As the Tour de France has been televised live to the United States in the last few years, American viewers have become familiar with the great climbs in the Alps that traditionally decide the race. The names of locales such as Alpe d'Huez resonate with cycling aficionados the way that Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium do with baseball fans. Surely, almost every cyclist who watches the pros grimacing their way up the famous ascents has shared the same thought: What is it like to climb those mountains?
Next to horse racing, cycling is my great passion, and I wanted to answer that question first-hand. I researched many packaged bike trips to the Alps, but most coincided with the Tour itself, and I didn't want to undertake this venture in the midst of a mass of humanity. So I located a custom-tour operator, Colorado-based Viva Travels, whose proprietor Jennifer Sage seemed to know every pothole on every road in the region. Then I sent e-mails to a dozen or so biking pals, asking if they were interested in joining a great adventure. I quickly discovered that I had tapped into many friends' secret dream.
When I e-mailed a biking acquaintance in Pittsburgh, Dave Friend, his wife received the message and responded: "Dave's not here, but I can answer for him -- he's in." I thought I should get a more definite confirmation and phoned the next day. Cathy Friend answered the call: "Dave's with his personal trainer now; they're planning his conditioning program for the trip."
All seven of us became obsessed about our training. At 61, I am respectably fit, with my name on the D.C. bike club's high-mileage honor roll known as "The Order of the Cast-Iron Crotch." But many of those were flat miles on bike trails that are a far cry from the grueling routes in the Alps. So in the first six months of the year I logged 3,300 miles in the saddle, sought out tough climbs in the Blue Ridge and Catoctin Mountains and still fretted that the preparation would not be sufficient.
Our group, five men and two women, ranging in age from 43 to 65, assembled Monday in Talloires, France, a town on Lake Annecy ringed by mountains. My idea for the trip had been to make it challenging but not excruciating. No day's itinerary was longer than 45 miles, but each would include at least one famous col, or mountain pass. We all enjoyed the six-mile ascent of the Col de Tamie. We struggled up the steep Col de la Forclaz, whose first three miles have an average gradient of 10 percent and rise to a breathtaking 15 percent in one section. We literally rode into the clouds as we negotiated the 13-mile ascent of the Col du Glandon.
But the principal focus of our trip was Alpe d'Huez. It is neither the steepest nor the longest of the mountain passes, but it has a mystique unmatched by any other route. Every cycling fan knows its profile: Approximately eight miles long, with an average gradient of 8 percent, the road to Alpe d'Huez contains 21 switchbacks that snake up the mountain. It has been the scene of some the Tour's great moments -- such as the Lance Armstrong-Jan Ullrich duel in 2001 and Armstrong's victory in last year's time trial as 1 million spectators lined the road. Armstrong made the climb in 39 minutes 41 seconds, but my companions and I all were focused on a more manageable goal. To maintain our self-respect, we wanted to beat the time of Armstrong's girlfriend, singer Sheryl Crow, who climbed Alpe d'Huez in 1 hour 37 minutes.
Our group vanned two hours south from Talloires to start our long-awaited challenge, pedaled through the town of Bourn d'Oisans, saw the banner that said "Depart" and immediately confronted the steep, twisting road -- with a gradient of more than 10 percent in the first couple of kilometers. I was riding a Bike Friday -- a folding bicycle that with its 20-inch wheels looks like a kid's toy but is in fact a formidable machine. In those early kilometers I was almost oblivious to the strain as I savored the scene. The road was painted with fading exhortations to stars of recent Tours: "Go Lance!" "Danke Jan!" Each switchback is numbered, from 21 at the bottom to 1 at the top, each named after the winner of this stage of the Tour. By mid-ride I realized why Alpe d'Huez has such a formidable reputation: It is relentless. Most climbs give riders an occasional flat or downhill respite. As the road to Alpe d'Huez keeps going up and up, the switchbacks can be demoralizing. Looking up, I felt as if I were at the bottom of a staircase; I could see the riders on the tiers above me, and it seemed like an endless task to get where they were.
But after 1:28, I pedaled into the heart of the town, under a banner that said "Arrivee." I didn't see the two members of our group who were in front of me, our ace Nancy Germond of Austin and Dave Friend, so I went shopping for the obligatory Alpe d'Huez jersey, obtained at the tourist office the obligatory certificate of my successful climb, and had a drink in an outdoor cafe packed with cyclists of many nationalities, all eagerly recounting their adventures.
There a fellow cyclist gave me the discouraging news: That "Arrivee" sign was a remnant from an older stage of the Tour; the newer, "official," end to the Alpe d'Huez ride was on the other side of town, six minutes away. (The starting and finishing points of all the col rides here are pretty vague.) Dutifully, I remounted my Bike Friday, rode for six minutes on a mostly flat road, crossed the official white line and credited myself with a time of 1:34. By my reckoning, I was faster than Sheryl Crow. My six companions all completed the ride, too, giving us matchless bragging rights. For the rest of our lives, as the Tour is being contested, we'll be able to watch the grueling Alpine ascents and recount that we climbed them, too.