Dave sees Lance Win 6 in a Row ! Race 2004 Customer Report
Bike Trip to Race 2004
by Dave Mabee
In December of 2003, around my 35th birthday, I was driving in our Kijang in Jakarta when my wife Michelle gets that thoughtful look that wives sometimes get.
"What?" I ask. I can tell that she is thinking of something and generally that is not a good thing for me because I’m usually a few steps behind her.
"Have you thought about what to do this coming summer for vacation?" she asks. Of course she knows that I haven’t because I never plan anything until the last minute. " I’m thinking about taking the kids home with me for the summer to my parent’s house" she continues "and I thought maybe you should go to France and see Lance win his 6th Race".
There is a shocked silence in the car as I try to keep the car on the road and avoid the myriad of motorcycles that eddy around bigger slow moving vehicles. I’m sure I must have misheard her because what she said sounds more like a fantasy – you know how when you day dream something and almost think it is real?
Then I say something sarcastic like "who are you and what have you done with my wife", which was the wrong thing to say because then Michelle is like "forget about it" and I’m like hitting the "edit-undo" button realizing that she really is serious and that she is an even more wonderful wife than I (very often) brag about.
The first thing I did was call my good friend Oyvind. Oyvind is a Norwegian that I worked with in Lafayette and Houston. We ran together every day or rather I ran behind him and schemed for short cuts because he is one of the best runners around and always kicked my butt. "I’m going to be in France in July" I said "can you meet me there?"
We immediately began scheming for how to get our "group" back together. Our group includes Dave Weichman, Laine Summers, and Graham Hill. The five of us took a fantastic running/hiking trip five years ago in Utah and have lived off of that one trip ever since. Another trip, in the Alps no less, seemed like an impossible dream but Oyvind was like .YES., and Big Dog was like "I’m in" and Laine was like "I don’t know where to buy my ticket from because I might be moving but as soon as I know then I’m in". Graham was like "Uhhhh.we’ve had two sets of twins in less than two years and my life as you knew it doesn’t exist anymore."
So it was settled, I would do The Race thing by myself for the last week of the tour and then I would meet three of my best friends for a follow up week of hiking in the Alps.
So I’m determined to go to France but several months go by before I even think about what I am going to do there. I have some vague notion of buying a bike at a pawn shop and trying to follow the stages with a backpack strapped to my back. Then I realize that France is actually a pretty big place, almost as big as Texas, and that I could never be able to keep up. So I decide that I should rent a small motorcycle instead . think Dumb and Dumber when they ride their scooter up to the Rocky Mountains.
Again Michelle comes to my rescue. Sometime in April or May she does an internet search and finds about 30 companies that offer bike tours for serious cyclists that let you ride the famous Cols and see The Race. She was rightly concerned that my normal lack of planning would get me in trouble if I didn’t have professional help. Unfortunately all the tours filled up a year ago because with Lance Armstrong attempting an unprecedented 6th victory in the epic race tons of Americans wanted to share it with him.
Finally we got a response from a company called ExperiencePlus!, .you are soooo lucky. they said, .we just had a cancellation today and can fit you into our trip.. This turned out to be the best move I (or Michelle) ever made. ExperiencePlus! was an awesome organization that handled everything for me. They provided the bike, handled bike repairs as needed, handled the complicated logistics of supporting riders with a wide variety of abilities, arranged for good meals as part of the package (and I eat a lot), and best of all, took care of the even more complicated logistics of seeing the TdF as it wound through the Alps.
If any of you ever want to try something like what you will read about below, I give ExperiencePlus! my highest recommendation. And just as good, they were cheaper than about anyone.
So that is what I did – one week of biking organized by a good tour group and one week of hiking in Switzerland organized by my good friend Oyvind who is the best vacation organizer in the world.
What follows is basically a series of emails written to my wife Michelle during the trip. I’ve combined them and added some illustrative pictures to turn the emails into my Journal account of the week.
Hey, so this is France! (Sunday)
It wasn’t quite what I was expecting. You know the American impression that Europe is mostly one big urban center with some nice ski mountains in the middle.
What I’ve found is that France is one of the least populated areas in Western Europe on a population density scale. It is mostly rolling farmland. It reminded me of the Amish country of Pennsylvania – really pretty smaller scale farms with lots of old small towns patched in. Did I say that it was pretty?
And the Alps are very cool. Think the Rockies on a smaller scale. Geological they are old uplift mountains, probably pre-Cambrian in age. There is a lot of granite and metamorphic rock. The Alps are very different to the volcanics of the Cascades but not too dissimilar to parts of the Rockies in Utah or Colorado.
I flew into Paris Saturday morning with no plan as to how to get to Grenoble but it was no problem. The train system is very efficient. They have the TGV which is a bullet train that cuts across France and Europe and about a hundred miles per hour.
So after a connection in Lyon, I arrived in Grenoble at about 2 pm only about 6 hours after I came to Paris.
I checked in at the hotel or tried to because they didn’t have any record of my name and since I prepaid everything it was kind of important that we straighten that one out. See, I lucked out even being on this tour – it booked up over a year ago and I got accepted into it about a month or two ago. And because of this they didn’t have my name on their list.
But I guess I didn’t look sinister because the hotel just gave me a room and said we’d work it out when the tour staff came in the next day on Sunday.
So I changed my clothes and showered and settled into watch the TdF. I imagined that there would be crowds of people in public places that would watch together and be cheering like at a soccer match. But the town was dead and there were literally no public places to watch. So I watched the last two hours of the stage that Lance won! Awesome race and his main pre-race rivals just didn’t have it and lost a bunch of time. Oh, and all the commentary was in French on one channel and in German on the other.
After the stage, I went for a 2 hour run up into the Alps. Grenoble is situated in a junction of 3 valleys surrounded on all sides by mountains. Its elevation is about 3000 feet and the mountains go somewhere around 7000 feet. I’ll be climbing 6 of them on a bike over the next 5 days.
The forest is great, but it is not the wilderness of the states. You’ll be running (or walking in my case up the steep parts) and then come on a cirque, a glacial cut into the mountain that has filled with sediment and is a beautiful mountain meadow now.
On Sunday I got up early and ran up to the top of the nearest mountain on trails. It took me 3 hours and I started to think that maybe it wasn’t a good idea to be destroying my legs right before my biking tour. But what an awesome view….
Then the tour folks started arriving and I went down about 2 to get my bike. After some moments of uncertainty, again I signed up last so they weren’t sure what bike I would be getting, they came through and I got a decent Canondale.
I started walking around being "showman Dave" and getting all the people talking. There are 60 people participating in this tour and we are split into groups of 15. It is a real mix of people, almost all from the states but of varying ages and biking abilities. It looks like I will have about 30 people in my "fast track" group and a couple of them will definitely kick my butt. So I am very happy to have people good to ride with.
We start today, Monday.
Although I took a group of 5 people up the mountain I ran up after we got our bikes. To remember everyone we took to calling them by their first name and a descriptor. Big John, Little Susan, Medium Dave (I’m Large Dave), and Minnesota Mike (or was it Michigan, I’ll have to ask him) were with me on this first ride. We will ride over 100 km per day with 2 major climbs each ride. If I survive this first one I’ll write again to tell you about it.
That Was a Really Hard Day (Monday)
I’m sitting in an internet café, completely and utterly exhausted. Yes, that is the point of the whole thing, but man that was hard!!!
We got up at about 7 for a big breakfast and had a meeting to view the day.s itinerary. Everyone has a choice of Easy, Medium, or Hard. Out of the 60 of us in the group, about 30 signed up for the Hard or Fast Track. To my knowledge only about 10 of us actually made it the whole way.
It started with about 10 km of slightly uphill and kind of confusing route – confusing because we were navigating out of the city of Grenoble and it is a pretty big city and we had to follow chalk arrows at all the intersections. I had started about 15 minutes behind the main group because I waited for Minnesota Mike whom I had hung out with the night before. A couple other guys, Medium Dave and Chris from Denver waited for him with me so we had about 5 of us.
But after a generally easy first 10 km, we got on one of the toughest climbs we will do (at least I thought it was one of the toughest until I had seen the rest of the week) . Col de Porte is 20 km of uphill. We climbed about 1000 meters in that climb and it was hard and long.
But man was it beautiful. In my last note I downplayed the Alps a little bit. But let me tell you, they are spectacular. Beautiful mountain meadows and majestic granite snow covered peaks.
But I digress. We then continued up brutal climbs followed by heart stopping descents. At one point I wondered what this burning smell was and then I realized that it was my breaks. And the freakiest part was when we were flying down this hill and as we come down around a corner we see a black circle in front of us. It was a tunnel and at about 40 mph I went into it and it was black and the road was turning as it went into it. The road was rough inside the tunnel as well so as I grabbed break, my arms were shaking like I was holding a jack hammer. All told we climbed just over 10,000 vertical feet on a bike today and covered almost 100 miles of ground.
There were two guys that race competitively as amateurs (Kurt and Lance? or Joe?) and I wasn’t in their zip code. Two other guys finally rode me off their wheel about 70 miles (that would be Chicago Bill, a retired investment banker that must spend all his retirement on a bike because he climbs like a billy goat and Medium Dave who we kidded about being a "kept man" because he followed his wife Little Susan to her job in London and we were all jealous of him) in but I beat them back because they got lost on the descent and wandered around for a bit. So this other guy Oklahoma Dave (he is 50 by the way and also climbs like a billy goat) and I rode together pretty much all the day. Oklahoma Dave has this amazing ability to tell jokes while riding up big hills. He would scamper ahead of me and then fall back to tell me a joke before dashing up the hill ahead of me again. The rest of the group struggled to various degrees. As I said, only about 10 of us actually did the whole route.
We stopped for lunch about half way at the top of a pass (a ski resort). I really suffered the last two climbs on the up hills but made up the ground on the down hills. At least I have one advantage for being big!
But I am really really tired. I didn’t have much left in the tank when we got back. By the way, we did it in about 6 1/2 hours and an extra hour for lunch and other stops for water and snacks.
The next two days will be easier – we will be watching the next two stages of the TdF. Tomorrow is a mountain top finish near Grenoble. We will ride up about 1000 meters over 40 km to the finish, and hang out there most of the day to actually watch the finish. I need to get a camera because it will be crazy. Can you believe I went on this trip without a camera?
The next day is the time trial up Alpe D’Huez. There are expected to be like 1 MILLION people on that mountain if you can believe that. We will get up at 3 in the morning to fight the crowds up the hill. I’ll probably take my running shoes and run up so I can be near the finish. They will shut the mountain down to cars and even bikes.
And I was There (Tuesday)
Today was a big stage for the TdF – so our ride schedule was easier than yesterday. "All" we had to do was ride about 40 km up to the small ski resort town – about 3000 feet of climbing.
Unfortunately me and the two guys that I was riding with got a bit lost finding the road so we rode an extra 12 km.
My legs were so tired today that all kinds of people where going by me up this hill – old people and even people bigger than me and that hurt because that is usually my excuse that I can’t climb because I weigh too much.
But the kicker was when I got passed by this woman…..and she was running!!
Finally my legs got a little better and I made it up.
The little town called "Villard de Lans" is about the size of Sisters – maybe 2 to 3 thousand people. But today it is transformed into something that looks like Mardi Gras. There are about 100,000 or more up here in this town.
Still hours before the race reaches the town, floats start driving by throwing stuff like hats, t-shirts, water bottles and other trinkets to the crowds. Also a parade sorts with floats of the key sponsors.
Most of the group I was with was a bit tired so they stayed in town but I was determined to watch the finish so I took off my bike shoes and put on my sandals and start running maybe 3 miles up the mountain and another 1000 feet to the finish.
I get there about 90 minutes before the riders will be coming in and find a prime viewing spot near the monster TV screen and also on the outside of the last corner so I can see down the mountain and up to the finish.
Lance was riding well again but so were most of his rivals so they hit the town below with a group of about 8 or 10 riders. But when they hit the last climb out of town the other riders drop and all that is left is Basso, Ulrich, and Kloden – arguably his closest rivals.
They race up the last 2 miles with all of them in a row and Lance 4th in that row. As they round the second to last curve on the jumbo screen I crane my neck to see them charging towards me. Lance still in 4th.
I’m at the 100 meter to go mark and when the group is about 50 meters from me Lance makes an explosive move – he just accelerates at a rate that none of them can match and goes from 4th to even with first in what seemed like an instant.
Then he leans way over into this last corner in front of me and takes the inside away from Basso. They try to catch him but it is too late and he is going too fast! Lance wins the stage right in front of me!
I stayed for the podium awards and saw Robin Williams and Cheryl Crow.
Then I had to run back down the hill in my sandals through a bunch of farmer.s fields and ride back down the hill dodging cars as I bombed past them at about 50 mph.
So my "easy" day wasn’t so easy – about 60 miles on the bike and 10 km of running.
Tomorrow I have to get up at 3 in the morning, use the van to carry us closer to Alpe D’Huez, ride 30 miles up 5000 feet of climbs, hike 4 miles. All to see the time trial up this climb along with 1,000,000 other people!!!! It will be a complete zoo I am sure. Then I’ll hike back, ride back the 30 miles and try to find the car.
Thursday gets really hard so I’m not sure I’ll survive it. And then Friday gets downright impossible.
I hope my legs come back by then.
The Biggest Bike Party Ever (Wednesday)
I didn’t write yesterday because I was totally whipped and it was such a great day that I had to be able to do it justice.
Wednesday was of course the time trial up L’Alpe D’Huez – the sight of one of the most legendary climbs in the history of this epic race. And this was to be the first time that a time trial would be held up its slopes. People had been predicting record crowds and the populace did not disappoint. It was later estimated that there were 900,000 people there that day; perhaps the largest crowd in one place to see a sporting event.
For me the day started at 3 in the morning. The traffic congestion expected for getting a million people to the ski resort was to be feared and the only way to beat it was to get there first.
But there was a problem. I felt TERRIBLE. I even considered just rolling over and going back to sleep but then I came to my senses and was mentally smacking myself "it is freaking Alpe D’Huez you big baby" – you think Lance is going to roll out of bed and decide that he is too tired to do it?"
Of course I had good reason to be tired because I had run about 10 miles on Saturday, 15 miles on Sunday; biked 30 miles up a hill and back on Sunday, biked almost 100 miles up a total of 10,000 feet on Monday and about 60 miles and more climbing on Tuesday. Have I whined enough?
So I went down to breakfast and found the tour leader. "I want to scratch myself from the long ride and just do the short one" I said. He says "can’t help you because the logistics are too tough – we’ve got 60 bikes and people to get to 3 different locations."
So at 4 in the morning I climbed in the van and was transported to the start of the long ride. It was still dark when we got there and the 15 of us that were in the long ride found ourselves on a quite busy highway in the dark pedaling about 35 km to the back side of Huez. Of course it was uphill but at least it was gradual. It felt too dangerous to be with a bigger group so I and "Oklahoma Dave" took off on our own.
As the sun came up I started feeling better. We found ourselves riding up a beautiful river valley that at times narrowed into a steep walled canyon. It was cold but the effort of the ride made it pleasantly so.
At the start of the serious climb up the backside of the mountain, we stopped for a hot drink and it was one of those "it doesn’t get better than this" moments. And as we went up the 3000 foot 7 mile climb I felt my legs coming back and actually getting stronger as I went.
The backside climb put us about 80 percent up Alpe D’Huez so we had a place to leave our bikes and then we hiked in the rest of the way to reach our very prime viewing spot on "turn two", the second to last turn of the steep climb at about 9 o’clock in the morning.
The mountain was already teeming with people, and the race wasn’t set to start until 2 in the afternoon. I’m not sure how to best describe the atmosphere – call it something between a rock concert, a county fair, and a huge day long tailgate party. Throw in a community workout as well for I have never seen so many people on bikes in my life.
That left the route, which is a black top 2 lane road that winds strait up the face of a steep mountain ski slope with 21 famous hairpin switchbacks, open to hikers and bikers until about 12 noon. And it was a steady stream of people going up and down. Probably more than half of them in bike clothes sporting their favorite team.s jerseys. I of course had saved my "US Postal" jersey just for this day.
For the entire 10 mile route people had written or were in the process of writing and drawing slogans names and even some pretty rude stuff.
We had a sweet setup where a lady that lived in a condo near the top of the mountain on turn 2 arranged to supply us with food and drinks for the day for 35 Euro a piece – and as an added bonus she had her TV setup outside next to the course as well so we could follow what was happening as we cheered the riders.
Now for a brief romantic story – Mark and Lori were a young couple (young being younger than 30) that were with our group. He works for Dupont but also teaches a "spin" class at a gym. He is very nice and very fit. He met Lori 18 months ago when she signed up for his spin class and they have dated ever since.
So Mark goes down with a can of white paint while some of the group kept Lori busy up by the tent. He makes a big white heart on the course and writes "LA Marry Me?" (No, he is not gay, those are her initials to) in it. Then he calls her down, lifts her over the barrier, and in front of 10,000 people between turns 1 and 2 on the fabled L’Alpe D’Huez he got down on one knee and slides a diamond ring on her finger. This was just before the first riders down below were to start and our whole area just went nuts.
As an aside, Lori didn’t even know until 3 days before she left where she was going – just that he had planned a surprise vacation. I think he raised the bar for the rest of us romantically challenged males out there.
So the time trial is about to start. The way it works is that they start with the rider in last place and then each rider is sent up the course at 1 minute intervals until the last 15 riders which go at 2 minute intervals.
You could feel the energy rise as the riders down below us were let onto the course. Have you ever seen the "wave" at a packed football game? Well that is nothing once you’ve seen the "snake" at Alpe D’Huez. Someone way down below us started the wave and you could see and hear it rising up the mountain towards you. We could see down 4 switch back levels from where we were so we could really see it coming and then it crashes on by.
This is what then happened for the next 3 hours as a "wave snake" followed each rider up the course – crescendoing when ever someone that started behind would catch someone in front of them.
We were of course following the race and the time spits on the TV next to us as well and the tension mounted as the big guns; the leaders of the race began to hit the course.
By the way, it took me about 75 minutes to climb it and the SLOWEST times from the first guys were in the 45 to 48 minute range.
Jan Ulrich has been Lance’s biggest rival over the last couple of years and he was currently in about 6th place. We could see him on the TV pounding up the mountain and he was flying up with by far the fastest splits on the first half.
Lance’s closest rival in this race was Ivan Basso and as we watched him charge up the lower sections on TV I became very worried – not that he would beat Lance but because the crowds were out of control. The upper 8 km had crowd barriers but the more crowded lower section had the road open to the public completely. Watching Basso and Lance go through was like watching the parting of the Red Sea only it was a sea of humanity.
They would be right in front of the riders until the last possible instant and then try to leap out of the way. The riders just had to trust that they would in fact get out of the way. I heard after that some were spitting on Lance and he had to repeatedly swerve to avoid out of control spectators. And it looked just as bad for Basso.
Basso was a bit slower than Ulrich when he hit the first time check. Then very quickly behind Basso Lance hit the first time check and you could hear echoes of cheering as word spread – Lance was tearing it up.
Now we turned away from the screen and waited hanging over the rail for the riders. Ulrich came pounding by – you can sense the power and determination in him. Interestingly, he and Lance both ride different from everyone else. In Jan’s case, he was the only rider to use aero bars and he rode almost the whole way sitting down and crouched in an aerodynamic position.
Ulrich finished just above us with the fastest time of the day by more than a minute.
Then down below we could see Basso with Lance a couple hundred meters behind him. But with each switch back Lance was gaining. Much more than anyone else Lance rides with aggression – like his very life depends on only this moment. Every single turn he would leap out of the saddle and cut to the steeper but shorter inside part of the corner.
And he did this in turn 3 below us – coming into the corner 100 meters behind Basso and coming out of it 50 meters behind. And then RIGHT IN FRONT of ME, he caught his rival and charged by. I have chills just writing it.
Then several hundred of us charged up to crouch around the TV to see the finish. He charged in leaving nothing in reserve to beat Jan by over a minute and Basso by almost 2 and a half minutes. We all whooped and hollered and danced around on that hillside.
Now we had to get home. It was madness with people streaming off the mountain like snow in the spring. We hiked back down to where the bikes were, and had to make our way down the backside of the mountain; weaving between slow moving cars to make our way back to the vans 40 miles away. I have to say that Jakarta traffic prepared me well for this. I had to go back for my hat that I left behind and still was one of the first people down the mountain. At one point I hit 58 mph while tucked behind a bus down a hill and right behind me was Big John from Carolina whooping and hollering like a kid on a roller coaster.
We got back to the hotel in Grenoble at about 10 – totally sunburned, completely exhausted, and extremely happy for what had been as close to a perfect day as you can imagine.
I Finally Take an Easy Day (Thursday)
Today we had a choice – make the day really tough by climbing both Col du Glandon and Col de la Madeline, or chill and hang out in a small French town between the two big climbs. I chose something in between and rode an easy 50 km down the valley and back.
I told myself that the reason that I did this was that I wanted to see the peloton when it was together in a big group and it was moving fast. And this is true; I did want to see this. But the real reason I didn’t climb up Madeline with everyone else is that I was just too tired. Lack of sleep from jet lag and getting up at 3 am for the Alpe D.Huez time trial combined with the physical fatigue from riding every day had taken its toll. And it was amazing how much better I felt after this light but still significant work out.
By this day I am getting to know my fellow riders pretty well. It is amazing the connection you feel with people when you sweat with them. And it is amazing what a good group of people that they all are – I think I have genuinely liked every single person I have met on this trip.
I have spent a lot of time with Oklahoma Dave. I can’t print most of his jokes, but believe me; he has a million of them. We also had quite a bit in common because he works the oil field as I do and the Mabee family name is prevalent in Oklahoma.
I have ridden up a lot of hills with Medium Dave and Minnesota Mike. They are both similar to my climbing speed; or at least close enough that I can try to stay on their wheel. We found ourselves hanging out at dinner a lot as well. Dave.s wife is Susan and she works for BP in London. As small a world as the oil patch is I bet we’ll run into each other again sometime so we promised to stay in touch.
Big John and I share an affinity for going down hills fast. Big John is even bigger than I am (I am Large Dave) – maybe 6’6" and 250 to my 6’2" and 220. And he is fearless down the switchbacks and drafting off cars and buses on the bigger roads. Speaking of fearless, my room mate Baltimore Bob, who was one of the oldest in the group at 63 was pairing up with Jeremy who at 16 was one of the youngest in the group. (Jeremy, I hope I don’t get you in trouble with your mom if she ever reads this). But they would bomb off the hills after we had watched a mountain finish.
Jeremy’s family deserves a special mention. This was a family of 5 that went on this trip and Jeremy was the oldest boy with two younger brothers maybe 14 and 12 years old. His mom told me that they had been on vacation through Scandinavia for like 5 weeks. She is a very brave woman and those kids rode a significant part of this tour. I was impressed.
One of my closer friends is Vicki from Florida. We met right away on that first Sunday. She is an avid biker and a bit of a self described "bike nerd". She can tell you every component on her bike. Unfortunately she couldn’t show me every component because American Airlines lost all her luggage on the flight over – that is all her clothes AND her bike that is worth more than my first two cars I ever owned. Bummed doesn’t come close to describing her reaction to not having clothes or a bike. But she had an amazingly good attitude and would you believe that her bike came in today in time for the bike ride up Alpe D’Huez tomorrow? I think she is going to stay in France for part of next week to get a chance to ride her bike.
Mark and Lori are the sweethearts of the trip. Not only did they get engaged yesterday, but I don’t know how they ride so well while making
Peggy and Mike from Wisconsin helped in a time of dire need – well at least Peggy did. I found her in the laundry mat last night and I was completely out of clean bike shorts and with the chafing I had going I really needed to do laundry. She had the patience to explain to me how to work these "modern" washers and dryers and even gave me the last of her detergent. It sure will be nice to get back to Indonesia and have my "staff" take care of everything for me.
We seem to have about every need covered if we get in trouble. Chicago Bill, Paul, Joel and Jamie are or were investment bankers or something. There are two eye surgeons from Colorado. I had something totally imbedded in my eye from one of the down hills on Monday and I haven’t been able to get it out. So I’m sitting in the shuttle van moaning about my hurting eye and said that I wished there were eye doctors around. Two guys behind me laugh and say – well actually we are both eye surgeons, can we have a look? Kent from Colorado surgically removed a foreign object from my eye with the corner of a credit card.
I think Big John is a doctor of some kind also. And my room mate Baltimore Bob is a Psychologist which some people think I must need if this is what I do for fun.
There is a
A man wants to go into a bar with his dog but there is a sign on the door that says "NO DOGS ALLOWED". So he pretends he is blind and goes into the bar.
The bar tender stops him and says "No dogs allowed".
"But this is my Seeing Eye dog" the man replies.
"But your dog is a chuwawa", the bartender scoffs.
"THEY GAVE ME A GOD DAMNED CHUWAWA???!!!??"
Les and Leslie liked their names so much they married someone with their same name. I talked with them a bit because they are from Oregon and live in Washington now. They told me about this cool ride they did around Crater Lake in Oregon that sounded awesome.
Chris from Colorado is a school teacher and he came hear with his wife and his sister and her husband. Chris and his sister ride but the spouses don’t so this will be only part of his vacation. Isn’t it cool that he and his sister take trips like this together?
This brings me to Kurt and Gerald. They are brothers and they take cool trips every year or two together. They are both strong riders but Kurt is probably the best rider of all of us. I think he raced Cat 2 back in New Jersey. They were an inspiration to me though because I kept thinking that I should take a trip sometime with just my brother.
Tim and Deborah are from New Hampshire. I think this is the couple where she planned everything and kept it a secret from him. Even got the bike components upgraded and everything. Don’t you just love these stories of wonderful wives?
That kind of covers the riding group that I have spent the most time with. There are many others and they have cool stories as well.
The support staff has been unbelievably good. You probably can’t get a feeling for how much work it takes to take care of 60 bikers AND get us to the TdF viewing. I honestly don’t know how they do it and when they sleep. What ExperiencePlus! pulled off on Alpe D.Huez is nothing short of a miracle. There were close to a million people on that mountain and we had a prime viewing spot, a real home cooked BBQ, a TV to follow the results. And it was all pulled off seamlessly.
To give an idea of what they have to do – every one of our routes is marked with white chalk arrows. That is every intersection along a 100 km or more routes. These markings have to go down the morning before we ride.
There are about 6 vans that have to be loaded with bikes, equipment, food supplies and people for each day that we get shuttled somewhere. This has to be done sometime in the night.
There are 60 people in our group and I think that there are about 60 more in a similar group as well. All of these people have varying abilities and objectives for each day. Somehow they have managed to not lose any of us (at least permanently) and they have catered to each of us individually.
They have supplied about 70% of us with bikes and not just old clunky bikes. I am riding the standard bike and it is a canondale road bike. All the bikes are checked each night and adjustments are made as needed.
The guides themselves are great. Randy from Wyoming is my group lead. He sounds sooo country when he talks English and then he switches to French and sounds so French! It turns out he is a French teacher at the University of Wyoming. When he picks us up after a brutal day we have so much fun practicing French with our horrible American accents. He has been trying to teach me how to say "Grenoble" properly. It is something like this "GRRRE – NAAHH – BLU" (the "U" sounds like the u in cup). It is pretty funny.
Per is Danish and is a retired University professor. He is the lead guide, speaks like 6 languages (I think his PHD was in how languages develop), is very fit and fun, knows Europe like his back yard, and he sounds just like one of my favorite bosses of all time Jeff Jurinak. I think they must be related several centuries back. There are a lot of other guides, most of them younger guys and girls that don’t do this full time but more like a summer job.
The owner operators of ExperiencePlus! are with us on this trip. It is a family affair and Julie, Jack and all have been doing trips like this for like 30 years, mostly out of Italy. The work that they have put in to make this the "perfect" trip is unbelievable.
The Hardest Day (Friday)
Today was Friday and I consider it the hardest day. Not just because I rode 3 classic climbs, but because it will be our last day on the bikes together. Dinner tonight was poignant as we all laughed and told and retold the stories of our week to each other.
I was planning on just doing the time trial up Alpe D.Huez because as you know, I’ve been a bit tired and didn’t think that I could do a long day. But one of the other riders described missing a climb like this – "riding a famous climb is like taking batting practice in Fenway Park or Wrigley Field. It is like shooting hoops in the Boston Garden or Madison Square Garden. It is like hitting on Center Court or in Arthur Ashe Stadium. You don’t want to walk away from a climb knowing you could have climbed it". And he was right. I had already not climbed Glandon and only halfway up Madeline.
And even more important – I was finally getting my legs back. I didn’t know that at first, but as I started up Telegraphe I could feel that something was different. Not that it stopped Kurt from blowing by me up the mountain, but I was feeling ok. And the funny thing was that I kept on feeling better and better.
Telegraphe starts at something like 200 meters and climbs steadily but not brutally steep up about 17 km to about 1100 meters (I might get the distances and heights a bit wrong but I am close). This climb was pretty with lots of trees for shade and lazy switchbacks that offered majestic views over the valley that I started in.
I was climbing by myself and found a good rhythm and before I knew it I was at the top of Telegraph at a bit less than an hour of work. Then a gentle downhill that dropped about 100 to 200 meters over 6 km and I was in Galibier, a picturesque mountain town that was really just waking up at 10 in the morning.
I stopped for water (I had gone through both bottles already) and headed out of town. The odd thing coming out of Galibier is that the road looks flat.but it is not. I kept thinking something was wrong with my bike. Was the break rubbing or something? There wasn’t a head wind but I was just crawling up the mountain and it wasn’t even to the steep part yet.
The road quickly lifted above the tree line and I could see the snow packed mountains around me. I kept looking for the pass but it seemed like there were no breaks in the mountains. I again found a rhythm and started feeling good and it helped that I was passing other riders one at a time. Then I got passed by a pretty good rider so I just tried to hang with him.
Col du Galibier comes so soon after Telegraphe that they are almost like one massive climb. But the Galibier part is so hard that I can see why they split it out. It climbs from about 1000 meters to about 2600 meters . just relentless and endless upwardly winding road. About halfway up Galibier the road takes a severe right hand switchback and really starts to climb. By now I am way above the tree line and all I can see are mountains. I’m still wondering where the pass is.
I seemed to tire a bit but then I realized that there was snow on the side of the road so I knew that I must be up there pretty high and the air must be getting pretty thin. I’m by myself again because I couldn’t keep up with that other guy and everything just felt so peaceful. That is the feeling I get when I’m tired but happy and can see forever. It makes me feel both small and significant at the same time.
I see a cabin up above me and feel sure that it marks the end of the climb. But I was wrong! Now I realized why I can’t see the pass – there is no pass. I’m going to have to climb right up over the darn mountain of rock and stone. But the reward is the chance to go down so up I go.
I bomb down the other side and meet up with Kurt in a small village down there. It was my best day on the bike . I climbed up Telegraph and Galibier and down the other side in about 3 hours. Kurt and I hung out waiting for Gerry and had a big lunch with a waitress that was so mean she wouldn’t even come back to give us the check. .En France parle FRANCAIS!. she shouted at us and then marched off. She was a piece of work. We finally left a bit of money and just left.
Then it was on to Alpe D.Huez to do the front side of the mountain. The lunch was sitting a bit heavy and I was already trying to think of an excuse to not climb the damn thing. And the start was so steep that I just kept looking and saying to no one in particular that this must not be it because all there is in front of me is just a cliff. But up I started and it was so STEEP.
You’ll get no scenery descriptions here because I just kept my head down and concentrated on keeping my speed at 10 km/hr. I thought I would just ride up to the village halfway up and then stop but I must have zoned out because the next thing I knew I was at turn 3, the 3rd turn from the top! I was like "Dude, I can make it?!!" And make it I did with a time of 1 hr 15 minutes and 23 seconds. Medium Dave set our groups fastest time at 1 hr 8 minutes although fast man Kurt didn’t time trial it. I bet he could do it in less than 1 hr. Oklahoma Dave beat me by a minute or two I think.
As I rode back from Alpe D.Huez this night I had such a sense of camaraderie with my guides and fellow bikers, such a sense of accomplishment, such tiredness and such satisfaction. Any vacation that you work for is just so much bigger and better than one that is handed to you.
I feel like I have a connection to the TdF for I have ridden the biggest mountains. Yet far from making me arrogant it has humbled me because I have seen how Lance Armstrong and the pros ride and how far better they are than I could be. I have seen France and have come away with an appreciation of its beauty from its cultivated fields to it untamed slopes. I have spent a week with kindred spirits communing with nature and with pain in a way that only kindred spirits will understand.
I have missed you and the kids, but I have to say that this was a real treat. A way to recharge my batteries while depleting my energy. Tomorrow I head to Paris to meet up with Oyvind, Laine, and Dave and I will begin the second phase of this trip. Believe it or not I think it will be harder than this one … because now I won’t have wheels.
— Dave Mabee
— Dave Mabee