Every year I write a recap of my Étape Du Tour. The Étape is an annual citizen’s race held on one of the most difficult stages the Tour de France covers that year and is put on by the Amaury Sport Organization (ASO), the organizers of the Tour. This year’s Étape featured over 10,000 feet of climbing and included two incredibly tough hors-catégorie climbs: the Col du Tourmalet and the Hautacam. As usual, it was a day to remember.
The alarm went off at 4:10. Breakfast at 4:30. Everyone on the bus at 5:00, with the exception of two people who arrived at 5:04 (but who is really keeping track?). A one-hour drive to the city of Pau and Trek Travel drops us off at a parking lot with our bikes ready to go. The big issue of the day is weather. The forecast is terrible. Showers at the start: 50% chance. Rain on the Tourmalet: 70% chance. Afternoon thunderstorms on the Hautacam: 90% chance. The best decision I made all day was to bring everything. I went with booties to keep my socks and shoes dry, arm warmers, leg warmers, a light jacket, and a heavy GORE-TEX jacket. Toss in full finger gloves for good measure. I used them all.
12,000 people start the ride and we’re in the first group. No rain at the start. We start FAST. Three fast, tight, turns in the first 300 yards, and then a screaming downhill. We’re having fun. We ride for 79 kilometers until the first rest stop. All is good so far. We are way ahead of schedule, and not a drop of rain. We hit the first big climb of the day, the Col du Tourmalet. The Tourmelet is 17 kilometers in length, climbing 3,000 vertical feet with an average grade of 7%. It is a big climb. Almost as soon as we start, the rain starts to fall. We move up the climb at a good pace. By now, we call ourselves the Gang of 4. My lovely wife Tania, Mark Joslyn who is in charge of the Awesome Bus (human resources) at Trek, and Pat Sullivan (Sully). Sully has been at Trek for 30 years. I invited him on the trip because his best work in his thirty-year career at Trek has been his last three. He has made a BIG difference in his 30 years at The Bicycle Company.
All good as we approach the summit where Trek Travel has set up a rest stop one kilometer before the top. The only problem; it is raining harder and it’s getting COLD. Cold enough to see your breath. We pull into the rest stop, which had the bags we packed with extra clothes in case it rained. Well…..it rained and most of the group with one exception decided to change clothes. The one person who passed figured he was soaking wet in the pouring rain and if he were to change clothes, he would be soaking wet again in a matter of minutes. As I sat around during the change of clothes I was getting colder, so I told the group I would meet them at the summit. Then the temperature dipped again. We meet at the summit and Sully seems a bit disoriented. I give him a mental health check and he is all good.
The descent off the Tourmalet on a regular day is scary: 14% grade, switchback turns, no guard rails. Add pouring rain, and cold temperatures and it is absolutely brutal. We go down slowly, as does everyone else. We get about two kilometers down the climb and Tania is freezing. Her hands are cold when it’s 80 degrees so 40 degrees and pouring only made them worse. She is shaking on the bike so we pull over to give her hands a rest. As we re-group and start to move, I notice a guy off of his bike just sitting off the road with his head down. He looks really bad. I walk over and ask him, “Are you OK?” He answers, “No.” He looks to me like he is suffering from hypothermia. “Can you get on your bike?” “No.” Finally I said to him, “We are going to get you up and we need to start moving. If you don’t move, we have another problem.” The guy could barely move as I picked him up and got him on his feet. It is pouring rain and completely miserable. This guy is the walking dead; incoherent, cold, and lost. I gave his bike to Sully and I put my bike in my right hand and I hugged my friend, (whose name I still didn’t know) with my left arm. Typically I’m not a hugger. I’m more the warm-and-hearty hand shake guy. Yet here I am hugging a guy whose name I don’t know trying to warm him up in any way I can as we walk down the mountain.
There is no help in site, so I ask Mark to go find the police while we walk down. Mark finds the French police and the answer is the same with four different guys. "We are full, there is nothing we can do." We walk three kilometers down the mountain just Sully, our new friend, and myself. He is a nice guy, still mostly incoherent, but I start asking him questions to get his mind working. We start to have bits and pieces of a conversation. We are making progress. We finally get down to a building, which is locked, but it does provide some shelter from the wind and rain. We stay there for five minutes and realize that our friend needs more help. We move on to another building 500 meters away. When we get there, we find another group of French police. This time after politely asking a couple of times, they take our friend into their van and turn on the heat. I stay in the van and massage my friend’s legs to help him warm up. After ten minutes there is a knock on the window, it is Mark Joslyn. MJ is an Eagle Scout Extraordinaire, he has a cup of coffee and a hot chocolate. Our friend is coming back to life and is very happy to have a warm cup of coffee in his hands. I stay with him, get his contact info, and tell him that I will take care of his bike. I ask for his name and his phone number. One problem, I am shaking so bad that it takes me ten minutes to type his name and phone number into my phone. I tell him not to worry; I have his bike taken care of and will get it back to London for him. “I have friends in the business.”
I get out of the van and Mark takes me behind a building to where a pizza place is hidden from sight. The same place he got the coffee. I give the owner 20 euros and ask him to take the bike. He is happy to do it. Tania calls Trek Travel and says if you have a chance, pick up the bike. As long as we are in the warm pizza place, we order hot chocolates before we are back on the bike. There is a time limit and we just spent 90 minutes on our humanitarian aid program. At this point, I did not think we would finish.
We get on the bikes and it is still pouring, still cold, but we could see sunlight at the bottom of the Tourmalet. We started the fast descent with another 25 kilometers to get to the base. We were back in the game. I did the math in my head and figured we could make it. Before we reach the next rest stop at the base of Hautacam, my wife, still shaking, asks me if she should continue. I told her, “NO.” Five years ago, Étape finished on top of Hautacam and it was cold and rainy just like today. Tania had turned bright white at the finish that year, and then had to descend the mountain to get to the village. That proved to be the hardest part of the ride that day; getting her off the mountain. I said, "We have seen this movie before, don’t do it." While I was dispensing this advice, I already knew what the answer was going to be. Tania grew up with four brothers and has what we call the “I want to play too syndrome”. When she was younger she always wanted to play with the boys and sometimes the answer was “no.” When that happened, her response was always the same: “I want to play too.” And so, while she was making a decision, I already knew what the result would be. She was going to go up the mountain. She confirmed it with, “I am going to go up the mountain and if it gets really bad, I will turn around.” To which the cynical JB replied, “let me get this straight, if we get to within 5 kilometers and it is really cold and pouring, you are going to turn around?” No answer. And so up we went. The Hautacam is a bear at 17.3 kilometers and a 7% grade. The weather turned out to be better than we thought, no rain until the last 3K. Tania made it to the top and never rang the bell. We made it up the mountain and finished l’Étape in just under 10 hours.
We return to the Trek Travel area to trade war stories with the rest of the group. It was an amazing day. This was our ninth straight Étape. Everyone has a different story with this race and this year was no different. I ask Zack from Trek Travel at the finish whether he picked up the gentleman’s bike. "Yep, and you wouldn’t believe it. After he warmed up, the police put him in the pizza place so I brought him down the mountain and two of his friends along with his bike.”