An Amateur Tackles a Tour de France Climb

Watching the final, grueling assaults of the Alps that concluded this year’s Tour de France last week transported me back to my own try at a Tour climb in 2012. It was on one of those early-spring trips to the European training grounds of pro cyclists that “enthusiasts” and club teams visit to ride base miles and improve technique.

Chris Froome of Team Sky, the man who would stand atop the podium in Paris as the 2015 winner, referred to “so many emotions going through my mind” on that final challenge of the famous Alpe d’Huez on Stage 20.

But what goes through the mind of an amateur on one of those Cols, grinding (endlessly) up the narrow pavement, hemmed by squat stone walls and encircled in heart-stopping vistas? As the Tour de France sped toward the Champs Élysées, I leafed back happily through notes that brought that quad-burner back to me. They are summarized below in the stream-of-consiousness that I had jotted, giddily no doubt, on that day.

My climb was of the Col de Braus in the Maritime Alps not far from the Mediterranean Coast in Nice, France. The series of switchbacks (top photo) is a distinguishing feature of this rugged and beautiful pass. Apparently, it was included regularly among Tour de France stages prior to World War II, but seldom after. It’s no Alpe d’Huez, but it holds out plenty of challenge to a rider at my level.

I’d like to tell you that, even if I couldn’t lay claim to visions of capturing a  yellow jersey or of fighting off valiant attacks near the finish, I would at least reflect, amidst this unparalleled natural grandeur, on the Big Questions. You know, like: What is it about cycling up mountains, the most grueling and, counter-intuitively, the most beloved and romantic, feature of the sport, that holds us in thrall? What can the metaphor of reaching a summit teach us about our own life’s striving?

But, no. Sorry. Here is what was really going through my mind while climbing the Col de Braus:

An Alpen vista from the climb.

Base:

Concentrate on technique. Don’t rock. Upper body motion wastes energy.

Stay focused on the pavement ahead. Don’t look up at the summit.

Wish I’d remembered to trim the chin strap of my new helmet. The excess isn’t aero.

Our roadside companions, natural climbers.

Middle:

Don’t rock. Keep upper body still. Keep upper body still. Keep upper body still.

Why are my hands still gripping the hoods? It’s not like I’m going to need my brakes.

Ugh, goats. Where did they come from? They look pretty relaxed … Hope none of them make any sudden moves.

 F**k me. Did the gradient just increase?  

Snow!

Stay focused on the road ahead. Stay focused on the road ahead. Don’t look … Wait! Is that little red dot up there near the summit Ben? Ben!? How did he get so far ahead of me?

No rocking. Keep your body … Oh screw it.

Col de Braus

Snow blanketed the summit.

Summit:

Nothing lives here. Only stones.

I feel at one with everybody who’s pedaled this road before me. I love riding a bicycle. I love it with all my heart.

There’s the top. [Click. Sound of shifting into a harder gear to make the finish look even better.]

Where’s the summit sign? I want a selfie with the official sign. Somebody stole it? Who does that?

Can I have my sandwich now?

The truth is that the higher I climbed, the less lofty were my thoughts. Focus on technique gave way to free association and more elemental emotions, not unlike the scenery’s transition from forested lushness to rugged rock. Everything falls away.

Thoughts about the Big Questions would come later, long after I had reached and descended from the summit. And eaten my sandwich out of the back of the service car. Which, as anyone who has ever pedaled up a high mountain knows will be THE BEST HAM SANDWICH ONE HAS EVER TASTED and a transcendent experience all its own.

The other side of the mountain: The descent.

Sometime one really does encounter the pros. Spotted near the Col de Madone in Nice (from back left, Teejay van Garderen, Ian Boswell, Joe Dombrowski and an unidentified colleague).

Photos: top, velojoy; others, Adam Johnson

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