Burly. 16,000 feet of climbing in 99 miles. Stage Eleven.
We all ride at our own pace, pairing off to endure the tedium of two 2-hour above category climbs. I've been riding with a bad gut for a day-and-a-half now, and this morning things seem grim. I haven't properly processed food. Not holding anything down very well. Kristen sits next to me feeding me food, pulls gel packets and soft chews out of the team van so I can try to keep down some calories, peels bananas for me, makes jokes.
And what seemed like the perfect storm turns into a comeback. I spend a lot of time thanking all of the gods that I can think of. Then I start to employ my secret techniques for getting through the climbs - this mostly involves riling up Norwegian fans and telling myself lies about what's going to happen next. ("I'm sure the profile said this was going to flatten out a bit…")
It's muggy. Hot in the morning, cooler later on as we climb, climb and climb. The 27k-ish journey to the top of Col du Madeline is a 4-bottle endeavor. Same for Col de la Croix which is a little shorter but rises to a higher altitude. When I climb for this long, I become a human faucet: drip, drip, drip, drip. Off the tip of my helmet straight onto the top tube.
These roads snake up the mountainside in switchback formation so that when you look to the left you can see the trail of tears being left behind you and when you look to your right you can see the stuff that's just about to sucker punch you. Hillsides are dotted with wildflowers and the most beautiful cows in the world. When you climb for that long you have a lot of time to consider all of the cows you've ever seen and make important decisions about which ones are the best.
The campers are out in force and fans are getting more playful as the Tour rolls on. Games of backgammon are interrupted by an eruption of applause: 'Allez allez allez!' Old men in good hats sit in lawn chairs puffing on pipes and remain stony faced until I wink at them which gets maybe a smile or a laugh or even a bit of encouragement depending on their degree of grumpiness.
Matthias is in the support van pumping David Guetta and giving out high fives. The photo car rolls by and hands mini coke cans out the window. Our soigneur, the amazing Bart Brackez, drives by every so often and slows to speak encouragement out the window: "You are going good now, Heidi. Looking good. Great work. Very nice." Kym Fant's mom is in the passenger seat and takes my sweaty (drenched) vest without flinching. Later she gives me a water bottle hand-up out the window and executes like a pro. Super mom.
Getting over the two HC climbs feels like certain victory and the next category 3 climb passes without much notice at all. Unfortunately, the final 18k to the finish are all uphill - a not-too-steep grinder of a category one climb that goes on for absolutely ever when you've already been in the saddle for more than eight hours. Worse? To get to the finish, you have to pass by the hotel. A quick left turn and you could be in the shower with a beer. Instead you keep ticking your legs over for three more kilometers.
This is when Kristen Peterson and I lose it.
An effort like this doesn't come without causalities and sometimes sanity is one of them. It starts with softball cheers, which I begin singing unprompted. Peterson is game so I teach her a good classic that I wrote when I was 12. There's a part when you're supposed to do a little dance, which she manages to execute while in the saddle. By the time we make the final turn, we're both laughing so hard we can hardly pedal.
Peterson pulls ahead a little and looks comfortable standing into the final few meters to the line and even though she's babied my ass all day long I can't help but put in a last minute sprint to pip her on the line. Cue the crowd! She shakes a fist in mock frustration to add to the effect.
We fly back down to our apartment, where I find Kate already shopping for food - bottle of local white wine in hand. We make fondue, pasta, salad, hamburger patties and soup. Later, Bart shows up to give massages with two pizza boxes in hand, "These are from the Eurosport guys. Sean Kelly - you've heard of him?"
Have I heard of him? Is he plastered all over the walls of my shop?
I'm full but I eat the lucky Sean Kelly pizza anyway. How could I not?
"I told him about your ride." Bart says, "He says good luck to you."
Who knows what legs we're going to wake up with in the morning but either way we have to haul ourselves 226k into the wind and over two category one climbs. I have a hunch we're going to need that little bit of luck from Mr. Kelly.