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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.

Ferdy Kuebler, 1950 Tour de France champion, dies at 97

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LONDON — Ferdy Kuebler, who came back from injury and the interruption of World War II to win the 1950 Tour de France, has died. He was 97.

The Swiss won an epic battle with French rider Louison Bobet in the 1950 race, and became world champion the following year.

Andre Haefliger, the chief reporter at Swiss magazine Schweizer Illustrierte, said from Kuebler’s home in Switzerland on Friday that he could confirm the death on behalf of Kuebler’s widow, Christina. Kuebler died Thursday at a Zurich hospital. He had been suffering from a cold.

Switzerland’s national cycling association, Swiss Cycling, paid tribute to Kuebler and offered its condolences to his family. “We are taking leave of one of the greatest cycling legends of our time,” it wrote on its website.

For many, his biggest achievement was winning the Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege races, then held on successive days, in both 1951 and 1952.

In an era of marathon races on poor roads, Kuebler also won the 1953 Bordeaux-to-Paris after 570 kilometers (356 miles) and more than 14 hours in the saddle.

Born July 24, 1919, into a poverty-stricken family near Zurich, Kuebler knew as a child that he wanted to be a professional cyclist.

Forced as a teenager to find work to support his family, he got a job delivering bread by bicycle.

“I had to climb the mountain up to four times a day. That was how I trained for my career. I told myself: one day you will be a cyclist,” Kuebler said in a 2003 television documentary.

Later, as a Zurich office worker, Kuebler cycled the 100-kilometer (63-mile) round trip from home.

World War II broke out as he was starting to make his name as a cyclist. Kuebler was drafted into the Swiss army.

“I lost five or six of my best years,” he said.

An accident in 1946 that hospitalized him for two months almost ended his postwar career.

He came back in 1947 and started his first Tour, aged 28. He won the first stage, becoming the first post-war wearer of the famed yellow jersey.

In 1950, third-placed Kuebler took over the race lead when Italy’s team of riders withdrew, accusing spectators of assaulting them.

He finished the 4,773 kilometers (2,983 miles) 9 minutes, 30 seconds ahead of Belgium’s Stan Ockers, with Bobet third.

Kuebler chose not to race another Tour until 1954. He finished second, behind Bobet.

After retiring at age 38, Kuebler trained as a ski instructor and worked on the Swiss slopes for 25 winters. In summer he did publicity for the Tour de Suisse and traveled with the race as an official for 35 years.

Kuebler said there was never any other career for him except cycling.

“I always said if I came back to earth – which I hope will happen – I would be a cyclist again,” he said.

New Zealanders join Lance Armstrong in early morning ride

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WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Several hundred cyclists turned out Tuesday for an early morning ride with Lance Armstrong, who is in New Zealand to film a commercial for a local brewery.

Armstrong issued an invitation by social media to join him cycling around Auckland’s waterfront and a crowd estimated at up to 1,000 turned out.

Armstrong was stripped of his seven Tour de France titles and banned for life from cycling in 2013 after admitting he used performance-enhancing drugs throughout his career.

Armstrong told the New Zealand Herald newspaper that he was glad to know he still has some support.

New Zealand’s Lion Breweries has confirmed it brought the 45-year-old Texan to New Zealand. In an internal staff email, the brewer said “we are using Lance to tell a cautionary tale called `The Consequence’, which depicts how much you stand to lose when you pursue success at all costs.”

“We wanted to highlight that actions have consequences and we couldn’t think of anyone better to demonstrate that than Lance,” the email said.

Armstrong arrived in Auckland on Sunday from Houston, telling reporters he is in New Zealand on business but has bought his bike and golf clubs.

He took part in a ride later that day with a small group including New Zealand Ironman triathlon champion Cameron Brown.