Cycling the Tour de France has been likened to running 20 marathons in 20 days. I’m pretty sure I couldn’t run one marathon in 20 days.
Yet there I was, under the blistering sun of Provence, slowly pedaling my way up one of the most dreaded, soul-crushing climbs of last year’s Tour: Mont Ventoux. What lured me to that beast of a hill was a longing to do more than just watch the Tour de France. I wanted to experience the Tour de France. I yearned to ride the very roads that, just hours later, would be chewed up by Lance Armstrong, Laurent Jalabert and Joseba Beloki. I wanted to white-knuckle it down the same hairpin turns, and be cheered on by the giddy spectators who’d camped out for days, waiting for that colorful tsunami of Spandex to speed by. Basically, I hungered for a taste of what the world’s most grueling sporting event really felt like.
That’s what landed me, my husband and 13 others on a Tour de France cycling trip with Backroads, an adventure travel company. The plan was to follow the last third of the three-week race as the riders whizzed their way past the lavender fields of Provence, up the mythical Alps and down the cobblestoned Champs-Elysées in Paris. Along the way, we’d stay in four-star hotels, consume obscene amounts of French fare and work off those calories by cycling 40 to 60 miles a day (except during the trip’s three rest days). We’d get to bike some of the most memorable segments of Tour de France routes. We’d also tackle short sections of last year’s course, a torturous 2,032-mile journey.
“How hard can this be?” I naively wondered as I sat on my couch, lazily thumbing through a Backroads catalog. “It’s not like we’re doing the whole Tour. Just part of it.”
But that “part” happened to be the part with the mountains. Big, colossal, mammoth mountains.
Even so, I saw this as a once-in-a-lifetime experience. If the prognosticators were right, I’d be witnessing Lance Armstrong pedal his way into the history books, becoming the first American ever to win six Tours. I’d be right there, literally, on Armstrong’s road to victory. Mountains, shmountains, I reassured myself. I’m 34 years old; I take spinning classes. I’ll be just as good as anyone else on the Backroads trip.
I knew I miscalculated that last part as soon as I got a glimpse of the other Backroads travelers. Most of the men’s legs were shaved closer than mine. This meant there was either a disproportionate number of transvestites on the trip, or these were some serious cyclists. It turned out to be the latter, which meant my husband and I were destined to play the role of lanterne rouge, the red lantern that hangs from the back of a train. It’s Tour-speak for “the slowpokes.”
But unlike the Tour, this was a vacation, not a competition. At least that’s what I kept telling myself as I crawled up Mont Ventoux, which I think is French for “makes you curl up in a ball and cry for Mommy.” The 6,273-foot mountain juts out of the Provençal landscape like a giant tumor; and this tumor is anything but benign. Comedian and cycling aficionado Robin Williams summed it up this way: “Even the mountain goats don’t like it.”
Ventoux is a relentlessly steep 13-mile climb to the barren, lunar-like summit, where exhausted British cyclist Tom Simpson keeled over and died during the 1967 Tour. As I started to wonder if the same fate might await me, a burly Frenchman with a moustache as big as my handlebars decided I needed a little pep talk.
“Allez! Allez!” he repeatedly shouted in my ear as I crept up the mountain in granny gear. My French friend was telling me to “Go! Go!” which was what I wished he would do, since sweat was stinging my eyes, my legs felt like the beleaguered stage during “Riverdance” and the last thing I wanted was a hairy cheerleader.
But his words pushed me on, if only to put a little more distance between me and his Burgundy-infused breath.
I’d hear the “Allez! Allez!” refrain countless more times from the throngs of onlookers who’d staked out their spot on the mountain, waiting for the Tour to wheel by in a few hours. Folks like me were merely the warm-up act.
We all know the French are very good at some things (food) and not so good at others (war). But they’re extremely adept at the high art of tailgating. When they weren’t rooting on amateur cyclists like me, they killed time by sipping wine, nibbling on brie and baguettes, playing cards and painting riders’ names on the street.
At my heady speed of 4 mph, I had ample time to witness all of these pre-race festivities. It became clear that, to the French, the Tour is much more than a sporting event. It, like Jerry Lewis, is a cultural phenomenon. Unlike Jerry, it’s easy to understand the Tour’s appeal. This is a race packed with more drama than a Jerry Springer show, and with at least as much potential for bloodshed. Catastrophic crashes. Drug raids. Cheating. Smack talking. Not to mention jaw-dropping displays of athleticism. It’s hard to imagine just how much pain these guys put themselves through until you’ve sampled some of it firsthand.
Mont Ventoux is a kick-in-the-teeth climb, even when you’re cycling it with fresh legs like we were. But the Tour racers had logged 120 miles that day before broaching the base of Ventoux. And they still managed to go up it faster than I went down it. How’s that for an ego-deflater?
It truly is a humbling experience to watch more than 150 Tour riders sail up the very road you just cycled. They make it look so easy. But your burning quads and aching back remind you that it’s not.
I thought cycling Ventoux would leave me too exhausted to cheer on the racers. But one glimpse of that Texan wearing the coveted yellow leader’s jersey had the effect of a dozen espressos. There he was. Lance Armstrong — cancer survivor, cyclist extraordinaire — about an arm’s length away from me, plowing up the very mountain that made my legs feel like overcooked fettuccine. Despite being chased by a pack of cyclists who wanted nothing more than to strip that golden jersey off his back and feed it to him in tiny pieces, he looked more serene than I do in a bubble bath.
Other racers gulped oxygen like frat boys chug beer. But Armstrong seemed to be barely breathing while he pumped his pedals like pistons. I knew I was watching an über-athlete in action. I had a front row seat at the Tour de Lance, and I’d earned it. At the top of my overworked lungs, I shouted the words I’d once heard from a wise, mustachioed Frenchman: “Allez! Allez!”