Thursday, July 28, 2005

France Cycling Trip

Larry's France (& Iceland) Blog
Sunday July 10-Monday July 25, 2005

Day 1: Sunday 7/10

I arrived at Logan airport in Boston around 6:30, complements of my Connecticut friend Erin and her sister Melissa. We drove through the "BIG DIG" tunnel on 93, a tribute to some tremendous foresight and ingenuity along with a few billion $$ in cost overruns. You actually get a great view of Boston from the elevated highway before you enter the tunnel! Back to the trip...

The thing to emphasize here is the ease of my travel. Door-to-door drop off at Logan was followed by my own line at the gate for business class check-in. Next, I had a special line for security as well, so I only had to wait about 10 minutes to get through. That put me at my gate within 20 minutes of arriving at the airport, which is pretty sweet these days, especially at an airport the size of Logan!

I had arrived at the airport the advised 3 hours in advance of my flight, only to find out that my flight was delayed by an hour to 10:30. While 3+ hours of waiting in the terminal would normally be a huge disappointment, flying business class paid off again as I was able to pass the time quite comfortably in the Club Room. 2 beautiful women greeted me at the desk and pointed the way to the room's many treasures: Food, stocked bar, comfortable seating, international newspapers, internet access...and much to my delight, a closer look at the food disclosed a sandwich tray containing lobster rolls!

Three hours later, after countless sandwiches, a glass of cognac on the rocks, several othre drinks, some internet surfing, and a little bit of french study time, I was called to the gate to board the plane (yes, ahead of everbody else). Delightful. Filled with the expectation that I would be joined at my seat by a super-hot, young and single woman, I was more than a little disappointed to have an older gentleman sit down next to me, remove his shoes AND socks, and kick back to sleep. Can you say nasty feet? We're talking a humongous big toe with nasty darkened nail, along with callouses and corns everwhere.

Other than the (lack of good) company, the flight was fine. The seat was actually quite uncomfortable, but the food was great and I slept quite a bit. I arrived in Reyjkovic around 7:45am local time, just over an hour late.

Day 2: Monday 7/11

Ray was already waiting in the baggage area when I arrived, and true to form, my baggage was the last to come out. There was no wait to exit customs, so it was time to face the first challenge of our trip, deciding our mode of transport. We were initially thinking bus, but the idea of paying $20+ each way--each--did not appeal, and we decided instead to opt for the flexibility of a car (not a particularly economical option either, might I say!). Sometime around 9:00 we were on our way.

First stop: Blue Lagoon, a geothermal health spa not more than 10 miles drive from the airport. The concept is simple; naturally heated water is pumped up from the ground into a huge pond/jacuzzi/spa kind of place, where people can alternately flop about in the water, sit on the edges, relax under a warm-water waterfall, or take breaks in the steamroom and sauna. The Blue-Lagoon is the best-known of a number of geothermally heatedpools and spas, and seems deserving of its acclaim for a number of reasons. First, the visual is really something to behold-- rocks, apparently hardened volcanic lava, creating boundry walls that shape and encircle the lagoon, which is made up of an almost sky-blue, murky water. Within this area, there are small "private" areas where people can sit around in semi-circles for a little bit of privacy. Let me leave no doubt that there were a fair number of couples there!

Today's weather probably added to the visual. With cold temperatures (in the 50s?) and a very low cloud cover, the lagoon gave off quite a bit of steam, enough to be easily seen from some miles away during our approach. It also gave the place a little less of a paradise kind of feel, but more of a secluded, private kind of feel.

Since the lagoon is a spa, Ray and I opted for some serious treatments. Head and scalp massage, followed by some sort of seasalt exfoliation, followed by full-body massages. The only problem was that they seemed short-staffed in that area, and without a reservation we could get no more that twenty minutes of total massage time. We bagged it and just enjoyed our own time at the spa.

After a good hour+ of relaxation time, we cleaned ourselves up and headed for lunch in the main restaurant. The restaurant was apparently named one of the 50 best restaurants in the world, and I will say the food was quite good (and the view wasn't so bad either gentlemen, if you catch my drift). Ray had a nice looking fish dish and a local favorite desert called something like skryt, a custard-like dish. I opted for a delicious salmon dish.

We left the spa and, in spite of some inferior local maps, found our hotel. Clean, nice lobby, friendly desk...and then our room. Well, the room is clean and neat. The beds are comfortable. the bathroom is a good one. There's even a chair and small desk between the beds. The thing is...well...the room is unbelievably tiny. Each bed is just wider than a cot,and there may be 3 feet between the beds (and wall immediately on the other side of the beds). To top it off, the beds take up almost the entire length of the room! Oh well, it's just one night, and I'm happy to have a clean, safe place to stay and a good bed to sleep on. It's just funny, because we could barely fit ourselves and our luggage in the room.

Iceland is 4 hours ahead of Connecticut, so as soon as we wettled into the room it was time to nap. The airline industry actually recommends an afternoon nap to travelers who arrive in the morning after a short night. We were all too happy to oblige! Two hours later I went along with Ray's idea to go for a run through town. This was key for 2 reasons, one because it sort of got our bodies up and running again after our travels, and second because I have found in recent years that going for a run when you are in a new place is a great way to get to know the area. So we ran.

By 6:30 we were showered up and looking to cruise the town, so we drove back to the downtown area (where we had gone on our run) and walked around checking out various shops and restaurants.

We eventually picked a fine-looking restaurant with some native food selections for our dinner. Lakjarbrekka Restaurant is a subtly elegant (is that possible?) little restaurant located right on the main street near the center of town. While not cheap, it is delicious! For an appetizer, we split a lobster tail plate that, though not Maine Lobster, was delicious. Even before it arrived, the chef surprised us with a sample of his scallop dish, with deep-sea scallops in flavored oil and a yummy sauce drizzled on the plate. The main courses arrived next, and I had a lamb dish consisting of the shankbone (meat attached) and three small rib lambchops. The shank was good, but the chops...oh man, and I know this is going to kill you dad...easily the best I've ever had! The original peanut butter sauce that my dish was supposed to come in contained dairy, so instead the chef threw in a fantastic sauce that was rich, sticky (like syrup), and just perfect. Notably, "I even ate all of my vegetables, including potatos cooked in oil and some sort of chopped vegetable dish. I think that I would've eaten my own hand if the chef had cooked it in that sauce! Ray had a different lamb dish, some sort of prime rib of lamb, and by all accounts he enjoyed it quite a bit.

Now I'm back at the hotel, enjoying the spacious lounge area on our floor of the hotel (seriously, there's actually room to stretch), and typing away on my brother's laptop. Gotta get to bed soon tough, because it's 11:00 (still light outside) and our flight to Paris leaves tommorow morning arounf 7:15.

Day 3: Tuesday 7/12

This one started early, with a 4:45 wake-up in order to catch our flight into Paris. Ray and I will be travelling in tandem from here on out, all the way up until my return to Boston on the 25th.

An uneventful trip to the airport, a landing in Paris ahead of schedule, and a full baggage recoup on the other end started things out on a positive note. Then, after taking a few minutes to figure out our best route from airport to hotel, we bought some bus shuttle ticketsas the bus pulled in. The moment we moved to grab our bags for the bus, the driver pulled out and took off! Meanwhile, the guy who had just sold us our tickets seconds before made a "just for show" sort of effort to stop the bus, which did not happen. Fortunately, that bus had been pretty late, so it was only 10 more minuted of waiting until the next bus pulled in. The shuttle dropped us by the Arche d'Triumphe, and a short taxi ride later we pulled into our Paris digs, L'Hotel St. Christophe.

The hotel is in a great part of the city, not far from the Bastille, the Louvre museum, and the Sorbonne, yet in a quiet and safe area. Our room, while not expansive, was huge compared to the room in Reyjkovic. Again, 2 small beds, but this time a bit of walking space on either side, a small closet, and a nice desk. Good choice, since we will be spending 2 full days here!

Another nice feature of this hotel is a wireless network, which allows us to stay hooked into the web on a daily basis. Hopefully, this trip blog will make it online before long (well, if you're reading it, then I guess it got there!).

Ray and I settled into the hotel and decided to take some nap time. Yummy! Like I've always said, it isn't really a vacation unless you can nap whenever you feel like it. Post-nap, it was time for a night out on the town with our friend Nadia. Nadia is an old friend of ours from back in the days when our family lived in Venon, a small mountain village out near Grenoble. Nadia and her parents lived (and her parents still live) in town, and we became good friends back in 1978. Somehow the friendship survives today in spite of the distance and the lack of contact over long peiods of time. Anyway, after a little bit of touring on foot near the Bastille, we met Nadia and her boyfriend, Dave, outside of the metro stop at 7:30, and then walked on foot to a nearby restaurant for dinner.

This restaurant of hours was a nice little frenchy place located just a few blocks from the Bastille that Nadia picked out for us. Our seating arrangement was funny, because one side of the table was seated in the restaurant, while the other side essentially had a curtain draped behind/on them that separated inside from outside. A little bit of a bizarre set-up, if you ask me. But this is my blog, so you didn't even have to ask! So we ordered a great appetizer plate filled with various meats, including some ham, sausage, rabbit, salami, and another (unidentified, but yummy) meat. There was also a cheese plate, like anyone cares. For dinner I went with the canard--french for "duck". We also had a fine bottle of Bordeaux, which Nadia was able to select using here superior wine-tasting skills, apparently acquired through a course she took...

Our post-dining excitement featured a long walk over by the Sienne and past Notre Dame. Somewhere along the way we stopped at one of the many ice cream and sorbet stands that line the streets at night.

Day 4: Wednesday 7/13

Mercifully, we started our day with a 9:30 wake-up--a huge improvement from yesterday's alarm-induced 4:45 wake-up! Our hotel has a complimentary continental breakfast each morning, so Ray and I went down and took advantage as best we could: croissants and yogurt for ray, rolls with jam for me. That's the life of the lactarded on the road...

Today basically consisted of a lot of walking around Paris, checking out what there was to see in our neighborhood, and not finding a gym to work out at in spite of addresses for clubs that we dug up on the internet. We also got screwed a little, because tomorrow is Bastille Day, so everything closed up earlier than normal and by the time we finally found a ghym it was closed. Instead, we ended up taking a run from our hotel to the nearby Jardin du Luxembourg, which for those who don't know is a large, beautiful park/garden just across from the Sorbonne (a famous french university). Not that we were running hard or anything, but it should be noted that nobody was passing us, or avoiding us passing them, for that matter. It's also worth noting how few Parisians we've seen out running at all. In spite of this, the Parisians are MUCH less obese than Americans. Go figure. Maybe it's because they walk everywhere, and spend less time on their butts feeding their faces and watching TV. Hmmmmm...Of course, they do seem to spend their share of time sitting on their butts and drinking coffee or beer at the cafes. But I guess they're at least walking to get there, so maybe that's part of it.

One thing of interest that we did manage to do was to go shopping at the Galleries Lafayette, probably the most famous shopping center in Paris. It's a very upscale mallish kind of place, except it has the feeling of being one enormous store (it may actually be, I'm not really sure). Anyway, whatever the deal, it's a cool place to go shopping and gawk at beautiful women. Which I suppose describes all of Paris.

Ray managed to pick up a fine beret which he may choose to bestow upon some fortunate friend--who really knows?--along with some frenchy kinds of (comic) books. I actually managed to keep things under control in spite of my normally excessive shopping tendencies, and bought only a very cool, yellow Tour de France water bottle. The bottle has a sweet little map of all of this year's stages. And it's yellow, which is tour speak for "leader." This way, even if my cycling doesn't announce me as "leader," my water bottle surely will.

Our evening (post-running) consisted of a 2 block walk to a small plaza encircled by cafes and bars. We selected a Persian restaurant just a few steps down the street from the plaza, and chowed down at a sidewalk table, starting with some hummus and then splitting two dishes, one a chicken dish that looked like beef, and the other a pork dish that looked like chicken. Dinner went down very well, thank you for asking! For desert, Ray snarfed down a crepe, while I indulged in some sorbet. Oh, and due to the Bastille Day tomorrow, the city was littered this evening with concerts and such, so our little plaza had a live band. Good music, and they seemed to specialize in American cover songs (or is that covering American songs?)

Day 5: Thursday 7/14

The original plan for today was to get up early, do some laundry, maybe go for an early run or else check out the Eiffel Tower and then run back (4-5 miles). The actual morning didn't happen quite that way; 10:00 wake-up (not a good night's sleep!!), laundry, breakfast from the local bakery--a baguette for me, some flan for Ray--hotel check-out, and then some time meandering around the neighborhood. Finally, a restful drink at the nearby plaza before heading back to the hotel to catch our airport shuttle.

An interesting aside on how people will screw you at every opportunity when you travel: Upon checking out of our hotel, we found out that the place had charged us 8 Euros each (roughly $10) for our little continental breakfast the day before. Our understanding, based on how they had presented the concept of breakfast , was that it was included. Let me tell you, 10 bucks for bread and jam AIN'T my idea of good wholesome fun. The second hotel whammy was our phone bill. One call to our friend Nadia--a local call mind you--cost 6.90 euro. 6.90 euro, for maybe a 5 minute call! Boy, these places just love to screw travelers!

The airport shuttle turned out to be a beautiful thing, door-to-door service with a short drive (no traffic due to the Bastille Day national holiday) in an air-conditioned vehicle. Great ride, no problems. Until we got to the airport. First, we stood in the wrong line for check-in. Then, after we got to the correct line (same airline, different departing gates), we were informed that our baggage was 20kg--total--per person, which of course we were way over. Our bike cases alone weighed more than that! So then we had to go to the main Air France desk to pay the extra baggage fee, and there was another line to stand in. While the line was short, it took us 30 minutes just to get to the counter to pay before we could finally go through security and get to our gate. A 2:00 arrival at the airport resulted in a 3:15 gate arrival, at which time our flight was delayed about 40 minutes. Hey, at least we no longer had to worry about missing it!!

In the Paris airport we met up with our (Ray's) friends Ben and Diane, who were coming on the trip as well. This was cool, but it made for another interesting situation when we got our luggage at the Toulouse airport on the other end of our flight. After finding out that our hotel didn't have an airport shuttle, we tried to nab a taxi (or 2) to bring us to the place. As it turns out, 4 travellers with bikes and baggage don't fit well into cabs, so we were screwed waiting and hoping for a big-assed taxi to come along and cart our stuff off. Didn't happen. A call to our bike tour guide led to the discovery that there really was a hotel shuttle, airport staff be damned! After probably 60 minutes of waiting, we were finally picked up in a shuttle that just did fit all of our stuff, albeit with a little pushing and prodding.

The short of the Hotel Novatel is that it is nice, has spacious rooms, a friendly staff, and no working A/C. Bummer about that, since the temperature in Toulouse today was 35 degrees celcius, or 95 degrees Fahrenheit! A quick dip in the pool cooled us off, and then a nice dinner at the hotel with Dick and Marilyn, the organizers, and their son Terry ended the evening abit earlier than the last few nights.

Larry's France (& Iceland) Blog, Part 2
Sunday July 10-Monday July 25, 2005

Day 5: Thursday 7/14 continued

There is a little more to tell about our evening in Toulouse. It was very hot when we arrived, as I mentioned before, so we immediately agreed upon the need for a swim in the hotel pool. Ray, Ben, Diane and I met up a few minutes after settling in. Ben was already splashing around, so I immediately went to jump in near him (did I mention it was arse hot?). Just after leaving my feet, I became acutely aware that my hotel key (card with magnetic strip) was most likely still in my pocket. Whoops! I quickly shoved my hands into my bathing suit pockets, felt the card in my left one, and let fly with the card. All in one motion, and probably faster than anything that anyone reading this has ever seen in their LIFE!! The card flew thru the air, landed on the pool deck, and appeared to remain completely dry throughout the incident. Vicatory was mine.

Later on we had dinner with the tour organizers, Dick and Marilyn, their son Terry, and a few other cyclists on our tour. Good meal, lots of duck on my plate, because "canard Toulousienne," or Toulousian duck, is a regional specialty that I just had to have.

At the end of dinner we asked the waitress about the Bastille Day fireworks that were going to happen in the center of town. We asked where from the hotel we could see them. There wasn't really a good place, so we inquired about going up onto the roof of the hotel to watch. She tried to get us permission, but in the end we were denied. Watching from our hotel room we did, however, see bits and pieces of what looked to be a pretty colorfol fireworks display.

As bedtime approached, it became painfully obvious that the air-conditioned rooms of the hotel were not really so air-conditioned after all. I don't know if I mentioned how hot it was, but at 11:00 it was still very warm out. Ray and I made a go of the whole sleep thing, but it really didn't happen. So, at about 4:00am, I decided to take matters into my own hands. I went back down for another swim.

Well, this seemed to surprise the girl at the desk. Apparently hotel guests haven't asked that question, or at least not when she's on the night shift. She didn't take much convincing, so I promised to be quiet and went outside for my second swim of the evening. Frankly, I'm a little insulted that she never asked to join me! Anyway, I splashed around for ten or so minutes, intentionally left my hair wet, and then went back inside. Or at least that's where I thought I was going! The door was locked, and I could no longer re-enter the building! I surveyed the scene, and made a shirtless, shoeless dash through the back yard, around a fence, into the parking lot, and around to the front entrance, where I was soon greeted by the same girl who had been at the desk. "Whoops!" seemed to be her reaction. Oh well, not like I was going to sleep much anyway!

Day 6: Friday 7/15

Ray and I took a walk downstairs for some breakfast to start the day right. We had been tipped off that the breakfast buffet was a good one, so we spent some good time down there "getting our money's worth." Fruits, cereal, eggs, bacon, sausage, breads, juices, coffee/tea/cocoa, several provencial honeys...all in all, a nice meal! Then we loaded up on a bus with our group for the ride to Luz St. Saveur, our home for the next 5 days.

The bus ride was nice, a quiet ride along the autoroute through farmland, past villages, and finally into the Pyrenees Mountains. Our hotel, the Hotel Montaigu, is a nice hotel with maybe 30 rooms located basically in the center of the village or Luz St. Saveur. The accomodations continue to get better; Ray and I share 2 rooms, his with a full-size bed and mine with 2 twins, which I have put together to support my huge frame. There are 2 small closets, and we even have a walkout onto a nice large deck area. So far each hotel is better than the last!

Like a pack of bike nerds (which I guess we pretty much are), everyone basically threw their luggage aside and went right into putting together their bikes. By about 4:00, we were ready for our "practice ride," a 40K ride up a decent little mountain to a small village by the name of Gavarnie. Ray, Ben, Diane and I took off together, although other members of our group made it out ahead of us and some trailed us as well. We quickly found our places in the group: Ray and Ben up front, me fighting to stay close to them, and Diane struggling to stay up near me. Later on in the ride, Ray and I went off ahead while Ben and Diane rode together at a more relaxed pace. At that point, we also were with another guy on our tour, Steve Young (OK, so not THAT Steve Young). We made it to the top, walked around a little, and then--surprise--there was Ben! He had eventually decided to hightail it up to the top and catch us. We descended back to the hotel, picking up Diane on the way.

Let's talk some specifics. First, to set the scene, one needs to understand how bicycle climbs are rated. They are either classified as "4s" (easiest), "3s," "2s," and "1s" (lengthy and steep). Then their are climbs "beyond category." This means so stinking steep and so stinking long that you can put a number on them. More about this tomorrow! Anyway, today's climb was the easiest we will do, with grades (% incline) ranging from 2-5.5. Probably a categorie 3 climb. The landscape was nevertheless beautiful, as we first crossed through town, and then turned up a mountain road into our climb. 2K into the ride, we crossed over the "Pont Napoleon," a famous bridge named after some important little Frenchman. Then up through several small villages, to Gavarnie, and back down.

One more point about this ride. Not to be outdone by my fellow cyclists, I got on the board early with the first crash of the trip. Before we even got to the mountain! We were cruising slightly downhill on the main road through the center of town. There are pretty high curbs, but there are also cutaways in the curbs for driveways and the like. As our group pulled over onto the sidewalk for a quick stop, I attempted to go over the curb cutaway, which couldn't have been higher than an inch. Apparently, my road bike is a little less meant for this kind of stuff than my mountain bike, so I never quite made it onto the sidewalk. Well, until I fell over and landed on it, that is. Oh well, this stuff happens. Hopefully it's one-per-customer-per-trip.

At 7:30, our entire group met in the lounge for an kir, a traditional french appertif made with creme de cassis and white wine. It's also a "Larry Sidney party special," so ask for it the next time you visit my place. We proceeded to the dining room for our gourmet hotel dinner, where I was given a specially prepared meal due to my dietary restrictions. Very nice. As promised, dinner was excellent!

When our 2 hour dinner was over, we went up to our room and prepared for bed.


Day 7: Saturday 7/16

A little better sleep than the night before. Still not great, with daytime temperatures still hanging around 95 degrees. Our hotel breakfast was fine, good fuel for a tough day in the mountains.
The goal for the day:
1. Begin with a 15 kilometer "beyond classification" climb up to the Ski Station de Luz Ardiden.
2. Admire the view.
3. Descend
4. Climb 27K to Cirque de Troumrouse, a 1400 meter (~4,650 foot) categorie 1.
5. Descend
6. Die happy

We started out for L'Station de Luz Ardiden. After only a short time on the road, it was clear to all that we were in for a much tougher ride than yesterday. The road moved steady upwards, with virages (the very tight mountian turns that change your direction virtually 180 degrees) in many places because of the steepness of the climb. It was amazing how quickly the village below became a memory, growing smaller and smaller as we climbed. Meanwhile, into view came the towering ski resort, distant but looming, challenging us to put aside all whimpiness and climb that sucker! So we did. We climbed. And climbed. Then we climbed some more. Soon there were signs marking each passing kilometer on the approach to the ski area, perhaps some sort of token for our pain. The view was getting better and better; mountains and valleys as far as the eye could see, snow patches up in the higher plains, small villages down below.

The latter half of the climb was done as a 3-man, with myself, Ray, and Ben pushing together and taking some turns up front. OK, Ben did most of the work up front, but who was really gonna say 'no'??? Upon our final approach to the ski area, mere hundreds of meters away from our summit, we were started by a "whoooosh" as an ubercyclist zipped by us like we were sitting still. No matter, we were there!

We reached the top, joining a group of our fellow tour members for a series of photos and brief stories. Actually, mostly just a bunch of "man, that was some climb" and "wow, what a view" types of musings. Yeah, quite a ride.

Ten minutes on top was enough for us, so we started back down the hill. Ray seems to like the rapid descents, so he took the lead, followed by Ben, and anchored by me. Quickly, we were stuck behind a "slow-moving" (35 kmh) van, and just as quickly, Ray smoked by it and down the mountain. Ben and I, partly because we were tired of smelling van exhaust and partly because we couldn't stand to see Ray so far ahead of us, decided to pass the van as well, and hurtled down the mountain "in chase." 90 minutes up, 20 minutes down. Near the bottom, we pulled off to the side to discuss strategy for the rest of the day. In a unanimous decision, we chose to end our cycling for the day, eat a hearty lunch, and enjoy a lazy afternoon in order to rest up for tomorrow's MORE DIFFICULT climbs, which will allow us to see the last part of tomorrow's Tour de France stage live!

The 4 of us joined Steve Young and his wife Cindy for lunch, choosing to hit a supermarket and some stands and bring stuff back to the hotel lounge, so that we could watch the end of the tour stage while we ate. Good choice, and before long nearly the entire group joined us watching the Tour. Today was a tough Tour day, with a huge ascent before the end followed by a good-sized one to the finish. Some guy Georg won the thing, and Lance outsprinted Basso for second, followed by Ullrich. Lance, Basso, and Ullrich had fought together for the entire last hill, and only in the closing meters was there finally any separation.

Our next move was to walk to the center of town for a dip in the local pool. We were concerned that typical American suits would not do the trick, so the men all brought triathlon-style swim trunks. What a shock when the lifeguard sent us back to the desk to borrow some speedos, stating that our suits weren't short enough to be worn in the pool! The desk help was a bit more supportive, so we agreed to essentially roll up our pant legs most of the way up our thighs. Hey, if the lifeguard wanted to see some skin, she just needed to ask! Anyways, a bit of a bizarre swim, but in the end we were able to swim and really cool off some.

We planned to meet for dinner around 7:30, but I decided to call it a night, instead eating some of our lunch leftovers and sitting down to this blog to catch up on the last 2 days. Tomorrow will be a very tough day, for us and the Tour, and I want to feel light and energized in the morning for our early start. Ray, Diane, and Ben all went to dinner, so who knows when they'll return. BTW, it's 9:30 now and still hot as hell!


Day 8: Sunday 7/17

Well, another warm night, another night of poor sleeping. This time I actually had my alarm set for 6:45 in order to get an early start on the day. It's a huge biking day for us today:
1. Climb the Col du Tourmalet. This is an 18km, 1400 meter climb rated beyond category. It is
slightly steeper than yesterday's Luz Ardiden climb, and significantly longer.
2. Descend, continue to Col D'Aspin. This is a categorie 1 climb, which will be just over 12km from
where we pick up the mountain after our descent from Tourmalet.
3. After descending Aspen, continue to the village of Vielle-Aure near the base of Pla-d'Adet.
4. Climb as far up Pla-d'Adet as we like, in order to watch the finale of today's Tour de France
stage. The stage finishes at the top of the mountain, which is a 11km, beyond category climb, so
it's a matter of where you want to see the riders go by.
5. Ride back to the village of Arreau for dinner with our group.

I was out on the road with Ray and Ben by about 8:10. One of our compatriots, Bob, was with us at the start as well. We cruised out of town, and quickly found ourselves beggining our first ascent. The climb was remarkable! Ray, who had struggled yesterday in the midday heat, was feeling very strong, while Ben was weighed down by 20 or so pounds of backpack that he had chosen to bring. That put me in the middle, pretty much following Ray up the mountain. We made consistent progress, leaving villages behind us on the way. Part way up we entered an agricultural zone where the animals were free to roam, meaning that sheep, cows, etc. would be in the road, crossing the road, or leaving gifts on the road. We remained in this zone for much of our ride. On the latter part of the climb the legs were starting to get heavy, the grade of ascent pushed up between 7.5-9.5%, and it began to get a bit hotter. Nevertheless, we were not to be denied! We hit the peak, met up with some friends from the group, swapped a few stories and many pictures, and then hit the descent towards Col d'Aspin.

Now, for those of you who are not cyclists, you should know a few things about the difference between ascending and descending. OK, ascents go up, while descents go down. But there's more. When you're riding up a steep, long hill, you're pushing yourself to the max physically, but in a controlled sort of way. Factors like traffic, road conditions (gravel, cracks, etc.), and wind impact you, but only in a small way. It's basically you against the mountain. Descending is a completely different experience. If you let up on your brakes for just a few seconds, you could easily accelerate from 10 miles per hour to 30 miles per hour! It all happens very quickly. With the high speeds, small patches of gravel can be very dangerous. Also, it gets VERY windy on some of the descents, and as a result it can also get cold in a hurry. In short, descending is about pushing the limits of safe bike travel without crossing the line. What a rush! Probably the best part of it is how you interact with the cars that are also descending. Am I passing them? Are they passing me?

On the Tourmalet descent, it was a mixed bag for me. There were defenitely some cars that passed me and continued on into the distance. There were other cars that I passed along the way. It was a hairy descent at some points, particularly near the top where it was steepest, windyest and windiest. At one point, a gust of wind literally began sliding my rear tire out from under me! Steve later told me that he experienced the same thing on his descent.

A good descent deserves a good climb, so on to Col D'Aspin. After the first climb of the day, this one seemed a bit tame. My legs ached and began to burn a little, but there was no way I was not finishing this climb in my saddle. Unlike Tourmalet, with its steep dropoffs and exposed road, Aspin was a beautiful climb up through lush greenery, mostly protected from wind and sun. While the panoramic views were not as spectacular, the biking itself was very pleasant. Well, other than the aching and burning, that is! A few km from the top a lone female biker caught up to us, so she and Ray rode together up ahead while I fought to keep them in my view (Ben was a little further up with Steve). I think the thought of the two of them enjoying conversation while I was stuck alone inspired me, because I actually almost caught them by the summit! It didn't hurt that she looked pretty cute, and after seeing as few female cyclists as we have (there are about 8 on our tour, all taken, out of 29 riders), it was a welcome few minutes. The ride down was awesome, my best descent ever. It was easier to see the road ahead, so I felt much more secure about traffic and about preparing for upcoming turns. I actually stayed withing a few meters of Ben for the entire first half of the descent, much better than I had previously managed.

We rode in to town, found the base of the Station de Pla d'Adet, and climbed about 1.5km until we found people from our group to hang out with. It was 1:15. By this time the sun was living large, and it was again 95 degrees. Up along the hill by this time there was no water, no shade, and no food other than the few meager leftovers we all were carrying from our rides, so we stood and waited, and waited, and waited, occasionally sharing little bits of this person's water and that person's bread. Ray went off in search of food, and came back an hour later with a gruesome tale of a sausage sandwich he had bought. He started eating it, had a few bites, kind of looked at the thing and noticed some hairy sausage. Ewwww!! If that's not one of the grossest things ever...

The crowd on the mountain stretched from bottom to top, and continued to swell in anticipation of the final climb of the stage. We waited and waited, sitting in the hot sun, trying to magically make the riders appear. At about 3:15, a long parade of team cars and vans, sponsor vehicles, police, and assorted others came through in a huge caravan, with some sponsors throwing out hats, water, candy, and other assorted goodies to the crowd. Finally, after 4:00, we saw the first helicopter come over the horizon. It was followed by another, then another...probably 6 in all. Maybe 30 minutes later, we saw what appeared to be bicycles descending the mountain on the other side of the valley. Around 4:45, the leaders, Hincapie among them, came racing by us up the hill. Sheer madness, with crowds flooding the road and then parting like the Red Sea to let the riders through, snapping pictures, sometime slapping the riders on the back as they went back, and generally doing everything short of rioting. What a scene! Five minutes later, as Ivan Basso led Lance up the mountian with Ullrich in tow, the crowd was just as wild. This pattern continued every time a rider or group came through, with little show of favoritism, save tgowards the Basque riders wearing their orange uniforms.

We slowly walked our bikes back down the hill, part of a mob of tens of thousands who had come out to watch the finish. About 8 of us met in town to ride 15km back to our bus and the restaurant where we were having dinner, except that Ray somehow managed to get lost again, and never found us. Back in town by the bus (which would have been impossible for him to find alone), he ran into us and we went to put our bikes away. A very good dinner followed, and then we boarded bus and van, and headed home for the night. It was 11:30 before we got home and unloaded our bikes, so time for bed.


Day 8: Monday 7/18

Reflections on yesterday:
I feel pretty damn good about what I accomplished on the mountains. I guess I knew that somehow I would make it through the ride, but I was also aware of the possibility of physical or mental breakdown along the way, or bike problems, or who knows what else. I surprised myself a little with how well I made the brutal climb up Tourmalet. It's fortunate that the harder climb was first, because the second climb felt hard even though it was significantly easier--I think that's due to my lack of cycling endurance. If the Tourmalet climb had been second, who knows...Anyway, I really do feel like I not only finished the ride, I finished it strong. The 15k ride back to the restaurant at the end of the day felt like nothing. In fact, it suddenly seems like anything flat is a breeze for me. Cool feeling to have!

Today is an easier day. It's actually a day with several options: Climb Hautacam, a big-time climb that goes 18k up and 18k back down, or bike in to Lourdes, perhaps the largest and best-known city in this region of France. Our little group of 4 decided to take it easy and go to Lourdes, about 35k each way. It's also a help that I finally slept well last night, and that the heat wave seems to have broken.

The ride to Lourdes begins on a major road with a long, gradual descent. Not the kind of spine-tingling stuff we've been doing, but rather an easy cruiser. The road runs alongside a gorge, so it's kind of interesting to see as you move along down the road. The road itself is not great, and pretty well-trafficked. Soon after the descent we turned off the main road and onto a bike path, which we then rode all the way in to Lourdes. The bike path is great; well-paved, level, no motor vehicles, and 20+km of smooth sailing. The 4 of us took turn "pulling"--or leading the draft line--so that we travelled quickly across the flat terrain. All around us, small farms, villages, corn fields, and trees lined the path. Slightly further in the distance were the Pyrenees.

Once in Lourdes we quickly located a restaurant, el Fantasia, and sat down for lunch. This place was excellent! The initial tip-off was the awesome french bread they started us with, but then everything else was great as well. I had this crazy plate, egg and spices cooked up in some sort of flaky, thin, deep-fried crust of a pocket. While nothing close to what I thought I had ordered, it sure was good! Ray and Ben had a Cous Cous Royale dish, which looked incredibly good (and I tried a little lamb, which WAS incredibly good), and Diane had some kind of exceptional looking appetizer, which unfortunately was loaded with cheese, and a chicken w/fries dinner. Like I said, everything was yummy. After Lourdes we biked around town a little, but it was crowded and there was quite a bit of traffic on the street, so pretty soon we decided to head back to town and our hotel. The ride back was good and mostly uneventful. Diane got a flat at one point, so while Ben fixed it Ray and I struck up a conversation with some girls who stopped to rest as they backpacked from Lourdes to some town nearby (about a 20k hike!).

Back in town we decided it was snack time, so we munched on fresh baguettes, turkey deli, sausage, soy pudding, fromage blanc, and whatever else was laying around. Then the 4 of us sat down to a rousing game of spades, won by Diane and Ben, who obviously must have cheated.

Not much else to tell about today. Tonight we're all working on strategy for tomorrow, when we will cycle out to catch another stage of the Tour de France. In terms of riding it was a nice day, and I feel great after riding over 70k, which up until yesterday was the most (by far) that I had ever ridden.


Day 9: Tuesday 7/19

For the second time, we will go to watch the Tour de France. This time we will ride out to the race, watch, and then ride back to the hotel. The weather is the best of the trip, sunny with not much wind, 70-75 degrees. Perfect for cycling!

Ray and I left the hotel a bit later than most, so it was just the two of us riding out to the Tour. The route involves retracing yesterday's descent alongside the gorge, continuing another 5+ miles to the base of the mountain, and then a 20k climb up to the Col du Soulor, where the stage will pass by. Once away from the gorge, the small back road we were travelling on snaked throught the beautiful countryside, avoiding most of the villages and gradually ascending. We'd been tipped off that the main road, running semi-parallel to us, would have almost all of the traffic so that we could ride virtually unmolested on our road. Good call!

Approaching the mountain it became clear that there were quite a few cyclists making their way to see the Tour. The first few kilometers were not too steep, so there was plenty of room to maneuver and pass people (or be passed- boo-hoo!). However, the final 8k of climb is a steep, consistent grade of 8+ percent, enough so that quite a few cyclists walked their bikes for sections, while others (like us) grimaced in pain and powered up the hill as best they could. It was incredible how many cyclists were out there "doing it!" Packs of cyclists littered the road all the way up to the top. The views of the valley were beautiful as always, but honestly hard to differentiate from the past few days.

We arrived at the top early enough to have an option, a shorter climb up the Col d'Aubisque to the highest point of the race, where the best hill climber in the Tour de France would claim his crown. This 10k jaunt was a risky proposition; the tour riders would be travelling that section of road later in the afternoon, so if we didn't return to our watching point soon enough, we would be stranded at the other peak until the race was safely past--about 3 hours. But as Ray is fond of saying, "America didn't send us 5000 miles to watch...(insert own ending here). So we went for it! We jumped into a small pack with 2 other guys from our tour, Steve and Dave (a Californian like most on our tour), and started jamming across from one peak to the other. The views along this stretch were undoubtedly the most fantastic ones we have come across so far! The steep, treeless drop-off from the road affords extraordinary views for long distances, and the height of the mountain puts you up above nearly everything else around. Also, at one point you travel through a tunnel, where the trail gets so dark that you can't even see your own wheels. Scary to say the least!

It was a half-step below bedlam at the top of the Col d'Aubisque. Tour vans and cyclists everywhere, tour sponsors selling and handing out goodies, campers that had been up on the mountain overnight, police and tour officials, food vendors...A sponsorship trailer was giving out polka dot t-shirts to match the jersey worn by the leading climber throughout the Tour, and I was able to snag one. Absolutely hideous, but so cool for what it represents. The funny thing was, here was this huge crowd of adults standing 3 or 4 deep, holding out a hand hoping for a shirt. After I'd already been there for a couple of minutes, this little girl (not too little, but probably 11 or so) comes in near me, flailing about madly and pushing and shoving the adults. She starts jumping up to catch the attention of those dispensing the shirts, repositioning every few seconds while pushing and throwing elbows. Meanwhile, she's pleading in french "I'm just a little girl, look how young I am, let me have a sihrt, I'm just a child..." Unbelievable! Dave, who had just gotten his shirt a minute before, was watching the whole thing rather incredulously. When I came over with my shirt, he said "What's up with that little girl, can you believe that?" Ah, those Frenchies. Anyway, Ray and I got separated (costing him a shot at a shirt), and then suddenly the security forces closed a gate to shut the road. I saw Ray already on the road, Steve was returning already, so Dave and I smooth-talked the gatekeepers and they let us throught so we could return to Col du Soulor. I was solo riding back across the mountain top, and I chose to fly for a while. Then, part way back, it occurred to me that I was riding the exact section of road that the Tour de France, with all of the world's premier cyclists, would be coming across in only 90 minutes. It felt cool. So, I slowed my pace, waved to fans lining the way, took in the views, and really enjoyed myself. Wow.

The race viewing situation was 10 times better than 2 days ago at Pla d'Adet. It was much cooler, there were fewer people (although still a fine crowd), there was grass to sit on, and there were vendors selling food and beverage at not-too-ridiculous prices. We were also only sitting for about 75 minutes when the first racers approached, flying down the hill where I had just been. They zipped past us, continued for about 100 yards, turned hard left nearly 180 degrees, and then came across our viewing area for an extended view, before finally disappearing down into the valley below. A breakaway led the main group by just over 5 minutes, and Lance and all of his main competitiors sat in the pack together.

Knowing how utterly crazy traffic would be, we blew that clambake in a hurry as soon as the riders went by, descending the mountain back to the main road. This time we followed the main road back towards the gorge, correctly figuring that no traffic would make it down off the mountain as quickly as we could. The road was great, a wide, well-paved road alternating between flat and slight descent. It was quick riding! We ran into our tour companions Steve and Cindy on the way back, and rode together part way up the gorge, at which point Ray and I advanced ahead to the hotel.

Our group had another great dinner at the hotel, with cantoloupe covered with prosciutto, chicken, a hash brown, and some veggies. I got mixed sorbet for desert. Ray, Ben, Diane and I got together for another rousing session of spades (we lost again, dammit!), and then I headed in town to meet up with some of our crew at a bar. By the time I got there at 12:00, they were just about the last ones left to close the place down. Terry, both Daves, Tom, another guy Matt who had just arrived the night before, and I went for another round (my first) and had rousing discussions about the women in town and the lack of women on our trip. Good times.


Today is basically a travel day, a 6-hour bus ride across the Southern part of France to the Massiff Central, not too far from Grenoble. We are leaving the Pyrenees behind after 5 good days. There is a relatively short recommended ride this afternoon upon our arrival at our new hotel, but I am taking the day off. I deserve it! Until 3 days ago, I had never biked more than 27 miles in a day. The past 3 days, I have biked 150 miles, much of it over mountains. This is a day off that I will enjoy!

Tomorrow is scheduled to be a long ride with a tough mountain climb. Jean-Francois Ramus is expected to drive in from Grenoble and join us in our cycling for the day, if not for 2 days. I haven't seen J-F in many years, but he is an accomplished cyclist and triathlete who now has toned down his training because he has a wife and 2 young children. So that's the story for right now.

Day 10: Wednesday 7/20 (continued)

The bus ride ended up being 8 hours. Apparently, the bus had sensors that recorded any time the bus driver went over a certain forbidden speed, so he was stuck driving quite a bit slower than most of the other traffic. Even so, the driver went over his "limit" enough times that he was seen cursing as he read over the trip log that printed out. During the ride we shimmied past the Mediterranean Sea, on the Southern coast of France. Unfortunately, we could barely see it from the highway. The biggest news of the ride: Ray and I finally broke through, trashing Ben and Diane in spades!

We arrived in the town of Mazan, where we are staying at the Chateau de Mazan. This is a beautiful hotel! It is very classy, with high ceilings and chandeliers and an attractive look. Our room is nicer than it was at the last hotel, as we continue our trend towards better and better accomodations! The bathroom area is large and has a sparkling white tub in the middle. The sink area is spacious as well. There is a separate little room with the toilet--I'm always happy to have that when sharing a room!! The main room itself is very nice, with 3 large windows and drapes, a decent-sized TV, and 2 small beds.

I realized last night that I really would be wise to take the day off, given the mileage I have been covering. So, after getting situated, I went down to the pool area to cool off and relax. They serve drinks poolside at this place! Classy.

Dinner was with the group, in the main dining area of the hotel. We had the entire room to ourselves. The dinner was excellent, a number of courses including a delicious pate-sort of thing, filet of sea bass with what looked like huge fly wings but were actually fried eggplant, salad, and (for the lactarded one) passion fruit sorbet. Delicioso! In fact, it's worth mentioning that the sign in front of the hotel says "Hotel Gastronomique," translated as "hotel that serves kick-butt food." True dat.


Day 11: Thursday 7/21

Our one day of cycling in Mazan, today was the day to conquer perhaps the greatest french climb of them all, know as "Mont Ventoux." Ventoux stands out as a single, large mountain in the middle of this french region, with absolutely no other major mountains anywhere in the vicinity. It is a sort of holy grail where cyclists come on a pilgrimmage, hoping to reach the top of this 1909 meter (6000+ foot) monster. It is clearly our most difficult climb on this tour!

After a small breakfast (similar to what the other hotel had, maybe even not quite as good in terms of options and service), a whole group of folks were ready to get an early start on things. Ray and I were awaiting our friend Jean-Francios' arrival from Grenoble. Due to construction along the route and a flat tire on his bike that had to be changed before we could start, Ray, J-F and I got a much later start than the rest of the group. We took it easy on the 8k bike into the town of Bedoin, at the base of Ventoux. Then the real work began.

There were a few other cyclists beginning their climbs just ahead of us, and we gradualy began passing most of them as we ascended together. The first few kilometers were not hard climbing, with grades of 3%, 2.5%, 3.5%, and then 5%, 5.5%, 4.5%, and 6.5%. As we continued along, the bike traffic grew heavier and heavier, so that we were constantly either cycling with others, passing others, or--occasionally--being passed. Suddenly, after 7k of climbing, a group of french monkeys climbed on to my bike and weighed me down. For the next 8k up the mountain, the grade of ascent would reach as high as 10.5%, and never dip below 9%. Progress slowed, sweat poured down, and the pain of the fight began to build. Except for J-F. J-f is a superior cyclist, one who has done many races including a full ironman triathlon. Although not currently in the best shape of his life, his version of "OK shape" is like any other person's wet dream of physical fitness. He seemed to glide up the mountain, never breaking cadence, never a pained expression, with little if any sweat coming off the brow. Meanwhile, Ray and I were working hard and sweating hard.

A few kilometers up the steeps, I was passed by a freight train, 4 guys climbing together at a ridiculous pace. Suffice it to say, I wouldn't see them again on my climb to the top! They were part of another tour, perhaps a bigger tour, certainly a more posh and hands-on tour (which doesn't necessarily mean better, from my perspective). Throughout the climb there were collaborators from their tour who would toss out large wet sponges as their riders went by, and then recollect them up the road a bit. Nice benefit, if you need that kind of thing :)

The road we were climbing was perfect for our purposes: Extremely well-paved, slightly banked in the turns, and with foliage on both sides so that only a little bit of sunlight came through to overheat us. However, before the 8k of steep climbing ended we emerged out into a "moonscape," as our tour companions called it, with no trees, sand-colored rocks, and plenty of wind. About 6k from the top, we stopped briefly at a strategically placed restaurant, where our support van was waiting in the parking lot. I filled up on water.

I was able to take comfort in the fact that I had already climbed the hardest section of Ventoux. The remaining 6k consisted of 5 sections with an average grade between 6.5 and 8.5%, and then one final push to the top at 11%. What could not be accounted for was the wind. Above the restaurant, the wind was absolutely howling, consistently 25+ miles per hour and gusting towards 50. Literally, there were stretches of the climb where I would pedal as hard as I could, but could barely stay upright. Several members of our tour group were blown into ditches alongside the road--a fate which I was narrowly able to avoid. There were also more people getting off their bikes and walking up at this point. Even the riders coming back down from the top were descending slowly, usually with one cleat not hooked in to the pedal so that the foot would be available to brace the person during strong wind gusts. A little scary, to be honest! I rested several times on this stretch, seperating from Ray and J-F, at one point sitting for a couple of minutes and talking to Tom, another of our cyclists. We hopped back on our bikes, and continued to fight the fight. In time--2 hours and 40 minutes after leaving the hotel, to be precise--I reached the top, meeting J-F, Ray, and others from our group. Pandemonium ensued. The french press, tipped off on my presence at the mountain, shoved cameras an microphones in my face. Some cyclists, dizzied from their efforts, confused the purpose of their pilgrimmage and almost forgot to crest the mountain when they saw me stationed just below. President Bush called to congratulate me on reaching the top of "that France place."

J-F and I tooked a short walk around the summit, up some stairs to a viewing area. The 360 degree view was indeed spectacular. There were a few venders up there, selling candies, fruits, sausages, and other goodies, but we left without partaking. As windy as it was, we decided to begin our descent.

It was very hard at first. The wind made it feel like you could be blown over at any moment. This made for an interesting compromise, because on the one hand you wanted to go slowly and stay in control, but on the other hand you had to go fast enough to maintain balance and combat the wind. Several members of our group chose to ride down in the support van. Things got better a few kilometers down, and we stopped at the restaurant on the mountain to meet some of our friends for a quick lunch. Whoops, this is France, there can be no quick lunch! It was at least 30 minutes before the waitress made it over, and with some sensitivity to time, we all ordered meals that she said could be served quickly. Nevertheless, lunch took almost 2 hours.

The descent from that point was phenomenal! I took the lead, cranking out a fast pace and leading us back into the more protected, wooded area. I figured I had to be going 35 miles an hour minimum. J-F passed me to take the lead, then passed a car, and we all followed. My speedometer is broken, so I decided to use the kilometer markings on the side of the road to estimate our speed. We did the next kilometer in 53 seconds. FIFTY-THREE SECONDS! Average speed of almost 70 kph! The next k went by in just over 60 seconds, and then another, and another...When we got to the bottom of the mountain, the five of us who had left the restaurant together--Dave, Tom, J-F, Ray, and I-- formed a nice drafting line and cranked back towards Mazan. We arrived in excellent form. The damage: 25 kilometers from the restaurant, 35 minutes. Sweet!!!

J-F had to be on his way back to Grenoble, so Ray and I hit the pool. Around 4:30 we joined Ben and Diane for a walk through town and some good snacking action. We picked up some great fuits, I nabbed some more dry, chalky waffles, and I grabbed a liter of sorbet. Back at the pool, I passed around my tub of sorbet while Ray did the same with some ice cream he'd gotten, and Lance and Rhonda shared some Rose wine they'd gotten from a local vineyard after some good wine tasting (they and a few others hadn't climbed Ventoux, so they had time to cruise around the local area on their bikes).

Dinner was on our own, Diane, Ben, Ray, Me, and our newest friend Kelly, who joined the trip yesterday. We chose a nice restaurant with prix-fixe menu, and I had an ox steak (lean and delicious), plus we all had salad, a meat tray with sausage, bologna, pate, and assorted other stuff that I may or may not have recognized. Sorbet for desert, as always!


Day 12, Friday 7/22

We are getting close to the end of our tour, and meanwhile the Tour de France is nearing its conclusion. Tomorrow is a 55.5k time trial in St. Etienne, and then the race finishes up on Sunday with a ride down the Champs de Lysee in Paris. Today is our day to ride the time trial course. At this moment, we are on our bus en route to St. Etienne. We will do our own time trial on the official course, then continue on to our hotel in nearby Lyon, where we will stay for the last 2 nights of our bike tour.

Day 12, Friday 7/22 (continued)

We parked our bus near the main stadium in St. Etienne, where their professional soccer team plays. The time trial start was in this area. We were all dressed for cycling, so after a short time the time trial began. We did it with only a few rules: Each person times his or herself, and you may only stop your clock when you are stuck in traffic (for instance, one could get stuck waiting for a light to turn green). No drafting allowed. Pretty simple stuff. My goal for the trial is to break 2 hours, although goin a bit below that wouldn't hurt. Lance and co. are expected to finish in around 1:15.

Ray, Kelly and I started together, about a minute after Ben and Diane has started. Ray and I took off hard from the start, flying past a few of our tourmates, Ray in the lead and me following at a distance. I figured I would keep Ray in sight and then get him on the climb. Unlikely. Ray kept powering up ahead, slowly pulling away from me in spite of my high-speed chase. Then a strange thing happened: Up in the distance, Ray went by this guy in a white jersey who I was slowly gaining on. As I got a little closer, I could identify that the guy in white was Ben! Fully expecting that Ben would kick my butt hard in the time trial, I was surprised but encouraged to see him. After all, Ray and I HAD been moving fast.

For the next 45 minutes we rode on, Ben in front of me by anywhere from 10 seconds to a minute. Most of the first part of the route involved a long, gradual climb, which looked like nothing on the course map but turned out to be quite a challenge given the speeds we were carrying. Upon cresting the hill we began a long, gradual descent. At this point the road surface turned bad, sending huge vibrations through bike and body, and eventually causing me a great deal of pain through my back. I decided to ease up, taking time to stand on my pedals, stretch my back out side-to-side, and slow down a little on the terrain. It helped somewhat. Steve, who had started well behind me, passed me quickly at some point in that stretch. No worries, he is a much more experienced cyclist, and turned in by far the fastest time in the group. The views along the course were nice, again a mix of small villages and fields, some with corn, others with sunflowers. A particularly fun part of the whole experience was seeing all of the hoopla that the local people were preparing for the next day's actual time trial. Huge chalk letters covered the road in many places, mostly with rider names like "Vino" (Vinokorov), "Basso", "Lance", and others. At one point there were some humungous replicas of team jerseys out in the fields. A poster of Lance in the yellow jersey with a syringe was seen by some of our group members. Campers lined the route as well.

As the trial continued, I mounted the one classified climb along the way, a category 3. It was not an easy climb, but that was mostly because of how hard I had worked. I got up it without too much trouble. The top of the hill was about 40K into the 55.5k course, and I was past one hour and 35 minutes. If I was planning on making it in 2 hours or less, I was going to have to move like crazy! I started to petal with all of my remaining energy as the road very slightly sloped downhill. I was really moving, but I knew that I would not be able to keep it up for very long. Then, I caught a huge break. In the middle of a small town about 10k from the finish, I got stuck behind some cars at a stoplight. For some reason the light was very long--maybe 2 minutes. This rest time was absolutely perfect for me, and I took off with renewed vigor, rocketing past a motorbike and a few cars. Once more I got stuck at a light, but only for 15 seconds or so, and from that point on it was pedal to the medal. The flat roads to the finish were just what the doctor had ordered, and I came screaming across the finish at 1:58:00. Yeah!

Day 12, Friday 7/22 (continued)

The finish line for the time trial was not very well defined; there were two unlabeled white tents on the left side of the road, which I correctly took to be the finish (the line would be much better marked for the Tour riders). I arrived at the finish line surprised to find nobody from our tour group. I particularly expected to see Ben and Ray there, as I assumed that they had only finished slightly ahead of me.

Two other riders from the group finished within a few minutes of me. They were glad to see me at the finish, as they were uncertain of where to stop. I began to sense that something was up. We all rode back over to our bus, about a mile away from the finish line. No Ray. Hmmm...I hung out for a while, and began to sense that nearly everyone in our group was confused by the finish line. Still no Ray. After an extended peiod of time, Ray and others finally made it back over to our bus area. Indeed, a large contingent had become lost, gone past the finish line, and not claimed accurate times in the trial. The funniest story was Lance and Rhonda, a husband and wife who accidentally took a wrong turn during the trial, cut out a 10 mile chunk of road, and finshed with a fine time! Whoops! Diane nearly did the same; she took the wrong turn, started down a hill, and part way down was caught by Terry in our support van, telling her that she had taken the wrong turn. Always a trooper, Diane turned around and did the extra mileage to finish. Go Diane!!!

We arrived at our hotel near the Lyon Airport at almost 7:30--much later than expected. A group dinner in the hotel's dining room followed. Not bad, although not the same high quality that we had become used to on our tour. The salad bar had tons of different foods, including some famed french escargot (snails). In spite of some funny looks from others in our group, I went for it, intent on trying them for the first time since I was a little kid in France. Yum. I actually liked them!

Another late dinner, another late night.

TIME TO EAT DINNER: 2 1/2 hours

Day 13, Saturday 7/23

Big plans for our group today:
- bus back into St. Etienne at 9:30 to watch the official Tour time trial
- hang out from first rider (11:30ish) until the last rider--Lance--finished (6:00ish)
- spend some time at and around the finish line and try to meet riders
- leave at 8:00 to return to the hotel

Ray and I were a bit torn on this. We thought it would be pretty cool to meet some riders and hang out at the stage, but it also made for a very long day with few options if we became bored. So, instead of heading with the group, we decided to spend the day in Lyon, sightseeing, shopping, and eating.

The Lyon airport is actually quite a ways from the city of Lyon, so Ray and I had to first get from the hotel to the airport (we walked--about 1km), and then catch a shuttle in to town.

We arrived in town at a train station, across from a large shopping center with a Galleries Lafayette inside. Our first order of business was lunch. Gotta keep the stomach happy! We found this really cool asian restaurant in the mall that was sort of a mix of chinese, thai, and Dim Sum. Basically, you went along a cafeteria-style line, pointing to whatever dishes you were interested in. A person behind the counter would then accumulate your different plates on to a cafeteria tray, heat it for you (ahhh,those french microwaves), and then charge you an arm and a leg for it. This turned out to be a delicious meal!

After lunch we puttered around the mall. We bought very little; me, a blue french national soccer team jersey, some french cookies, and a mess of french chocolate to bring home. Ray, a mess of chocolate. Can't think of anything else we really bought. Ben and Diane, who had gone in to St. Etienne for the time trial, took a shuttle over to meet us at the mall. We then left the mall and began to walk around town looking for a nice cafe where we could sit down, grab some drinks, and watch the time trial on TV. Oddly, we found it impossible to locate any cafe that could fulfill our needs! Only a very few cafes were even open, and none of them had TV. feeling a little bit desperate--the final few riders were beginning their trials--we even checked out the local hotel bars, but to no avail. Defeated, we shuttled back to the airport. In a bizarre twist, the airport Hotel Sofitel turned out to have a bar with a beautiful plazma TV! So, while enjoying a round of Kir Royale (cassis w/champagne), we saw Ivan Basso finish, Lance Armstrong finish, and then, oddly, Michael Rasmussen. Rasmussen had started 3 minutes before Basso and 6 minutes before Lance, but apparently had fallen off his bicycle twice, had other bike problems, and switched bikes 5 times during his ride. Dohhh!

The Sofitel bar was a nice little place. The cost of our round of drinks was not so nice: 12 Euro apiece, of almost $15. Zoiks!!

We decided to grab some dinner in the airport, since our only other option was another dinner at the hotel. We ate at a resaurant upstairs in the airport, where our dinner was fine but not spectactular.

Back at the hotel I went down for a nap. The other forks from our trip returned home after 9:00 with stories to tell. One woman, Rhonda, had talked to Lance and gotten his autograph. Other group members had fun and interesting stories to tell as well. Pretty much all agreed that it was crowded with few good food options, which meant that Ray and I made the right choice for ourselves.

I finished the night by playing an extended game of "Uecker," an interesting card game along the lines of spades. Kelly and I played as partners against Ton and Dave, who are Uecker veterans. The results were not great for us, one win out of 3 games.

TIME TO EAT DINNER: 1 1/2 hours

Day 14, Sunday 7/24

Today marked the end of our bicycle tour. After some morning “goodbyes” to our fellow groupmates, Ben, Diane, Ray and I all headed off to the train station (connected to the airport) to hit the 10:28 TGV train to Paris. TGV stands for “Train de Gran Vitesse”, which means “high speed train.” The train makes the 400+ kilometer trip to paris in under 2 hours, with a top speed of around 300kmh. FAST!!! Three other group members were on our train to Paris: Craig and Rosemary, a married couple with 3 kids back home, and Adam.

We jammed ourselves onto the train in Lyon; 7 passengers, 7 bike cases, 7 suitcases, and our backpacks. It was not easy to find space for everything, even though we were all traveling in the first class car of the train. There was not a ton of room for baggage in the car. Pretty soon, we found out why. When the conductor came through our car, she was quite upset with our bikes being on the train. Apparently, there is a special baggage service that must be ordered for such oversized pieces of baggage, and of course there is a rather significant fee for this service. Good thing our train was non-stop!!

Upon our arrival in Paris, we were met with several pieces of bad news. First, the train station in which we arrived was not the nearest one to our hotel, which was in the outskirts of the city near Charles de Gaulle Airport. Second, there was no hotel shuttle available to pick us up, in spite of (our tour guide) Dick’s understanding that there was. Third, it had just started raining, making it a real pain to bring all our luggage outside and track down a taxi or shuttle bus. Fourth, once we did get to the hotel and leave our luggage, we would be turning around to come right back into the city to see the Tour de France finale through the streets of Paris.

After some discussion and a few phone calls by Ray, we found out that Air France operated an airport shuttle bus from the train station to the airport. Once at the airport, we could then grab the hotel shuttle! Yay, us! We were first in line when the Air France shuttle arrived, but for some reason they dropped off but refused to pick anyone up, instead telling us that another shuttle would be by shortly to pick us up. Another 15 minutes later a shuttle did arrive. By this time, quite a few passengers were waiting, and the guy loading everyone’s luggage on to the bus told us that we couldn’t all go at the same time because of our bike cases. As we soaked this new information in and he started loading other bags, Ben wisely took matters into his own hands and started loading our bike cases on. We joined him in his effort, and soon we were on the bus and on our way to the airport! Once there, we did some unloading, waiting, and some more loading. Finally, we were dropped off at the train station just in front of our hotel.

After a quick turnaround, we hopped a train into downtown Paris, and found the race course. The entire area was more than a little crowded! It was very hard to see, and the racers were only in view for a few seconds at a time anyway, completing a 6-lap circuit through downtown. We eventually made our way to a café on Rue de Ravoli that a Google friend of Ray’s (who just happened to be in Paris) had staked out along the course.

It must have been a reunion, because a little while later we were joined by more friends of Ray’s. Pretty soon we were a group of 12 or so! After the race ended I took a walk down the street to check out the shops, and stumbled upon a chocolatier. Hmmm, fancy French chocolate, I wonder what I should do…$40 later, I returned to the café.

By now the race had been over for close to an hour. I thought about yesterday’s time trial, and how some of our friends had met the riders and gotten autographs after the time trial. I decided to check out the finish line scene, about ½ mile from our little café, and was joined by Hector, his fiancée, and the couple George and Gina (I KID YOU NOT!!!). The five of us got to the finish, subtly made our way into the area reserved for VIP pass holders, and staked out the team areas. After a quick check of the Discovery and T-Mobile busses—where no cyclists were outside—I decided to head over to the Credit Agricules team, where I could see several cyclists interacting with friends and family. I took out a hideously ugly hat that I had just gotten from one of the race sponsors, got it autographed, then asked the cyclist what his race number was. 105. I got another autograph. 107. Then #107s teammate came out of the bus, and he autographed the hat. #107. Wait a second!! I called the two cyclists on their ruse. They laughed, the first on saying in French “oh, I started the race, but then he took over for me.” Even though it was BS I thought it was pretty funny, so I let it go. A little later I stumbled upon another teammate of theirs, this time surrounded by a small crowd. I said “hey, could you sign this incredibly ugly hat for me?” He was a nice guy, and said “sure.” As he was signing it he paused, took a good look at the hat, then at me, and said “whoa, this really is an ugly hat!” Then he finished signing it. Pretty funny. Only later dod I find out that he had just won the green jersey as the Tour’s best sprinter—a huge honor!!

I did have a run-in with Lance as well, although I didn’t get his autograph. At the Discovery team bus people were waiting for Lance to come out. They were certain that he was in there. I moved on, and found a crowd of people in front of the entrance to a hotel. “What is everyone waiting for?” I asked. “Lance is in there, he’s going to come out on the balcony to speak in a minute,” was the reply. After a couple of minutes with no result, I moved on. There was a crowd gathered by a Tour de France trailer. Again, I was told that Lance was inside, now getting tested for drugs for the final time. This time I bought in to it and waited. Sure enough, about 2 minutes later I was rewarded by Lance coning out of the trailer, signing autographs for several minutes, and then walking right by me (surrounded by his posse) to the hotel.

Satisfied with my exploits, I headed back over to the café. Ray and others had stayed there while I plundered the Tour area. Just as I was about to cross on to Rue de Rivoli, something made me look over my shoulder. There, coming towards me, was Karen Patzelt, a teacher from the middle school in Westport where I had taught!! We had stayed in touch via happy hours, and had a nice conversation and walk back to the café, which happened to be on the way to her hotel near the Louvre.

I was disappointed when I arrived back at the café. No Ray, no group. No cell phone. No back-up plan. Whoops! In uncannily lucky fashion, I pulled out a French calling card that had been given to me the night before by a tour mate (they had been giving the phone cards out free at the time trial) and called Ray. He and a buddy were a few hundred yards away, riding a crazy bungee ride in the park nearby where a carnival was being held. That little phone card saved me a trip alone back to the airport hotel!

We ran into Craig and Rosemary, and then all of us—13 in total—found a nice restaurant for our late dinner. 2 ½ hours and a lot of good food and drink later, we finished dinner and headed back to our hotel for the night.

Day 15: Monday, 7/25

Time to fly home! Ray and I hit the airport good and early, figuring that the Business Club Room would be a better place to hang out than our hotel room. We were half right; it turned out that we were actually too early to check in! We waited for about an hour, checked in, and then headed to the club room to spend our last 2 hours in Paris.

The rest of the story: Good flights home, nice food in business class, I watched Troy on my way into Boston, and then my suitcase never showed up. Still don’t have it, although it’s rumored to be on its way!

Overall a terrific trip, with lots of good memories, plenty of great people that I met, and hopefully some good pictures to share.


JoanSSidney said...

Wow, Lar! What a great blog! I read with baited breath. I could see and feel everything, as if I were with you. Can't wait to see you in person.
Lots of love, Mom

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