Back in the day I had the pleasure of riding around West Point in one of my very first road bike races while racing in the collegiate ranks. As a die-hard MTB’er, my entire opinion of road biking was formulated on that day and I realized how cool racing on skinny tires could be. I somehow got in a break with 6 guys, including a guy from the West Point Army team, a Princeton guy who I think is still riding pro, perhaps a future US track national champion but I can’t remember… maybe that was the next year…. anyway… I found myself in my first “hilly” road race that filtered out the pack into a small group. It was fascinating to work together yet still raise an eyebrow judging the form of each rider’s pull at the front (or lack there of). After one climb where I didn’t attack (I’m against instigating violence, military or otherwise) but suddenly looked over my shoulder and didn’t see anyone.
As this was one of my first road races, my initial thought was “geez, I’m going to get lost and make a fool of myself!” On the next turn, which was a bit of an American round-about, there was a course Marshall pointing me in the right direction…
Then I noticed he didn’t look like the regular course marshalls… dressed in high black combat boots, wide stance, full camo… and, oh yeah, he had a semi automatic machine gun strapped around his neck….
“Holy Crap!” I thought…
Suddenly it became evident that I was the race leader and I was all alone. I huffed and puffed my way around Fort Buckner amid the blooming neon green springtime visage. Before my mind had time to wander and make a noobie faux-pas, a large military issue Hummer H1 pulled out to ensure I had a clear road. This was before the time when you could buy the pedestrian Hummer H3’s with an FM radio and air conditioning at your local GM dealer. At this time, the Hummer was a foreign vehicle to most civilians and the original Hummer filled a regulation size US highway lane – paint to paint. As my heart rate began to climb, I noticed that the Hummer was also outfitted with gun racks with weapons and several Army cadets on-board.
“Geez-us, this is crazy,” I thought.
Despite the toxic fumes the stripped-down, full camo Hummer H1 was spilling out, I felt quite good. I went on to win the race (or maybe I got 2nd caught at the end… it’s all a haze coated in decade-old fog), I realized that road biking wasn’t so lame as my MTB mentality thought it would. It can be EPIC! Sign me up!
Fast forward 11 years and I’m out on a bike ride to escape my regular day-job and nuances of prenuptial life, on a route that I’ve done so many times that it boarders on “boring” except for the fact that its in France, on the Riviera, in the mountains, and the weather is good (for now… thunderstorms in the forecast).
I start out for what I think might be my normal route of 101 miles with 5200 feet of climbing and it might take 5:15 or 5:35 if I’m not “feeling it”. Well, the strong head wind and my strong headache indicated that I might not even complete the ride. During the introductory “bike path” section I had to dig deep just to catch a guy on a mountain bike.
“Maybe he’s really a Pro 2.2 rider who is on his way back from work…?! Yes, I’m sure!”
But when I finally passed him, the tennis shoes and pedals with reflectors really drained all my thoughts that I was any good…
Like a good Trooper, I continued on the normal route, not knowing how much of the planned route I would actually accomplish. My thoughts:
“Wind is blowing 25kph in my face, any push on the pedals makes my head hurt, I’m trying to do 101 miles with a only 1.5 bottles of water, no food, I always do this but…. errrr…. today? It’s going to be lazy at best. Hmm, look at those vineyards over there… I’ve yet to try anything from that Domaine, maybe I should try some… [Meanwhile I’m listing to a french language lesson podcast in hopes that it’ll be burned into my brain if I listen to it for 5 hours]…”
I start to repeat the lesson out-loud, trying to perfect my accent (which is never going to fool anyone)! My heart rate dips to around 125bpm as my mind tries to focus on something other than the wind and heavy legs.
Just then a guy passes me in a full camo kit. Yup, camo! If I hadn’t watched the Tour de Mediterraneen this February I would have thought he just had a crazy kit. But I recognized it immediately. The kit of the French Army Team that competes in Continental Pro races. Probably won’t get into the Tour de France, but good enough for most races against the big name teams.
I sucked wheel for a minute or two and then pulled to the front (nothing worse than a wheel-sucker, right?) We swapped turns a few times until a small mountain top village, Pierre-Feu-de-Var. He didn’t attack up the climb and I didn’t implode which were all good signs.
We then entered the real Provence countryside. Few cars. Many vineyards. False flat roads. Beautiful. We again traded turns at the front but I still wasn’t sure where he was headed… I was only 20 miles into what could be a 101 mile ride… if he was up for the full route then that would be fantasique (anything to get my mind off my headache and poor form)…
I was doing my part at the front when we approached the one (and only) “T” intersection where I usually continue straight-on… ignoring a Col that I’ve never done despite the fact that I see waves of old cyclists coming and going that direction. Straight-ahead is a 900 foot climb with an epic descent into the Golf of Saint Tropez. To the right is the unknown Col that incidentally was used in the Tour de Mediterraneen. How bad could it be?
Just before the intersection, the French Army rider places his hand on my left shoulder and says:
“Voulez-vous monter ce Col?” or something to that effect…
Having disregarded the Col dozens and dozens of times, I thought riding up it with a Pro Tour rider would be a good excuse to try it out. In addition, the way that he approached me with his hand on my back and polite demeanor somehow conveyed to me that he actually wanted me to ride up with him. Me, the lackluster desk-job computer geek who thinks “intervals” and “training” are both 4 letter words.
“Mais, oui. Bien sur!” I said.
There is always some trepidation on starting a new climb. Is it 40 minutes? 20 minutes? Less? More? I had no idea. The climb I was skipping was 12-15 minutes so I assumed the same since we were in the same valley. We did a few switchbacks and went fairly hard, nothing too crazy, but at one point I had to stop myself and draw back the reigns in case it was a long 40 minute climb… opening a gap of 20 meters. Around the next turn I noticed the large red and white open gate (often situated on French Cols incase they need to close one side or the other) which is a good marker of the summit of a climb.
“Really? Already…?” I looked at my altimeter… “640ish feet”… this is not a real Col I thought to myself.
I closed the 20 meter gap at the top as our military friend composed himself with a few nasal sniffs, and visible sweat discharges from his helmet (I wasn’t really sweating at this point but I think it might be genetics or some problem with my sweat glands which never really kick in unless it gets above 25C or 78F…)
We started descending and I felt bad about not proving to be a worthy sprint opponent at the summit so I quickly took the lead… despite the fact that I’ve never been down this mountain before. I turned my Garmin onto the map view so I could at least hammer while seeing a picture of the road turns ahead. We passed a few cyclotourists groups who gave us a long stare…
[Update: Part 2]…
Once things started to flatten out we started chatting, in French, which isn’t my forte but it’s fine for most simple discussions. He asked me if I did competitions but I said that I don’t but just ride when I get time away from work. He had done Mont Faron in the morning and was now doing another short ride up this one Col. His name is Matthias Collet and rides for the Armee de Terre. His profile photo on the team page indicates that he is the French National Champion (for firefighters). Still pretty cool. After a while, I started liking the camo kit. Then came an odd situation when I was pulling pretty hard and we came to a red light. I’ve been told by cyclists in both Montpellier and Toulon that “in France, cyclists don’t ever stop for red lights”. I can confirm this as on the group rides, all 30 riders blasted through no less than 12 red lights, even in the city. But, since this guy was on the Armee de Terre team, I really didn’t know what to think. “Is he a cyclist first, government representative second, or vice-versa? Do I stop, do I roll through?” I pulled to a full stop and paused for a second while still clipped in and he pulled in front and we proceeded once the intersection was clear. A moment later, we passed a Gendarmerie van, and it felt pretty good to blast through town with the reassurance that I wouldn’t be hunted down. During the hour or so we rode together, we managed to average 21mph and even with 1000 feet of climbing. I was doing a pull up a small hill when he pulled up beside me and offered his hand. Noticing this would be his turn-off, we shook hands and I wished him bonne route. Very classy, very fun.