Friday 12 July 2019

Thursday 11 July 2019

Stage 12 (Thursday): Rookies

I’d like to grumble for a moment. Breakfast is a shit show. Picture it: close to 100 really hungry guys, heading for a really tiny restaurant. I thought it was bad when there were 70 of us. Now there are no available tables in sight, no plates, no cutlery, and no scrambled eggs – they're long gone.

But I’m getting good at this, so I grab what I can hold in one hand (cheese, meat slices, bread), skip the coffee because the lines are too slow, nab a clean coffee cup in the other hand as it comes out of the kitchen, dump two hard boiled eggs into it, and head out to the parking lot. Breakfast on the road. :)

Laundry, Le Loop Style
Today’s stage is a mountain stage. We have seven of these in total and this is number two: Toulouse to Bagnères-de-Bigorre. It’s the first high-altitude stage, right in the heart of the Pyrenees. It will be about 135 km before we reach the mountain climbs, which means late in the day when the sun is at it’s hottest. Pacing is our priority and it needs to be tight if we’re going make it over the mountains and to the end of our 216 km day (“bonus miles” always put us over the km’s that the Pros do).

There are a lot of “fresh legs” on this stage: new arrivals, full of energy ready to have fun. We try to hang on to their wheels but we know we’ll burn ourselves out if we do. Maybe we’ll catch up to them after the heat whacks ‘em. Heh heh.

The first mountain was Col De Peyresourde with its 13 km long climb at 7% average. It was hot, hot, hot. I stopped twice to dunk my cap and helmet in the running water that flows from small concrete “bowls” set by the roadside. I wonder if they’ve been built for riders or the goats that seem to be everywhere. In any case, it helped immensely.

A few riders succumbed to the crazy heat and needed vehicle assistance getting up the to top. The music from my phone and the gorgeous views kept me going. I have a playlist of songs with a great beat that match my cadence. The switchbacks were really cool too. I could see riders in the far distance climbing, which messed with my perspective. It looked like they where climbing a 50% grade!

Helping me get through the nights...
I got to the top of the first mountain and wondered if I could climb the next mountain. It was shorter, only 9 km long, but the grade was a bit higher. I figured I would try and let my legs rest on the decent. The second climb was much nicer. It was noticeably cooler and very shaded. There are already caravans starting to line the roads in anticipation of the Pros flying by them 7 days from now. Talk about dedication to the sport!

The day ended with a 30 km descent which blew my mind. The roads were virtually empty and I rode it alone, singing my tunes out-loud. Five kilometers from the end of my ride, a rider pulls along side of me. The descent was now almost flat and I was going about 40 km/hr. He yells out: “hold on,” with a smile. I settled in behind his wheel, and we flew. It was exhilarating, reaching speeds of almost 60 km/hr on the flats. I felt like a Pro. It was super cool. 
My day ended with a strong sense of accomplishment. I’m getting used to the climbs, the heat, and pacing myself to last throughout the day. I settled into dinner with the Loopers, and there was a sense of elation as we hoisted our beers and celebrated our day. 
Anyone see the new arrivals anywhere? :)

Wednesday 10 July 2019

Stage 11 (Wednesday): Reason to believe

Stage 11 – Flat Stage
Albi to Toulouse
167 km – 2023 total climbing with two small climbs.

We’re setting off towards the Pyrenees mountains and I’m pumped. One rider who left yesterday came up to me and told me that when he did the Grand Loop, day 10 was his darkest day. I am thrilled that I am nowhere near darkness – not today anyway. The day is beautiful, the route is flat and the millage is low, relatively speaking.

I rode with two guys for most of the day. We created a fast paceline and worked hard to keep a steady cadence. Hours passed in almost complete silence. We each seemed to be deep within our own thoughts. We passed field upon field of blooming sunflowers – a treat I was hoping to see since I signed up for this tour.

The day blew by fast. Up and down, we climbed the endless hills of this flat stage, completing over 2000 meters of climbing. I feel my confidence growing as I go. This kind of ride has become pretty standard for us and I have accepted the fact that France has no flats.

We ended the day with the addition of 35 new riders who want to conquer the upcoming mountains. Most of them are repeaters from previous years, but a few of them are very new, very green and it shows on their faces… they still look happy! Just kidding. My group is weary but strong. We have been through a lot together.

The mood has changed, though, with the new additions. The restaurant we are having dinner in is overflowing with what is now 90 riders, and the air is thick with conversation and laughter. Many of the new riders are yelling across the room for whatever reason. It’s loud and a little obnoxious and we’re tired. I wish the new riders had their own table.  I can’t describe it but it kind of feels like they are intruders on our journey, shaking the ground we are riding on. I want to include them, but their energy is humming on a different frequency. I will be nice but I am not sure I need to like it. I’m probably just over-tired.

On a happier note, every night on every stage there are three awards given out. One is a joke award, given to the person who brings shame to cycling. It’s all in fun and we have a good giggle. Tonight’s recipient received the shame award for telling bad cheese jokes all day. I didn’t know there were that many cheese jokes, let alone bad ones.

The other two awards are for either acts of kindness (the yellow chapeau) or for some achievement (the arrow). As I mentioned in an earlier post, I had been blown away by being awarded the yellow cap on Stage 3. Well… it happened again! I won the Arrow Award for Stage 11!! In spite of my internal grumbling a few paragraphs above, it seems that, through thick and thin, I’ve got this infectious smile pasted across my face. People noticed. In spite of the painful challenges I’ve faced and the dark places I’ve visited, I was awarded the arrow for coming out of the other side of it, still pushing, still smiling.

I’m beginning to believe in myself and that I will make it to Paris.

Nice cemetery back there! Where's the sign-up sheet?

Tuesday 9 July 2019

Rest Day! (Tuesday)

There were moments over the past 10 days that I wasn’t sure if I would make it. This year’s Tour de France is said to be brutal compared to past years. Some say it is because it makes for better TV, while others say it’s to blow up the American team that has been dominating for years. There are a number of past Grand Loopers (the term used to describe the riders that are doing all 21 Stages) who are blown away at the volume of climbs in the first half of this event, and claim that this year is far harder than the year they did it. I have nothing to compare it to. All I can say is I am very glad the first ten days are over.

I had hoped to sleep a lot, or at least rest on rest day, but there’s so much to do. The Pro’s have people to clean their bikes and wash their cycling gear. Not so with us. I’m the chief in charge of my riding, climbing, sprinting, picture-taking, singing, bonking, walking, whining, chronicling, cheering, washing, fixing, cleaning, and shopping. On that last note, I needed to visit a bike shop for supplies. I’m in need of better gloves (my hands are sore and calloused) as well as new cleats for both of my cycling shoes. I also treated myself to a new cycling jacket as a gift for a job well done (or a least that is how I justified paying 120 euros for it).

I had lunch with my Canadian teammates, Deirdre, Roger, Lynn and Ian. There are five of us from our cycling club, Mindset, who are attempting the “Grand Loop”. Some of their family and friends have traveled to meet them on our rest day. It was nice to sit down at a restaurant far away from the bubble I’ve been living in for the last 10 days.

I spent the rest of the afternoon emptying my suitcase and repacking ever so efficiently. The Le Loop organization has offered us an “amnesty” bag. What that means is we can dump whatever we think we don’t need for the rest of the tour into the amnesty bag and they’ll give it back to us on the last day. I completely overpacked (surprise!) and my suitcase is far too heavy to lug up and down stairs. We move hotels just about every day, so lighter is better. I now have only three outfits for evenings and far fewer “luxuries”: no makeup, no flatiron, and barely a brush to run through my hair now. Nobody cares. We’re all too tired to look at each other anyway.

Lighter and leaner, I head into the next phase of this incredible journey. I feel more confident than I did a week ago. I’m blessed that my body is doing what I'm asking it to do and honored to be amongst such an amazing group of men and women. Next up: the Pyrenees and then the big mountains!

Monday 8 July 2019

Stage 10 (Monday): A Toast to Ten

Today was a much, much better day.
I seemed to have lost about a thousand pounds of water (a lot of late night loo visits) and towards the end of the day Cari, one of my teammates, told me (hesitantly) that I looked way skinnier in the afternoon than I had in the morning. Hard not to like that idea.
Ah! The wonders of salt.
Today’s stage, number 10, is 218km with over 3300 meters of climbing and four category climbs. In the morning I was still pretty puffy from the prior day’s adventures in chemistry, and pretty tired from lack of sleep due to going to the bathroom so much in the night. But I definitely felt better and was very happy overall to be at Stage 10 with a rest day tomorrow (!!).
The ride was amazing with views so spectacular that it made me want to move here. Each town I rode through was unique. Some were older than others, some more prosperous. I loved looking at the centuries-old buildings, wanting to stop at each of them and learn their stories, if they would share.
I rode with two guys again and we worked hard together to keep a good pace line going, each pulling our own share. I am extremely happy that my legs and power are back, just like the doc said. :)
The day was much like many others I’ve completed: lots of climbing, lots of hot, hot sun, and endless hours of looking at the wheel of the rider in front of me. I am loving this! Is that weird?
My ride ended after 8pm and as I rode up to the beautiful hotel in Albi, I was informed that I had no roommate tonight. What a gift to end the first half of this grueling 21-day event with!
I showered and headed for the restaurant where most of the other riders were eating. Some were still out riding, some bailed early in the day wanting to take in the sights.
I heading to bar and bought a bottle of champagne. I grabbed four glasses and returned to my table where I popped the cork and toasted, with my riding buddies, to the success of making it through this ridiculous adventure we’re all on (so far). 
Cari grabbed the cork, cut a slit into it, and asked me for a euro. He slid the coin into the space and handed cork and coin back to me saying: "This is a tradition… it's for luck. Keep it with you and you'll make it all the way to Paris.” 

Sunday 7 July 2019

Stage 9 (Sunday): Walls of Death (and other minor impediments)

Yesterday’s stage, featuring wicked hills and wicked weather, had me ridiculously tired. This morning I was pretty sure I could shake it off. Stage 9 was 170 km and another hilly outing with over 3000 meters of climbing starting with another “Wall”. The French are fond of their “walls”. This one was called the “Wall of Death,” just to distinguish it. It has a maximum grade of over 18% but hovers around 13-14% for almost 2 km. I set out and, almost immediately, when I hit the wall, I really did hit the wall. I wasn’t feeling great, and I thought it must be accumulated wear. No matter how I tried, I just couldn’t climb this beast and, as much as I didn’t want to, I had to walk some of it. I even struggled to push my bike up the hill. Something was off.

I finished my “walk of shame” to the top of the Wall of Death and climbed back on my bike. But I couldn’t seem to get a good rhythm going. I tried to keep up with riders that I have ridden with before, but they dropped me easily. A few came back to try and pull me back up to the group, but it was no use. I had zero power. I pedaled alone for what felt like days, plodding along slowly. I took in the views and tried to make the best of it. I was told I’d have good days and bad days. Maybe this was one of those bad days.

I reached the third feed station for lunch and, as I dismounted, I noticed that one of my legs was enormously swollen. As I looked at my legs, I realized that I couldn’t make out my knees. Where did my knees go? What’s happening?

Fortunately, I didn’t have to wonder for long because Doc Fi was at the stop and I made a beeline to her. Fi took one look at me and asked whether I had been taking salt or electrolytes. “Both of course,” I said, “it’s hotter than hell out here.” She explained that there was enough salt in the food that was being served throughout the day, and that we didn’t need to supplement it. She also explained that we’re on a multi-week event and that a body can’t process the quantity of salt I was taking in quickly enough. “Your kidneys are failing you,” she informed me. “That’s why you’re swollen and listless.”

Well that’s a new one for the list: kidney failure.

At least I now had the answer to the power problem I was having. All in all, it was a little bit of good news on this otherwise bleak day (keeping in mind that good news is relative).

As I ate my noticeably salty lunch, I walked around, watching the locals jump into the lake at the Shangri-La setting where our food-stop was set up. Women were swimming without tops, a young couple were kissing, children were jumping off a long dock… I really was in the heart of France. It was a perfect setting and perfect weather to be here, by the water. My spirits were lifted. Doc Fi rode with me for the rest of the day, keeping an eye one me (again).

My legs continued to swell throughout the day and by evening my skin had stretched so much that my legs were too sensitive to touch. A few big bruises appeared behind one knee, most likely due to the swelling. The doc told me I should be okay within a few days and that my knees would be returned to me. 

I believed her and trusted that tomorrow would be a much, much better day. :)

Saturday 6 July 2019

Stage 8 (Saturday): When the gods laugh

Stage Details
196.99km – 4010m of climbing – 15.4% max grade – 7 category climbs

At the daily briefing we were warned that there was risk of rain, most likely in the PM. I was really happy to hear the news. I had grown tired of climbing in extreme heat. Rain sounded nice to me. I think the gods took note.
I put rain gear in both of the vans that I’d encounter throughout the day and headed off to what was referred to as a “climbing beast” of a day. As with every day so far in this tour, it took about an hour for my legs and my mood to settle into the ride. The morning was beautiful and cool, the scenery was typical of France, simply gorgeous. I was in my zone.
Our first climb began 51km into the ride, a category 2, 6.1km long at an average 7%. I’m getting pretty used to this type of climb so I relaxed into it. A group of us had formed as we climbed, spirits were high with jokes and laughter coming from the front and back. It began to rain lightly, a little earlier than anticipated, and it felt nice. I figured "so what, what’s a little rain?" Then it rained a little harder, and a little harder still, but I wasn’t going to let it bother me. Riding in the heat for the last 7 stages has been brutal, and I felt that anything other the blazing burning sun would be better. Oh, was I wrong.
The temperature dropped precipitously and then, seconds later, a massive downpour. A river of water began to flow on my right and then quickly under me. I was still climbing but I couldn’t see the road anymore. The climb ran through a thick forested area so at least it was giving us some cover. Thunder and lightening were overhead and the thought of getting hit by lighting crossed my mind. Apparently it crossed the mind of at least one other rider as he changed course and rode back the first feed stop we had recently left. Just when I was getting used to my situation, odd sounds started occurring. Loud high pitched pinging sounds everywhere. It was hail, hitting our helmets, hitting our carbon bikes. Hail! Holy shit!
Cari, the rider that was next to me yelled out in his Welsh accent: “Carmen, if this doesn’t make you a bad ass cyclist, nothing will”. I laughed, what else was there to do? Be in the moment I thought, this, like all the other things the gods had thrown at us, would pass.
My shoes were completely filled with water. I was utterly drenched and beginning to shiver a little from the cold. I was unprepared for this and I had a long descent coming up. A female rider came up and began to chat with me. Her name was Fiona and she was one of the tour doctors. I could tell she was checking in on me and I assured her that I was fine. Doc Fi (as she likes to be called) rode with me as we began the decent. Her cycling skills are incredible and within minutes she was but a tiny dot in the distance. I was left squeezing tightly on my new bike’s disc brakes. When disc brakes get wet, they like to squeal. Mine went to the front of the class.
When I finally reached the bottom of the decent, I was shivering uncontrollably. Doc Fi had waited for me. “Carmen, are you alright?” she asked. This time, I answered honestly, “not really.” I was freezing and my rain gear was in the van. This amazing woman reached under her rain jacket and pulled out a fresh pair of winter arm warmers. I was floored. I put them on quickly and hung onto her wheel as she pulled me to the next climb. I wasn’t a bad ass yet. Being prepared for anything makes you a bad ass.
The weather changed quickly again and, of course, now I was hot. No, hot doesn’t do it justice. I was roasting, like a side of beef in an oven, garnished with wet cycling shorts and soggy shoes.
The climbs today were all doable but they were plentiful. If we weren't on a categorized climb, we were on a uncategorized climb. Up and down, up and down, beautiful views everywhere, taking my breath away over and over. I tried to take pictures where I could, but I fear I didn’t capture the true beauty of this amazing country.
With slightly over 50km to go before the ride was complete, the sky began to darken again. It was well after 6pm and I was exhausted. I still had two more category climbs to do and I had been riding alone for much of the day. The rain started again exactly as it did 7 hours before. I was prepared this time, putting on a rain jacket I had pulled from the van 5 hours ago in the blazing heat of the then sunny day. I was on a gravel road, riding through farmers’ fields. The wind was wicked but, fortunately, no hail this time. I looked down at my Garmin and it read “10% grade” and I’m convinced that the wind was trying to push be backwards. I couldn’t stop laughing. This was ridiculous. Now it was dark out, I was riding on gravel, in the rain, with a crazy wind blowing, and a 10% hill. I got out of my saddle for the first time in hours, screaming something that I now can’t remember.
I got through the climb and caught up to a few riders who were ahead of me. We rode together to the last feed stop 35km from the end of this stage. Many riders had packed it in already, unwilling to go on. The offer to take the van was made to all. A few took it a few did not. As I rode away, deciding to tackle the next and last category climb of this stage, I was happy that there were two riders to keep me company, and I felt safe.
It was another two hours of riding in the rain before we reached our hotel. It took 15 minutes under a hot shower before I felt warm enough to eat dinner. By now it was 10pm. 
The gods had their laugh on Stage 8, but as I walked to dinner that night, I thought: ... today, I got the last laugh.

Friday 5 July 2019

Stages 6 & 7 (Thurs & Fri): I'm back!

Stage 6

So much has happened since I last wrote: so many ups, so many downs. And, of course, I'm not talking about the mountains I climbed. Stage 6 may be the worst stage of the tour in terms of difficultly. I felt beaten to a pulp. The heat and unrelenting sun just zaps you of all your precious energy.

I was hanging on well for the first 3/4 of the day. I had completed 3000 meters of climbing as I pulled into the third feed stop, and then it happened. The anticipation of the next two 10 km climbs plus the summit finish was too much for me to handle emotionally.
I broke down.
I grabbed a bag of potato chips from the feed station and headed out for a walk far away from the others. I found shade and started to cry. My brain just couldn't grasp what was to come. I didn't want to quit but I couldn't see how I could go on. I called Drew but he must have been in a meeting. I tried Tara and she picked up… (thanks Tara). She began with some quick medical questions. Looks like I was bonking a bit and I just need to cool down my core temperature and refuel. My legs were toast, my emotions raw, but she helped me get back on my bike and keep on pushing.
Next up "The Wall".
The Wall is an 18% climb that goes on forever. I pushed as hard as I could but it was just too much. The heat, the previous climbs, the accumulation of the last 5 days, and the lack of sleep had all taken their toll. I just couldn't turn the wheel over. I dismounted and walked the rest of the way up that Wall. Turns out, I was in good company. Many walked, going through the same emotional roller coaster I was.
Back on my bike, it took another two hours of climbing before I finished at the summit and the elation you would expect at the finish just wasn’t there. That was hard. That was stupid. What am I doing here?

Stage 7

I woke up in tears. Stage 6 broke me down to a level I have never experienced before. I was sore and exhausted and I was about to face the longest day on the tour at 230 km. It was a flat stage (“only” 2700 meters of climbing) but the heat was still a major factor. 
As I sat at the edge of my bed staring at the cycling gear I had to put on, with tears streaming down my face, I picked up my phone and began to read the comments that had begun to come in... words of encouragement from friends, family, and colleagues who all took the time to reach out. It helped immensely. Thank you!
It took 11 hours and 30 minutes of riding to complete this stage. Slightly over 236 km of unrelenting heat. Speed was not on the agenda for today. Today’s goal was to treat today as a "recovery" day. No overdoing it, steady-Eddy. I drank and ate at even intervals and took salt pills every hour. I felt stronger as each hour passed. A group of us formed a fantastic pace line that had us picking up speed as we went. The back end of the day started flying by.
I ended the best day I have had so far with a smile on my face singing “Paradise by the Dashboard Lights” (a song I have heard a million times while riding indoors at Mindset, lol).
It’s 6:30 am and I am currently on a bus heading towards Stage 8 for another ball-busting climbing day. Seven category climbs, five of them are category 2. My attitude is "what will be, will be" and I will get through it.