Thursday, July 22, 2010

Col du Tourmalet

We were up at 5:00 a.m. for a bus ride to Argeles-Gazost. We had to move out early for the opportunity to bike to the summit finish at the Col du Tourmalet as we heard the crowds were large and the Gendarmerie were going to close the summit by 11:00 a.m. (for a 5:00 p.m. finish). People must have been camping at the summit for a week before the Tour for the opportunity to see the Tour pass on Tuesday and finish there today. There simply was not room for more people at the top.

Donna Thackery

We got our bikes and waited patiently in line at the Carrefour supermarket to use their one toilet. There were two Trek Travel groups on our bus so we had almost 60 riders to go up the mountain. And 50 wanted to go to the bathroom. I was in the last group of 10 or so to roll out and we were already 15-20 minutes behind the other riders.

We headed out in a heavy thunderstorm with lightning all around. Rain was coming down hard and we rode though streets with 6" or more of standing water. I've never been more soaked on a bike -- which is simply to say completely soaked.

Note: Because it was raining so hard during the day, it was not a day to risk camera damage by taking lots of pictures.

Trek Travel tent. Notice the cycling clothes
"drying" on the fences behind the tent.

Our guide, Greg, took us to a bike path which looked remarkably similar to the Washington & Old Dominion rail trail in Virginia. It clearly was a former rail line with long straight flat sections along the Gavedepau River. We left the town and got on a road with a slight incline that ran along the river. The river was flowing high and very powerful due to the storms of the past couple of days -- and the one we were riding in.

Dry inside the Trek Travel tent

Along the trail I had dropped to the back simply to sweep the group. But as the road tilted up slightly I started passing our riders and bunches of riders whom I did not recognize. The road was two lane but still with wide shoulders as it followed the river.

We turned onto a road and the climb began. It was 18.5 km to the summit of the Tourmalet. We went through the little town of Luz-Saint-Sauveur and it was, at times, difficult to maneuver through the people walking in front of you. But once out of the village it was good riding. The route was lines with campers, cars, and tents. Even though it was 9:00 a.m., cold and raining, some people would stand and clap as we rode by, other shout "Allez! Allez!" All were voices of encouragement. I think.

My preconceived notion was that I would come to France and ride the Tourmalet while thousand of drunken Frenchmen would hurl insults at us. Nothing could be further from the truth. Well, they may have been drinking, a lot, but all were very respectful of anyone on a bike.

Another view of the Trek Travel tent

It is a culture of cycling. One sees couples in their 70s and 80s biking -- without helmets, of course. But I have ridden more than 200 miles here, much of it climbing mountains, and been passed by hundreds of cars. Not one person has yelled at me. Zero. I have ridden by plenty of HUGE dogs and not one had barked, growled, or chased. Even the dogs like cyclists here.

Yes, that's my blurry picture of Lance Armstrong

On Tuesday we had a restaurant in LaMongie which was 4 km from the summit on the east side of the Tourmalet. I thought we were going to a restaurant today as well. For a while I rode with a young man from Norway until we separated. 

Then I fell into a Trek group with Scott from Rochester, NY and Bobbie Jo from Oakland. The three of us chatted while we climbed and it seemed in no time we were at our Trek Travel Tent/viewing area. 

We were at kilometer 8.5 and I wanted to continue to the summit. Even though it was cold, raining and generally miserable, I viewed this as a once in a lifetime opportunity. Besides, going up was easy. I was generating enough body heat to keep me warm.

I climbed through a number of switchbacks all still lined with campers. There was an exceptional presence of Basque people who came from just over the border in Spain although there are French Basque as well.

A very proud Young Basque Man

I reached the 4km to the summit sign and the road was barricaded. No one was being permitted through. Some cyclists tried to scale a hill nearby with their bikes and it was comical to see the hill win as they would fall and slide backwards. One reached the road only to be turned away by the Gendarmerie.

Passing the cars and campers was not much different than walking through the parking lot at any NFL or soccer game. It was TdF tailgating and the smells were great.

I then descended back to the tent area. It was dry as I began my descent but I could also see in the distance this beautiful cloud in the valley. It was rain. Cold rain. And I had to ride through it.

 Paul Sommer and Lori Rackl (Chicago Sun-Times)

At the "Trek village" there were three smaller square tents. One contained our travel tote bags; one was a women's changing area; and one was for men. I walked into the changing area and there were wet cycling kits hanging anywhere one could fashion a hanger but mostly on the support poles of the tent. I changed into my dry clothes for the day and went inside the large reception tent and sat down with a bunch of people I didn't know before.

There were 10 travel groups with Trek Travel doing the last week of the tour and this was the first of three locations we would converge. The other two are the time trial in Bordeaux and the finish in Paris. Here I sat with Chris and Lori Rackl from Chicago. Lori is on the "trip of a lifetime" but is also writing a story about it for the Chicago Sun-Times

Lori wanted to interview some people from the Chicago area and I stood up and rang my cowbell. People became silent and I simple called for Hollie Eenigenburg. Hollie and her husband, Dave, own the Trek bike store in Schererville, Ind. So Lori did an interview with Hollie with me interrupting occasionally. And then she interviewed Paul Sommer.

Throughout the day the rain came down hard. There was no heat in the tent other than what 250 people will create. Some riders still had wet clothes on or sent only a short sleeve shirt in their bag. They were in trouble.

A few times, the sun came out, and large cheers erupted. But rarely did the sun shine for more than five minutes. But people moved their wet clothes from inside the changing tent to hang them on whatever fences they could fins only to be poured on again.

We were served dinner inside the tent and they had four large flat screen monitors where we could watch the riders until they were ready to go by us. Then we had to simply scale a 20 meter steep hillside.

I know there are cheaper tours. But today I was glad I was with Trek Travel. After passing the Trek tents and wanting to ride as far as I could until being turned away, I rode with a man from New Hampshire.

Me: "Where are you from?"

He: "New Hampshire"

Me: "Mount Washington is much tougher than this"

He: "You have ridden up Mount Washington?"

Me: "Yes"

He: "I've done the running race 11 times but would never try to bike up it."

He told me he was with Thompson Tours. They would be biking to their hotel on the other side of the mountain after the race. He had a rain jacket but we were soaked. And with the summit already closed, the poor guy had no where to get in out of the cold and rain for the next 5-6 hours.

The caravan came by and I scaled the steep hill. I felt silly wearing my referee/Ultimate Frisbee turf shoes on Tuesday. Today, I was the envy of everyone who slipped and fell on the hill trying to get up to the main road.

We had front row viewing to Andy Schelck and Alberto Contador going past, trailed not by much by Lance Armstrong. A number of the group then ran back to the tent to watch the finish on TV. I elected to stay in my position and cheer on every last rider making the climb. I can always watch the tour on TV. How often can I see these guys in person?

Alberto Contador (L); Andy Schleck (R)

The descent afterwards was wild. There were literally miles of cars stopped and only bikes could fly by down the mountain. It was downhill all the way until we reached the bike path then we rode 18 km to Lourdes where we would check in for the night.

Lourdes is an interesting city. Think Gatlinburg, Tennessee or Niagara Falls, Ontario. Or maybe Ocean City, Maryland. It's been referred to as the Vatican meets Vegas. People come here to be healed or buy healing stuff, I guess. There are more hotels per capita than any place in France. People are pushed down the streets in their wheelchairs, except in the middle of town where they have their own wheelchair lanes. Lots of people limping. And of course, they're all smoking.

Most moving moment of the day: On the run up to the climb seeing mile after mile of LIVESTRONG messages painted on the road. Every one remembers or honors someone with cancer and I'm sure thousands more messages got submitted but not painted. I was choked up and pulled over to gather myself. I hate cancer.

Hundreds if not Thousands of Messages
painted by the LIVESTRONG bot

This would be a day that I was reminded that while I am a survivor, cancer will always be in my life. I have good days and bad, mostly good, but on the Tourmalet was a reminder that one does not beat cancer without losing part of yourself to cancer. I will never be normal again and was part of the reason I elected to stay outside in the cold rain to watch the Tour go by.

UPDATE: It was only after returning home, on August 9, 2010, that I received a message from LIVESTRONG that my message of hope had been one selected to be painted on the road. I don't know if it was one of the ones I rode across on this day or not.

No comments:

Post a Comment