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Amateur cyclists tackle French Pyrenees in grueling Haute Route series race

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ANGLET, France — For many people, vacation means lying poolside or beachside, reading and relaxing. But for me, it meant biking through the French Pyrenees in a week-long race, taking in the famous climbs of the Tour de France with 400 others.

It was agonizingly difficult, one steep, grueling mountain road after another. But it was also wonderful.

The event was part of the Haute Route series, billed as “the highest, toughest and most prestigious amateur cycling events in the world.” The events take place annually in the French Pyrenees, French Alps and Italian Dolomites. A U.S. event is planned for the Rocky Mountains in June 2017.

Haute Route events attract cycling-crazy folks from around the world of all ages and abilities. At the sharp end of the stick are aspiring or retired professionals, in the middle are fit cycling enthusiasts like me and at the bottom are people who signed up on a whim and may be regretting it. Some brave souls do all three European events, back to back, the so-called “triple crown.”

My August trip to southwestern France was a 50th birthday present from my wife. I met up for the race with a friend, Paul O’Donnell, also turning 50. Both of us race bikes regularly in the New York area and are, for our ages, very fit. This was to be a stiff test of our abilities: 500 miles (800 kilometers) with 65,000-plus feet (20,000-plus meters) of climbing. Each day we’d burn 4,000 to 5,000 calories.

The event began in Anglet in rainy weather. Then we hit the first major uphill of the day, the Col d’Ahusquy, a steep 8-mile (13-kilometer) ascent. I’d never been on a climb this long and difficult before and found myself breathless and exhausted halfway up, wondering what I’d gotten myself into.

A quick pause and it was down the other side toward the day’s second and final climb, the Pierre St. Martin, a 10-mile (16-kilometer) climb through heavy fog, with visibility dropping to about 20 meters (65 feet), a blessing because you couldn’t see the long series of switchbacks coming. It was quiet for long stretches but for the whirring of bikes and the riders’ breathing, with cowbells softly tinkling in the distance. A car or motorcycle engine would come and go and then you could focus on your own engine again – heart, lungs, legs.

Day two saw four climbs, all hard and long, with the Col D’Aubisque the killer, on and on (and then on some more) for 10 miles (17 kilometers). Exhausted, rationing water, stuffing down energy gels, controlling the breathing, I tried to focus. Sweat dripped into my eyes, stinging me onto another pedal stroke, and then another.

Some might call it suffering, but for me it was cleansing, liberating, nothing but effort and the road ahead. The mind? Circling the wheel, wondering what was to come. And then I passed a one-legged, one-handed man on his bike, also making his way up. He’s Christian Haettich, a regular, who lost his leg and hand in a traffic accident as an adolescent and yet he’s chugging away on some of the toughest climbs in Europe.

At the top, the landscape was astonishing, massive mountains upholstered in green grass and trees like giant sleeping ogres. The Pyrenees, where Iberia smashes slowly into France.

Dropping down like a marble, through tunnels bored through the rock, we descended into the valley. Cows lay nonchalantly by the roadside, big metal bells around their necks, a few pigs too and some sheep, guarded by large mountain dogs. We were warned not to approach the sheep lest the dogs mistake us for wolves and attack, as had apparently happened in previous years.

And then to the base of the day’s final climb, the Col de Spandelles, just 6 miles (10 kilometers) long but with steeply graded ramps. Small groups of curious bystanders would form by the road, some clapping, some cheering us on.

We went through the legendary Tourmalet climb, scene of epic battles in Tour de France races. Drink, drink, sweat, sweat and drink some more. More switchbacks, focus, OK, half a mile (1 kilometer) to go, pushing a bit harder and onwards, up and then down through majestic scenery, but always keeping an eye on the clock. Each day had a time cut off and if you didn’t make it, you’d be eliminated from the timed event and escorted to the “broom wagon” for a ride to the finish. The next day you could continue at your own pace, no longer timed.

The final day was a mere 105 miles (169 kilometers), just one major climb and then mostly downhill through rolling farmland into Toulouse. And then it was over. We got our participant medals, then celebrated with pizza, soft drinks and later in Toulouse, a beer or two.

Reflecting on the week, each day had seemed as punishing as the next, my whole body a slippery sinew of muscle turning and turning. But I’d gradually adjusted to the effort, the fitness kicking in. What seemed like misery in the moment felt like triumph looking back. But would I trade a beach vacation for a week of pushing uphill again?

Absolutely.

Little boy goes wild watching dad in Tour de France

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Bauke Mollema wasn’t the only one putting on a show at the Tour de France.

Mollema received plenty of support back home as his son went absolutely crazy watching his “papa” push to victory in Stage 15. As it is with siblings, Mollema’s oldest son, Julian, was forced to share the spot light as Thomas got emotional watching his dad finally earn a coveted stage win.

Amidst the blood, sweat and tears that have made up the 2017 Tour de France, Mollema’s adorable 2-year-old son, Thomas gave the internet something to smile about.

The Tour de France has “always been the most important race for [Mollema]” and his dreams came true when he had an impressive break away to solidify the first stage win of his career.

Clearly, Mollema was not the only one excited for his first victory.

 

Cavendish involved in nasty crash after elbow from Sagan

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VITTEL, France (AP) A nasty crash involving Mark Cavendish marred Tuesday’s fourth stage of the Tour de France, which was won by France’s Arnaud Demare in a chaotic sprint finish.

Replays appeared to show world champion Peter Sagan elbowing Cavendish, who was squeezed against the barriers to his right, out of the way. Cavendish slammed into the barriers and two other riders plowed over the British sprint specialist, a winner of 30 Tour stages.

Sagan, who crossed the line second, was later given a 30-second penalty that relegated him to 115th place on the stage. As a result, he dropped from second place in the overall standings to 15th.

“I get on with Peter well, but I don’t get … if he came across is one thing, but the elbow. I’m not a fan of him putting his elbow in me like that,” Cavendish said.

“A crash is a crash, I’d just like to know about the elbow, really,” Cavendish added. “I’d just like to speak to him about it.”

After the crash, Sagan went over to see how Cavendish was and patted him on the back, while the British rider showed him his wounds.

The Slovak said later he had apologized to Cavendish.

“It’s not nice to crash like that,” Sagan said.

“It’s the sprint. I just didn’t know that Mark is behind me, he’s coming from the right side,” Sagan added. “Mark was coming pretty fast from the back and after I just didn’t have time to react, to go left, and he just came (into) me and after into the fence.”

A medical team quickly ran out to treat Cavendish, jogging into the oncoming stream of riders to reach him.

When Cavendish was finally helped to his feet, his jersey was badly torn and blood was streaking down his side. Cavendish rode in with a teammate after treatment, gingerly holding his right arm close to his body, with his right hand in a bandage.

It’s already been a difficult year for Cavendish, who came down with mononucleosis caused by the Epstein-Barr virus in April.

Demare’s sprint victory ended a long wait for the home fans, with the previous French victory in a bunch sprint at the Tour being won by Jimmy Casper in Stage 1 in Strasbourg in 2006.

“It’s extraordinary, it’s marvelous,” said Demare, the French champion who finished second to Marcel Kittel in the mass sprint that concluded Stage 2.

There was another crash earlier that delayed Tour leader Geraint Thomas, but the Welshman retained the yellow jersey since it happened in the neutral zone near the stage finish.

Thomas leads Sky teammate and three-time champion Chris Froome by 12 seconds, with third-place Michael Matthews of Australia also 12 seconds back. Sagan is now 43 seconds adrift.

Thomas scraped his knee but said it was OK.

“I hit the deck but I’m fine,” Thomas said.

Demare clocked nearly five hours over the largely flat 207.5-kilometer (129-mile) route, which started and finished in two spa towns, Mondorf-les-Bains in Luxembourg and Vittel in France.

“We’ve been working with Arnaud for a long time on sprints,” said Marc Madiot, manager of Demare’s FDJ team. “Winning in the Tour is the best.”

After Sagan’s penalty, Alexander Kristoff moved up to second place in the stage, with Andre Greipel in third.

After starting in Mondorf, the hometown of 2010 Tour winner Andy Schleck, one of the first towns along the route was Schengen, where an agreement was signed in 1985 that enabled passport-free travel in mainland Europe.

Then it was a long, fairly straight slog through fields of grain, passing near the medieval city of Nancy into Vittel, home of the official mineral water supplier for the Tour.

It was the race’s third consecutive stage of more than 200 kilometers (125 miles) and when Guillaume van Keirsbulck, a Belgian with the Wanty team, attacked from the starting gun there was no reaction from the pack.

Van Keirsbulck quickly built a lead of more than seven minutes before being caught with less than 17 kilometers to go.

“A really hard day,” Van Keirsbulck said. “It’s not easy to stay in the front.”

Stage 5 on Wednesday concludes with the first serious climb of the Tour. The 160.5-kilometer (100-mile) leg begins in Vittel and winds its way to La Planche Des Belles Filles with a short but steep finishing ascent that features a leg-breaking 20-percent gradient in the final meters. All of the overall favorites should swing into action.