I stopped in a bar in St. Michel de Mauriene and drank two cans of the Lipton peach iced tea that’s so popular in France. I consulted the sweat-stained Stage 8 profile I kept in my pocket and began to grasp the gravity of the task ahead of me. I saw that as soon as I headed up the road I’d be at the foot of the Col de Telegraphe. For the purposes of the next day’s Tour stage it was considered only a Category 2 climb — this, despite the fact I’d be climbing 2500 feet in the span of 6 miles.
Off I went, and almost immediately the road tipped upward. I saw a road sign with the forbidding warning: ‘Col du Galibier: 34K.’ Even though it’s a sleepy section of France, the traffic was noticeably heavy. Spectators for the next day’s Tour stage were starting to jockey for position, and in every switchback and every turn-off, RV’s and tents were nestled in, laying in wait for tomorrow’s spectacle. It was a terminally slow, steady climb. Fatigue was eating into my body, and I sat bolt upright like a tourist to take it easy on myself as I slogged ahead. I winced to think what a dork I must’ve looked like, pathetic in every way, all the way down to the truth that if I was in an English-speaking country, I’d show mercy to myself for the first time in over 4 hours by trying to thumb a ride to the summit.
In the switchbacks I could see St. Michel de Mauriene below me, getting smaller and smaller with every view, reinforcing what my body already knew: this Category 2 climb was a fearsome challenge. Most of the climb was sufficiently wooded to give me shade, something I was thankful for in light of the heat wave gripping France that week. As I passed by the increasingly thick assemblages of RV’s, I could hear radios turned up loud, with a frantic play-by-play being broadcast of what turned out to be Richard Virenque’s solo escapade up Morzine to earn the Maillot Jaune. Perhaps it was due to Virenque’s historic day that the French on the roadside seemed especially animated — offering me much encouragement, and upon occasion a bottle of ice-cold water. Their ebullience, though, was from a world separate from mine. I measured my progress one miserable half-K at a time. Even though it was the easiest climb of the day, I nevertheless struggled to stay in the double-digit zone — 10kph — and was not infrequently unsuccessful. Despite the lack of surprises on the Telegraphe — the grade stayed constant, the shade was nearly omnipresent, the views of the valley were glorious, the interest of the French on the roadside was mildly amusing — it was a terrible struggle to reach the top.
As I crested the mountain and stopped for a Coke, I knew I had some major problems. I had a solid sense of the rest of my route: it was about a 5K descent from the Telegraphe to the next village, then a 19K ascent of the savage Col du Galibier, followed by what was more or less a 50K descent down to my starting point at Bourg d’Oisans. At this point, I’d ridden 5 hours, and it was clear that I had at least another 3.5 to go before I’d reach Bourg d’Oisans. It was 4:30pm, and the final bus of the day left Bourg d’Oisans for Grenoble at 7:15. Clearly, there was no way I’d make it. My only hope was to take advantage of the long daylight hours by riding an additional 50K from Bourg d’Oisans back to Grenoble. I knew, however, if the Galibier took longer than expected (despite the fact that my expectations at this point were quite humble), and if the descent to Bourg d’Oisans was anywhere near as technical as that of the Croix de Fer, I’d likely run out of daylight before I was even halfway back to Grenoble. Despite the frightful prospect of having to ride on relatively busy highways after nightfall with no lights — simply for the privilege of having shelter for the night — I couldn’t motivate myself to ride any faster. Not dissimilar to my mindset when I bonk on long rides at home, my brain had lost all ability to trigger my legs to pedal harder. I had one speed and one speed only, a sluggish cruise control that assured an uncertain end to the ride. Nevertheless, I was anything but worried. I slowly finished my Coke, served in the elegant French manner of a 6oz glass and two ice cubes, unlocking the most pleasurable essence of the sugary, fizzy delight. It was a blissful respite, and it’s entirely possible that nothing would’ve made me happier right then than to spend the next two days doing nothing but that: sipping Cokes from a cold glass, watching the world pass by.