We arrive in Paris in the oppressive evening heat of Bastille Day and, as we stand in line for a cab, a massive explosion echoes down the boulevards as thunder rolls over us. I am travelling with Andy, my long standing and long suffering friend and my folding bike – we have come to watch the Tour de France and I’m going to attempt some of the Tour’s key mountain passes. As we climb into our cab an American Tourist sees we’re both carrying guitar cases. “What’s the name of your band? Where are you playing?” he asks. Where was this guy 20 years ago when we really were in a band and we couldn’t get gigs I wonder. We drive off in search of our hotel and food in the shuttered city.
We race to the station and barely make our train to Lyon. The train is packed and I get a dressing down from the conductor for sitting on a luggage rack.
In Lyon we pile our seven pieces of luggage into our comfortable rental car and notice that the licence plate is DST something, something, something. As Andy has volunteered to support me on the upcoming hill-climbs of the Tour I christen the vehicle the Dick Support Truck which is probably a bit too egocentric for Andy’s tastes but no other appropriate 3 word phrases come to mind. We make our way south to Grenoble and then bear East along a long valley road. The hills quickly become steeper and within an hour we’re inside the Alps and searching for food again when we reach Bourg d’Oisans .
In Bourg we find a cycle shop and my pulse rate increases when I see the special “L’Alpe d’Huez Les 21 Virages” cycling jerseys on sale but I refuse to buy one until I’ve climbed the mountain which looms over us at the edge of town. Like an adventurer from a story of derring-do who’s travelled many thousands of miles to conquer a peak I feel a tingle in my spine as we drive towards the bottom of the mountain.
L’Alpe d’Huez is one of the iconic mountain-top finishes of the Tour de France and all year I’ve dreamt about cycling to its peak like one of my heroes but first we decide to drive it in the DST. As we climb higher I giggle like a child: there on the tarmac are the painted names of my heroes: Armstrong, Jalabert, Virenque, Ullrich, Pantani. This is where the Tour is defined as the real men separate themselves from the boys: just four days ago 600,000 people crowded the 21 turns and the 13 kilometres of the slope to cheer on the riders. My disappointment at not being here (I had to delay the trip to shoot Nickelback in Vancouver) last weekend is forgotten as I marvel at the amazing views and I feel that some of the mystical glory of the tour is rubbing off on me already.
Voices in the night had left me restless in my bed and at breakfast Andy tells me that he too was disturbed by voices – the Dutch cook and his friends had been drinking beers and laughing loudly under his room into the early hours.
As a sign of defiance, a finger to the cosmos, I have purposefully dressed in the Team Alessio cycling kit I was wearing when I was hit by that Ford Explorer in February and the trip seemed suddenly seemed in jeopardy: I’m going to make a statement on the hill today. I freewheel down from the heights of our mountain-side lodgings and meet the DST at the Supermarket at the bottom of L’Alpe where I stock up with water. It’s 1045 am when I pedal to the bottom of the mountain – there are no tantalising foothills or a gradual build up. The road just suddenly goes up…very up.
About 100 metres after the climb has started my optimism and determination has evaporated. It’s suddenly clear my chutzpah is bigger than my oompah. I have yet to arrive at even one virage and I have only one gear left to change down to and 13km of the world’s most revered cycling route stretches ahead of me. This is Thursday and only last Sunday Lance and US Postal, after 100 miles of frantic Alpine pedalling, had stood on their pedals at this very spot and sped up – I am slowing down. Quite obviously I’m not going to make it.
Up ahead I see a rabbit – another cyclist – also struggling, labouring over his pedals. If I can just keep him in sight. I cash in my last remaining chip, my super-low, mountain-biking, yes-I’m-a-wuss granny-gear, and make it round the first bend and ride into the hot morning sun that waits beyond – maybe I can make it to Virage #2 without getting off.
I reach the spot where Lance famously looked back at Ullrich 2 summers ago and Whoosh! someone in a Kelme kit with shining, shaved, muscly legs slides past me up the hill. Obviously there is a rocket hidden somewhere in that bike frame because no human could possibly go up this hill that fast. Then the rocket’s teenage son goes past me too, sprightly and also in a Kelme kit. Of course! That’s it…apart from being too old I’m wearing the wrong cycling kit, no wonder I can’t make it! If only I’d gone for the green and white stripes instead of the fetching red, blue and white. I make it to turn 2 and get off very aware that the DST is waiting for me at turn 4.
I sit in the shade and drink and finally remember that I’ve read somewhere that the worst part of l’Alpe is the first mile. That would explain everything.
Two turns later the DST is waiting and Andy dispatches much good humour, encouragement and water. I don’t confide in him my deepest darkest secret that an alarming wash of realisation is coming over me: Pantani’s bottom to top time of 37 minutes 35 seconds is not going to get broken by me today.
L’Alpe d’Huez is not only tough and steep it’s astonishingly beautiful. Every turn reveals another amazing view. Every virage is beautifully maintained and bears the sign of a famous rider and the year they conquered these hallowed slopes. The road is wide and well maintained, a solid wall skirts the edge and stops you from worrying about falling off the edge. Even better there is no false peak – it’s very simple, when you reach the ski station you’ve made it.
There are dozens of cyclists of all ages and abilities on the hill and just like me they’ve come to conquer this hill – to put it in their quiver like an arrow of experience to be loaded at a time when evidence of determination and sheer pig-headedness needs to be proven.
I press on buoyed by the endless list of painted cycling names and exhortations: Allez! Allez! Allez! At one point I see a phrase in German painted on the road: “Ulle ist eine Madchen!” I think this means “Ullrich is a girl.” If I was Jan that would just annoy me and make me want to pedal harder and show them what I’m made of. Though I would like some extra juice to keep me going I’m glad that Andy has no paint and has spared me the embarrassment of a gender-questioning slogan to get me up the hill.
At last the ski-station is in sight, the tree line is way behind me and I feel a surge of adrenaline. I cycle into town like all the victorious cyclists before me arms aloft and full of relief. It’s 1.05pm. It’s taken me 2 hours and 20 minutes. Il Pirata can sleep safe in his bed tonight.
In the afternoon we drive further up the valley to check out the Col du Galibier. 2 miles from the top I pull out the bike and puff my way to the summit. I call my cycling friend Bruce in LA from the top as I look across to Mont Blanc in the distance to share my euphoria. I’ve visited two of the hallowed passes of the Tour in one day – I’ve even cycled some of the route. Back in Bourg I go and purchase my 21 Virages L’Alpe d’Huez cycling kit – I feel I’ve earned it.
We think about driving south to Gap to see where Beloki fell of his bike and left the race earlier in the week but settle for a ride from Sassenage to Villard de Lans. This pass, not in the Tour but in my Lonely Planet Cycling France Guide, is a bitch and even worse than yesterday’s ride. After a fine lunch in the plateau at the top I free-wheel back down again averaging 24mph over 12 miles without ever turning a pedal stroke: this is the speed they average over the Tour uphill and down dale. How do they do it?
Back at our mountain-side digs Andy and I play our guitars in the garden as we watch with envy as the cook lies on his back and the sexy hotel waitress climbs on top of him in her bikini and wiggles and giggles – we pretend not to notice. The prize for our discretion? We’re asked to play an impromptu gig for some fat Germans and some English lager louts down by the swimming pool.
As we scroll through a bunch of albums on the iPod the DST takes us from the Alps to edge of the Pyrenees. Like the journey our playlist is all over the map: Pentangle, Bowie, Yes, Zero 7. We are spending one night in Saint-Bernard de Comminges and order sandwiches for the morning from our grumpy hotel keeper – for tomorrow we will visit the Tour!
We park the DST on steep slope pointing out of town above Loudenville and walk excitedly down into town and around the lake. Gendarmes are holding traffic back and beer tents are springing up everywhere. The last time I felt this kind of excitement in the air was at Lollapalooza – and it seems there are some similarities to your average mega-rock festival: everywhere you turn there are people wearing groupie-centric outfits they would not be seen dead in on the high street; all available comestibles are overpriced and in short supply; the toilet facilities are virtually non-existent.
We’ve found a spot about 3 km before the end of the stage on a slight, left-hand bend. Even better it’s uphill – with the confidence of a seasoned bike-race watcher I tell Andy it’s perfect as the riders will be moving slower. “Whatever you say,” he declares in a you’d-better-be-right tone of voice: he knows as well as I do this is the first time I’ve ever been to a bike race.
The hours tick by. Across the road a French family have set up shop. Dad watches the race developing on a tiny battery operated TV while Mum heats up a tantalizing cup of coffee on the Gaz stove and serves a fine looking lunch to the members of her brood. An excitable young girl has crafted a small letter-sized poster and attached it to a stick. The poster has a picture of Lance, cut from a magazine, stuck to it and Lance’s picture is surrounded by shiny stick-on hearts and stars and some indecipherable French words of support. She leans the stick and its small poster against the barriers and steps back into the middle of the road to admire her craftsmanship. She decides to adjust it – a few centimetres to the left – and returns behind the barrier to eagerly await the arrival of her man. It’s a wonderfully simple and naive gesture – he’ll never read it, never see it even – but I love her for the care and time and effort she has put in to her tribute. And then I think of myself – a grown man whose dreamt all year of making his way 6,000 miles across the oceans to this very spot – a nondescript few meters of French roadside – for exactly the same reason. That young girl and me we’re both as daft as each other, lost in our dreamworlds and hoping Lance will give us a wave. Fat chance.
The advance party arrives: ridiculously painted and rigged vehicles roll past blaring music with dancing girls and shiny, happy young men throwing freebies at us. We’re all instantly transformed into desperate swag junkies. Like Iraqi refugees fighting for bags of flour we scream, beg, yell and wave at the passing train jumping up and down with glee when we catch a bag of free Haribo Tour de France jelly babies or a Fiat key-chain. As we bag the swag we all know this means one thing. The Tour will be with us in the next hour.
We’ve been here five hours. I’ve brought a book to read and some postcards to write but I’m so excited I haven’t done a thing except make one phone call and eat the ham baguette from the grumpy hotel manager in Comminges. Suddenly a chopper appears over the hills to our right, the Col de Peyresourde, and an extraordinary, excitable cheer goes up from the crowd. The Tour is coming! The Tour is coming!
What had seemed to be a distant, featureless hill is transformed. We can see tiny coloured points moving down and across its slopes – there’s a road there! The frames of the upturned bikes on the support vehicles are just visible behind. Man, they’re moving fast. There’s more than one helicopter now. We can hear the cheers getting closer. Now we hear the motorcycles coming up the slope towards us. The tension is unbelievable, everyone is jumping: old men with berets; young Basques with flags; the French family, the young girl and her poster…me too. Suddenly someone flashes past. A real rider and another one. I think I see Virenque smiling. And then there’s Lance coming towards us…
I’ve never been to a rock gig with more adulation, more devotion pouring from the spectators. It’s not just for Lance either it’s for everyone. But my eyes are fixed on Lance, he’s moving, he’s working hard. Like they say with accidents everything goes into incredible slow-motion for a brief second. He’s right there maybe 18 inches from me, tall in the saddle and the look on his face of pure determination and focus is unforgettable. He’s in a tunnel: he sees nothing and everything – he’s preoccupied, he wants to win. He’s gone.
I have no idea who’s with him, we haven’t been able to see the race for a few days, we don’t quite know what’s happening but I don’t care. It was all worth it for that one extraordinary moment.
Another cheer, the peleton is approaching. Maybe they’re only a minute or less behind but their fight is different. There is no fire in their eyes, they seem exhausted. A few back markers slip by, weary, moving no faster, it seems, than I might (I wish) after the end of a long ride. And in five minutes it’s all over and we’re walking back to the DST. As we look across the lake I know that someone over there is lifting the trophy for winning the day’s stage. I assume that Lance is putting on another Yellow Jersey and I look into the sky and watch the circling helicopters and I know that Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen are discussing the results of the days ride. I can’t wait to get home to LA to see what they have to say and see if Andy and I have made it onto the world feed.
Up ahead I see the girl with her stick and her poster holding her Dad’s hand as they walk away. She’s babbling along in French and he turns and smiles down at her as they re-live the afternoon. What a day it’s been.
We’re staying in Saint-Lary-Soulain and the plan today is to drive to Arreau, about ten miles away, park and then walk some way up the Col d’Aspin, watch the race go by and rush home to see the finish on TV. I’m now familiar with the protocol of watching the race so I decide to take the Bike Friday with me and cycle some of the course before the Tour flashes past.
Arreau looks like a Pyrenean border town from a WW2 movie which is a ludicrous description – rather like saying the Eiffel Tower reminds you of the Paris hotel in Las Vegas – but that’s what jumps into my mind. The narrow main road follows the river and the houses on either side show little sign of any late 20th century sophistication. Were it not for the bright colours and the jovial faces of the throngs of people the pedestrians could be a crowd of refugees – I find myself looking for armoured cars, tanks and Nazis. What is wrong with me? Three old men stop me in the main street and stare at my bike which is yellow and has tiny wheels because it folds into a suitcase. They are fascinated by it and ask me many questions which my school-boy French can only just grasp at.
I must confess that my fragile cyclists ego is challenged by my new toy. Let’s be honest – the reason a grown man flies half way round the world to cycle enormously steep, paint splattered hills is purely for bragging rights. This person stupidly wants to somehow include himself in the peleton of great riders: Anquetil, Hinault, Mercx, Indurain…Dick! OK so that’s not going to work. So you don the requisite lycra clothing and, though I’m not overweight, I don’t really look as good in my 21 Virages outfit as Cipollini does in his custom designed world champions jersey. So – the only way you can buy yourself into the yes-I’m-a-real-cyclist club is through your bike – and here I am visiting the Tour and everyone is riding a Bianchi or something sexy and Italian and I’m on a yellow fold-up with baby wheels. My manhood is seriously compromised and I want to break out a sign which says TRAVELLING BIKE FITS INTO SUITCASE – I HAVE A REAL BIKE AT HOME…HONEST.
Andy and I find a suitable spot on a bend a mile or two up the Col. I leave him to read and ride another 20 minutes up the hill which is a blast. The hill is easy and it’s lined with fans, a few of them even yell Allez! Allez! Allez! at me and I feel like Lance for a micro second. Half way up the Col I stop and admire the view. It’s a beautiful morning and I’ve got beyond the lower crowds and reached a peaceful spot. I marvel at the cute village nestled in a fold of the mountain just half a mile from the Tour and totally untouched by time. Another old man walks by admires the Bike Friday and wants his wife to take a picture of him with it…and without me! It seems old men are fascinated by it, younger ones give it a glance and kids despise it. I HAVE A REAL BIKE AT HOME…HONEST.
Today we score loads more free gear but preserve our dignity by giving most of it to the cute teachers who stand close by and are distributing the booty to their class of thirty screaming kids from the local school who have the morning off to watch the race. Reasonably they seem much more excited about getting a large green plastic hand and a packet of jelly babies for free than they do about writing an essay entitled Aujourd’hui Le Tour arrivé en Arreau.
Being three Cols from the end of today’s stage the passage of the Tour is less dramatic than yesterday’s finale. The breakaway consists of two riders and then the peleton sails smoothly past about three minutes later. I can see Lance in the middle surrounded by his domestiques and even though we’ve befriended a man from Bath who’s an Ullrich fan I yell: “Get him Lance, go on, you can do it. Get him! Get him!”
By the time we get back to our hotel and have turned on the race, the weather has closed in and I’m bent over in pain. As the phrase goes, “It seems I’ve eaten something.” Clearly I will be spending much time in the toilet for the next few days. But the race has reached its crucial stage and the drama is unfolding thick and fast. Ullrich attacks. Lance let’s him go. Lance pulls him back. Lance attacks. Lance is pulled off his bike! Lance recovers just and then nobbles himself on the crossbar when his cleats come unhinged. Ullrich is waiting or is he? Hamilton holds everyone back. Lance recovers. Lance catches up. Lance attacks. Lance catches up with the remaining breakaway guy. Lance stands on his pedals and pedals and pedals. Lance wins!
It’s an extraordinary day’s racing – even in French – and I forget about my bowel movements as Lance crosses the line. We listen to his post race interview and I’m totally bummed out. Apparently he seems to think the most crucial thing worth mentioning is the crash, Ullrich waiting and his decisive attack which left everyone panting in the mist. Has he forgotten already that vastly important shout at the bottom of Aspin? “Get him!” I had shouted and quite obviously Lance had…and he never even made a reference to it. Perhaps it will be in the English interview on OLN when I get home.
I can’t ride. I feel awful. Andy and I drive up the rest of the Col D’Aspin and take some pictures of the cows. I know I could have completed this but today I can’t even bear the thought of driving up the Tourmalet which is only a few miles away. I’m noticing that most of the riders attempting the climbs are middle aged men like me. It must be some kind of weird male menopausal thing – you want to buy a Porsche, shag leggy models and climb ludicrously steep French hills on your bike to show that you’ve still got lead in your pencil. Well now I’ve done L’Alpe d’Huez I’ll have to send off for the fast German car catalogue and work on my chat-up lines.
We leave the Pyrenees. I’m stunned at how beautiful they are. Each village is a collision of angular slate roofs and weathered doors and shutters. The texture of it all leaves me breathless and I want to bottle it all and take it home for future reference but the words Elgin Marbles leap into my brain. Why can’t we just leave stuff where it belongs?
We reached the tiny village of Saint-Pierre de Vassols in Provence late last night. Our guest house is exquisite and the sight that greets us at breakfast is like a picture from Conde Nast Traveler. A fig has been cut into neat eighths and displayed like the rays of the sun over a bed of grapes, strawberries and peaches. I want to take a picture not eat.
We’ve come to Provence so I can tackle the mighty Mont Ventoux. It doesn’t feature in this years tour but it’s reputation proceeds it. Whereas Alpe d’Huez is beautiful and Alpine and the Galibier is bleak and awesome Ventoux is just one huge, vast, lump that towers over the countryside topped by a horrid red and white communications tower that looks like it was designed by a failed Russian architect.
I’m still weak. I can’t stomach the thought of riding today. We scout it in the car, buy some postcards at the summit, take some snaps and drive down to Boudoin for lunch. We buy English newspapers – Saddam’s sons have been killed in Iraq – their ugly, distorted, bloody images cover the front pages.
I’ve assembled the bike again and been for a short ride in the hot afternoon sun. I’m not feeling optimistic. Tomorrow is our last day and it will be make or break time. The only two hills I really wanted to conquer during the trip were Alpe d’Huez and Ventoux.
Another amazing breakfast and I’m feeling marginally more like myself. I decide that if at this late stage of my life I should ever get married and the wife wants a romantic trip to France I’ll have to bring her here. (http://avignon-et-provence.com/la-barjaquiere/). I’ve decided that I will do what the guide book suggests: I will only cycle the last 6km of Ventoux – the white bit – at least I will have that in my cycling portfolio. Andy drops me off at Le Chalet Reynard, the mountain’s restaurant, and I join the brave souls who’ve already struggled up the 18km from Boudoin. They look dismissively at me a) I?m riding that stupid bike, b) I?ve got a lift 3/4 of the way up the hill. Wimp!
At the top I’m not sure what all the fuss was about. It was hard but nothing out of the ordinary. Andy takes the victory pix and I stop at the Tom Simpson memorial a mile below the summit to pay hommage. Tommy was the English rider who died here while trying to win the Tour in the 60’s – later it would be revealed he was also taking performance enhancing drugs. His body couldn’t take it and he collapsed. Famously he is reported to have said, as he lay dying, “Put me back on my bike.” I’ve brought a Sharpie especially with me so, like others before me, I can write some greeting on one of the distinctive white pebbles that cover the top of the mountain and leave it by his memorial. I write: Tommy, thanks for the inspiration, Nigel Dick, Los Angeles.
About eight miles of freewheeling down the mountain later it dawns on me that this is a really stupid and pretentious thing to have written. It sounds like I was thanking him for inspiring me to take vast quantities of speed…and then I left my name and address just in case the drug squad needed to get a hold of me.
After lunch I’m feeling more sprightly. I wait till 4pm when the temperature is dropping at last into the low 90’s and set out from Boudoin to tackle the bottom 3/4 of the climb. OK so it’s cheating but if I can complete it I can truthfully say I climbed Ventoux. The first few k’s are relatively easy – the mountain’s peak looks deceptively low a way over my left shoulder. Then the road takes a sharp left and I enter the woods and the gates of hell. It’s hot, it’s winding, it’s unending and it’s really dull: none of the picturesque Alpine views or the wonderful vistas of the Pyrenees, just miles of scrubby little trees and endless discarded gel-packs at the roadside where other riders have cashed in their sugar chips in the hope for more energy.
I thought I’d never make it to Le Chalet Reynard, where I’d started this morning, but when I finally staggered up the steps and begged the waiter not to close up and give me a coke the true nature of Ventoux had been revealed to me. After leaving the forest and then climbing the last exposed 6km through the wind I can easily understand why you could die cycling this mountain. One day I want to climb Alpe d’Huez without getting off the bike – I don’t care if I never see Ventoux in the flesh ever again.
We’re on the TGV nearing Paris and the weather has finally broken – it’s raining. Somewhere close by Armstrong and Ullrich are battling it out in the time trial. No-one on the train has a radio so I call a friend in LA to see if he has any news but can’t get through. It’s not till 130 in the morning in London that we see Ullrich take a tumble in the wet. Yes! Lance has won the tour! Get him Lance, you can do it.
I assemble the Bike Friday again and ride round Richmond Park and get more uncomplimentary stares from the other cyclists. In the last twenty days the Bike Friday has travelled a grand-total of 9,500 miles been assembled and folded back into its suitcase 6 times and kissed the pavement in Canada, California, France and England. I have a real bike at home – it can’t do that.
Back in LA I re-live the Tour as I watch the stages I saw and those I missed. Andy and I did not make it to the feed at the end of Stage 14. Lance does not mention my crucial words of advice in his English interview at the end of Stage 15. So be it. This summer Lance achieved his goals in France and so did I.