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.

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