July 18: L'Etape, Col du Tourmalet, and Inappropriate Footwear

At 4am, every alarm clock in the universe went off. My phone, Dan’s phone, the kids DSi alarms, all commenced chirping and tweeting and caroling and blaring. Having slept for about two hours, I found myself standing in the middle of the room, gaping like a skewered cod, in my underwear. I flew into action prepping Dan’s breakfast and he flew into action eating it, getting his bike together, and getting dressed. Without internet, we had no way to research the packet he’d picked up from the L’Etape registration. The packet was in French, naturally, and had maps and info that would have made a lot more sense in the context of the wise and wonderful internet. Since we had no such thing, we had to fall back on our rugged sense of adventure. Which doesn’t come with a map of Pau.

In the car with sleeping children at about 4:40, we set off for Pau. We still had not seen Maubourguet in the daylight, at this point. Boinging and rocketing along these lumpy foothills, we found a couple more cars with bikes strapped to the back, also making their way down to L’Etape – exciting! In downtown Pau, we parked near the Hippodrome, where we’d been last night, and figured out with the GPS that the start was about 1km away. Dan put his bike together, got ready, and set out, leaving me with the car and a vague idea that I’d head up to the top of Tourmalet (yikes) and see the finish.

I decided to brave our way down to the start, because the idea of 10,000 bicycles in one place just had me too curious to resist. I knew they were lining up around Beaumont Parc, though I didn’t realize they’d also be snaking around all the way down around the riverside, which was where Dan was. I put Beamont Parc into the GPS and got as close as I could before I ran into the road blocks and gendarmes.
Pau was completely mystical, dawn just coming up grey and chilly, and these silent herds of cyclists floating around the city streets. In the roundabouts, the boulevards, gathering under irrelevant traffic lights, in their brightly colored jerseys and dark arm warmers, they went skimming toward the start. All the faces were a little bit tense. All the jaws a little bit clenched. There was no way I could have picked out Dan in that sea of nerves and translucent jackets. Consider: 10,000 bicycles. I’m not kidding.

After we parked on the sidewalk we walked down to the park, shivering a bit in the cold. Now it was light. We stood on the railing, immediately after the starting gate. French TV was interviewing someone right under the starting gate, and there was an announcer walking around with a microphone, announcing things in French. We could see the lined up riders stretching around the park, and that was it. I had no idea, at that point, exactly how many bikes there were.

As we stood there freezing, Benny mushroomed down on the grass under his hoodie, and a British lady standing there was tickled by how he looked and took his picture. Then she apologized to me for taking my child’s picture, and showed it to me. Of course, I didn’t mind. We chatted about the ride – she is an owner of a B&B near Pau and had some riders staying with her, so she gave them a ride down to the start. As we were chatting, a young woman approached us asking if we were from VIP tours or some other sport tour group. Her boyfriend was in the ride, and she had been planning to get a ride up to La Mongie with these tour-related people and was trying to find them. I immediately offered to give her a lift myself, as it was just her and her backpack, and I knew the next eight hours were going to be long and deadly, and I could use the company.

With a flurry of French announcing, the ride began. I thought I would video the riders going by, maybe catch Dan on camera, and give everyone a sense of how many there were. But after a few thousand riders, I felt like everyone would have stopped watching the YouTube video. It just went on and on. I sent Benny over to the actual starting gate to spot Dan, but his number was 5981, which meant approximately five thousand cyclists went past me before he did, and I missed him. Benny said he saw him though, so that made me feel better, as if he was safely off. We waited until the bitter, bitter end of the starting riders, including a couple of poachers that tagged themselves onto the end.

At that point, I turned to my new little friend the stranded British girlfriend, and we made our plans. Our first objective was to get to La Mongie, find a big TV on which to watch L’Etape, and then to climb up to the summit and see the riders coming over. We knew it would take at least five hours for the fastest guys to make it through, but we decided to go ahead and start right away. Learning what I have about parking on mountaintops, it never hurts to be early, even ridiculously so.
Ruth turned out to be a charming companion. She hit it off immediately with the children, and had such a lovely, lilting voice – she should be doing aromatherapy commercials. Turns out she is a grad student in psychology back in England, and lives in Cambridge, so we had lots to talk about on the way up the mountain. This took my mind off the agony of driving up little rickety mountain roads until we got close to La Mongie, where people were already parked for the Tour de France to come through this road in two days. That was a little sketchy. Had I been by myself with the kids, I probably would have been hyperventilating. However, with Ruth announcing merrily that we were fine, just fine, I managed to keep my heart rate within survivable parameters. I am sure she will make a great shrink, if that’s the direction she wants to go.

Arriving in La Mongie, we found absolute madness. Madness. We drove up through this ski resort town / cycling mecca without finding a single place to park – it was all clotted up with campers, cars, and people walking around with no regard for the traffic. We located some people in red shirts that said “Organisation” and they, unfortunately, were deeply committed to us hurtling over a cliff. And fast. They perceived that we wanted to park, and I guess they were doing their best to create parking spaces where none existed, but when I say to you that they were trying to park us on the side of a mountain in the middle of a cow pasture, after first passing through a deep ravine, I am not creating a fiction.

I tried to resist but the man shouted at me in French, and most of the words were “Allez!” which means “Get your ass down in that ravine, lady!” When we reached the bottom of the ravine and figured out that the plan was to scale the other side of the gully on grass and then park on a 45 degree angle in a slick of cow poop and loose shale, we rebelled. We left the van in front of a couple of campers and hoped no one would mind. We haven’t yet run into anyone who minds in the least when you park in some bizarre location.

We climbed up onto the main street, found a grocery store and bought some food, and then located the giant TV screen on which we expected to watch L’Etape. Turns out they were only prepared to televise the finishers, and all we kept seeing on the TV was Tour de France footage. Fortunately we had food, coffee, an available bathroom, a nice sunny table, and the kids had a beautiful little stream to play in and actual loose donkeys to avoid. When I say the donkeys were loose I mean they were completely uncontained donkeys just roaming around through the cafes and open areas, munching on people’s stuff, food or otherwise. Sadie came bouncing up to me asking for some baguette – which I gave her. She ran off to feed the donkeys! I thought they looked pretty shrewd and opportunistic, and potentially dangerous, but the kids reassured me that it was only one of the donkeys that was trying to bite them. Well WHAT a relief. While waiting, we also bought a marmot for Sadie and a Pyreneean bell for Benny to ring.

We let Benny run up this nearby slope -- can you find him?

At about 12:30 we decided that they were never going to show us the actual race on TV, even though we’d been told by several people that it was a very big deal and would definitely be televised. We thought we’d better head up the mountain and get in a good spot to see the riders start finishing. We marched back up as far as the car, and retrieved our shade umbrella, American flag, and also our jackets, just in case. I also had the food I’d bought, two Coca Lights, a huge bottle of water, and Benny’s iron bell, and of course Sadie’s marmot which she managed to carry on her own. Ruth was also toting food, water, orange juice, and a change of clothes. We had this concept that once we got up on the mountain, it was going to be a frozen, barren wasteland, and we’d be sitting there for approximately six hours. So we loaded up and set off up the hill.

If you put your two index fingers together to make a mountain, then La Mongie is located at the smallest knuckle of your left finger, and the cyclists are climbing up your right finger. All we had to do was climb up that last little bit to the summit, and we’d see the riders coming over from the other side. Unfortunately to make that finger demonstration accurate, you’d have to create a bazillion switchbacks in both your fingers, so that the actual distance from your smallest knuckle to the tip of your finger was several yards. Straight up. We soon figured out that our brisk hike up the mountain was going to be a long drag up the mountain. And hot. Did I mention I was carrying everything on earth, including an iron bell? Ruth offered to carry some of my crap, but I felt like if I was fool enough to bring it all along, I better be fool enough to carry it. Here's Ruth having an orange juice -- can you see how steep the terrain is?

Soon I realized that if I made the children eat the food I had brought, the bag would be lighter, so I began pushing fruit urgently. Sadie ate two bites of an apple and decided it wasn’t to her liking. Lo and behold, what should be wandering across the road but a herd of cattle? Fierce, agile mountain cattle, I might add. One of them was sporting a massive bell around her neck, and the rest were packing horns. Nevertheless, I allowed Sadie to feed the remainder of her apple to one of the cows that had a baby at her side. Anything for a nursing mother, right?

At some point after the cattle, we realized that it was taking a really bloody long time to climb that hill, and that four kilometers was really a very long way to go. I think it was about the time the first finisher came through on his descent, and it hit us that the racers could potentially beat us to the top. Well, they did. A lot of them. We found a little road that would lead us down through the ravine and then directly up on the other side, bypassing a few of the switchbacks and taking us straight up the mountain.

This seemed like a great idea, until we got done with the “down through the ravine” part of it and to the “straight up the mountain part.” Did I mention I was wearing black leather sandals? And carrying everything I could find? My footwear were so inappropriate, even the footwear of the other hikers on the mountain paused to chuckle at me. We took a lot of stops, pausing by this or that clump of goat poop and thistle to breathe heavily and gasp at how far we had come and how far we still had to go.

At some point Ruth took up the chorus, “We’re so close! We’re nearly there!” and that somehow deeply inspired the children, who climbed the mountain like regular goats, especially Sadie. Benny did spend a bit too much time pining to be able to climb a nearby slope with snow at the top, but as it was completely composed of loose rocks and certain death, especially to a boy in sandals and shorts, I said no. Again and again. No matter how the question was posed to me, I still said no, and yet Benny had time on that mountain to pose the question in at least forty-eleven thousand different ways. Here's a picture of me. Behind me is the brown mountain that Benny wanted to climb:

I’ve found that Benny, when faced with something very enormous and overwhelming, like for example this mountain, he will fixate on some one very tangible issue, and worry it to death. I saw him do it during our week in the Alps too – he was so fixated on how he was going to make a diorama of Paris that I nearly had to stuff him into a well. I would repeat, very clearly, looking straight at him, “We are not going to make a diorama of Paris while we are in France. We would not be able to pack it in the suitcase. It would get smashed. We will make it when we get home.” And then he would say “Right, right, I get it. You’re right.” And then in five minutes he would be talking about something he is about to put into his diorama, as soon as he starts it, and when can he start it? Maddening, and yet, I understood that it was the way he dealt with the enormity of what he was experiencing.

No words or pictures can express how steep and long that climb was up that lousy mountain. We had to stop and reward ourselves with diet Coke twice – by this time we were past any modesty or niceties and were passing around the diet Coke can indiscriminately, while begging Benny to drink the water so we didn’t have to carry it. The children were both in love with Ruth and I was so thankful for her assistance. She and Sadie were skipping from rock to rock, holding hands, chirping pleasantly to each other – if it had not been for her, I am fairly sure Sadie would have been demanding to be carried by that point. Ruth is great with kids – she’ll be a great mom. Meanwhile we kept spotting riders descending the hill, and we were motivated upward by the idea that Dan or her boyfriend might crest the hill and we might miss it.

Finally, after many soul-searching moments and much water consumption and a few reapplications of sunscreen, we arrived at the road.

Then it was a brief trudge up the last stretch to the summit. When we got there, it was a madhouse! Huge clumps of cyclists, lots of spectators swarming the rocky peaks, and a restaurant with ice cream, water, and diet coke! And it was hot as blazes up there. So, I felt like a regular ass for dragging all that stuff up the hill, but there we were. Ruth got Sadie an ice cream, I got us diet Cokes, and we felt like we’d really done something. We toasted to “We’re so close!”

Benny almost immediately disappeared into the crowd, and later resurfaced waving his flag on the tallest peak, completely unsafe, giving me a heart attack, and absolutely happy.

Dan had said that eight hours was the longest he thought it would take him to get up the hill, and we arrived at the top just before the eight hour mark. Of course on the way up, I had spotted a few people coming down that looked like Dan, but they were so far away that I couldn’t be sure. So, I got the camera ready and prepared to take his picture coming over the line.

The spectators were rowdy and awesome. They cheered politely for everyone, but foamed and raged uproariously for any of the following groups:

Old people
People who were barely making it and looked about to die.
People who were sprinting and hurtling majestically over the line.

But the biggest crowd pleasers were the guys (women did not do this) who fist-pumped and tried to work up the crowd and get a response. People went nuts for them. “Allez! Allez! Allez!” all the live long day.

I stood there waiting, camera in hand, as the eight hour mark went by, then with every passing minute I got more and more convinced that Dan had been dashed on the rocks. I was hoping, waiting, hoping, waiting, and then the phone rang. My heart sank – I would hear some French emergency room worker garbling at me about how his head was only partially severed, did I want them to try and save it?

But it was DAN. And he was fine, and on the other side of the summit, wondering where I was. Yes, in point of fact, he did come over in eight hours, and I had missed him crossing the line somehow! On the one hand, it was a big “You have got to be kidding me” moment, but on the other hand, I was kind of proud of myself for dragging my ass up that mountain. We made our way down. It had taken us 2.5 hours to ascend, but took us only one hour to descend.

Back at La Mongie, we met up with a very tired, very happy Dan, and packed back into the van.

After a heinous traffic jam around the little towns on D918, we made it back to 817, which took us back to Pau, avoiding some awful traffic on the Autoroute. We said goodbye to our friend Ruth and dropped her back downtown Pau, then dragged ourselves back to Maubourguet where I fed us, watched some French news for news of L’Etape, and we fell into bed. Wary of the feather duvet and pillows on the big bed, I slept with Sadie, which did not lead to an extremity of comfort, but as we were so tired, nothing mattered except closing our eyes.

No comments:

Post a Comment