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.
Take Me to the Chapel and the Last Supper
We arrived in Geneva a couple days before we met up with our Trek Travel group. This was intentional. At 53 and 51, sleep is important to us, and we wanted to get a head start on acclimating to the time change. Plus…Geneva is one of the most charming cities in the world, and we thought it would be nice to have a couple of nights to ourselves before meeting up with our cycling group. We managed one stint on the stationary bikes at the hotel gym if for nothing more than to settle our nerves about being ready for our adventure.
On Tuesday, the Trek Travel hired car picked us up right on time at the hotel, then we were off to the airport to pick up the rest of our group. Introductions were made and we began the journey across the border into the French Alps. Our destination was Megève, an alpine town that became popular as a chic ski resort when the Baroness de Rothschild tired of Saint Moritz in the 1920’s and christened Megève the new hot spot for well-heeled Europeans.
Upon arrival in Megéve, we received a warm welcome from our Trek Travel guides; Celine (a native French gal) and Laura Lee (a Southern Baptist minister brat, most recently from Brooklyn, and fortunately fluent in French). They enthusiastically showed us to our lodgings at the 5-star Hotel Alpaga and then introduced us to our sleek carbon frame Trek Domani bikes. Equipped with electronic shifters, Garmins, and Flare taillights, no detail was overlooked as they ensured form and fit for each of us.
When you go on cycling trips like this, you bring your own pedals. You don’t have to, but it’s customary. I sheepishly handed my 4th grader pedals to Celine, a mere 5’ 3” tall, but chock full of salsa. There was a brief flash across her countenance that was a mix of horror and humor, then that perfect guide smile swept back across her face. Celine didn’t really want to touch the pedals, but she took them anyway.
After a quick wardrobe change, we were off on a brief ride to sort out any kinks with our bikes and to get the quads burning. We rolled downhill to the village of Megève and then began our ascent up to the quaint airfield nestled in the green Alps above. It took a few kilometers to regulate my breathing and fall into rhythm, but mercifully, it came. As we reached the top of the climb, it was difficult to imagine a more picturesque setting. As if on queue, a vintage two-seater prop took off overhead. Brown and white cows dotted the lush verdant hills – broad brass cowbells announcing their presence. Patches of snow accented grey peaks poking along the ridge, as moody clouds wove between them. If I could paint heaven, it would look exactly like what lay before us.
Returning to the hotel, we showered, then convened to watch the end of that day’s stage of the Tour de France for our social hour. Guides Celine and Laura Lee had arranged a beautiful presentation of fresh local cheeses (to die for – and explains my lack of weight loss on the trip), charcuterie, bread sticks, chocolates, and of course, ice cold beer. But when in Rome France…drink like the French. They also poured a lovely chilled Rosé from Provence – crisp and refreshing. Dinner that first night was at the Hotel Alpaga, with a variety of options from which to choose: from a more adventurous rabbit, to a familiar Kobe cheeseburger. A gentleman from another Trek Travel group had arrived a day early and joined our group for dinner. A native of Latvia (yes, I had to excuse my ignorance and ask him precisely where it was on a map), I sat next to him and was fascinated as he shared his country’s experience transitioning from a member of the Soviet Union to a democratic nation. It is this kind of informal interaction that accentuates travel for me – the opportunity to meet diverse people through a common conduit – in this case, cycling.
Each day of our preparation for the big ride followed a similar pattern, yet included its own unique elements. One constant was my stroll to greet what became known as “the girls” before each ride. A pasture about 50 yards from our chalet was home to about a dozen dairy cows during the daylight hours. They were the very definition of grass fed, and I couldn’t help but hear that Robert Louis Stevenson children’s verse in my head, “The friendly cow all red and white, I love with all my heart; She gives me cream with all her might, to eat with apple-tart,” as they gazed up at me – the alien in the odd clothes and helmet – cowbells tinkling as they wrenched loose clumps of grass. I would bid them good day, somehow feeling blessed for my ride to come.
Megève to Col des Saisies
Per usual, Mason and I started our day with a hearty breakfast at the hotel. We somehow managed to arrive just as the warm baguettes were coming out of the oven. With homemade jams and local honey for the bread, we filled the rest of our plates with charcuterie and cheeses, then added a bowl of granola with fresh rich yogurt and local berries. French coffee pulled away the lingering cobwebs of jet lag.
Following breakfast, we convened at our bikes at the civilized hour of 9:00 a.m. As Celine and Laura Lee described the day’s route, their eyes landed on me as they described the avid option and explained that one could easily opt out of the additional kilometers, and remain at the picturesque café at the top of the climb where we would eat lunch.
The climbing was challenging, but the breathtaking countryside and the villages festooned with flags for the Tour, provided ample distraction. While one guide led us, the other would drive the van and set-up a well-placed snack station. I was riding 20-30 yards ahead of Mason and another of our group, when we cruised through the tiny village of Notre Dame. One townsman had an animated French laugh poking fun at the guys being outpaced by a female. I think the only reason that I had passed them was because of their sudden lapse of energy when they came upon a rather scantily clad gal ascending on a pair of skating roller skis. There was a marked decrease in their pace for a couple hundred yards.
When we reached the café, all but three of us decided to go on to conquer the avid option. After a quick pain au chocolat and cappuccino, they were off. Mason, our newly made friend Sully, and I stayed behind, drinking in the view of Mont Blanc, and thinking it best to reserve some energy for the days to come.
Naturally, I became antsy, and decided I would shoot down a few kilometers and then work my way back up for a little extra climbing. As I began my return ascent, down came Mason and Sully. They’d received a call from our friend John imploring us to take the descent down just to take in the amazing views. The van would then drive us back up – no additional climbing required. We took his advice and never regretted it. The scenery was indeed spectacular. We even decided to take a stab at a bit more climbing. All in, I logged about 45 miles and 5000 – 6000 feet of climb.
The episode above perfectly illustrated the tenor of the whole trip. The group and the guides were encouraging, but there was never a feeling of guilt or of defeat if one decided not to embrace the avid option. Every step of the way was about pushing oneself, but never beyond one’s limits – about taking in the full experience, but understanding that that experience was unique to each individual.
After a dinner in town dining al fresco at La Brasserie Centrale (my fondue was c’est bonne), we paused briefly to watch the extraordinary sunset on Mont Blanc from our bedroom deck. Night had fallen on all the surrounding Alps, but the bright reflection of yellows, oranges, and purples emanated from her white peaks – one last show from glorious Mother Earth before we tucked in for a well-deserved night of rest.
Megève to Col de la Forclaz and on to Lake Annecy
As neither of us had yet undertaken the full Monty, Mason and I committed to each other that we would attempt the avid option on this day. How bad could it be?
Uh, bad. Our newfound confidence after climbing col des Saisies was quickly put to the test. This nasty little gem of a climb – Forclaz – felt about like it sounds in English – like a Frenchman is digging his fore-claws into your muscles.
Okay, not quite that bad, but it was very challenging. Climbs that have been designated as remarkable are decorated with signs or stones along the route. Both bear an eerie resemblance to graveyard headstones, except in lieu of epitaphs they boldly state the percent grade that you’re attempting to survive. In your heat-stroked, exhausted state, you can almost see your name on the signs. RIP Julie Farrell 10%.
A 10% grade means that for every 100 feet traveled, you rise 10 feet. To me this doesn’t sound like much, and it in no way helps me understand the difficulty of a 10% grade climb. Here’s how I do it. Think of the most annoying hill that you had to climb on your bike as child. Maybe it was on the way home from school or when you headed over to your best friend’s house. A 10% grade is 10 times harder than that. Or at least that’s what it feels like.
With that erudite explanation of grade complete, I’ll fast-forward to the summit, where we were treated to the spectacular panorama of Lake Annecy below. Paragliding must be France’s third national sport behind cycling and soccer. There were easily 100 colorful paragliders brightly dotting the blue sky above and the pristine aqua water of Lake Annecy below.
After mainlining Orangina (beers for the stronger riders in our group), we descended to Lake Annecy where we were rewarded with a lakeside lunch of fresh trout, a romp in Lake Annecy’s glacial milk waters (punctuated for the men by a topless French female sunbather), a massage (well, we called it an oil rub…), and finally another delicious lakeside dinner where we speculated about which diners were with their wives and which were with their mistresses – all well informed by a lovely red Chateauneuf de Pape.
We did 42 miles and about 5,600 feet of climb that day and slept like rocks.
Megève to Col des Aravis
This was a confidence-building day – at least we hoped. The col des Aravis is a famous climb; 2016 marks the 40th time that it’s been featured on the Tour de France. It was also a preview for the L’Etape – the col des Aravis would be our first big climb on Sunday.
Soooo…there’s a reason it’s been on the Tour so many times. It’s hard. It’s steep. It’s relentless. As a remarkable climb, it’s littered with markers, and although they do look like gravestones, Mason and I both found them somehow comforting. You knew that the current grade would only last for a kilometer, and if you needed to stop for a respite, you could plan them.
Without testing your patience with details of every (innumerable) switchback, I’ll finish this day with noting that the summit featured a tiny chapel. Our guides had recommended that we bring along a couple of euros to donate as we somberly requested a safe and successful ride from the heavens above. And let me tell you, after that climb, pray we did.
Saturday – A Day of Rest and the Last Supper
On Saturday we lingered over breakfast and then Mason and I each indulged in another massage. In sharp contrast to her French sisters in Lake Annecy, our masseuse at Hotel Alpaga was fantastic. With our skin well moisturized from the previous days’ oil rub, she dug in to our tired muscles and kneaded away the lactic acid.
Feeling relaxed, we kicked around in town, purchasing a few mementos, and dining with our friends in Megève. That evening, we enjoyed a cocktail party with the other Trek Travel group who had been bussed over to our hotel for the Last Supper. Our guides teamed together to give final advice about the L’Etape. It felt a bit like kindergarten, only more ominous. “Make sure you have a ride buddy, keep your line during descents, keep hydrated and fueled, and above all pace yourself – the last climb will be a graveyard.” I think this is the closest I’ll ever come to what a soldier must feel like the night before battle – exhilarated, frightened, and anxious at all once.
We said our goodbyes and our bon chances then returned to our lodgings. We needed to set off on our bikes for the start line by 6:10 a.m., and wanted our bodies fueled, caffeinated, and well, functional in time for the race. So we crawled into bed early, our alarms set for 4:20 a.m., and prayed our sleep wouldn’t be haunted with nightmares of the climb profiles illustrated on the charts provided by our guides.
Ride L’Etape du Tour