He told me that I didn’t know what I was getting into. He said that at least 12 times. I thought he meant the miles. I was wrong. That happens a lot.
The miles were a number like all the others: 2,236 in three weeks. There is a stack of figures that you can add to the list: 6 women, 3 crashes, 4 countries, 2 rest days, 2 time trials, 20 stages, 25 mountains passes, 155 hours of saddle time, 3,598 kilometers, 152,000 feet (46,329 meters) of elevation, 72,159 kilojoules. I could go on and on. I live for that shit.
I was worried about the numbers, but I had it all wrong. I was worried about my body, but I was wrong about that, too. It broke down right on cue: 16 days into the endeavor and the liquid rattle crept into my chest and stayed there. I lost my voice climbing the Tourmalet. I lost sleep to sitting up in bed with a driving cough that wouldn’t quit. Guess what, you don’t need a voice to climb the Tourmalet. And apparently you don’t need sleep to finish the hardest ride you’ve ever started. None of that matters now. The physical part of this ride was an act of unrelenting will. We all had it. We all made it.
Most of us were surprised, but I can’t speak for everyone.
It was a pipe dream from the beginning. Michael Robertson had photographed a group of Dutch men who completed the entire course of the Tour de France in 2010. Now he was a partner in the company that organized and sold the experience. We are eating dinner together one night when he mentions it—and mentions that he’d hoped to do it for 2012 and have a writer along for the ride. I volunteer without thinking. I call my publisher and get a verbal commitment of support from the magazine.
The next morning, I come down to breakfast and say, “peloton is in. Let’s do this.” He doesn’t blink an eye.
From there, Robertson takes over, driving the push to rally sponsors and build a team. Cannondale comes on with a level of enthusiasm that floors me. The list gets longer: SRAM, Strava, Giro, Capo, fi’zi:k. Our sponsorship money is used to secure us six spots with the group of Dutch and Belgian riders who will be paying for the experience—36 of them in total. We become the Super Six—a name that conveniently references both the size of our team and the bicycle on which we will ride—Kym Fant, Jennifer Cree, Kristen Peterson, Kate Powlison, María Del Pilar Vázquez and me.
Two team camps and two flights later we arrive in the Netherlands a few days before the start of the Tour de France. Our hotel is deep in the country. Everything is calm and still. You can almost smell our fear.
I am told several times during the first week to smile more—to have more fun. We are all told this in one form or another. “None of the staff are having any fun,” I am told. “Everyone is miserable. You’re not your normal upbeat self. Fix it.” I field these requests for joviality with mixed emotions and then find a way to act the part. A friend once taught me how to smile naturally on cue: put your tongue on the roof of your mouth. Try it, it works. I invoke this trick a lot.
I can’t imagine how we are making the staff so miserable, but the thought sends waves of guilt through me. Worse, I worry that I am not honoring the gift that I’ve been given: a chance to ride the Tour de France! Shouldn’t I be jumping off the bike and doing a jig every evening?
The reality of the first week is wrenching. We’re riding 120-130 miles a day, over and over and over. The volume is unrelenting and the flat stages offer little more than a variety of cross and headwinds with an unending horizon of two-lane highway flanked by fields of crops leaning in the direction of the gale. As I struggle to adjust to the physical demands, I wrestle with managing a mind that has little energy left to manufacture emotions. If I seem grumpy it may be that I am exhausted. If I seem steely it’s more likely that I am terrified. The Dutch around us act with an impressive stoicism and I can’t match it.
Nearing the end of stage 2 we are tired. Maria and Jennifer are especially tired. We’ve been riding in the large Dutch group for half the day, but eventually part ways with them to ride a slower pace. Another tour group comes around us and we latch on to the back, desperate for a little draft.
Crosswind gust, touch of wheels, riders down. Really? On stage 2? This isn’t going well.
I stand behind the support van diverting traffic while Bart and Matthias tend to Jennifer and Maria, who have both hit the pavement hard. Jennifer is shredded. Maria is banged up. Everyone keeps riding. We finish. It’s only later that we realize Jennifer’s frame is broken. The team doesn’t have a dedicated wrench, so that night in the hotel several men from the Dutch group who are mechanics come together, put the team’s spare frame on a hat rack and transfer all of the components onto it with the help of several YouTube instructional videos. They stay up late into the night, and in the morning Jennifer has a new bike to ride. The gears skip and the fit isn’t quite right, but it rolls. We’re still alive. We’re still in it.
For the next week Jennifer’s wounds ooze and pus while we ride, drenched in the inevitable sweat of 130-mile days. Bart treats them when it’s time for her massage. At night in our room, she redresses the wounds and swabs them with iodine and cries. During the day she rides without speaking, turns off all emotion, becomes a robot. The staff wonders why she seems so angry. I want to hold her and protect her and take her off the bike and let her get better, but all I can do is sleep next to her and listen to her breathe and hope that she heals quickly. At night, when I am working, I type a little more quietly and look at her now and then, lying on her left side, the only one not covered in road rash. She looks like a mangled angel.
In a two more days, she will become an angel—to me.
Stage 4: Abbeville to Rouen, 214 km. In the morning, I look down at my legs. “I don’t know how you are still turning the pedals over,” I tell them. “But keep doing it.” The legs answer back: “We hate you.” I decide not to talk to my legs anymore except to issue the classic Jens Voigt directive: “Shut up, legs!”
It’s a good day to have a bad day—relatively flat with only moderate wind and a big pack to hide in. I spend nine hours dying and then we roll into one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever seen: Rouen. Joan of Arc was executed here in 1431. Steeples everywhere, a living monument to the Middles Ages. I want to be impressed and amazed, but I don’t have the energy. Then we get lost.
We’re standing over our bikes in the middle of Rouen and we have no idea where we are or where we are supposed to go. We’re separated from our support vehicle and I am the only one with contact information, so that we can call them. Unfortunately, my phone just died. Kate is inside the tourist office asking for information about a hotel that doesn’t actually exist (we were given the wrong name). Jennifer Cree pulls a pepperoni stick from her pocket and shows it to me. Suddenly, I feel like a dog being calmed with a treat.
The salty meat stick is a bribe and a promise. Eat this and I will get you to the hotel. Eat this and you’re going to be OK. I have spent the entire day tail-gunning off the back of a peloton. I have been paced back in and sheltered and cajoled into keeping up. At the start of every climb I have moved strategically to the front of the group so that I could fade to the back and remain in contact at the crest. I have battled because I know it’s better for the Super Six if we can stay with the big peloton. All I wanted to do was float backwards and pedal squares at 12 mph on my own, but I didn’t do it because I understand that the sum is greater than the parts. This is not my ride—it’s ours together—and sometimes that means riding beyond myself.
I hate this day more than I can even describe, and now we are stranded in the middle of Rouen without recovery drinks or food. I want to fucking kill someone. Instead, I take the pepperoni stick from Jennifer and shut my mouth. An hour later we are checked into the hotel and I am laying on a twin bed laughing hysterically at everything that comes out of Jennifer’s mouth. “Swift, you’re losing it!” she says. That is funny, too. In a matter of minutes, she’s swept up in my delirious giggling and we’re both doubled over and crying.
“I can’t stop, Jen!” I scream. “What are we laughing at?” she replies.
We can’t remember, and it doesn’t matter. “That was the best pepperoni stick I’ve ever eaten!” I scream. The tears are really flowing. She makes me a recovery shake and I drink it in between gasps. Then I run upstairs to Kate’s room and crash into four pizza boxes and a Heineken beer. Cheese and dough and a mediocre lager. The single best meal of my life.
The next day my legs are new and I ride like there’s no chain.
Sometimes, the bad days are the actually the good days.
Kate Powlison seems mostly invincible, but she cracks hard once that I can remember. We are strung out at the end of a mind-numbing wind-whipped stage from Rouen to Saint-Quentin. As I pedal up to her she says, “Heidi, I’m on a vision quest.” Then she takes off her jersey. I drift back a few bike lengths and watch her hold her jersey in front of her, trying to figure out what it is. Then I watch as she tries to put it back on, eventually making use of help from a gentleman who holds the left side out so she can find the armhole.
We were half-naked in the team van afterwards when I ask her what happened. “I thought I had a vest on and I felt too hot, so I took it off,” she explains. “Then I realized it wasn’t a vest, it was my jersey—and I couldn’t figure out how to put it back on.”
We have a good laugh and then put on sandals and shorts and slide into the nearby river.
Across the ocean, all those thousands of miles away, we could feel the shift. It happened around the time we hit the first rest day when everyone back home started to realize that we were not kidding around. “They made it to the first rest day? They made it past stage 8?” It was a mix of disbelief and unchecked awe. They began to think we might make it. You began to think we might make it. We began to think we might make it.
A virtual crush of optimism. You could almost hear the self-doubt shattering. And it wasn’t just ours—it was everyone everywhere who was paying attention to our ride. A collective surge of energy. A sudden burst of faith. We saw it in the form of e-mails, tweets, messages, texts, phone calls and articles but most of all we felt it with our hearts.
When I discover that we are riding the 13th stage on Friday the 13th, I can’t contain my excitement. “Thirteen is my lucky number!” I exclaim. Famous last words.
Stage 13 leads us through endlessly rolling countryside through the town of Séte, all the way to Le Cap d’Agde. At 217 kilometers, it is one of the longer stages. The air is hot and thick with the sound of cicadas—a pulsing song that is reminiscent of some prescient moment in a horror film. We spend 100 km with the Dutch and then spin off on our own—six figures melting into the heat waves coming off the pavement. Eventually there is a small collision—a rider off her line, a touch of wheels—no one goes down but tempers and words fly. Cue the unraveling.
We’re still bickering by the time we hit the busy road, which is a seriously legitimate freeway, with cars buzzing by at 70 mph screaming at us. Kristen Peterson goes to the front and rides into the wind with unrelenting determination, dragging us through the hell of automobiles until we hit Séte and begin to thread through traffic that is backed up for miles. We are pissed off and fed up and over riding bicycles. We are over each other. We are over this fucking day.
And then we hit the climb: Mont Saint-Clair. It shoots straight up the side of Séte like a San Francisco grade on crack, and the only thing to do is find the 34-32 combo and pray that you can keep turning it over. (You know a hill is steep when you’re mashing on a climbing gear worthy of a mountain bike.) Despite everything, we can’t help but celebrate at the top.
With 20 km to go, we’re flying down the other side of the hill. Kym looks back and sees something out of the corner of her eye: a rider going down. We circle back and find Maria on the ground, head resting in Jennifer’s lap, looking stunned.
Ambulances, police vehicles, crowds of onlookers. Our worst nightmare realized. She was clipped in a roundabout by a small red car. Later in the ER, she’ll find out she has a hairline fracture on her tailbone, and Matthias takes her back to the hotel a little past 11:30 where she tries, unsuccessfully, to sleep.
Miraculously, in the morning she gets back on a bike. Miraculously, she can ride. Painfully and slowly (and with the aid of some sweet pain medication) she pedals. We cannot believe our eyes. She guts her way through a flat 100 km and then wills herself over the mountains we must climb. Alongside her, the Dutchman with whom she’s formed a special bond looks after her diligently. Over the following stages, she will improve dramatically each day, riding even stronger than she had before the crash, defying everything and everyone. Her heart a well of determination, her mind a bastion of perseverance.
I didn’t ride the Tourmalet. At least, not that I remember. Technically, my body ascended the grade slowly sitting on top of a borrowed bicycle that did not quite fit me, but I don’t remember much of it. Total blackout. Aside from the first 6 km, it’s all gone—like a bad night of drinking in college. Poof.
Queen stage. Number 16. Pau to Bagnères-de-Luchon. It’s 197 km with four major cols: two category 1s and two HC climbs. On the first, the Col d’Aubisque, I feel good. Jennifer and Maria are up the road. The three blonds are in front of me and we’re moving at a nice pace. And then it happens.
A small bit of tree branch in the road—small enough that no one calls it out—sucks straight into my drivetrain and snaps the derailleur off. My pedal stroke sends it into the rear triangle, which bends. And just like that, in less than a second, my ride is over. No bike, no pedaling, no Tour. Finished. Our single spare team bike has already been used. I’m done.
But there is a bike we’d forgotten about. Matthias, one of the staff, has his rig in the back of the van. We swap the stem, jam the saddle forward and adjust the seat height. “This bike knows how to get to Paris,” Matthias tells me. “Follow it.” (This is the bike that he rode in 2010 with the original group of Dutchmen.) It’s a little too big and the fit is a nightmare, but it rolls so I pedal.
Back pain, knee pain, chest pain, no pain. Nothing. Go into a black place and just keep moving forward. I wish I could enjoy this storied climb, but I spend every heartbeat actively forgetting what is happening.
Here is all that I can recall of the Tourmalet: Jennifer Cree tells me she is going to stay with me. She rides behind me and gives me space. She says, “I know you want me to leave you alone, but I’m not going to. You can deal with it.”
She is right. I do want to be alone. Like a dying animal, I want to suffer in peace. But I also want her to stay. She knows all these things and plays the moment correctly. I panic shortly thereafter when I realize that I’ve already consumed almost two water bottles. The temperature is nearing 100. I tell Jennifer, “We have to stop and buy water somewhere,” and she assures me that she will find some.
It comes from a team of military men who are out for the day climbing the big mountains of the Tour. We pass their support vehicle and Jennifer smiles her sweet smile and asks if they have extra water. Of course they do. We split the bottle and then pose for pictures with them: “The other guys are never going to believe this!” They are happy. In the photo, I smile, too.
Girls on bikes riding the Tour de France! Unbelievable! We start riding again and drop them promptly. That’s saying something because I am climbing like an anchor.
There is a stream next to us that sounds cold. I try to ignore it.
The signs along the side of the road are counting down the kilometers left of the climb. I look up and see 14 km to go and put my head down again. Then I tell myself, “Just ride to the 13. Just ride to the 13.” When I got to the 13, I make myself ride to the 12 km sign. It is in this manner that I finally make it to the top, where I discover that I can no longer speak.
Along the way, people sitting outside motor homes occasionally jump up from their card tables, disrupting a bottle of wine, to run alongside us shaking their fists in the air. “Courage, les filles!! Bonne chance, les filles!”
The sensations are good. My friend Dan says that a lot when he’s having a good day on the bike. He also sometimes says, “The sensations, they’re not so good today.”
Every day this trip becomes a little more like life. We fight, we laugh. Sometimes we don’t argue when we should, choosing instead to brood quietly or let unsettled things remain unsettled. The group dynamic is imperfect. The relationship with staff is irrevocably damaged. We cannot get along. We find a way to get along. We keep rolling forward, ticking over kilometers with blind determination. Our best moments are on the bike. We ride despite ourselves. We ride despite the drama that exists when we stop rolling. We ride because it is the only option.
Every morning we wake up and hurt like 1,000 beatings. Six hours of sleep and nine hours of riding ahead. What will you do? Stop pedaling? Get in the van? Sit alongside and watch? Of course not. You ride your bike. You pedal. You keep going. In the process, you try to open yourself to the beauty around you. You try to find a place of compassion. You are confronted at every moment with your own inadequacies—a long list of shortcomings—so you move toward a place of humility.
I learn to love the look of Kristen Peterson’s rear wheel as she shelters me up climbs and through the plains. I learn to love the moment when she drifts back to me in the morning and shares her sandwich, fresh-made from goods stolen from the hotel’s breakfast buffet. I learn to love Kate’s uncanny ability to find the best food in the nearby vicinity and procure a team-sized portion of it before the staff even knows she’s gone. I learn to love the way Maria’s head perpetually bobs to the music that plays nonstop in her headphones. Kym’s laugh. Jennifer’s maternal roommate instincts.
This is life. The sensations are sometimes good and sometimes bad. We can choose which to dwell on.
Rêve Tour was not perfect. The Super Six women did not gel the way we’d imagined. This was not a fairy tale. This was not a dream team. This was six strangers thrown into the most stressful endeavor we’d ever faced. We struggled with each other. We struggled with the course. We struggled with the staff. We struggled with the food. We struggled without strong leadership.
But in the end, the struggle is the point. We battled. Every day for 21 days until we’d fought our way to Paris. It was hard and it hurt and it was awful and it was wonderful and it was transcendent and it was amazing.
I was surprised less by the physical accomplishment than by what it meant. Before we left I called it “just a really long bike ride.” While we were riding, one of the Dutch leaders told us that what we were doing was not heroic. That night I laid in bed and tried to sleep next to Jennifer, whose steady breathing was often the white noise that tranquilized me into a dreaming state. Instead, I stayed awake and wrote a piece for my online column. I admitted to not being heroes. I downplayed the thing that we were doing. I’m here in print to take that all back.
We’ve never asked to be called heroes, but let’s be fair: we finished a ride that the betting crowd didn’t think we’d make it halfway through. What we did was hard. We enjoyed it as much as you enjoy something like this: French summer countryside and jagged mountain vistas rising around you while the body endures a constant daily cycle of destruction and repair. It was magical. But it was anything but easy.
He told me that I didn’t know what I was getting into, but my well-intentioned friend didn’t mean the Col de la Madeleine or La Planche des Belles Filles or the Col du Grand Colombier. He didn’t mean the sleep deprivation or the closet-sized hotel rooms or the challenging food situation. He was talking about the reaction, the emotional attachment, the little girls sending me emails about how they would do it one day too, about the texts and tweets that expressed a genuine brand of shock and amazement. One woman sent me an e-mail every day. Every single day. A woman I’d never met before. Another offered to come and be our “cheerleader grandmother” should we need one. These notes came from everywhere, nonstop. Men, women, cyclists and non-cyclists.
We are living in the bright and shining future. Everything has been done. Everything is at our fingertips. Everything is available. Everything can be had. Everything can be bought. Everything is there for the taking. Nothing surprises us anymore.
But with so much access, so much exposure, so much constant saturation, we are inclined to remain tucked away in our bubbles. Nothing impresses us and we are persistently unmoved. The cynic in us scoffs and the dreamer in us stops dreaming.
Our ride was called a Dream Tour, but the irony of that is what we actually did was make people wake up. Friends, family, strangers, and ourselves.
They said, “Impossible.” And we replied, “We’ll see.”
Then we went and rode the shit out of our bikes. And we won. We beat the odds. People beat the odds every day, we just happened to have an incredibly compelling setting in which to stage the showdown: the route of the biggest bike race in the world. This isn’t a story about gutting out 150-mile flat stages or slaying through the Alps, this is a story about making people remember what it feels like to fly in the face of what we’ve been told to believe we are capable of. It’s a story about asking for more from yourself, throwing down the gauntlet in a very public way, wading through a sea of doubt and then clawing your way to the end.