Maria is on the ground, head resting in Jennifer's lap. Awake but not moving. A doctor from the Dutch peloton is talking to her. There's a crowd. Riders, bikes, someone is redirecting traffic. There's a small red car pulled onto the median and a frazzled lady with a raspy smoker's voice won't stop speaking rapid-fire French.
She wants to touch Maria. She keeps reaching for Maria's arm. She is the driver of the little red car. The car that juts clipped Maria in a roundabout. We're 200k into a 217 kilometer stage and we've just finished a 40 kilometer stretch of the most dangerous freeway riding I've ever done. Then we climbed through Sete toward heaven up a grade that should be illegal. We got through all that shit and now Maria's on the ground?
The photo car arrives next, then a support vehicle, then the ambulance. Then police. We think maybe Maria has broken something: her pelvis? Her tailbone? They lift her up and haul her away. The officer takes a report.
Then the five of us stand around looking at each other. What now?
We ride. We're shaken and exhausted from a long day of droning through 100 degree heat but we ride. The final 17k take us on another long, busy road with fast-moving traffic so we form a safety pack with the boys from OneDayAhead.com. They're doing the same thing that we are. We see them every day on the road and wave. We like them - and today they make sure we get to the finish ok. The tall one has the smoothest pedal stroke I have ever seen in my life.
The rest of the night is chaos. We wait for 90 minutes for the photo car to come back from the hospital (they're lost) so we can put bikes on the roof and transport them. Then the photo car comes about 4 inches from getting T-boned just as it reaches us. Eva takes us to McDonald's drive thru for dinner and we squeal like toddlers because compared to the Chinese buffets and flimsy breakfasts we've gotten lately, it sounds like heaven.
Milkshakes, burgers, fries. I say a silent apology to our nutrition sponsor and chow down. Whatever it takes, man. Whatever it takes.
We get to the hotel late and wait for an update on Maria. Just before we go to sleep at 11:00, we hear she's coming back to us. Hairline fracture on her tailbone. I have no idea what that means for Maria's ride, but knowing she's relatively ok let's me fall asleep.
Stage 14. Pyrenees Survival Test
All we have to do is make it over two climbs. Then it's a relatively short transition day that leads into the only thing that we can think about anymore: rest day. We have no idea what day of the week it is, who is winning the actual Tour de France, where the hell our missing socks went, what town we will sleep in tonight or where we woke up in the morning, but we know one thing for absolute sure: two stages until the rest day. Two stages until a full night's sleep and clean clothes and a long nap and time to talk to family and organize our bags and pause for one damn second to remember who the hell we ever are.
Two stages. Two stages. We live for that goddam rest day.
Stage 14 is flattish until the second half when we get our first small taste of the Pyrenees. Maria is on her bike, giving it a go, but she's in pain. We regroup at the first rest stop and then ride as a team for the next 70 kilometers until lunch where we decide that everyone will climb their own pace over the mountains. Maria is doing battle. In the mountains there is nothing we can do to help: she has to gut it out. She's got a buddy looking after her.
We all head up the hill. The Pyrenees feel ominous to me. More ominous than the Alps. And there's weather up ahead: the higher we got the colder and wetter it gets. I run hot but with 3k to go I stop to put on a rain jacket. At the van, Jennifer has just finished adding as many layers as she can: she takes off to begin the descent. We get a report that one of the Dutch women is holed up in a cafe with hypothermia, waiting to be rescued. That woman is tough. The thought of her hypothermic makes me nervous so I pile on wool layers, warm layers, waterproof layers, winter gloves and booties. I've chosen a terrible day to forget my leg warmers so Matthias rubs warming cream into them while I grab a winter cap.
It's still the coldest descent that I can remember. I can only see 30 or 40 feet in front of me for the first 5k. What should be a ripping lark down a winding mountain road turns into numb-hands shiver-fest. I'm alone and singing to myself to stay alert. By the bottom, my legs are useless slabs of frozen meat with which I must immediately ascend the next category one climb.
Ahead of me, I know that Kate and Kristen are without their winter gear, having beaten the support van to the top of the climb. I send them warm thoughts. I catch up with Jennifer as she's stashing her warm jacket under the back of her jersey then she's off again up the hill. She's out of food. "I'm just going to death march this one out." she says as she rides away. I adjust my layers and then start climbing. The second category one climb of the day starts sweet and innocent and then juts unexpectedly into a few kilometers of 18 and 20% goat path madness. Here we are spread out along the course, steeped in solitary hells that feel somehow comforting.
Sometimes, the only way to ride together is to ride alone.
I spend the rest of the stage thinking intermittently about dinner, whether or not I should stop to drink the mini-Coke in my pocket, the rest day, the rest day and the rest day. And dinner. Did I mention dinner? All of the campers and roadside fans are cooking big sausages and getting drunk so I check the time. 6:05pm. Dinnertime. Why the hell am I on my bike at 6:15pm!? Let me off!
On my left leg in Sharpie pen I have written, "Can't Stop Won't Stop" in tribute to Adam Myerson and also as a mantra for the day. Just keep pedaling. Next to it in bigger type: QUICHE!! (There's one waiting for me in the van at the finish.) On my right leg I have documented the kilometer at which each climb starts and the average gradient. I've also written the day's total distance: 191k. It's nearly rubbed off from all of the rain and warming cream, but I can still just barely see it.
In fact, my computer reads 194 when I roll into town and see the van. I start singing Rihanna lyrics as loud as possible. I'm losing my shit. I've been on my bike for 9 hours and I can't remember the tailwinds or the little cheering toddlers in rain jackets anymore. I want my quiche. I want a recovery shake. I want to eat the entire world.
An hour later everything is fine. I am sitting in front of a plate of three-cheese pasta and I have forgotten the rain and the cold and the stupid, stupid goat hill.
New rough totals:
108,500 feet of vertical
Tomorrow is a short stage followed by… Rest day!! God's gift to Reve Tour. Glory be.