The Tour de France Almost Killed Me
A writer tries to scale the great cycling race's most notorious mountain.
By about the fifth turn I spot Peter's blue, black, and silver jersey. He's standing by the side of the road. At first I'm impressed: He'd finished and come back to ride in with me! But as I inch up to him, and then past him, I realize the story is way different. "Stomach problems," he says.
Peter is far from alone. There's carnage everywhere. Some riders are sitting in the melted snow runoff that comes cascading down the mountain. Others have their heads between their legs. One is puking. Another cries and gets consolation from a spectator-turned-psychotherapist. "You can still finish!" I hear her say as I creep by.
I keep going, passing riders pushing their bikes up the hill in stocking feet.A sign appears saying that I have only five kilometers to go. What seems like 30 minutes later, I see one that says, absurdly, that I'm still four kilometers away. Distance and time are now unimportant. The only thing that matters is that—even at my sluglike pace—I win the battle against gravity.
As I plod along, I notice that thewall above each switchback frames a small sign displaying the name of a pro who won on L'Alpe. Before I started this race, I wasn't sure how many cyclists took performance-enhancing drugs. Now, I'm convinced that guys like Lance Armstrong, Andy Hampsten, and Marco Pantani blazed up this thing courtesy of some godforsaken, nuclear-powered cocktail. Either that or they have extraterrestrial cardiovascular systems. Most likely, it's a combination of both.
About 90 minutes after starting the final climb, I cross the finish line. Peter finishes almost a half-hour later, but that's still a victory. More than 1,500 riders don't make it to the end. After running marathons and finishing long triathlons, I've come out the other end as a walking, talking, laughing human being. The same can't be said of my first stuporous moments after conquering the Étape. How messed up was I? For 15 minutes I stood, with my mouth agape, waiting behind other finishers for some post-race pasta. Only when I got to the front did I realize that the line led to a parking lot. After scaling L'Alpe, I now realize that nobody knows exhaustion like a prosaic cyclist dabbling in the most hyperbolic of races.
Andrew Tilin is a freelance writer in Oakland, Calif. He contributes to Wired, Outside, and Business 2.0.
Photograph of cyclist on the Slate home page by Friedemann Vogel/Bongarts/Getty Images.