Two years ago Julie Farrell was a self-described “non-enthusiast” with paddle pedals and a brand-new Trek Domane. This July she completed her first L’Etape du Tour. Follow along as she recounts the journey from training to the finish line in this raw and entertaining three-part series.
Cycling Sacrilege and Old Testament Torture
Twenty-five years of marriage. For any of you involved in the sport of marriage, you know that like most athletic endeavors, it takes teamwork, loyalty, and a dose of luck to be successful. As with parenting, there’s no set of daily pills that one can take to ensure a smooth glide to the hallowed accomplishment of a silver anniversary. My husband and I consider ourselves fortunate.
So how to celebrate? We mulled over a number of options. As lifelong tennis players, a visit to Wimbledon was a serious consideration, as was a week in Tuscany drinking in Italian cuisine and history. Our honeymoon was in New Zealand punctuated with bungee-jumping and a ride on the Shotover speed boats, so we kept circling back to something with an element of adventure in it.
Having become cycling enthusiasts (note the choice of word there – “enthusiasts” as opposed to “avid cyclists”), we settled on a Trek Travel trip on the Normandy coast. What’s not to like? We’d get a good dose of history and culture, all the while pushing ourselves on daily cycling excursions.
We reported our decision to some friends of ours who countered with, “Great idea, but we’ve got a better one. How about you do the L’Etape du Tour Trek Travel trip with us instead?” Mason, my husband, and I discussed it, but quickly discarded the option. We hadn’t been training to that level. The L’Etape is legendary. Known for its brutal climbs and extended length, it is literally one of the stages of the famed Tour de France. The Big League. A Major. Nope, not this year, thanks.
There was a brief ceasefire in the exchange of ones and zeroes, then our friends shot back another email. “You know, this is a bucket list deal. A trip of a lifetime. One you’ll never forget. Normandy would be lovely, but this one is unforgettable. You guys can do it. Seriously.”
Had we been discussing this with just about anyone else, we would have stuck to our conviction and booked the nice, civilized Normandy trip. But our friends are both seasoned cyclists and they know our abilities and inabilities well enough to give us an honest assessment. Mason and I exchanged those same fateful expressions that we had when we agreed to bungee jump 143 feet off that bridge in New Zealand. “We’re in.”
That was May 1st. We looked up the details of what we had just committed to. Each day of riding was roughly 30-40 miles with 3500 – 4500 feet of climb. The final day, the L’Etape du Tour, was 91 miles and 10,000 feet of climb. It was a Sunday afternoon. Instead of taking a nice nap, we hopped on our bikes and did repeats on a small but steep hill near our home. After five, we called it quits. This was going to be tough.
Our son Cooper is an avid cyclist and participates on the CU Boulder Triathlon team. In addition, he had the good fortune to be a Trek Travel intern on the L’Etape a few years back. We texted him to see what he thought our chances were, and to lay-out a training schedule for us.
The good news is he thought we could do it. The bad news is that we needed to work our tails off. Cooper recommended 30 miles a days, with big rides (50-70 miles) on the weekends. Oh, and make sure you’ve got lots of climb in there too. Mason hadn’t been on a bike in three months, and though I’d been riding, it was no where near this level of intensity.
My husband works full time in the world of finance, but has the luxury of working remotely some of the week. I work as a consultant, and thus have some flexibility in my daily schedule. We began each day with working out whether or not we could ride together that day. Usually, we do our own thing during the week. It’s easier that way. This new goal, however, had us looking out for each other’s progress. We were partners in crime – doing our best to be flexible so that we could ride together and gradually extend and increase the intensity of our rides. The unexpected by-product was long stints of time together uninterrupted by phones, texts, emails, and other distractions. We talked about life, the future, and how it’s going to be when our youngest child is off to college in a year.
About three weeks into our training, our friends invited us to ride up a big climb in Santa Barbara– Gibraltar. I was unable to go, but Mason went. Gibraltar was the final climb in the Amgen Tour of California. It is not for the faint of heart. The day was hot, but Mason managed to stay with our pals, and had a newfound sense of confidence in his stamina. I, on the other hand, felt nervous. Though I’d packed in more miles than Mason during the year, I’d not yet faced a serious climbing challenge.
The next morning, Mason was off to work in LA, and I decided to assault the first portion of a steep climb called Figueroa Mountain in the Santa Ynez Valley. Our son confirmed that if I could make it to the gravel portion, it would provide solid climbing training for me. I was off. I had to stop several times, but I was feeling pretty good. The scenery was beautiful, and smells of sage and blooming wild flowers distracted me. I reached the gravel portion, and decided to push on. To my astonishment, I felt really good – I decided to continue. The Figueroa Mountain loop begins with a protracted steep climb, then shifts to an undulating gravel road, then to a steep paved descent. This is followed by a long, slow grind at about 4-5% climb before reaching another steep ascent. When I hit the long, slow grind, I began to wonder if I had made a rather stupid decision to do this alone.
It began to feel as if I’d somehow passed through a wormhole into some barren Old Testament locale. The temperature had climbed rapidly, and nasty horseflies were swarming my dripping, salty face. I realized that if I looked down, the flies were a bit less pernicious, but the trade-off was drops of stinging, sunscreen-infused liquid running into my eyes. As I looked down through my burning vision, I noticed several earwigs on my handlebars and top tube. How in the heck did they climb onto my moving bike?! I know I’m going slowly, but not that slowly. It was then that I wondered if the wrath of God was truly upon me. The other flying insects were in fact earwigs. They fly. I drank water. I was beginning to wonder if the heat was getting to me. I half expected to see a burning bush nearby or snakes of fire slithering across the asphalt. As I finally managed to make my way out of the shadow of the valley of death, I saw the summit before me. My trial was over, and my confidence boosted.
Our friends had recommended getting in one big ride during our training. A 70 or 80 miler with a good 6000-7000 feet of climb. Mason and I finally found a weekend day when we could dedicate six or eight hours to cycling. We took off for Jalama – a ride through Santa Ynez’s Pinot Noir growing hills in the Santa Rita Hills area and on to the majesty of the Pacific Ocean at Jalama Beach. The ride went well, though it was challenging. From about the 50-60 mile mark, Mason began to bonk. Though a seasoned athlete, he was not accustomed to the fueling and hydrating required to sufficiently manage oneself on extended cycling trips. At mile 60 we stopped and contemplated whether or not we would continue, or call our boys to pick us up. We decided to press on for another five miles and then make the decision. It was strange for me. I’m a relatively athletic female. Not great, but coordinated, and able to play most sports. But my husband has always been the strong one. And I was now actually worried about him. I mounted my bike, and he his – at least I thought so, until I heard the clash of metal meeting pavement, and Mason exclaim, “I broke my f&%^ing finger.”
I looked over, and as he disentangled himself from the bike, he raised his hand. There, at a nauseating angle, was his right ring finger. Instead of straight up, it pointed 45° right. He couldn’t ride, as he needed his right hand to apply the brakes, so we called 911. We called our boys to bring the truck, and meet us at the Lompoc Emergency Room. True to our family ethos, when they arrived, we all had a good laugh. Fortunately, the finger was just dislocated not broken. The trip would go on. And Dad was no longer infallible.
I’ve left out one little, teeny, tiny detail. I don’t clip in. This is cycling sacrilege. It’s like playing tennis with a wood racket, or playing baseball with one of those old Charlie Brown mitts, or using a wooden driver in golf. You’re handicapping yourself. You lose efficiency and power with each revolution of the crank. But here’s the deal. I hate being clipped in. I’ve had four knee surgeries, and it scares the tar out of me to be trapped in my pedals. And yes, I did ride clipped in for about two years – so I’ve tried it. I’ve managed to fall three times. All at slow speed – as in 5 mph or less, and it still hurts. So I decided to eliminate all that angst, and just ride in my golf shoes. Yup, my golf shoes. Not the kind with spikes, but the ones with nice little plastic nubs that grip my sweet mountain bike pedals. Voila. I can hop off any time I like.
On that note, I can tell you that for a brief period of time, there was a somewhat subversive campaign to coerce me into clipping in. Our friends told Mason, “You realize she will be the only rider on the L’Etape who is not clipped in, right?” Mason conveyed this to me. I said I wouldn’t rule it out. Then Mason and I did the Figueroa loop together the following weekend. I passed through a barely running creek overflow and yelped to be careful because it was slippery. Slick moss lay just below the surface. My sure-footed husband was once again embroiled in a slow-speed crash. Fortunately, he fell left, keeping his newly located right ring finger safe. Nope. I am going to continue to wear my golf shoes. If he can fall while clipped in, I’m sure to fall.
All in, I managed to put in 41 days of training in that two months leading up to our departure – about 1200+ miles and 94,000+ feet of climb. Mason had several business trips in his schedule and was thus unable to log as many miles. We had prepared as much as we could given our circumstances, and relished the private time together. Now D-Day was upon us.
Ride L’Etape du Tour