Like many other triathletes, in the past I’ve managed to spend $2,000 on air fare, race entry, accommodation and food, only to see nothing of the foreign country I’m visiting other than the inside of a porta-john and the white line that we bike and run along during the race.
This year I decided to change that. It started when I noticed that the Tour de France began just six days after Ironman France. I pictured myself riding the alpine climbs, then watching the tour live in the Pyrenees. My packing list included my race gear as well as my tent, sleeping bag and bicycle trailer. I put my Specialized Transition together in the Nice airport and rode out from there.
The Ironman came and went. I rested a day and hopped on a TGV train towards Mt Blanc and Tour stages 16 and 17. I quickly found more winding rural roads heading towards Chamonix. Rounding a corner just five km into the ride I came across a quartet of middle-aged French horn players, complete with waxed mustaches. The road narrowed to single lane and got steeper. I rolled past a few alpine farms and at the top of the pass I set up my tent for the night.
At breakfast a fellow cyclo-tourist stopped to chat and told me of a hospice run by monks on the top of the Col de la Grand St Bernard. Two passes later I was in Switzerland climbing … and climbing. I was in luck as the hospice hasn’t closed its doors since 1049, welcoming all sorts of human-powered travelers. I spent the night in the care of the monks and started the next morning’s ride with a 30-minute descent into Italy. Next I raced up the little St. Bernard, bobbled on the bump where Jens Voight would break his face and Andy and Frank Scheleck would tear apart the peloton nine days later. Farther south I raced up l’Alp d’Huez, managing the ride just 19 minutes slower than the Lance/ Pantani record.
The first climb of stage 20 brought a fantastic vista. I could see neat rows of grapevines, purple fields of lavender, more mountains to climb and, beyond all of that, the “sleeping giant” of Provence, Mont Ventoux. Like the riders in the tour, I passed the lone mountain and climb it from the far side. There are throngs of cyclists riding up, construction crews are widening the roads in anticipation of the arrival of Lance Armstrong and some half million spectators.
Now off to the Pyrenees and live racing. In Spain I caught up with the tour route. Hours before the racers arrived thousands of people are already lining the roadsides picnicking and cheering for me as though I’m in the race. It has the feel of an open-air concert. I sat down to drink the atmosphere in and then heard distant sounds of the helicopters approaching up the valley. The final few lead cars rushed by followed by media motorbikes, then the small cluster of lead riders. They were flying. I watched Fabian Cancellara get dropped and loose his yellow jersey. The lone Canadian, Ryder Hesjedal came by, defeated, shaking his head when he saw me.
I put my cycling clothing on and started descending towards the next day’s stage route. I rode past thousands of cars and started the fifty kilometer transfer towards the Col du Tourmalet. Entering a small town where the narrow cobbled streets were already closed for the next day’s race, I was met by a wall of activity: outdoor dining, jugglers, and three brass bands. Without missing a beat, the bands parted before me, the diners gawked and I rolled through.
After ten hours of riding including four mountain passes and 250 km, I set up my tent in an impromptu trailer park filled with R.V.’s. In the morning, filled with Tour fever, I set off towards the Col d’Aspen, and the Tourmalet. The Tourmalet is nineteen km long and gains seven thousand feet of elevation. On that day it was packed from bottom to top with fans. At the top the switchbacks were so steep that cars stalled. Fortunately the spectators were lined up so thick along the side of the road that they pushed the cars along. Also impressive was the acoustics of the valley, so that once the riders started the climb you could hear the roar of the crowd as they snaked their way up the five km which I could see from my vantage point. After the race passed we ran over to RV’s with satellite TV’s to follow the stage finish.
For this race, anyway, I managed to do much more than simply swim, bike and run. I managed to see much more than just the race route during this unforgettable trip. I managed to do the trip for eight Euros a day plus the train fare.
Nat Faulkners full time job is avoiding work. This is enabled by C3online.ca, PersonalBest.ca, Specialized & Gears, K-Swiss, a massive network of friends and a great mother and father. Natbikes.com