upon him, and think he’s merely flatted his tire. I prattle to him while he fixes his tire. I’m oblivious to his gory elbow and leg. Some big brother I am. Pyrenean descents are as spectacular as the climbs. The roads are as wide as our alleys, have no shoulder, and no guard rail. In many spots, if you go off the road, you die. This spices up the usual fun, and makes descending the black art of cycling. For example, do you pass the car ahead? On the outside, or the inside? How hot are the rims? Will your tires roll off? And so on, for 45 minutes. Eventually you develop a touch for this, and the bike comes alive, like a metal bird that skims from turn to turn.
We pass through the valley bottom in St. Saveur. It’s a pristine mountain village, with open air cafes and alleys trimmed with flowers. On another day I’d stop, but Luz Ardiden, a ski station in the winter, awaits. The tough guys regroup, and chat as we roll to the base of the climb.
“It’s not H.C. is it Alex?” I say.
“It is H.C.” says Scotty.
“But it’s smaller than the Tourmalet…isn’t it?” I plead.
The usual information sign at the base comes into view. Every kilometer these signs tell you how far to go, the elevation left, and the average grade. This one tells me that Luz is smaller than the Tourmalet- only 100m smaller.
You were just up there, and now you’re halfway down the back side of the Tourmalet – with another 10km to descend before you start up Luz Ardiden.
The pattern repeats. Leg sapping grades, heat and, fortunately, cheering spectators. Switchback leads to switchback, and I leave the valley and the nausea behind. All I have to worry about now is the usual exhaustion. I know I’m going to make it, but for every rider that comes alive, another fades. I pass Gord Sustrik, and Grant Ericksen. They’ve done the rational thing, and are in the van.
Luxurious hotels and great food do a lot to balance any suffering on the bike.
Not everyone is stricken with rational thought. Guri sees Mark with five km to go. He is clawing his way up, his face a lake of sweat. Guri says “you’ve got a couple options.” Mark snaps: “There’s only one option. I’m going to the top,” and surges away. Mark’s massive frame, and stubborn, deliberate cadence, earn him the nickname, “Diesel.”
Even brother Curtis stops, and stands under a waterfall. Spectators rush to his aid, and marvel that we’ve done the three passes. Our national reputation is enhanced. Finally I crest at Luz. The character Zoolander may have the “Blue Steel” pose, but a photo of me at Luz shows that my look is “Pain Boy.”
Staying well hydrated is essential to long days of epic rides.
Is it worth it? To suffer, and to be rescued by your minders, and by strangers- the fans urging you on? The Tour de France is life: on the surface a pointless exercise, but one that gives you a chance to take yourself to the limit, and return another day to do it all again. The fans get it, and love it. When you’re on the bike, you’re part of it, and they love you for it too. It’s a typically French passion: absurd, excruciating, but ever so brave and rewarding for those who take it on.
Read Part 1 of See Le Tour With the Yellow Jersey