On Tuesday morning, the freakish riders of the Tour de France blasted up the steep, nine-mile climb to the famous mountaintop finish at L'Alpe d'Huez. Outdoor Life Network announcer Phil Liggett tried to capture the difficulty of this feat with the appropriate superlatives and clichés. But you can only hear stuff like, "He's really having to dig deeply into the suitcase of courage!" so many times before it loses all meaning. Here's a better description from a guy who tried to climb the mountain: L'Alpe d'Huez will kill you.
Last week, I was in France to ride in the Étape du Tour. The Étape offers riders the challenge of racing, riding, and simply finishing a tough upcoming stage from the Tour de France. This year's race mimicked the route of the Tour de France's 15th stage—the climb up L'Alpe. Just like the Tour, race organizers work with local governments to close the roads to vehicles. And just like the Tour, the ride is "supported"—you can get food and help with a mechanical problem along the way. But unlike the Tour, the Étape is open to anyone. Even fools like me.
My friend Peter and I decided last fall that this 119-mile event would be the crowning ride of our bike bum's vacation in the Alps. Peter, a Bay Area schoolteacher who's married only to his 18-speed Merida, is in excellent shape—he's a high-level amateur racer. I'm the wife-and-two-kids, writer-athlete who still shaves his legs and enters the occasional competition. My training ebbs and flows with life's other demands.
From the look of our 7,500 fellow competitors, Peter and I are pretty typical. There are a lot of thirty- and fortysomething men straddling bikes worth thousands of dollars. Everyone adjusts their Lycra shorts to fit just so and checks that the back pockets of their jerseys are stuffed with quick-energy foods, spare tubes, and a nylon vest. It's a beautiful, sunny morning in the town of Gap, which sits at an elevation of 2,600 feet. Meanwhile the shark's tooth that is L'Alpe d'Huez tops out at 6,100 feet. That's a scary thought.
Starting the Étape is like getting off a packed Boeing 747. The gun fires, and up ahead I can see people moving. During the long delay before we shuffle forward, Peter and I review the day's strategy: "Save something for L'Alpe," he says. I nod.
We need less than five minutes to blow off the pact. Peter finds a freight train of riders moving about 20 miles per hour and we fall in line, enjoying the slipstream effect. We glide through the French countryside, passing hundreds if not thousands of riders and clapping spectators. Both lanes of the French roads are ours. Ah, the speed, the power, the vibe! We are racers in our own Tour de France!
The joy carries me for a good while, Peter even farther. He pulls away, but I still manage to latch on to the back wheel of rider after rider. An Italian wearing a pink jersey and pedaling a green Bianchi. A Dutchman with huge legs and a Team Discovery uniform. The air still has a crisp freshness when I crest the relatively gradual 7,700-foot Col d'Izoard, and after a long and winding descent I steamroll the shallow-pitched, 6,800-foot Col du Lautaret, a relative mosquito bite. All that stands between me and the finish is L'Alpe. My legs feel fatigued but not shot. I'm convinced I can get up the hill on adrenaline alone.
We reach the tiny French village of Bourg-d'Oisans, and I wave to the crowd with both hands. Then I make a big turn, the first of 21 leading to the top of the steep mountain. And I realize that I've made a terrible mistake. The race needed to end right there.
The climb up L'Alpe is so steep that Tour de France organizers don't rate its difficulty—these 10, 11, and 12 percent gradients are "beyond classification." After two turns, I'm no longer thinking about blowing kisses or drinking beers at the resort-style mountaintop village. I focus on micro-accomplishments. At first I concentrate on making it to the next switchback—it's overwhelming to think about all the climbing that's still to come. Soon, that mindset melts away in the blistering heat of the high alpine afternoon. I start concentrating on getting one more pedal stroke at a time out of my exhausted legs.
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.