Tour de France 2004 Stage 15 - Valreas to Villard-de-Lans

This is the first day that we actually get to see the Tour de France on the road. We went out for the short ride option today since I was recovering from my cold and Tammy was of course starting to get the early symptoms of it. There should be a way that you can trade vacation days for sick days! :-) We took the bus from Grenoble and cut out a moderately steep and very long climb out of the town to make our ride a little easier. We rode the bus up the switchbacks of the mountainside and got off near the top of the climb and spun along with a bunch of about 20 riders. We headed out a few kilometers and got onto a loop that Lonely Planet describes as the most scenic cycling route in France and one of the best in Europe.

We did a steep and fast descent into a canyon on a road that was literally cut out of the side of a sheer face. The speeds on the descent were a taste of what we would get coming up hitting around 60 kph (sorry, all my computers are set to kilometers for this trip so you will need to do the conversion on your own). While that isn't terribly fast for a descent let me describe the conditions. The road was very windy. It was maybe 10 feet wide but somehow was a 2-lane road with active oncoming traffic and you couldn't see around the sweeps because as I mentioned it was cut into the side of a rock face. Oh, the other side over the barrier? Few hundred feet to a nice R.I.P. Yeah, I took it easy. Little did I know this was easy compared to what was coming up. Tammy took it even easier. She learned through this trip that there is something she hates more than climbing – descending.

We then climbed out of the canyon and I found out this was another preview of things to come. This was just some road climbing out of the canyon. Please note, this is not climbing a mountain as I thought it was while doing it. When getting to the top I asked the ride leader and he kindly informed me that "no, the mountain is coming up". And did it ever...

We stopped in a small village in the foothills of the Alpes and filled our water bottles. Many of these old villages have a public fountain or spring in the middle of town which makes it great for cyclists. You just fill your bottle up with great, cold spring mountain water. Wonderful. And thankful since none of them have any stores. The houses and buildings were amazing.

After trying to figure out where we were, we descended a few kilometers and for the first time, turned onto the course of the Tour de France. Let me take a moment to pause here.

I now fully realize what an intimate sport cycling is. Imagine going to the Indy 500 and being able to drive your car around the track a few times before the race, just for fun. Or going to a baseball game and hitting a few balls at the plate while the crowd streams in. That is what you can do at the Tour de France. Riding your bike on the alpine climbs of the Tour hours before the race itself comes through with the huge crowds on the side of the climb was just incredible.

We got to the bottom of the descent and turned left to climb the 1,374m Col de Chalimont. The climb was 11 km with an average gradient of 5.8%. The first few k's (kilometers) were steeper than the top. After about 3 km I had given up on "keeping a gear in reserve". You see, cyclists will usually not shift into the easiest gear on their bike when climbing mostly to have a mental reserve if it gets really hard. Forget that! I was panting my way up the side of this mountain going about 8 kph with my heart racing a 100 yard dash! Tammy who was lucky enough to have a triple chain ring (she has a whole set of gears for climbing which I do not have) was spinning along working hard in her "granny gear".

I did have to stop after about 8 km and 40 minutes of climbing. The entire climb took around an hour. Tammy didn't stop and actually made it to the top before I did. The crowd on the side of the road cheers on anyone climbing. Allez! Allez! It really does make you go longer and harder than you could otherwise. Of course watching the tour riders ride up this mere category 2 climb afterwards is a little humbling. :-)

We then did a 10 km descent into the village where we stopped to watch the tour. We settled in a round-about that the tour would cross twice. They would come off a steep descent rocketing along and do a 180 degree turn into the town. Do about 3 k's and then come back through the other way to do a quick 3k climb to an uphill finish.

Before the tour the caravan came through. The caravan is essentially a parade that drives about an hour in front of the race in part to clear the road but mostly to give more opportunities to the sponsors. The Tour de France is free, 100% funded by sponsors. The fans love the caravan and it provides a good diversion after you've been waiting there for 2 hours in the baking sun.

The tour experience on this first day was really amazing. It's not like any other sporting event I have ever experienced. First, the race goes by you so fast that you see it for minutes, yet thousands crowd the road as it goes by. The electricity in the air and the love that the people have for this event drowns out the commercialism of the sponsors. I was perched in a spot waiting to see the riders come down the descent and around me were men and women, young and old and everyone was eyeing a tiny piece of blacktop at the top of the descent. At the first site of a rider the group erupted in a roar as they came down. It was amazing to experience. The lead group came through as the crowd cheered. Personally I could hardly get a picture off. I was just fumbling around at the first site of the tour, Lance in the lead group down the descent, the speed and power of the race. It was amazing.

A few minutes later the yellow jersey group came down with Thomas Voeckler still in yellow. Voeckler at this point had held the yellow jersey longer than any French rider in the last two decades. He's under 25 and looks like a kid. And, the French love him. Another roar erupted as they went by. It's hard to describe the energy and experience of such a brief event. I'm simply not a good enough writer to do it justice. But it was amazing.

We ended our day with a very long and fast descent back to Grenoble. Tammy described that descent as the hardest thing she's ever done on a bike. Your hands and arms ache on these descents because you must brake smart and hard at the right times. You cannot brake all the time or you will blow a tire. So you must let your speed get up to 50-60 kph and then as you get to the switchback brake hard and come out. It rained a little on the descent making it even worse. We had dinner around 9pm in Grenoble and called it a day.