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.
The Promised Land with an Order of the Phoenix Escort
No surprise. We were awake before our alarms. Leaving no detail to chance, our fabulous Trek Travel guides, Laura Lee and Celine, had arranged for Hotel Alpaga to open early to ensure that we riders were fully fueled before the race. Mason and I loaded up on our usual breakfast selections, but added a big serving of scrambled eggs for a protein boost.
Unlike the poor souls who had to stand inline with the other 15,000 race entrants the day before, our race bibs were delivered to our hands and our race placards mounted on our bikes. Mason and I managed to attach our bibs to our jerseys with the four safety pins without stabbing ourselves. We hoped this was a harbinger of a good day ahead.
Our group assembled at the meeting spot on time, slathered in sunscreen, our pockets loaded with Clif Blocks, gorp, and Chapstick. Several of the men were applying saddle cream to their hinter parts to stave off chafing. Mason decided to give it a whirl. The banter devolved to that of a men’s locker room. Everyone seemed to be in motion as the guides gave us their last snippets of advice. Not one of us was still as they spoke. We were rocking left-to-right with nervous anticipation, or fussing with some piece of apparel. Keep your line, pace yourself, stay with your riding buddy, finish both water bottles by the time you arrive at the next Trek Travel comfort station, and fuel-up when you get there. Watch out for wild men on the descents – you’ll see them again on the last climb. It will be a graveyard.
Huh. Graveyard. Those nasty headstone-shaped ascent signs loomed in my head. Our more seasoned friends had worked out a strategy for Mason and me. It followed the philosophy of the whole trip. This was about an experience of a lifetime. The goal was for everyone to finish – no individual heroics. We would employ the strategy during the first portion of the ride when the field was crowded, as well as on descents. The plan was to create an envelope of safety – primarily for me – to safely deliver the package to the finish line. I felt like Harry Potter being escorted by the Order of the Phoenix aurors. John’s biggest concern was that a crazy cyclist who was channeling Lance Armstrong would come charging down the descents and mow me down like an innocent squirrel crossing the road. Bam. Instant carrion.
I like riding by myself. I know exactly where I am going to be. I also like riding with Mason because I have no qualms about letting him know if he’s making me nervous by riding too close to me. I do not love riding in groups. Our friends know this, so they had forced me to practice riding in the damned envelope. It was a smart move. I had actually become fairly comfortable with it over the past few days. Yet the anticipation of riding with thousands of other riders who didn’t give a damn about my envelope was making my stomach rumble.
We rode the short distance from the hotel to the race start line. The town of Megève had transformed overnight to a seething mass of Lycra-entombed humans. Because Trek Bikes is the lead sponsor of the race, our group was positioned with the highly coveted first wave of 1,000 cyclists. We jostled about in our corral for about 20 minutes. Like any self-respecting woman, after I watched a dozen or so men relieve themselves in the bushes, I thought I had better make a pre-emptive visit to the port-a potty. The line couldn’t possibly be long; after all, only 5% of the entrants were female. Wrong.
After making my way to the single port-a-potty, I saw that the line was 10 deep. I watched the Start Clock tick away. The line did not move. It occurred to me that only one other woman was in line. My gosh, all of these men need to do their morning business, or else they would do what any self-respecting man would do: use the bushes. No way. I was not going to risk missing the start of the race to be asphyxiated in that putrid port-a-potty.
Returning to our group, I did my best to hold my spot against the tide of bikes and humans that were trying to edge their way closer to the start line. At last the gun fired and we were off. Praise God I was not clipped-in. It would have undone me. I stayed right on Mason’s wheel, like a six-year-old terrified of losing sight of her mother in a crowded mall. I dodged a water bottle that came flying off someone’s bike. As we made our way out of town, blood began to return to my fingers. I relieved my death grip on my handlebars as I became increasingly comfortable with my safe little envelope.
The first climb was col des Aravis, which we had climbed just two days prior. I honestly have very little memory of it. The exhilaration of being in the race, amidst thousands of riders, combined with the desire to keep my pace and my position, completely distracted me from any physical discomfort. I was in the game – a contender – vying for the opportunity to complete an epic ride. That first descent went smoothly as well. Just keep your line Julie, and let Big John – Mad-Eye Moody – fend off the speeding demons to my left – and there were many speeding demons.
After that first descent, and at the foot of our next climb, Sully wanted to remove his windbreaker. I did too, plus by now, I was very interested in evacuating my bladder before beginning the next ascent: col de la Colombière. Secretly, I was happy that Sully called for the stop so that I didn’t have to be the whiny girl asking for a potty break. Ladies, this is where we once again lose a bit of our dignity because of our equipment down there. Like giving birth, there comes a time when function trumps form, and decorum and dignity must be securely holstered in your lipstick case. Tania and I attempted some level of discretion crouching behind a parked car, but skintight Lycra cycling shorts are not easy to whip down or up over sticky skin. I’m afraid the French have seen more of me than I (or they) care to admit.
With about 22 miles and the average 7% grade col de Aravis under our belts, we began our ascent up the more civilized 5.8% grade of the col de la Colombière. It featured long sweeping switchbacks, treating us to views of the thousands of riders ahead and behind us. Yes, you read that correctly. We were quickly overtaken by aggressive lead peloton from the second release group, then the third, and so on. You could hear them coming long before you laid eyes on them. A low-pitched whir like an enormous swarm of Barry White baritone bees sounded the alarm that another hive had cracked open and was about to sting from the rear. I focused, and held tight to my line as they whizzed past, serious and jockeying for position.
It was near this point that I managed to attract one of those male drones. He slid in beside me and struck up a conversation. I glanced over, careful not to swerve into him as I averted my eyes from my military focus on my line. He was not terribly fit and he was quite tall. Not fat unfit, but certainly not the body type that you would expect to attempt this ride. I had to force myself to redirect my mind from the vision of this man in a mahogany library, sipping tea and milk, and eating crumpets, to digest the full sentences he was directing my way.
“Hello, are you American?”
“British by way of South Africa.”
Did he one day see a ad for the L’Etape du Tour in The Times, pound out his entry form on an iPad, then just show up this morning?
The gentleman was actually quite interesting and we chatted about American politics and global shifts in political philosophies such as represented by the Brexit vote that had just occurred during our trip. And all the while he spoke in full sentences and was never short of breath. I wasn’t sure I could keep this up much longer, nor was I sure I wanted to. I managed to return a little more tightly to my envelope position. The great news was that I was so pre-occupied with Professor Slughorn and his uncanny fitness, that I hardly noticed the climb up col de la Colombière.
At the summit, we stopped to once again pull on our windbreakers. The temperature was rising quickly, but after perspiring all the way up the climbs, the air became chilly during descents. We reformed our groups and started our descent. This one was my most frightening descent to date.
We had not ridden more than five kilometers when we began to see the carnage. In addition, cyclist after cyclist was changing out a tube at the edge of the road. I managed to croak out a query to my bodyguard John. He said that they were overheating the tires with their brakes and the heat was blowing them up. Pump the brakes Julie; pump the breaks.
Where was the end of this interminable descent? To my utter astonishment, guys were literally yelling at other cyclists to move over so that they could hurtle down the mountain. My top speed was 35 mph and it was on this descent – the col de la Colombière. I have little doubt that others were reaching 60+ mph. With no body armor. No seatbelts. Just a thin couple of dermal layers separating their internal organs and bones from the asphalt.
Fortunately, the col de la Colombière was followed by 30 km of relatively flat road, so we had time to gather our nerves. We hit our second Trek Travel hospitality spot, and I ate what will forever be the best peanut butter and jelly sandwich of my life. I had no idea I was so hungry. Desperate not to bonk, I shoveled in as much food as I thought wise. Our water bottles were magically filled with fresh cold water by the time we finished refueling.
The route meandered through a number of small Alpine towns. The streets were lined by the exuberant townspeople who had turned out in droves. They rang cowbells, urging us on with kind words, and waving inspirational signs. The closest comparison I can think of is the New York Marathon. As I passed the well-wishers, like a good American, I smiled and waved back. I started to notice that they were absolutely delighted that I was a female and was still in the race. They shouted “Bravo Madame” and “Allez fille! Allez fille!” (Go girl! Go girl!).
Encouraged by the crowds, I now started to wave my hand in the air like a liberating war hero, and yell “Woo-hoo” or some other phrase from my youth. This elicited even more hoots from the fans. I was having my 15 minutes of fame. Just like that. Another bucket list item scratched off. Between the nourishment and all the excitement, my fatigue was numbed.
Cycling climbs are rated with numbers. To receive a rating, an ascent must be at least 500 m in length and have a grade of 3% or more. The ratings start at “5” (the easiest) and decrement to “1”, the hardest. Oh, and there’s one more category: HC which stands for “Hors Categorie” French for “above category” or in more colloquial language: “super frickin’ hard.” Our last climb of the day, the col de Joux Plane, was an HC climb. It lived up to its categorization. With 11.6 kilometers (7.2 miles) of an average grade of 8.5% and the last kilometers at 9% and 10%, the stage planners revealed their sadistic side.
Spurred on by waving flags and shouts from the crowd, we rounded a sharp curve leaving the town of Samöens. We were immediately met with a face of asphalt. I was working hard. Really hard. I looked down at my gears and realized that I was still in my big ring gear. Thank God. I went from thinking I can’t do this, to I can do this! Once again, I was relieved that I was not clipped in. Shifting with pressure on the chain sometimes causes the chain to derail. Mine didn’t, but as we rounded the next sharp bend, we saw others who were not so lucky.
People were barely rotating their cranks. I’m not sure anyone was ready for the incline after that first turn. And it didn’t relent. In my assigned far-right-of-the-road position, I was in the slow lane. There is a certain comfort in being on the far right because you know that there is no one on your right side. I wasn’t sure how the men in front of me, and I’m talking about inches in front of my wheel, were staying balanced on their bikes. It was too slow. I’m not a circus performer. I needed some momentum to stay upright. I carefully abandoned the safety of the far right side, and began passing people. One man fell in front of us and began fumbling with his chain in the middle of the cramped road. We asked if he needed help. He didn’t, but my God, move off the road Man. This portion of the ride became an exercise in recognizing riders who were about to topple over, and not becoming part of the yard sale that would ensue.
By this point, it was hot. The weather had transitioned from foggy and cool, to 90+°F. People who had gone overboard playing Speed Racer below, were now paying the price. It was a classic Tortoise and the Hare fable playing out in real time. The further we climbed, the greater the number of bodies splayed out on the alpine grass. Some looked as if they had indeed met the dementors’ kiss. Having reached his limit, one man lay at the edge of the road, his bike supine much like himself only taking a full quarter of the road. “Move your bike!” thick French accents shouted at him.
We had agreed that on the climbs, we would not keep our envelope intact, but we would definitely stick with a buddy. John and I reached the final Trek Travel comfort station, perfectly located at about 5km below the summit. We downed water like elephants at the trough, then John introduced me to the climber’s secret weapon: Coca-cola. As I was draining my ice-cold mini-can, I scratched my arm and noticed blood on my finger. A nasty horse fly had the gall to sting me drawing blood – as if I had any to spare. Just as Mason was pulling in with Sully, we witnessed a man vomiting in the shade of a barn just below us.
Mason and I removed our helmets, put ice on our heads, then replaced our helmets on top of it. It worked magic. As we began to feel mildly refreshed, we both felt guilty as we watched parched, exhausted, cyclists looking longingly as they slowly passed our tent. It was the uncomfortable feeling one has after being upgraded to first-class on a flight. You sheepishly look down so as not to make eye contact with the envious passerby as they shuffle into animal class. One gal with a Trek bike very politely asked if she could just stand under the shade of the tent for a moment. The Trek Travel guide generously offered her an ice-cold Coke, which she graciously accepted.
For the final five kilometers, which bounced between 9%, 10%, and 11% grades, John and Mason would stick together, and Tania and I would be buddies. We chicks started out ahead of the boys. I swear that Coke had something in it besides caffeine. With renewed energy, Tania and I began weaving our way through the battlefield before us. Surprisingly lean, fit men were walking their bikes on both sides of the road, narrowing our path even further. One man, still on his bike, was grunting loudly with each revolution of his crank, desperately willing his body to do something it had no intention of doing. Everyone gave him a wide berth, petrified that they might be in his path when the inevitable collapse came.
As we were completing one particularly challenging hill, we noticed piles of people flopped on the ground surrounding the curve. It looked more like the Battle of Gettysburg than an alpine slope. It was just as John had predicted: a graveyard. Tania and I tackled the sheer, unpopulated part of the inside curve. It segued straight into an even steeper climb. That explained the human shrapnel. People saw that ominous grade and said the hell with it. I’m resting. Tania and I marshaled through it. I guess it must have been the steel will to complete the race, combined with the Coke and the anticipation that we were nearly there. I don’t know how else to explain my energy. It was just in me.
As the incline finally subsided ever so slightly, several bikers were on the roadside massaging their cramping quads and hamstrings. One gal was moaning loudly as she tried to walk out her cramping on the side of the road. At about this point, someone said in a rude, thick French accent, “Trek Travel, move over.”
We both immediately moved over to the side to allow a wiry, wizened Frenchman through. As I moved, I reflexively said, “Sil vous plait.” I saw no need to be ugly and impolite when we were all working so hard. Tania, being an extraordinary cyclist, was motivated to pass him immediately. I, being an unextraordinary, but now irritated cyclist, was motivated to stay on his wheel. Then, I too, passed him – with great satisfaction I might add. In fact, we dusted him. I never saw him again. I suppose I should thank him for that final boost of energy.
Tania and I both had something left in the tank and we could smell the summit. We managed to avoid the final swerving, falling riders, passing them one-by-one. Eventually, we could see the summit arches come into view, looming as enticingly as the Pearly Gates. The crowds of locals and fans were whooping and spurring us on. We yelped right along with them. We passed under the arches, emerging from our trial into the Promised Land.
We waited just below the summit for the rest of our squad. Sully and Mark arrived, then John and Mason. Mason had stopped next to a Brit he had chatted up earlier in the race. The poor bloke was sitting roadside looking spent. Mason asked if he wanted some water. Having just reloaded at the Trek Travel station, Mason offered him one of his bottles. The gentleman gladly took a couple of cold sips, and handed it back to Mason.
“No, keep it.”
“You mean the whole bottle?”
“Yes, keep it. I have plenty.”
“You’re a legend,” was his final comment as Mason departed.
We all road along together for a while, then Mason eventually went ahead as he is a far superior descender than I. As John and I descended, the crowds now growing as we approached the finish line. We proceeded carefully into town where Mason slowed for us. He felt strongly that I should cross over the finish line first, as I had conquered the climbs a bit better than he. We road across the finish line together.
I was completely overwhelmed with emotion as we crossed. I looked at him, and he at me. We were both tearing up. Neither of us expected any emotion aside from relief. We were caught off guard. It was as if 25 years of togetherness had just become a physical entity – something palpable in the air between us. Something we could feel and touch. Perhaps I was looking at my 20-something groom, and he at his 20-something bride, only deep inside was a quarter century of life and memories together. We had experienced one more daunting experience together and had overcome it together, spiritually and physically.
Finally, Mason received a lovely thank-you note from his newfound British friend. He thanked Mason for saving his race day.
And…I did see two other people who were not clipped in. #trendsetter
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