Dappled light and tree-lined country roads, back lit birds darting in front of us - in and out of bushes. We got an early start today and I sat in for 50k while our two stronger riders, Kate and Kristen, alternated pulls. We're finally figuring out smart ways to spread the work and even out the burden of our rides. Putting the big engines on front was an idea that had to come from one of the big engines, so when Kate brought it up I thought to myself, "why haven't we thought of this before?" Then I told her to go for it but to be sure to protect herself.
Kristen glided from front to back, shaking her water bottle at us in a reminder to keep drinking. When I dropped one of my bidons a few miles later, Kate took the replacement hand up from the van and brought it back to me. Caretakers. Road captains. It's happening.
We cruised at healthy clip and I watched the shadows of our Super Six Pack formation dance in the grassy banks on the side of the road. We dodge tractors and weaved our way through tiny villages - well ahead of the Flechage, we had to navigate by feel and with the help of Matthius in our team van, who would speed ahead to the next turn and then park strategically so we knew which way to head.
We were riding toward the Col du Grand Colombier, a climb that has never been in the Tour de France before. The race organizer called it the hardest climb in France.
It lived up to its reputation.
In the pre-climb shakeout Kym and I ended up leaving the lunch stop last (while she pried her adorable but crying two-year-old from her so she could pedal away from him - how she does it, I don't know). We headed into the climb together and stayed that way.
The opening grade was positively killing. This was followed by slightly less killing. Then not really very killing. Then an honest to god break of 4 or 5% and then back up to 12+.
We don't have climbs like this at home. I have never seen a climb like this in my life. Mt Lemmon, which is the biggest climb I'd done prior to this, rises at a soft grade of 5-5.5% and just goes on forever and ever. We're not used to the steep grades, the killing pitches. My only saving grace is the SFR training that Andrea Morelli taught me this year when I visited him in Milan at the Mapei Center during early May while in Italy training and working on a story. The high-power, low-cadence work mimics the effect of the steep climbs that I didn't have access to: the net result was more power in the legs - muscles built to help sustain the torque. I think about those goddamn SFR intervals every time I am on these climbs.
Grand Colombier was the first truly major col we've ridden - the first HC climb - and it was littered with motor homes and campers coming up and going down. Treacherous at times (moving among these vehicles uphill or downhill can be a little disconcerting) but magical in the end. The cheers from the men and women sitting around their card tables or in lawn chairs became our fuel.
About halfway through, we approached a group of rowdy Germans. As they raise their voices for us, I reached my hand out in the "give me" motion. I was honed in on a can of beer. The shirtless reveler executed a perfect hand off and Kym and I shared a sip of ice cold hoppy awesomeness before she crushed the can and stashed it in her jersey pocket.
Every time I passed a car or camper plastered in Norwegian flags I thought of my grandmother and shouted "norway!!" at the inhabitants to elicit a little celebration.
We neared the top: a barren, blowing, windy landscape. Country flags ripping, barriers already partially set up, people bent over stencils and spray paint, asking us politely to avoid riding through their road art. The horizon ahead dropped straight off into the open air in that way that tells you there's nowhere left to go. Except for down. You're almost done.
"It feels like we're climbing to heaven." Kym said.
"If I'm dead I really hope I don't have to keep climbing mountains like this." I replied.
But my heart was shouting, "To the sky! To the sky!!"
About 40k (and one category three) climb later, we pulled into the finish and Kate zipped off to make a kebab run. Then we sat on the sidewalk and devoured her kill like starved animals: in a hunched way, without the slightest hint of regard for manners.
The mountain makes monsters out of us.
Tomorrow will be harder.
Little engine shutting down for maintenance.