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Yellow Jersey Tours Diary: Stage 15
By Locutus
Date: 7/22/2004
Yellow Jersey Tours Diary: Stage 15

Route for the day: 61+ miles from the middle of nowhere to who the heck knows...
Principal difficulty: Too many to count. One mountain was called the Col de Romeyere. The big nasty one our Basque guides said was definitely above category.
iPod inspirational and appropriate song of the day: Ministry, "The Missing"

It is one of the few universal truths about human nature that people who go through extreme suffering together form a unique bond. Today, all of us on this trip really bonded. As every seasoned traveler knows, getting to where you want to go can often lead to some unforeseen adventure. Maps lie, topography changes, and when the Tour comes to town, the entire world shuts down and makes the best laid plans untenable.

Take today: we set out to pick up the Tour route for Stage 15 on our bikes, so that we could ride the final three climbs of the day, roll up to our picnic van about 3km from the finish, and watch the final chapters in the story play out. Alas, it was not meant to be. As we met up with the Tour route after about 10 miles of rolling hills, we came across some gendarmes with pistols on their hips and baguettes up their bums: no cars or bikes were to be allowed on the Tour route that day.

Why? Who knows; they certainly didn't care to explain themselves to us. We discovered later that the other YJT group got off their bikes at that point and walked up the climb (the Cat 1 Col de l'Echarasson) to watch the race go by. Being the stalwart gearheads that we are, we turned around and looked for an alternate route to ride our way to the Tour course.

(L to R): Ishmael, Ander, Igor, and a bandit rider try to figure out the best way to get around the cops. Photo Patrick Sharp.

Our Basque guides Igor and Ander had several alternate routes mapped out for that day. Unfortunately, each one turned out to be not possible. We backtracked several miles, turned right, and headed up a long, narrow climb that looked to be a back way over the mountain to reach the course. It turned out to be a dead end in somebody's driveway. After a quick discussion in Basque, our stalwart guides pushed on; and took the next right up the same mountain.

By this point we were about thirty miles into our ride with a fair amount of climbing already in our legs and a couple of people already in the sag wagon. Those of us who weren't in on the discussions with the guides (our group of riders is about a dozen people) were in the dark as to what was going on. To keep our spirits up, we started to crack jokes like, "maybe there's no word for 'lost' in Basque." We also started to think that, given several options for how to get from one place to another, the climbing-crazy Basques would choose the route that had the most mountains possible.

At the top of the first hard climb, we realize that this side road ends in somebody's driveway. Photo Patrick Sharp.

Of course our guides were doing a great job, trying to get us to the route on our bikes like we wanted. The Tour organization, however, had so thoroughly shut down the course today, that by the time we finally found our way over the mountain and to the designated meeting place, the race was long over. The final climbing sections we did were brutal. At the bottom of the mountain, there was a sign that said "9km" to the top. Great, we can do that, we thought. Then, after more switchbacks and bottles of water than I care to remember, the road leveled off, only to give way to another 3km climb. That leveled off for about a hundred yards, then gave way to yet another marked climb; and so it seemed to go for an eternity.

All in all, that final climb was over eleven miles long. The ever-smiling Igor had warned us at the bottom, turning his head to the side and saying, "Es muy difficil, bery, bery hard." He wasn't kidding. Overall, we rode over 61 miles on the day, including over 9000 feet worth of climbing. For comparison's sake, we did only about 6000 feet of climbing the day before, when we ended up at the top of Mont Ventoux.

We were all hurting like hell, including the ironman triathletes in the group. Sure they were going a lot faster than me up the climbs, but when I caught them at the top (they'd pull over and wait at the top for those of us off the back, cool guys that they are), they were just as worked as I was. Thank god that Ray gave me some of those salt-replacement pills that triathletes use; otherwise, I'd have probably ended up in the sag wagon.

Over the last couple of days on the climbs, our guide Igor has also become my buddy. Igor, the former Polka-Dot Jersey wearer in the Tour, hangs back with those off the back of the main group, riding up and down encouraging us and making sure we are all okay. As the day got longer and longer, all the people behind me pulled off and ended up in the van. But I wasn't going to pull off; I had that "I'll fall off before pulling over" mentality.

Luckily, Igor has been there the last couple of days to go, "Patreek, you okay? Venga, Patreek, venga!" As we rode over that climb that never ended, every time it flattened out and we rounded another corner only to discover yet another climb, I'd let out a sharp "F---!!!," which was apparently some English that Igor understood very well: he'd laugh, shake his head, and go "uuuffffff." By the end of the day, Ander was nursing me up that final climb to the van, and when the ride was over, both Ander and Igor seemed just as worked as the rest of us.

It's easy to see how such a tour group can go bad if there are some jerks in the mix. But everyone on this trip, from the staff to the non-riding family to the ironman triathletes, are just quality people. Today was the hardest day physically that I've had in the last twenty years, but it was also fun as all get-out. Gail (Ray's wife), Maryann (Rusty's wife, who rides with us on the flats), Andrea (who did the first climb before wisely saying "forget this"), and eleven year-old Shannon were in the van cheering us, helping Ishmael hand out water and food, and giving us pushes up the climbs when possible.

Later, I'll probably be able to post some of the many, many pictures they got of me absolutely dying on my bike in the positively (and literally) breathtaking scenery of the Alps. Aside from the climbing, I also got to rip some great descents today. After the first big descent, Igor smiled at me and made a "whsheeww" sound while weaving his hand to mimic the curving road, and I knew exactly what he meant: that was a blast.

At the bottom of the first segment of the descent. Photo Patrick Sharp.

While I didn't see it with my own eyes, twenty-somethings Joe and Roland O'Flaherty (who were absolutely bombing) described how Igor flew down the steep roads by laying out on his bike with his stomach on the top tube and his chest on his bars. For my part, I was moving, but by the end of the day my hands were so tired from pulling on the bars (up the climbs) and squeezing the brakes (on the wild and wonderful descents) that I barely had the strength to shift gears. (Also, my hands were literally too tired to type, which is why this report is a bit late; even now, each keystroke brings a bit of pain; I don't think my hands have ever been this sore.)

Leen gives Reed a post-ride washdown while we eat lunch. Photo Patrick Sharp.

It was a bummer not to see Lance put in such an amazing performance, but it was also strangely enjoyable going on such a gut-churning odyssey. As I finish this article, I am now sitting in the van on the way to the Alpe d'Huez. We have given up the possibility of riding up the climb, as it was closed off at 6am this morning. We're getting a much needed day off the bike, but we'll get in a lot of walking (you can walk up the hill) and get to witness the spectacle of Tour once more, this time in its finest setting. I can't wait.

The awesome hotel with the very fancy restaurant where we ate dinner tonight. Photo Patrick Sharp.

Quote of the Day (before the ride): Joe Sr., talking with his kids about hydration: "I like my urine to be white, not yellow. When it comes to urine, I'm a urine racist."

Quote of the Day (after the ride): Rusty, joking about the buffet that awaits us every day when we finish our ride: "Man, a two dollar and thirty-five cent can of vegetables never tasted so good."

Locutus has joined long time Daily Peloton sponsor Yellow Jersey Tours for one of its Tour de France cycling tours. YJT is owned by Cofidis rider and Daily Peloton favorite Bingen Fernandez Bustinza. Locutus is filing reports of his experiences with Yellow Jersey Tours this week at Le Tour.

Yellow Jersey Tours Journal: The Rest Day
Yellow Jersey Tours Journal: Day 1 - Montpellier to Nimes
Yellow Jersey Tours Diary: Preview #2
Yellow Jersey Tours Diary: Preview #1

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