L’Etape du Tour: Boats, Cafes and Blick

Words & Photos || Gary J Boulanger

Breakfast and riding began an hour earlier on Saturday, due to a full day of riding, race pack pickup, and final preparations at the hotel. We were getting into a collective rhythm by now, and the group was gelling nicely.

After choosing a route over breakfast, Ken, Bob, Ed, Brett and I clipped in with Elizabeth and the intern (also referred to as ‘garçon‘) for a smooth but hilly 50 kilometers to begin our day. The ride began almost immediately with a steep, steady climb, but the payoff was worth it in the form of a brisk pace line, followed by more moderate climbing, and one of the most enjoyable descents I’ve had in years. The hairpins aren’t very tight in this part of France, and the road quality is excellent. I hit 70km-plus several times, testing out the bike and my resolve. I knew from the L’Etape route profile there would be some 10km descents, and I wanted to be prepared. We needed to be back at the hotel by 11 or so to shower, change and meet at the gazebo to grab a bag lunch before climbing aboard a lake taxi to pick up our race bags and dossards in Annecy.

I was beginning to appreciate what it meant to be cared for and pampered, something I’m not accustomed to in my world. The rich details and scheduling we experienced in Annecy reflected Trek Travel’s 11 years of creating memories for its clients.

What struck me almost immediately after landing in France is the slow pace of the natives compared to the rat race I witness in the Silicon Valley. Cafes are teeming with people who savor conversation and food (not to mention cigarettes), and there’s an ever-present ‘bonjour!‘ on everyone’s lips. One cannot help but smile and feel good in this environment.

With nearly 12,000 L’Etape participants all needing to pick up race packs, it was surprisingly easy and organized in the Expo area. Ken, Russell and I gathered our things together, which included race numbers for our jerseys and handlebars. This was the ticket to receive our Rapha commemorative T-shirt and Trek backpack, which came in handy to carry our things in the sweltering heat.

Ken and I sat in the Velo Magazine booth to watch a L’Etape recon video, which elevated some of my fears of the final 10-percent, 11-kilometer climb, and which prompted me to buy a copy of L’Equipe and Velo as mementos. Russell and I visited the Rouleur/Privateer Magazine booth, where my friend and Oakley sports marketing juggernaut Steve Blick was speaking with Privateer editor Andy Waterman, who I’ve been emailing about an upcoming assignment but never met. It was good seeing a familiar face in Blick, one of the hardest working guys in the bike biz. He had just delivered limited-edition 100th anniversary Tour de France sunglasses to 87 athletes in the peloton. It was also nice to hear that his two children were still tough as nails as they near the end of their chemotherapy.

With a couple hours to enjoy before our boat left for the hotel, Ken and I strolled through Old Annecy, talking about life and his travels before settling into a cafe to drink Oranginas and watch the Tour de France. A street musician received a Euro coin from me, because as the father of a busker, I can appreciate the effort that goes into a public performance.

Once back at the canal, our enthusiastic driver raced us back to the hotel in his 80-year-old boat so we could watch the final climb of the Tour, where Chris Froome fired a salvo to the pretenders, decimating the peloton in a manner only a Martian could understand.

In what could be called our Last Supper, our crew enjoyed some drinks and a five-course meal together in the outside restaurant at the hotel. Discussions of gluten-free diets and the importance of patience and pacing oneself at the following day’s Big Ride filled the air, and we called it a night. The long climb up the stone steps never felt so heavy; I was glad not to have spent too much time in Lake Annecy after watching the Tour stage.

Next: The experience itself is the prize.

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