I love the mornings here. The air is cool and the light is soft. We're often quiet - a little tired. Every once in a while Kristen will volunteer her iPhone to kick out a playlist for the van ride. We've all got our favorite songs: sometimes we sing along, sometimes we focus on preparation. Sunscreen application, rubbing warming cream into the legs, loading pockets, organizing snacks, preparing bottles. We're getting good at the details now. We're getting good at getting them all done quickly.
At the start of a stage, the whole team moves into action. Riders focus on last minute prep and support crew pulls the bike off the photo car, wipes them down, fills tires. We raid the snack bin a final time. We start our computers and double check for heart strap monitors and search out a place to use the restroom. Then we ride. Rides are most calm in this early hour: everything is still possible. We sit quietly in line and think of the climbs ahead or where the day will take us.
This morning starts innocently enough. With the queen stage out of the way, we've only got to get through one more day of climbing. Though the distance is shorter, there's still a hefty bit of elevation game. The 17 kilometer warm-up into the first col is dead silent and very chilly.
Even with goosebumps on my arms, I know well enough to appreciate the cool air while it's around. On the first climb I settle into a group with Jennifer, Kristen and Kate riding at a comfortable conversational pace. We laugh and chat while the day warms up around us. We stop together to fix a rubbing noise on my borrowed bike and a gentleman runs excitedly from his motorhome to help. The first climb always feels easy. The rest of them won't.
It's getting hot. You can feel the heat pulsing off the pavement underneath you. In the long run into lunch we sit in formation and fall suddenly quiet. The air is thick and heavy. The legs feel slow. Everything seems endless and difficult. Finally someone says it: "Where the hell is the lunch stop?"
It's not that we want the food. We just want to sit down in the shade for a few minutes. Anything to be off these bikes. When we finally get there we grab sandwich, sparkling water and fruit from the support van and then squeeze into the nearest slice of shade - a tiny sliver behind one of the vehicles - where we sit and eat and talk about the heat. It's over 100 degrees on the road and we are suffering. I'm glad to know I'm not the only one. The temperature is soul-crushing.
And then we have to climb.
It starts out soft, rising 3-5% for 7 or 8 kilometers. There is no breeze. Small bright orange flags fly in strips zig-zagging above the streets of the tiny villages we roll through. Down in a yard on the side of the hill, four children jump up and down chanting "Al-LEZ!, Al-LEZ! Al-LEZ!" Everything is getting a little surreal. It's hard to focus. It's hard to eat. It's hard to drink. My arms are dark and gleaming with sunblock and I think to myself, "I'm burning alive."
Then the climb starts in earnest. The group breaks apart into small pods of suffering. Each kilometer is marked with a sign that tells you how many are left to go and what the average percentage grade will be. Most are 7.5% or above and on the occasion that we get a 4 or 5% sign, we take the opportunity to sit up and stretch, eat a little bit. Kristen and I make a game out of riding from one shadow to another, reveling in the momentary respite from the heat.
Ahead and behind, the whole team is battling. Later Kym Fant will call it her hardest day on the tour yet.
Getting to the top is an exercise in patience. When we hit the sign that says 5k to go, I know we'll make it. Striking distance. The higher we go, the cooler it gets: a gift that I note with great relief. I have come to recognize the gentle cheering of roaming cows. Gigantic cowbells that chime instead of clang. A soft, lulling encouragement.
The top. A finish line. A small cheering crowd. The teammates that have already arrived are eating potato chips, melon, nectarines and Coca Cola.
The final major climb of our tour is behind us and we're cracked. If there is one thing we have learned, there are no easy stages. Sun, rain, wind, storms, mechanicals and crashes. If it can happen, it probably will.
We're almost done now: just one long stage stands between us and finishing. 220-ish relatively flat kilometers today will test our patience, but our hearts are filled with the feeling of proving that impossible things are possible. That alone will get us through another 9 hours in the saddle.