Success!  Pete and I conquered the Col de la Ramaz, the mountain that stole Lance Armstrong’s dreams (TMTSLAD).  Climbing the Col was incredibly, incredibly, difficult, made harder by the weight of our awesome moustaches!

I’m sure some of you are wondering who Pete is – he’s my old housemate from Charlottesville.  A fellow-Chicagoan, Pete is finishing his Ph.D. research at the Paul Scherrer Institute in Villigen, Switzerland, an hour outside of Zurich.  This weekend was a true test to see if New Trier’s Kinetic Wellness department properly increased Pete’s understanding of the connection of mind and body that’s crucial to personal growth and development.  Snicker.

I rode the TGV from Paris direct to the Alps; the TGV is the coolest thing ever.  Hands down beats flying places.  Pete and I met up in Les Cluses (The Ravines), and stayed in a little hotel in Les Carroz d’Arâches. All the hotels in the region are up in the mountains to attract the skiers in the winter, and ours was no exception at 1200m.  We had a nice view of the local Cols from our window:

Sunday morning we got up and descended from the hotel roughly 600m to Taninges and went over to Mieussy, where we met up with the Tour route for Stage 8.  Finding the route mostly consisted of following the hundreds of cyclists in Taninges, and then meeting up with a road clearly abused by the Chalkbot.  We stopped for breakfast and enjoyed the view from twenty meters up the 14 km we were about to tackle of TMTSLAD.

Climbing the mountain was one of the most surreal experiences I’ve ever had.  Even by 10am fans line almost the entire route, as thousands of amateurs test their mettle against TMTSLAD.  The climb itself is, well, unrelenting.  But all along the route people in their cars and campers yell out encouragement and shouts of “Allez!  Allez!”   People are incredibly friendly – stopping along the route for a drink meant automatically making friends with the people along the side of the road, even if you didn’t speak the same languages.  The French woman who excitedly told me there was only four kilometers left (it was closer to eight).  The German from Frankfort who’d just returned from training Afghani police in Kabul for a year who shared his extra water mit gas.  The Scotsman who I kept leapfrogging along the climb.  Even the Swiss who called Pete a hick for speaking rural Swiss-German.

As you climb higher and higher things get stranger and stranger.  At first I thought it was just visions induced by the burning in my legs and apoxia.  It started with the three little children, completely naked, splashing water on riders as they rode up.  Next, foreshadowed by tridents chalked on the ground, El Diablo sat by the road, enjoying a beer.  Then came the Germans blasting polka music from their camper.  And the clowns walked the whole way up.

Four kilometers from the top the road flattens out for 500m, and the whole flat was filled with campers.  As you got higher and higher the route became more and more festive.  I think Tour de France stages are really the European equivalent of tail-gating, it’s just stretched along a mountain instead of filling a stadium parking lot.

I can’t do justice to the difficulty of climbing a mountain, or to the feeling of accomplishment at the top.  Writers better than I have tackled the subject, I heartily recommend Tim Krabbe’s The Rider.  Finally reaching the summit, we then went down and bought sandwiches from a kiosk in the camper area, and walked around to scope out a place to cheer in the shade. We finally found a nice bend in the road about 800m before the peak of TMTSLAD and demolished our sandwiches.

A little after getting settled The Caravan arrived, which was just crazy.  It’s an unending stream of cars that throw promotional merchandise at the spectators.  We quickly discovered that the Caravan works by the same mechanism as “Girls Gone Wild” – if you dance and cheer they throw free stuff at you.  Soon Pete and I were dancing and cheering like morons and happily rewarded with hats, shirts, food, newspapers, keychains, laundry detergent…  Pete and I brought more food down the mountain than we brought up.

After The Caravan streamed past, five TdF VIP helicopters landed in the cow pasture right below us!  People climbed out and hiked up to the road where we were, standing right across the road from us.  I noticed that they all had “Garmin VIP” badges and apparel, so I yelled across the road, “Hey, how do you get to be a Garmin VIP?”  They laughed and all responded, “Sell a lot of Garmins!”  I thought that was pretty cool of Garmin to do that as an employee reward.

We knew almost nothing of what was going on with the race as we waited.  No one near us had brought a radio!  A giant game of multilingual Telephone passed along that Armstrong had already crashed twice.  Rising up the mountain we could hear shouts and yells of “Allez!”, and a moto gendarme whizzed up the road clearing a path.  Behind him was a lone Rabobank rider, flying up the road.

After he passed, we all said, “Who was that?”  No one had any idea.  No one saw a number on his bike or pinned to his back.  As we waited the gap before the next rider was growing larger and larger.  He was fifteen minutes ahead!  But we never saw a TV camera on the lone Rabobank rider.  There was a mystery man!

Finally a breakaway of three riders appeared, and a few minutes later the group of GC contenders appeared, minus Lance Armstrong!  Clearly TMTSLAD was too much for him to bear, and his aspirations of an 8th Tour win had been crushed.  Everyone clapped and cheered on their favorites, and the Garmin VIPs got to run back to their helicopters to go to the finishline ahead of the riders.  I thought that this was a sport best watched on television, but it might be a sport best watched by personal helicopter.

The riders all flew past, even the “slow” guys, and within a few minutes they had all gone past.  As the riders made their way to the finish in Morzine, we (and the tens of thousands of other people) made our way back to Taninges, and then to Les Cluses.  All in all, Pete and I covered just over 70 km, with two kilometers of vertical ascent.  We even managed to catch most of the World Cup final over pasta in Carroz.

A well written full account of the day’s racing was posted by The Guardian, and the unedited set of photos I took are here.  It was really an amazing experience, and surprising in how secondary the actual race is.  Even if you don’t care about cycling, if you find yourself in France in July it’s really a marvel worth taking part in.