L’etape du tour

If you have read this blog before, you know that I was planning a cycling trip with my wife in France. You also know that we have had a break in our race season anyway at this time. But, this blog was put up to tell the stories of our race season and specifically the GNCC races. So, I will warn you now that this entry does not have anything to do with motorcycle racing. If you have no interest at all in cycling, this probably will not mean much to you.

If you do have an interest in cycling, I must tell you that I participated in one of the great participatory spectacles that there is in cycling this past week. On Sunday July 7 (the same day as the Somerset PA GNCC race), I rode in the L’etape du Tour in France. This is the citizen “race” over one of the tour stages that will be part of the Tour de France this month. In fact, it was over the same stage as the July 14 stage that will go from Pau over the Tourmalet in the Pyrenees mountains and then finish atop the mountain top finish at the ski station of Hautacam. This is a monster of a stage. 175km long. 2 category 3 climbs, and 2 beyond categorization climbs (or HC). I put the word “race” in parenthesis, because it is ostensibly a race, but there are 9000+ participants. I can promise you that about 8970 of those riders are just there to do the same course that the TDF will do a few weeks later. Me included.

Trek bicycle (the company I work for) is a sponsor of the event, so I (along with others at Trek) was able to get an entry into the ride via our connection there, and most importantly I was able to get in the first wave because of that. I was there with a huge group of about 25 of us that did the ride.

The race site to pick up bib numbers and check out the expo. 9000 riders!

Hijinx! Liz was pretty nervous and we were making fun of her.

The day before the ride you have to pick up your numbers and paraphernalia at the race site. It is amazing the organization that is required to herd 9000 riders and their families and friends through the paddock. But since this ride is organized by the Tour de France organization who have as much organizational skill as any organization anywhere, they pull it off marvelously.

It was raining the day before the race, all day. The forecast for race day was chilly and more rain. We were hopeful, but along with the other 9000 people, we were planning for the worst. We picked up our numbers and made our way around the expo, looking at all the serious Euro roadies getting ready the day before. There were new tires and jackets and clothing and gloves etc… being gobbled up by everyone there. Us included.

Back at our hotel, we had a dinner of salad and pasta. Very close to what Scott and I would have before a GNCC race, but with a French twist.

The alarm went off at 4am the next day, as we had to be at the race site and in the departure chutes by 6:30 for a 7am start. A quick breakfast got us on our way at 4:45. It was raining, but not too cold at 62degreess. It was still dark at 6:30 when we had to be in the start chutes. It got slowly light while we were in the chutes, and at 7am on the button the start horn went off. We got over the timer pads with a beep and headed out.

It is amazing having the whole road closed for an event. In the US, it is hard to imagine 175 kilometers of road shut down for a bike race. But I would say that the roads in the US, are actually better roads for riding a bicycle. At least the lesser traveled roads and anything with a shoulder or bike lane. There really is no such thing as a road in France with a shoulder and very few bike lanes. In fact, there is often times a brick wall or a deep gutter right on the side of the road in France. Not bike friendly at all.

looks like a race to me!

So, the whole road was closed and it became multi lane with different paces on the road together. I had 2 goals of the day. The first goal was to get my wife Liz to the top of the Tourmalet. At the top, she planned to get in the Trek Travel van and finish her ride that way. Liz is a good bike rider, but did not go up racing, so the thought of flying down the back side of the Tourmalet in the rain with 9000 crazies did not thrill her. Me either, to be honest.

Liz is a great climber, but not great at riding a big gear at a high pace on the flats. I towed her along as best I could, but our pace was only about 27 to 33 kph, whereas there were plenty of groups going much faster than that. But, when we got on the climb of the Tourmalet, we began to bring a lot of those guys back. When I say guys, I mean it to. There were 9000 participants, but only about 250 women. The crowd along the way loved it when a woman would come by. Liz got cheers in every town we past through and all the way up the Tourmalet. In a ride like this, it is good to ride with a woman, because you get cheered all the way.

The rain kept falling on us, the whole way. The rain makes it hard to ride a wheel, it makes you cold whenever you stop, it makes you have to stop and pee many more times, it makes riding in a pack more dangerous, it makes your glasses fog up, up throws dirt up into your eyes, it throws dirt and manure onto your waterbottle, it makes the downhills scary… It never stopped raining the entire day.

The top of the Tourmalet was 120 kilometers into the ride. The last 17 of that are at an average grade of 8.5% the 17 kilometers before that are at an average grade of 5%. Yes, you read that right. That makes for more than 30 kilometers of climbing. I said already that my first goal was to get Liz to the top of that climb. She was glued to my back wheel, and I paced her all the way up. We plowed our way through piles of riders that were struggling with poor fitness and poor pedaling technique. Liz made her way there like a champ.

Every time I would look back, she had a look of total concentration on her face. About every 30 minutes, I would peel open a gu packet and rotate back to her and force her to eat it. She did not want to, but I am sure it was what she needed. Some times I would ride next to her to check how she was doing, but mostly I just made a road through the riders ahead of us so that she could motor on to the top. We were not setting any records going up that climb, but we were pulling back hundreds and hundreds of riders that went way to hard on the flats before the climb.

Statue at the top of the Tourmalet, on the day we were there. At the top, we just peeked out above the clouds for a short bit.

We found the Trek Travel van just below the summit of the Tourmalet at La Mongie. Liz was elated. She had made it. We both toasted her making it there, and tucked in to the food that they had laid out.

I mentioned at the start that I had 2 goals. The first was getting Liz to the summit, and the 2nd was then to head off down the back side of the Tourmalet and then see how many people I could pass on the climb to the Hautacam.

I added my jacket, knee warmers, head cover and winter gloves and set off towards the summit of the Tourmalet. It was raining and 45 degrees.

I went over the top of the Tourmalet in the fog, and headed down in the rain. The rain actually let up a little bit and the roads even dried a bit when I got down the Tourmalet. But, the top in the rain, with the exposure and the switchbacks has to be one of the scariest descents I have ever done. My speedo said that I was going 90kph at one point. The descent was 30 kilometers long, and you did not have to pedal and I am certain the average speed was more than 50kph. Wow.

When I got down along the river, it was hard to turn my legs over they were so cold. I was shivering and struggling quite a bit, that was a harbinger of things to come.

I arrived at the base of the Hautacam having lost a lot of places on the descent. I have always thought of myself as a good descender, but I must tell you that coming down that descent was a humbling experience. I cannot believe how fast some people will go down a descent like that. I had my work cut out for me up the Hautacam.

As we began to go up a bit to the start of the Hautacam climb, I pulled over one last time to peel my clothing and to pee one last time. I had my jersey stuffed with my jacket and gloves. I would need those later.

The Hautacam is about 17km long climb and has an average grade of 10% or more. It is hard. In addition, it is an up and back. That means that there are cones up the middle of the road for people to go up one side and down the other side. It made it extremely hard to pass people going up, as the right side is just jammed with people. But, I had a goal of passing lots of people.

I got into a fantastic rhythm going up, and found that my best plan was to ride right next to the cones and slip out to the left of them whenever I could to pass clumps of riders. Again, people had gone way too hard and had really poor pedaling technique, which made them turtles up the climb. I stormed up the climb.

The L’Etape has a timing system with an ankle timer. The results showed that I had move up in placement by about 250 places from the top of the Tourmalet to the top of the Hautacam. That means that I probably passed more like 300 as I lost so many places on the descent. That was my goal.

I hit the top in 8’30”. Too slow, but given what my goal was I was fine with that. At that time, it still put me well above the halfway point in the total number of people that rode.

But, the worst of it was still to come. When I hit the top, I discovered that we had to wait there to be metered down the descent, as they did not want to let more than a couple go at a time.

I spent more than 45 minutes in the rain at the top of the climb, waiting my turn to go down the hill. Remember, it is 40 degrees and raining. When I left the top, I was already shivering and freezing. About 1/3 of the way down, I had to stop and rest my fingers. This is a technical descent that is very steep and very twisty. I could barely control my speed as I was so cold. My whole body was shaking uncontrollably.

I stopped again at about the 2/3 point and walked for a bit. I walked on a descent! Is that the most absurd thing you have heard? I was shaking uncontrollably. My lips were blue. I could not straighten my fingers. When I started riding again, I was not going any faster down the hill than I went up the hill. I was beginning to become delirious. I could not think straight, but I knew enough to get off my bike and walk again. I know I was dangerous to myself at that time. Walking helped warm me up a little, so I eventually started to ride again.

I did finally reach the bottom, after stopping a 3rd time. In total, it took me more than 2 hours to get down the mountain, between the standing at the top and the pathetic and dangerous manner that I rolled along – 2 hours. It should have taken about 10 minutes to get down.

This is Dean at the end, but this is what we all looked like. Frozen and out of it and eating everything in site.

When I got to the bottom, I was given directions to the Trek Travel tent. The directions were not clear to me though, so it took quite a while to find the tent. The whole time I was shaking uncontrollably. I was never so happy to see the tent and my clothes to change into after an event in my life. I have never ever ever been that cold in my whole life. I have done ski races in northern Minnesota, I have been caught on a the chair lift in ripping snow storms in the mountains, I have even camped in the snow. But, I have never felt as completely out of control and chilled to the core as this. I hope to never be that way again.

This is what we did after the Tourmalet adventure. Tony, Steve and Me.

And this!


So, I finished the L’etape stage. On July 14, when I watch that stage of the TDF, I will have an even greater appreciation of that day. Liz got to the top of the Tourmalet, one of the hardest climbs that is ever in the tour. She will have a new appreciation as well.

Doing it for fun is one thing. Doing it for a living would be another all together.


Not exactly sure how she puts up with me.

3 responses to “L’etape du tour

  1. Jay Thomas

    way to go Liz and Joe!

  2. Chip Camillo

    From the looks of the photo above, Liz forgot to bring Joe’s meds to France.
    Great story!

  3. Punkass CG

    None of us are sure how she puts up with you, really.

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