I’m pretty much a screw-up when it comes to life, and I’m surprised the people close to me stay close to me, and the only way I can effectively express my gratitude, it seems, is through writing, so I wrote this for Beth. Because I needed to. And I heard from about a thousand women who gushed and swooned over it. A couple guys liked it, maybe.
LOVE IS PATIENT: Another 700 riders passed me when I stopped for the third time on the backside of the Col du Soulor so I could once again find a rock I could use to hammer the pivot pin of my right brake lever back in, but I was happy for them. I was filled with love — and, also, sure, the knowledge that if I tried to descend a Pyreneean road with only one functioning brake lever, as I had on the Marie Blanque, the double-digit-percent grades would again overheat my rim and would again blow-out my tire at somewhere around 40 mph, and I would again experience the rush of riding right on the razor edge between adrenaline-inspired superhuman bike control and filling my shiny new Etxe Ondo bibs with poop.
I mean, yeah, I stopped because I was terrified of consequences, but once I was off my bike, once I simply stood there and watched all those cyclists and all those jerseys and helmets and expensive bicycles ripple down the road below me like liquid leaking from a prism, I was no longer anxious, or afraid, or even concerned. I was right back where I’d been in those last few euphoric moments coming up and over the Soulor. In love.
Cycling and me, we go way back, almost 25 years. Nearly a quarter of a century, I’ve loved this sport. Getting up at 5 a.m. to ride never because I have to, but because I want to. The shushing of tires and gears in a paceline. The forward-sucking swooshing sound of a race pack. The sharp taste of the air at the top of a hill. Corners upon curves upon turns as inevitable as a Picasso brushstroke. Icy Cokes at a convenience store. Beating a red light. All of it, all of it you know about, I loved it like you have. Always.
I haven’t always been in love.
My grandmother, married eight times, a go-go dancer, nicknamed “Hot Pants,” told me the difference once: You don’t marry someone you love. You marry someone you’re in love with.
I had plenty of time to finish this 112-mile race. The sweep van was far behind and the next 18 miles were downhill, and the last two climbs between me and the finish in Pau were less than 2 miles each — the big climbs of the Category 3 Col d’Ichere and the Cat 1 Marie Blanque and the monster HC Aubisque, nearly all of the 10,000 feet of climbing, had already gone under my wheels. I was racing Stage 16 of the Tour de France, and I was in love, and I wanted to savor every moment.
LOVE IS KIND: Of course she turned around. That’s not the surprising part. Anyone I ride with would have turned around. It was what I saw in her eyes. Or, rather, what I didn’t.
There was worry, but only about me. Not one shred of thought about the rest of the Etape.
Beth and me, we go way back. Twenty years since our first date. A few less than that since I helped her pick out her first grown-up road bike, a Bianchi. I was in her living room, watching broadcast TV with staticky reception in a first-floor apartment, when LeMond beat Fignon by those magic eight seconds. We were out for a Valentine’s Dinner that cost almost as much as her monthly rent way back then when a friend called to tell us Marco Pantani had died. Two decades, though, and we’d never been to the Tour de France.
This year, we decided we didn’t want to just see, but ride it. L’Etape du Tour is an amateur race run on a different stage each year. Beth and I were going to compete, feel what the pros feel, ride what the pros ride. But that was just the start. Over the next few days, we were going to ride across the Pyrenees to do other legendary climbs.
There was Luz Ardiden, where LeMond broke away to win the 1990 race shadowed only by an up-and-comer named Miguel Indurain, and where in 2003 Lance Armstrong, who’d appeared vulnerable in previous stages and was being attacked by rivals who smelled blood, snagged a fan’s musette bag and fell hard to the pavement, remounted and, on a bike with a cracked chainstay, drilled through the field to reclaim his primacy. (Chechu Rubiera, one of riders who was there, told me once that, after that stage Armstrong roared into the team bus like some kind of beast and screamed, “How do you like me now? How do you fucking like me now!”)
Beth and I were going to climb the treacherous Tourmalet, the first mountain ever ascended in the Tour, whose narrow, twisting, vaulting, exposed roads delivered the first rider to the summit, Octavio Lapize to scream “Assassins!” at the race officials. We had plans for Hautacam, the giant Lance climbed twice for practice in the spring of 2000, in snow and sleet because, as he says, the first time he pedaled up, “It was not my friend. I couldn’t understand it.”
And only 23 miles into the first of our adventures, just as we’d worked our way into a tight but speedy group, I sat up and, with one hand on the bar, turned my head back to ask Beth if she wanted to stay in this pack or move up to the next — as a rider in front of me swept across and hooked my front wheel.
I almost stayed up. I speed-wobbled all the way across the road, getting the bike under me and losing it over and over before hitting the shoulder, where I saw a grassy field to the left and gravel to my right. I chose the certainty of the grass, and dumped the bike.
That’s when I noticed the barb-wire fence between me and the pasture. I ducked under the lowest strand — although had I been able to predict that a spike would rip the shoulder of my Assos jersey I’d have opted to take the damage with my face. My right brake lever was busted. Our trip wasn’t.
But Beth didn’t know that when she rolled up to me. It was a dream trip, and she didn’t care at all about that dream in those first few seconds. Twenty years in, and something like that can still surprise you.
IT DOES NOT ENVY, IT DOES NOT BOAST, IT IS NOT PROUD: Aside from the mechanic Steve, who is supernaturally lean and a Cat 2 racer and thus eliminated on two counts from my complex calculations of self worth, I’m the best climber in our group, a bunch of cyclists who either work for or paid to come here with the tour company Velo Echappe. I’m faster than the young guys, and the obviously overall fitter guys who could pinch my head off in a fight, and token really-fast-guy-with-hairy-legs, and even faster than the former Olympic figure skater, which is going to save me all kinds of unjustified grief from the guys back home. (Hey, whatever your preconceptions, the dude’s a natural athlete; you try to hold his wheel.)
And I’m one of the best climbers on the Aubisque that day. Beth and I pass thousands of people. I’m passed, in turn, by only four.
Hors Categorie. Getting beyond categorization is just what I’m after. I’ve come here for the revelatory vision quest, the electric-sports-drink acid test, the anaerobic crowbar that will pop open the doors of perception to the pro world. I want to know what it feels like.
The 10.5-mile climb rolls out a 4-percent welcome mat, and my pedals spin easy, reeling off 12, 15, 17-mph stretches of road lined with people—just like the Tour. Kids asking for water bottles — Bidon!— and holding their hands out for a rolling high-five. People on holiday, picnicking, baguettes and wine in their hands, smiling, taking photos, sweeping you along with a chorus of Venga! Venga! and Allez!
As Beth and I ascend, we hone in on the frequency and specificity of the shouting and realize that not many women ride the Etape. At least, not that many women who pass that many men.
This cheering, mostly from regal, middle-aged women with a couple kids or more hanging off their arms, or from stout, dignified older men in suits and berets, has a kind of proud, reverential tone to it.
We’re obliterating the fields in front of us, passing bobble-head husks of humans who propel themselves up even this easy slant with their gasps rather than their legs. And then the Aubisque gets serious.
The last 7 miles kicks you in the face. Short stretches fling up somewhere around 15 or 16 percent, there are long kilometers of 10 and 11 percent, turn after turn after turn around the mountain, the summit always out of sight. The people here beside the road are saying something new: Courage. No exclamation point. Pronounced cour-ahge, its lilting, romantic sing-song carrying as much import as its meaning.
This is the Tour! Time slows. People walk, lie down. The road surface tops 100 degrees. My body is nothing but an oven baking up a nice batch of my brains. Cour-ahge is all there is, because there’s no nobility, no heroism, no more dream. I’m going 9 miles and hour, 34×27, and I am nothing but a guy who rides his bike at lunch and maybe 50 miles on weekends. I start to feel cold. My legs quiver. I plod up, half the speed of the pros.
I don’t even care when I summit. I’m shivering. Beth and I roll across the peak and plunge without thought 5 miles to the base of the Soulor.
For some reason, this 6-mile climb tacked like an afterthought onto the end of the Aubisque is the most crowded of all the mountains. People pack the road four and five deep, and as we thread up through failing riders, the fans close in on the tiny lane, just like all those images you’ve seen on television. Beth is on my wheel and the crowd folds into and over us and we’re in that mythical, magical tunnel of sound and backslaps and it’s filled with a roar — an actual, deafening roar — for my wife: Femme! Allez Femme! Bon Something Something Femme!
It’s every Tour dream you’ve ever had, every time you’ve been out alone on a climb and imagined plowing through a sea of noise and humanity, and when I roll over the top of Soulor with Beth, I’m in love.
Originally published in Bicycling magazine, October, 2005