What do you get when you put a half dozen Americans together and have them race across the northern Pyrenees? A whole lot of bewildered looks by the French.
Save for Eros “Mr. Ventoux” Poli, the rest of our merry band of cyclists really don’t speak much French. The congenial inGamba staff is of course Portuguese, meaning they’re delightfully friendly, adored by all, but most of their communication is done amongst themselves and naturally in Portuguese. Meanwhile the rest of us get by here in France with the token, oui, non, sil vous plaît, merci, crème brûlée, and my favorite, beurre. Which, I’ll point out, is nearly impossible to pronounce correctly without a lifetime of practice in the arena of guttural pronunciation, therefore we often defer to the deceptively simpler “Butter? Butter, please? Monsieur! Butter. Butter? Oui, butter! Merci, merci, merci!”
The point being, the French linguistic skills of our group are limited to literally a half dozen words and we’ve accepted the reality that our vocabulary shows no sign of expanding.
The language of bike racing is oddly similar. Within the language of a team, French on French teams, Spanish on Spanish teams, and so forth, there really isn’t all that much said of substance that can’t be summarized in just a few words. There’s a big push from fans and media to hear what’s being said on race radio between riders and their team directors, and outside of some light banter in the neutral first 5km of a race, communication can be summarized as, “Left turn coming up”, “Dangerous descent after this climb”, “There is a train in 1 kilometer”, or “Eat and drink”. Eat and drink, eat and drink, eat and drink is literally fifty percent of what’s said on a radio. The point being, it ain’t all that interesting, and the real action takes place out on the roads.
Stage four featured a profile like that of a saw blade, provided the saw is four teeth long. That is, we went over the Col d’Aspin, the Col d’Azet, the Col de Peyresourde, and Col de Portillon with very little else on the agenda. (You might be thinking, “Ted, you clearly know what a col is and could therefore you’ve grown you vocabulary 20%” but in truth, I don’t specifically know what col means. Climb? Mountain? Long, heinous period of suffering? I don’t know. I do have a decent level of confidence that de means of, but I don’t know the difference between de and du.)
This is a tale of two mountains, though, so let’s just put a mind block on the middle two. We rolled out of Tarbes at the painfully early hour of 7:30am, only today into a sea of mist. Typically when we wake up and peak out the hotel window, we’ve grown accustomed to just seeing darkness, but not actually knowing the weather. However with nearly a week of pristine conditions in France this is something to which we’ve grown peacefully accustomed as the day unfolds.
Stepping outside into a dank pea soup fog was not part of the plan. The slow roll to the start village just 800 meters away didn’t lift our spirits as we quickly were soaked with water falling down from above and spraying up from below. The opening seven kilometer neutral rollout continued the trend. Passing the official start line and as the pace picked up, the road’s lumpy rollers segued to a long drag to the 14km/9mile Col d’Aspin. In search of a well rounded trip, after winning the opening two stages, I was quite happy to lose time on stage three. I was excited to ride with Laura and the rest of our inGamba crew. I turned around in the opening minutes of the climb up the Aspin and Laura made the unmistakable thumb-across-neck motion. Done.
I drifted back quickly and we exchanged a few words.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“I feel awful.”
“Hmm, that stinks. Let’s just keep pedaling.”
“I really don’t want to.”
“One climb at a time. Just keep the pedals going. We’ll see how it goes.”
And that’s what we did. We rode the next four hours together. We crept through the inversion and found the warmth above the clouds. We descended back down into the valleys, where the fog was no match for the baking sun, and soon we weren’t wet from precipitation but from perspiration. We took pictures, rallied up over climbs, tore down descents, flew through towns, and paced ourselves to the final Col de Portillon. The first climb was as miserable as the final was successful. Laura and I each rode our own pace and she gritted her way back from a very tough morning. Quite often that’s bike racing — a whole lot of pedaling and very few words spoken.
Editor’s note: the above summarizes stage four and things have continued to go in a successful direction. Stage five was an 18km uphill time trial which Laura took top honors among those in the general classification and in today’s brutal stage six, with 3500m of vertical, she stormed once again to victory by an impressive 25 minute margin.