Sunday, July 27, 2008

July 19, 2008 – On Top of the World!

I slept soundly at Hotel Le Castillan at Alp d'Huez, but I awoke before 8, ready for breakfast, as had been my habit over the past two weeks. A buffet awaited downstairs. I loaded my tray with cereal, fruit, bread, yogurt and a café au lait. My metabolism was still in high gear.

Several of my riding companions were downstairs at breakfast. Four of us decided to take the gondola to the top of the mountain. Aside being a wicked bike climb in summer, Alp D’Huez is a ski resort in winter. The gondolas were open year round.

Wes, John, Luke and I arrived at the gondola and Didier took our tickets. Three mountain bikers joined us in our ride up. There were steep trails down, and they used the gondolas to reach the top of the trails. From high above, we watched some mountain bikers descend. It looked very intense.

We reached the first stop of the gondola and continued on. Then we had to switch gondolas for our final ascent to the top of the mountain – Pic Blanc. It took about a half hour to reach the summit, and when we exited our gondola, we were chilled by the cool air at 10,800 feet (3300 meters).

I had thought the views from the top of Mount Ventoux were panoramic – and they were. The views we were seeing now was the difference between a big screen television and a movie screen. We were high above the world and saw the tops of mountains – hundreds of miles away. A brochure I read said that from the top of Pic Blanc, one could see 20% of France. There was a telescope on the top, and I looked through it to see the white, rocky top of Mount Ventoux.

While the air was cool, the sun warmed us. We walked around and used such trite adjectives as “amazing” and “beautiful” and “spectacular.” Words failed to capture the majesty of the view from the top. For me, it was a special moment. We had ridden across France – through the vineyards, river valleys, lush fields of Provence, the cols and the Alps. Now we were on top of the world. That’s how I felt about the views and the journey.

After our visit to Pic Blanc, it was time to wish four of our comrades farewell. Wes, Ian, Luke and Shane would be staying on with the Wide Open Road tour to spend time riding in the Alps and to see the Tour de France. Becky, John, Duncan, Karen and I would be taking a bus to Grenoble for travel the next day.

Our bus left after 5, and it was late. We waited in the heat outside the bus station. Finally, the bus arrived about 20 minutes late. We gave the driver our tickets and headed down the mountain and 21-hairpin turns that we had climbed up the day before.

My goal was to take photos on the way down so I could capture some of the steep roads that I hadn’t taken photos of the day before. I was seated on the right side of the bus, and the first turn was on the left side of the bus. I went over to the next seat and snapped a few photos.

Meanwhile, my water bottle had fallen off my seat and rolled to the seat in front of me. The man sitting there, picked it up. He was an intense looking man with shaved hair except for a bit of hair in the front that was rolled up.

“Great. That’s what I wanted,” he said in English with a French accent.

I moved back over to my seat.

“Can I have my water bottle?” I asked.

“No. I’m going to keep it as a souvenir,” he said in a firm voice.

I really did want my water bottle back – but I was getting nowhere with this conversation. I was starting to feel sick from the bus ride as the driver was taking the turns fairly fast.

“I really need it – pour mon velo [for my bike],” I said.

“Too bad. It’s mine now,” he said.

“Would you autograph it for me?” he asked.

Seeing my opportunity to get the bottle back I said, “Yes!”

“No, you won’t give it back,” he said.

Finally, he smiled and said, I’ll give you your water bottle back.

His name was Robert, he told me. I introduced myself. He talked to me and John (who was sitting behind me on the left side of the bus with his wife Becky).

He had been at Alp d’Huez doing some military training. Originally Swiss, he was now a French citizen and was in the French ski patrol in intelligence. He was formerly part of the French Foreign Legion. (This is starting to sound made up now, I realize, but it is true!)

Robert and I talked about the people in France. He thought they were rude and snooty. I told him my experience sharply contradicted his.

“That’s because you are so gorgeous,” he said. "Who wouldn't want to talk to you!"
I smiled - caught a little off-guard with his compliment.

He asked me where I was from and where I worked. It was unusual to have someone ask so many detailed questions, and so I kept my answers nonspecific. He was in intelligence afterall.

“Can I have your email address?” he asked.

“Why don’t you give me yours,” I answered.

Every time I tell this story, people ask – are you going to email him? My answer – I doubt it. Some random guy on a random bus who lives in France – what is the point?

We arrived in Grenoble in less than an hour. We said goodbye to Robert who was catching the train to Geneva. (John later said he thought that Robert had “taken a fancy” to me. I love the English expressions!) The five of us headed toward the hotel. I could tell immediately that this hotel was not as nice as our hotel the night before.

Later, we met for dinner and ate at an Italian restaurant. The food was good – I had pasta with truffles (a special kind of mushrooms).

After dinner, we retired to our rooms. The temperature was sweltering. Grenoble is in a valley and the mountains surrounding it seemed to keep the heat and air stagnant that evening. I was hot, and opened my window as there was no air conditioning. I slept without clothes, trying to cool off. All night, I heard the screeching sound of trains from the depot across the street and the sounds of noisy people partying. I had tired of camping, but that was heaven compared to this stifling hot room. Give me the fresh air, cooing of the doves and the snoring of my neighbors any night.

July 18, 2008 – Alp d’Huez

I awoke realizing that last night concluded my camping and today would be my last day of riding. My emotions were mixed. I was happy to be sleeping in a hotel and giving my weary body a break from the mile after mile of riding. I was sad because my journey across France was winding up, and in my two weeks or travel, I had grown to love the people and the places that I visited each day. I would miss meeting new people, practicing my French and learning new words, eating pain au chocolat, taking photos of the French countryside and riding through quaint villages. My tour de France would be coming to an end soon.

Today, we had a challenging ride ahead – we would climb up Col d'Ornon and then finish our tour up Alp d’Huez. Yet the ride would be short at about 32 miles.

I started early and planned to climb easily up the col so my legs would have some stamina left for Alp d’Huez. I decided that today would be all about riding – not about taking photos along the way. Then the beauty of the alps captured my imagination and I had to stop. Particularly beautiful was a field of poppies. I wasn’t content to just take a picture of the flowers; I set my bike down, scaled down the hill and took a photo of the poppies with the mountain in the background. It was a bit of work – but it was worth the effort! (In hindsight, I never regretted any of the time I spent taking photos. My only regret was the photos I didn’t take.)

The last part of the ascent up Col d’Ornon was quite steep. I was riding with Wes at the time the climb began, who also stopped to take photos of the poppies, and both of us had to stop chatting and focus on climbing. The steep part was only a few miles, and then we stopped for lunch at a bar at the top of the mountain. The top was sunny and many of my biking companions took advantage of the reclining chairs. The bar served food, but I wasn’t ready to eat, so I ordered a Coca Light and relaxed in the mid-day sun.

After our stop, we gathered together for a group photo – all except Ian who was eager to get his climb up l’Alp started.

We descended the col and regrouped at l’Bourg-d’Oisans for lunch. I ate at a pizza place with Drew, Ann, Frank and Luke. I had pasta with butter and parmesan cheese. The rest of my group had pizza. Some had wine and even desert. I marveled wondering how someone could actually drink alcohol and eat rich food prior to a major climb. The others who didn’t eat with us had sandwiches down the road.

This was a village with biking at the forefront. Instead of Christmas decorations, the town was decorated in biking jerseys – most likely honoring the upcoming visit of the Tour de France riders. Once we left l’Bourg-d’Oisans, our climb up Alp d’Huez was only a mile or two away.

On the last big climb up Mount Ventoux, I had needed to stop a few times to complete the climb. That morning at camp, Luke told me, in his high brow English accent, “A proper cyclist wouldn’t put a foot down during the climb. If you do, it doesn’t count.”

Luke hadn’t even attempted the climb up Mount Ventoux with us. (He had said he had completed it before.) So why would it matter what he determined was a proper cyclist? Still, his words stuck in my head, and I was determined to ride up the Alp without stopping.

I had heard that the first part of the climb would be steep for the first few miles. After that, it leveled out some and a rider could recover a bit on the 21 hairpin turns. Still, the climb is 8.5 miles with an average grade of 7.9%.

The first part was steep – and I immediately shifted into granny mode. Surprisingly, it didn’t quite shock my body as the start of Mount Ventoux had done a few days earlier. I wasn’t riding fast, but I was riding steady.

I passed Becky as I first started the climb, and my legs were feeling fairly strong – for a while. Then I started tiring. The combination of more than 700 miles or riding and climbing mountains had chipped away at my fortitude. Shane buzzed by me quite quickly. He was looking strong. Then Duncan and Karen passed me by. I was getting a little discouraged at my slow pace, but then I thought who cares? It’s not a race. My goal is to get to the top without stopping.

Alp d’Huez was part of the Tour de France, and as I ascended, I noticed campers already parked on the side of the road for the tour stage that would be held on July 22 – just four days away. The road was quite busy with traffic – much more busy than Mount Ventoux had been. I also didn’t notice the support I had seen up Ventoux. One woman near a camper actually told me to “quit” – at least I think that’s what she said. She had a thick Dutch accent. Maybe she said quick – but I was far from riding anywhere near quick.

The hairpins did provide relief from the climb. There were also some small villages that I passed through that provided a flat course for a brief while. I looked forward to having a bit of a breather. I also liked counting down the kilometers as the signs showed how many were left to the top. This climb was hard – but it was so much easier than Mount Ventoux.

As I neared the top, a photographer was there to take my photo. He was cheerful, asking me where I was from. That perked me up for my final climb to the top.

When I got to the top, I saw my biking friends sitting outside at a bar right by the bike shop. They gave me a cheer and told me that the finish line was about 20 feet away. I crossed the finish line and circled back to join the group.

I finished in an hour and 22 minutes. I had met my goal and could make the claim of being proper Alp d’Huez cyclist! (My time is not too impressive considering that the record for cycling up Alp d’Huez is 36 minutes, 50 seconds by Marco Pantani in 1997. Lance Armstrong has the second best time in 38 minutes, 1 second when he won his memorable time trial up the alp during the 2001 Tour de France.)

That evening was our big finale. We would have a big dinner and sleep in a hotel! I was lucky. Since I was the single female customer I had a room at Hotel Le Castillan to myself. I felt I was in the lap of luxury. A bathroom with towels, soap and shampoo. A real bed with sheets. Free Internet access. Even a blow dryer – so what that I had to hold the on button down when I dried my hair!

I couldn’t resist taking a bath, and I soaked in the tub for more than an hour. (The bathtub seemed to be much narrower than U.S. tubs.) After my bath, I found an ironing board and iron in the basement of the hotel to press my flowered back and white silk skirt and black shirt. (Learned the word for iron in French is fer à repasser.) Tonight was our dress up night, and I was eager to primp a little after two weeks of biking and camping.

Before dinner, our group was on the deck having a drink. I arrived late, and Luke commented. “Nancy is looking hot.”

I smiled and exaggerated a hip swinging walk. I saw Ian reclining in a chair, and I sauntered over to him, sat on his lap and gave him a big kiss on the cheek. He was a bit caught off guard, I think, but everyone, including him, laughed.

We had a dinner of salad, pasta, veal and bread. The pasta sauce tasted a little like tomato soup, but I was happy to have some carbs this evening.

After dinner, we were invited to go to the town disco. I declined and was the first one to retire to my room. I couldn’t wait to sink into my cozy bed and have a good night’s sleep.

Total miles: approximately 32

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

July 17, 2008 – Climbing the Cols

Today was the last day of riding before the big ascent up Alp d’Huez. My goal was to take the ride easy and take the climbs up the Cols easy. I left at the same time as the group, but I decided I would stop along the way and take photos.

Again, the beauty of France didn’t fail to amaze me. Flowers were everywhere. In the villages, I stopped and took photos of some beautiful gardens. On the mountains were wildflowers – lavender, poppies and others. Our first climb wasn’t too steep, but we gained over 1000 meters (or over 3100 feet) over the first 30 miles. Our highest ascent for the day was Col de Menee. The worst part of the climb was after when I had to go through a long dark tunnel. I was scared thinking that cars wouldn’t be able to see me in the dark. Fortunately, the support van was following me, I later realized.

We had lunch at a café in the valley of the Col. It was beautiful with mountain peaks in the background, flowers in the foreground and a pool tempting us with its cool water on such a warm day. Shane couldn’t resist and stripped down to his bike shorts and jumped in.

After lunch I passed by the town of Mens and saw some quaint houses, more flowers and met Gerard, a retired English teacher and Mens resident. We talked a while about the rural life in Mens and he told me about his travels to the U.S.

Becky and John caught up to me in Mens, and the three of us rode up the next climb of the day - Col de Accarias, which wasn’t nearly as steep nor long as the mornings climb. John was an avid cyclist and his wife, Becky, was new to the sport and had decided to tackle 13 days of biking up mountains. (I found that very brave for a new cyclist!)

After all of our climbing, we had one last three mile climb into our campground, Camping Belvedere de l'Obiou (near Les Egats). I took it easy for the climb, and finished well before 4 p.m. for the day. I had time to set up my tent, do my laundry,watch the Tour de France and check my Internet (free of charge!). By far this was the nicest campground we stayed at. There were no open air urinals, the showers had curtains, the sinks had soap and there was even a clothesline! I felt like this was camping heaven.

Later that night, the campground owners fed us with “tartiflette” - pronounced tarty-flats. It was a local specialty like au gratin potatoes with ham. But these were the absolute best I have ever had. I think it was the local cheese that made it special – but I never found out for sure. I ate a plate and a half and also had some chocolate mousse for desert. I felt sick by the time I had finished eating. But I thought that it would be good fuel for the day’s next ride up Alp d’Huez!

Total miles: 48 (approximately)

July 16, 2008 – Olive Country

After my big ride to the top of Mount Ventoux and with my ride in two days up Alp d’Huex, I knew that today was all about taking it easy. We had a long ride planned – about 60 miles – so I decided that today would be a day of site-seeing and going slowly.

I started my trip leaving from the campsite near Vaison headin for Menglon for the evening. I was amazed with how agriculturally productive the land was in the area. I saw trees with apricots, nectarines, cherries, peaches and olives. Even though we were traveling through the mid-south part of France, we were still fairly far north in terms of latitude – and inland quite a ways. I was surprised with the lush bounty of fruit I saw as I rode by.

My first stop would be Nyons, where I hoped to find an Internet connection. Internet access had been either non-existent or very expensive at the past two campgrounds. I hadn’t heard an update on my cat for a few days, so I was eager to find Wi-Fi (or wee-fee as they call it here).

As I stopped in Nyons, about 10 miles down the road, I asked the visitor’s center where I could find Wi-Fi – and the woman told me the name of the place in a blue building. I rode around and couldn’t find it. I saw some bikers with Nyons jerseys (part of a bike group?) and asked them for help. One directed me to a small store less than a block away. I checked my email – the cat had still not come home – and then I headed on the route.

A few miles out of town, I remembered that Nyons was famous for its olive production, so I stopped by a bike shop that I passed and asked for some help. Eric didn’t speak much English, but he was very patient with my French. He told me that I should go to the Musee d’Olivier to find out more about the olive growing in the region. Eric gave me a juicy and sweet apricot before I left.

I turned back to Nyons and tried to find the museum, which wasn’t obvious, despite the map that Eric had prepared for me. I rode up the hill and found some construction workers, taking lunch, and asked them where the Musee d’Olivier was. They were amused by me in my biking outfit and told me in French that I was in the wrong place. The Tour de France was in the Pyrnes! We all laughed together. One man spoke English, and he told me that the museum was by a cathedral that I could see to my right. I wished them au revoir and tried to find a road toward the cathedral in the maze of narrow one way roads.

My journey was unsuccessful, and I asked someone else where the museum was. He told me it was in the opposite direction but was closed over the lunch hour. (In the French countryside, lunch means closed between 12 and 2 p.m.). So I stopped my an open air restaurant and ordered lunch. (I don’t think I mentioned but universally, in every town that I have traveled, virtually every café and bar has outdoor seating. I preferred this so I could park my bike nearby and savor the open air and people watch.) I ordered the salad special – a ham (the French sure love ham) salad with tomatoes, cheese and a thick olive oil dressing (which had a deliciously rich taste), served with bread and a café au lait. I would have to wait for the museum, as it was about 12:30, so I also ordered a half carafe of rose wine. (Another point to mention, the rose wine here isn’t like white zinfandel in the U.S. It is truly light, delicious and refreshing – especially on a hot day, which it was that day.) At about quarter after 2, I headed toward the Musee d’Olivier – and found it! Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be open until 2:45. I waited outside in the heat with a family. At exactly 2:45, a car pulled up and out walked an older man with white hair and a purposeful stride.

I paid my 4 Euros and asked if he spoke English. He said, no, but he gave me a copy of the English version of the museum items. I walked around, taking photos, and occasionally, I would ask him a question. One I asked him was whether Italian olive oil was better than French olive oil – he shook his head and said. “C’est tres complex.” (It is very complex.)

We sat down as a group, and Rene (as I would later find out was his name) told us all about olive production. Olive oil is grown is regions that are among certain climate zones. Production stretches throughout France, Italy, Spain and even in California in the U.S. Much like wine, the land determines the taste of the oil. (Spanish oil is bitter, he lamented.)

Rene knew no English, and I was challenged trying to figure out the words he was using since they were so precisely related to olive oil. The man with the family (who was French) spoke some English and then some Dutch people joined the discussion, and one of the men also spoke some English.

Rene claimed French oil is some of the best in the world. He talked about the standards used by the certifying board – the AOC. The AOC is the same board that calls a Bordeaux wine a Bordeaux. They not only look at the region where the olive (or grape) is grown, they also measure the levels of certain elements contained within the oil. In order to be called Nyons olive oil, it must have a certain level of lipids, vitamins, etc.

It was a pretty funny scene. Rene would explain something and then ask me if I understood. I would get part of what he was saying, but not the whole thing. So the French man would try to explain and the Dutch man would fill in the blanks. This took a long time, and after an hour and 15 minutes, I had no more time to spare. It was 4 p.m., and I still had 50 miles to ride. I told Rene and the group I had to leave. Rene was disappointed, and asked me where I was going. I went outside and got my map for the night to show him. Then he told me I should stay because the Dutchman had found me charming. (Rene had asked me if I was single earlier.) I bid farewell to Rene, the Dutchman and the rest, and hopped on my bike for a very hot ride toward Mengion.
I had thought that riding 50 miles would take 2 ½ to 3 hours - even going slowly. I was mistaken. It was hot, I had to climb up a 700 meter col (mountain peak), and I was tired from my climb up Mount Ventoux.

I rode strong the first 25 miles, but when I started climbing, I could feel my legs were weary. I slowed down and just focused on getting through. I traveled on isolated mountain roads, and the scenery out of the lush valley of Nyons was all forest, rivers and mountains. The trek seemed to take forever, and there were not many villages to stop for water. At a bar, I asked for water, and they pointed me to a cistern (with water spouting from the mouth of a man!) Later, I was out of water once I had descended the Col, and I asked a boy selling fruit if he had some water, and he directed me to a public spigot a few blocks away.

By the time I neared camp, I was exhausted. Not only had the ride took it’s toll, I was also energetically depleted since I hadn’t eaten since my salad and bread at lunch. The last town before camp was Menglon. I was excited when I saw the town, but I couldn’t find the campground. I went down a hill to where I thought the campground would be located, but when I didn’t see any signs, I went back to town. I saw a girl, who was about age 10 in town, and I asked her is she knew the way to Camping at L’Hirondelle. She said, “I don’t speak English.” But then she told me she would get help. Soon she was running out of a house with a woman. I rode my bike toward them, and the woman, in an American accent, explained exactly how to get to the camp. (Why was she living in Menglon? I wondered, but didn't want to stay there and ask.) I couldn’t imagine trying to understand if she had told me in French that I had to pass by the concrete mixers!

I found camp that night, and it had taken me nearly 4 hours. I was late for dinner, so I changed clothes and met the group in my disheveled state. I was a little crabby because the directions weren’t clear – but soon I forgot about my annoyance, and laughed as the others asked about my trip to the Olive Museum (Ann had stopped at Eric's bikeshop to see if I was OK.) I ate a mediocre lasagna and bread and drank some more rose wine. After dinner I walked to the shower house – at least a quarter mile away from my tent. I was tiring of camping, and was glad that there was only one night of camping left!

Total miles: 65 (approximately – mileage computer stopped working)

Monday, July 21, 2008

July 15, 2008 – Mount Ventoux

I woke up at 6 with a terrible headache and queasy feeling in my stomach. It wasn’t the fear of ascending Mount Ventoux – but “I took a nudging” (as Wes from Australia put it) from the festivities of the night before. I laid in my tent for a couple of hours trying to will myself to feel better. I decided maybe a cold splash of water on my face might help me feel better. I left my tent and saw Luke. “Good morning,” he said. I could only grunt in response.

I sat down under the canopy and couldn’t imagine eating anything. I poured a cup of water and slowly drank. Shane told me that I needed to eat something to feel better. I got a dry baguette and tore off hunks of bread which I slowly chewed and washed down with water.

I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to ride – let alone ride up a mountain. I decided that I could at least start by riding the flat part out of Avignon toward the “Windy Mountain.”

A funny thing happened when I got on my bike – I felt better! We struggled finding the roads out of Avignon – as it was a big city and our route maps were not detailed. Eventually, we were on our way to the Windy Mountain. We cold see its white rock top in the distance – as we pedaled toward our fate.

The day was once again hot, and I drank two water bottles in the 30 mile ride to Bedoin, our stop before the climb.

We stopped for lunch, and I had a sandwich with ham and cheese and two Coca Lights. Afterwards, I stopped by the bike store to pick up a jersey and to replace my cleats on my shoes. All of the walking on cobblestone and bricks had taken a toll on my shoes – and now I was having a difficult time clipping in to my bike. This worried me because the grade was so steep up Mt. Ventoux that if I wasn’t able to clip in if I stopped, I might not be able to start again.

The first two or three miles to the mountain were a gradual climb. I concentrated on spinning and keeping my effort easy. Then the first steep part came. I rode in my smallest granny gear, and I could barely peddle. After a mile and a half, I was breathless and had to stop when the road’s steepness subsided slightly. At that point, I considered turning around. I had nine more miles like this, and the top was even steeper than the beginning of the climb. How in the world was I going to make it to the top?

I gave myself permission to stop every mile if I needed to – and I got back on my bike. This time I pedaled two miles without stopping. I caught my breath again and started the grind to the top.

Strangely, the more I rode, the more my legs and mind got used to the idea of riding up the mountain. The bottom part of Mt. Ventoux is a hot, humid forest. My pace was slow and the bottom part was oppressively sweltering. I rode in the shade of the trees whenever I could find some. As I continued my climb, the temperature cooled as I gained altitude. I not only had to deal with the heat but relentless flies. Normally, flies are not much of an issue with riding, but I was going so slow that it provided the flies an opportunity to circle me and land. These flies were like biting horseflies – but a little smaller. I tried to blow them off and sometimes would try to brush them off with one of my hands. The only thing good about the flies was that they helped me keep my mind off how much my legs were hurting.

About two thirds up the mountain, the forest disappears and all that is left is a bare, white, rocky mountaintop. I had heard this part was more difficult, but it seemed easier to me. The air was cooler, the flies disappeared and there were occasional switchbacks which provided precious flat spots on the road that allowed my legs to recover for 15 seconds.

One of our tour leaders, Drew, was providing support for the day. He really encouraged me every time I saw him.

“You are spinning well,” he said. “You are looking really good.”

I smiled and felt more energized as he talked to me and took photos. I also felt encouraged by the riders who were descending and would give me a thumbs up or say “Allez!” (go) as they passed by.

As I neared the second to the last switchback, a car in front of me stopped. I was on about a 10% grade at the point. “Go!” I yelled, forgetting that I was in France. I was afraid that if I stopped I’d never make it to the top. The car started just as I neared the point of having to stop or go into the oncoming traffic lane to go around.

I passed the memorial to Tom Simpson – an English Tour de France rider who died while riding up the mountain caused by the drugs he was using.

When I arrived at the top, I took the wrong turn, and Ann (another tour leader) came down to tell me that I needed to go up one more incline - about 100 feet – to the end. She held me steady as I clipped back in my bike and prepared to tackle the last steep climb.

I made it to the top and saw my friends who had arrived before me. They were clapping and cheering me for making it. It was a magical moment. The mountain was beautiful from on top. Mount Ventoux was the highest point for miles and miles around, and the views were awesome.

There was candy for sale at the top, and also a gift shop and bar. I rewarded myself with a Coca Light and a Snicker’s bar. The top was really very pristine and didn’t have the feeling of being commercialized. I felt peaceful on top seeing the beauty of the panoramic view and feeling my sense of accomplishment of having made it to the top.

By far, that was the hardest climb I have ever done. It is relentless with an average grade of 9.5%. All of the riders who took on Mount Ventoux made it up that day. Our oldest rider, Ian (an Australian), who is over 60, made it up in a double chain ring. We saw him as he neared the final stretch.

“Aussie, Aussie, Aussie – Oy, oy, oy,” we said. (Apparently some sort of national saying?) He was the inspiration of the day for me and many of the other riders.

The photo of us on that day shows us all beaming with radiant smiles. For most of us, this was by far the most difficult ride we will ever encounter. And all of us made it up – despite our worried thoughts on the way up that maybe we couldn’t do it. Our minds had taken over when our bodies wanted to quit. In the process, we uncovered the truth about how strong all of us were in body, mind and spirit.

Following the ride up, we descended down the mountain toward our campground for the night. I made sure to give the riders heading up a thumbs up when I could, hoping that my bit of encouragement would make a difference for them as it had for me.

We stayed at a Roman theme campground that was really tacky. We ate food at the campground, too tired to ride to town. Near the restaurant was the karaoke bar and we listened to the French singers attempt the words of songs by English-speaking groups (Village People, Queen, U-2). That was seriously the worst karaoke I have heard in my life! But it was a good laugh for us that evening.

My tent was at least a quarter mile from the bathroom – and I had to put it on gravel – but despite the inconveniences, I slept deeply and peacefully all night.

Total miles: 68

July 14, 2008 – Bastille Day Trip through Provence

I felt well rested when I began my ride in the morning. Our riding notes had said that we were now in Provence – but I didn’t notice any difference in the terrain at Anduze, our camping place.

I rode through the village of Anduze to start my day. Today was Bastille Day – France’s Independence Day. I noticed that there was some sort of ceremony happening at one of the buildings. I found a man who spoke English about what was going on. Some students were being honored for their academic achievement – and the leaders of the town’s library were the ones leading the ceremony.

My friend Benoit told me that after the ceremony there would be aperitif – kind of early to drink for me – so I told him I had to be on my way. He gave me kisses on both cheeks – my first deux fois (two time) French kiss.

By the time I left the celebration, it was lunch time. I hadn’t really started riding, and didn’t want to stop for lunch so soon. Then I saw a fruit stand on the road and bought three peaches. I ate two at the stand and put the other in my back pocket. As I headed down the road toward Ners – I finally saw the magic of Provence. Beautiful fields of sunflowers reached toward the sun. I stopped my bike and captured their heads as they bobbed toward the light. In all of France – particularly in Provence – flowers bloom everywhere…in front of houses, in gardens, along riverbanks, in fields.

My plan was to ride slowly today because tomorrow was a big climb up Mount Ventoux. Taking photos and soaking in the beauty and flowers made it easy for me to slow down. The wind was gusting, and for most of my ride to Ners, I had a tailwind. My stop for lunch was Uzes, and I had a climb and the wind switched to a headwind as I rode into town.

Uzes was larger than the smaller villages that I saw early in the day. I rode around until I found the town center and stopped at an outdoor café for lunch. The waiter seemed a bit grumpy, and the man whom I sat next to said, “Don’t worry about him. They are very busy here because it is Bastille Day.”

He was with a woman who spoke perfect English with an American accent. I asked where she was from – Washington, DC originally. Her name was Jessica and her French husband was Jean.

I had a long conversation with the two of them. She was an artist and showed me some of her work which she had displayed in the restaurant. She had painted three pictures – two in oil and one in water – showing beautiful scenes in Provence. One I particularly admired was of an old building. She told me that the building was an old laundry house that was just down the road if I wanted to see it.

I wished her husband aux revior – this time getting three cheek kisses (three is for good friends). He told me that if I ever wanted to return, I could stay with them in Uzes.

Jessica and I walked to the old laundry house. Apparently, the town’s women had once used the building as a place for cleaning their laundry in a large pool that looked like a kiddy wading pool. The place was in disrepair and boarded up. She thought it was owned by the Duke who lived in Uzes.

I had thought that the royalty system died with the French revolution. It had, Jessica assured me, but some families were able to keep their property and still use the titles. The Duke also owned the castle in town, which she pointed out to me.

Jessica and I exchanged three cheek kisses, and I hopped on my bike toward Pont du Gard – an ancient roman aquaduct.

The day was hot – and it was nearing 4 by the time I reached Pont du Gard. This site is the best-preserved part of the aqueduct built to convey water from a spring near Uzes to Nimes. The work started in 38 AD and was completed in 52 AD. A thousand men worked on the site, using more than 50,000 tons of stone. Jessica had told me that she had once taken a class on Pont du Gard and that the aqueduct had not been successful in the long term. There were too many minerals in the water and the aqueduct had clogged. When the Roman’s eventually left the area, no one left knew how to care for the aqueduct.

The site was filled with people, and I didn’t feel like getting off my bike and exploring it in depth. Instead, I started down the road to Avignon.

It was after 4:30 by the time I reached Remoulins. I decided to stop and find a bar to watch the completion of the day’s Tour de France stage.

The trip to Avignon was on a busy road through an industrial area. A headwind made the going slow. I made it to the campground by 7 – just as some of my riding friends were leaving in the van toward Avignon. There was a big celebration there – and we would go to the palace of the second pope to have dinner and see the sites. (Apparently, at one point there were two popes – one in Rome and one in Avignon. I don’t know more details because it was late when we arrived.)

I departed with the last group – which included Shane, Drew and me. When we arrived in Avignon, we entered a stone city and searched for a restaurant. We saw Claire and Frank at a Vietnamese restaurant, and the three of us joined them.

Our dinner consisted of little appetizers and wine. Then the owner of the restaurant came outside to talk, and we started drinking sake in little glasses that featured naked men and women in when they were filled with drink. The novelty encouraged us to drink more than I would have. Then we went to a bar and had another drink.

At some point, I realized that I should stop the Bastille Day festivities since I had to ride up one of the toughest cycling mountains in the world the next day. Drew and I caught a cab back to camp, and I fell asleep as soon as I crawled into my sleeping bag.

Total miles: 66

Thursday, July 17, 2008

July 13, 2008 – Short Ride Through the Cols

Today’s ride was short and with some climbing. My knee was once again sore – and I wasn’t in the mood for doing anything but getting through the ride and on to the stop for the night.

This day was not particularly memorable for me. I didn’t find the cols that we ascended to be particularly beautiful – no more beautiful than the mountains in Montana. I did stop in Le Pompidou to take a photo of a woman there. She wondered why I wanted her photo. I told her I was American and wanted to capture images of the people of France. She nodded, and she said she understood and wished me well on my journey.

I was glad today's ride was short - and hurried to camp near Anduze to watch the end of the Tour de France.

Total miles: 44