I’m still adjusting to Euro-time, and last night’s nightcap in the very cool Place Stanislav in Nancy didn’t exactly help matters, so this morning came earlier than I needed. But I was psyched for my first day on the bike at this Tour and looking forward to sampling the final three climbs of today’s stage into Gerardmer – a beautiful lakeside town in the Vosges mountains.
Featuring three short climbs, the last two promised some sting with ramps of 15%, and a final climb average of over 10% to the finish.
Light clouds turned into a steady rain on our drive south, which translated into a few more miles inside the car – might as well ease into the mountains I say.
Finding a suitable bar as the start point proved tougher than expected on a quiet Saturday morning in these mountains of France, but the wait was worth it when we found Bar Charly in Saint Ettienne, whose owners Rico and Brigitte were indeed gracious hosts, and happy to help with my preparations – took a page from Ed Hood’s book and settled into a nice cognac with my coffee.
Lack of a common language proved no problem once again, it seems a smile and an open mind go a lot further than a French-English dictionary.
My ride for this Tour is something new that we first showed after Sea Otter – Handmade in Italy, the DIVO will be featured in a full review later – but for now is worth a long glance – Campy’s 11-Speed index gruppo, and Bora tubular carbon wheels – a very nice setup.
Onto the ride – I’d not gone 500 meters when I found this festively adorned camp – cheerfully hosted by Jean-Pierre Frelontin – who may be France’s most enthusiastic Tour fan. I noted his yellow short and matching croqs – and when I asked for a photo, he disappeared into his camper. The rustling from inside suggested I was in for a nice glass of wine, but instead J-P emerged dressed in full bumble-bee regalia – complete with his own stinger… and swatter. As I said – full points for enthusiasm.
A quiet few kms of flat road served a perfect warm up, and the showers of earlier gave way to warm sunshine as I pedaled onto the first ramps of the Cotes des la Croix Moinats – 7.6kms @ 6% average – it seemed steeper than the 6% I ride back home.
No point in rushing a nice ride though and enjoying the lush hills that soon surrounded the climb, I met up with a group of Aussies from BikeStyle Tours. A friendly hello from PEZ-Fan Dave turned into an impromptu group ride for the rest of the climb. I never get tired of the camaraderie we share as cyclists – and it never fails to put a smile on my face thinking about how far we’ve all travelled to be here, and to by chance meet up and spend a few good moments at the Tour.
My ride with the Aussies was briefly interrupted when I spotted my two favorite Hosers – PJ and Rob were back on the job flying the Canadian flag and even hoisting a couple cold ones, eh. Astute Pez-fans will have noted Rob’s ingeneous methods of flag pole creation yesterday, and apparently after seven Tours doing this, he’s never used the same exact method twice.
From cold beer to the flames of hell – next I spotted the man who single handedly started the whole crazy-fan-costume movement – the Devil himself – and I had to score a selfie for the record books. Ever wonder how many times this guy has been photographed?
Over the top and the legs sufficiently warmed up – I was already on a cracking day, and wondered only how it could get any better. But this being the Tour – I knew this one was a long way from over.
Next up was the Col de Grosse Pierre – only 3km long and 7.5% avg, but with a searing 11-16% pitch through the middle – ouch. I somehow avoided the paper-boy weave, but chalked that up to adrenalized enthusiasm more than my sadly lacking fitness.
Luckily just past the summit I encountered a smoking BBQ, the universal sign to pull over and make friends. This group of Belgians had imported their famous hospitality, and had the best looking sausage-fest I’ve seen in some time. My request for a photo was answered with an offer of cold Juliper – also imported. If you ask me, these guys should be running the United Nations.
A short descent led me over an unclassified summit enroute to the uber steep finale – but ominous clouds promised an end to my warm and sunny ride. As I pulled on my rain jacket, my phone rang with a call from my driver Mino – wondering if I was ok – since we’d lost track of each other in the last few kms. I said no probs – I’ll see you at the finish town – and pushed off.
A couple hundred meters after I snapped this pic, the skies opened up – and a torrential downpour of biblical proportions ensued. It was full brakes for the descent to Gerardmer as the rain was so heavy it stung my face – and of course I was soaked in about 60 seconds.
The rain beat down as I splashed my way across the main street in Gerardmer, and actually considered calling the whole thing off – seeing as I was soaked clean through every fiber of my being – and clothing. As fate would have it – I couldn’t find Mino, so decided that at least the final climb would keep me warm, so up I went.
It’s only 1.8kms, but averages over 10% – and boy, that is steep. Being fully barriered, I had the whole thing to myself, and appreciated the cheers from the occasional fans – at least the ones who weren’t looking at me wondering why on earth I’d want to ride my bike up this thing.
While I was indeed warming up – my legs and lungs were downright burning, and I was teetering on the brink of ‘enough’. Then at 500m to go I was stopped by the gendarmes directing all traffic to an off-course deviation. I hadn’t come this far to get turned out, and a flash of my much-valued credentials got me access into the final barriered “no one allowed unless you’re important” zone – I mean this place is harder to get into than a Vegas nightclub.
Inside the Tour’s version of the velvet rope, the finish was in sight – just a few hundred meters more, but I was in desperate need of something to push me through. Hundreds of fans lining the road turned the trick – who with just a little encouragement – were happy to throw up a tunnel of cheers as I bottom-geared my way up – some folks will do anything when you turn a camera on them – and I was happy to provide what little fame I could to my own personal flash mob. There’s no feeling like it.
Postscript: While descending back to town, my phone buzzed a few times in my jersey pocket. It was Mino – but my hands were busy on the brakes. Then at the bottom – my phone died – before we could connect. So now I’m soaked, and cold, and no idea how I’m gonna solve this one. Eventually I sourced the local Orange phone shop – where they plugged me in and my phone started buzzing off with texts that Mino had sent in the last hour – my favorite was:
“Richard – your phone is not working.”
Another awesome day at the Tour – and tomorrow it’s more climbing and roadside adventures – keep it dialed PEZ and thanks for reading.