127 miles today from Tomblaine to La Planche des Belles Filles.
Ticking off eight hours is getting easy now. Which is good, because all of this so far has just been a warm up for the real tour, which is about to start. We rolled through the countryside today at an easy clip, a ways behind our Dutch and Belgian friends up the road. No surges out of corners, no surges up the rollers. A nice, steady pace: the kind that you might take if you were planning a really long journey…
The photo car brought us quiche as a surprise at our first rest stop (and croissants - yes!) Then fresh melon appeared two rest stops down the road. Have I told you that we're all about the food? Because we are.
Terrain was rolling and green: forrested climbs and a few sweet, winding descents. We were feeling good and happy when we reached the final category one climb up La Planche des Belles Filles.
That all changed, of course.
I watch my Garmin during these things because what else am I going to do? Listen to myself breathing? Enjoy the sensation of the sweat dripping off my nose? Look around? There's nothing to see but gradient - a sharp road that shoots away from you, skyward.
On this climb, 11% felt like recovery. 15% was managable. The 20-22% section took a sledgehammer to your soul and then kicked you in the teeth with steel-toed boots. Unmitigated suffering.
It went on forever. (Actually just around 4 miles.)
As we climbed, the road was dotted with campers: little round men playing cards at tables, waving their beers at you as they cheered. Children chanting as we went by.
Every town is decorated for the occasion with Tour de France themed "dummies" made from anything and everything. Cloth people riding bikes in front of cafes. Yellow, green, polka dot.
Along the way to the climb, little old ladies stop at the sidewalk to watch us round the corner then shout encouragement in French we unfortunately cannot understand.
The climb on La Planche des Belles Filles arrives at the top of a ski resort and today it's closed to traffic and covered with pre-riders. At the very top, some push their bikes, unable to handle the final, crushing grade. This is a climb for humility. There is a TV crew filiming when I arrive so I resist the urge to get off my rig and grind past them in a swaying motion that looks more like tipping than climbing.
I never said this would be pretty.
When I descend I find Kate sitting in front of a box of pizza she's purchased from a food cart. With a beer. There's a few k's left yet to get back to our team van but I pull over, sit down next to her and nab a slice.
Best pizza ever?
Today was our one-week anniversary as a team, which someone pointed out as we were riding. We're coming together. We're relaxing.
I'm proud of us. There, I said it. We've ridden 930-ish miles in 7 days with 45,000 feet of elevation gain. None of us has ever done that before. None of us will probably ever do it again. What is happening here is special - really special - and we try like hell every day not to forget it.
Tomorrow brings us a short (157km) stage with seven climbs including four category 2's and a category 1 for the finish (another steep sucker). Race designers put this one together to animate the GC, but believe me when I tell you that before it animates the monster-men of the Pro Tour, it will animate the hell out of this little engine that could.
If we make it through tomorrow, we get two days that can essentially be considered recovery (a TT and a proper rest day). For most of us, making it to the first rest segment was our intermediary goal. We're almost there and I just high-fived my roommate as we promsied each other that we would drag each other over those hills tomorrow if we had to.
Big mountain stage is on.
Little engine signing off.