L’Etape du Tour: The Experience Itself Is The Prize

Words & Photos || Gary J Boulanger

With a 4 a.m. wake-up call for breakfast to make our 5:30 ride departure for the start line in downtown Annecy, it was a little vexing to ride the streets and bike path after listening to wedding revelers at our hotel. Ever been to a wedding in France? I haven’t, but I experienced one, and apparently they’re all-nighters. In fact, many were still singing and laughing on the terrace when we rolled out to Annecy. Thank God for ear plugs!

Delayed payment and near minimum wage compensation doesn’t make my job as a freelance writer sound all that romantic, but there are times when being part of the media fraternity has its perks. Tania Worgull, president of Trek Travel, scored me a Peloton One dossard, putting me in the first group with the other journalists and several international Trek employees. It helps that the Wisconsin company is the title sponsor, and her gesture didn’t go unappreciated.

After we crossed the start line at a few minutes past 7 a.m., and remembering the advice of Elizabeth and Lisa, I found someone’s wheel to stick to who was riding at an even 40 kilometers an hour, compared to the jack rabbits blowing past us like we were standing still. The French roundabouts are just as treacherous for amateurs as they are for pros, and with a few thousand other riders, we were warned anything can happen, especially among those with adrenalin pumping through their veins.

The first climb of the day was familiar from our first recon ride on Friday. I felt good enough with my legs and heart rate to scoot past the lovely Number 85 to climb strongly to the first summit. I pulled a Jens Voigt and high-fived several kids along the route. The moderate descent was a great place to reclaim time (and space) lost on the mad dash out of Annecy, and I was beginning to get into the groove. I made it to the first Trek Travel rest stop (there were four on the course, just for Trek Travel riders and Trek employees), and heard my name called out. It was Richard, my friend from Hutchinson USA, on his freshly-built Time bicycle. A L’Etape veteran, Richard also has a long history working for French companies, and would be my escort to the Hutchinson factory in Châlette ­sur­ Loing outside Paris two days after L’Etape.

A few clicks after our merge, the first major descent presented itself in all it’s French glory. Like a fat man walking into a buffet after a 40-day fast I said au revoir to Richard and tucked into 10 kilometers of downhill bliss, carefully choosing my line and enjoying the closed course.

But, what goes down in L’Etape must go up. With a steady six-percent grade for nearly 13 kilometers, I was fearful of my adrenaline running thin. Richard caught up to me about halfway up the climb, and after stopping to stretch a few times, I realized my lower back was weakening. One by one my Trek Travel compadres, including Trek CEO John Burke, rode past and called my name. Running dangerously low on water and food, I let Richard ride ahead in the hope of regaining some strength and dignity at the next rest stop.

Then, despite all my best laid plans, my body shut down. I stopped one more time to stretch, but by this time my left leg was cramping badly. I rode at a snail’s pace to the L’Etape rest stop, which was overflowing with riders speaking nourishment, spiritual enlightenment and to answer the call of nature. My physical challenge was joined by a mental one, and I decided to stop.

I saw Bob, Ken and Russell after the break, and told them I wasn’t sure if I had the jam to continue. Ken’s goal was finishing the ride after missing last year’s cut off by a mere 30 minutes. After wishing them well, I gorged myself on local bread, wine and cheese—which never tasted so good—chased by dried apricots, several cups of water and Coke. I clipped into my pedals and rolled into the second to last Trek Travel rest stop, where I told Griffin Bohm I was done for the day. I had ridden nearly 50 miles, climbed 7,149 feet, and burned more than 4,000 calories, and with nearly 82 miles and one hell of a climb remaining, I swallowed my pride and sat on a small cooler under the 10’x10’ tent.

Once I regained my strength and composure, I began chatting with Griffin, who I discovered was the son of the late Leslie Bohm, a 39-year bicycle industry legend and co-founder of Bikes Belong, among other things. The elder Bohm passed away from brain cancer in August 2012, and was a good friend of John Burke, who hired Griffin to work as an intern with Trek Travel this summer. Due to the closed course, it was several hours before another Trek Travel director, Greg, picked us up and drove us back to Annecy. Time flew as Griffin and I shared bike industry stories, and getting to know the young gentleman was one of the many highlights of my day. I also enjoyed seeing the French terrain roll by from the back seat of Greg’s van, something that’s hard to do when you’re in the drops for several hours.

After removing my pedals and Garmin mount, I joined Lisa, Russell, Bob and Ken at the dock for our return boat ride to the hotel. With a tired smile, Ken turned and showed me his 2013 L’Etape du Tour medal, before Lisa popped open a bottle of champagne to celebrate our shared experience, something I’ll treasure the rest of my life. The splash of the water was reinvigorating and welcomed.

The Brazilians left our hotel early, so our group was whittled down to six. We shared a few drinks and debriefed on the shores of Lake Annecy. Everyone recounted how their day went, and it was wonderful hearing how Russell overcame his knee issues to make the final climb to the finish, and how Brett found humor in another rider’s white translucent bib shorts. This led to another fine meal, more wine, and more laughter, as everyone joyously let their guard down in fellowship.

Do I feel bad about dropping out? Not really. It would have made a better story to have won the race ahead of French mountain bike champion Julien Absalon, popping a wheelie across the finish line, flashing the peace sign with one hand while unzipping my jersey to show the world my bare chest with the words “I Heart Joe Parkin” scrawled in red lipstick. I know that some folks might see stopping as a failure, but as we witnessed on Froome’s breakout Tour stage victory to grab yellow on July 6, sometimes riders have good days, and other times we have not so good days. I got to ride with friends in the beautiful country of my ancestors, which is reason enough to call it a great day in the saddle. There were 11,475 cyclists from more than 50 countries at the start of the 21st edition of the Etape du Tour, and 10,624 hardy souls crossed the finish line.

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