One memorable experience worth sharing happened to me on the fifth day.
We left the picturesque Nantua, pedaling quietly into one of the bigger days of our tour, consisting of four major climbs. It was in the hot afternoon when we reached the quiet town at the bottom of the Col du Grand Columbier, a formidable, 8.5 km at almost 10%, climb in its own right and one shared by the 2017 Le Grand Boucle.
Out of the gate the grade steepened and my pace slowed. My only glances up were in hope of seeing the stone kilometer markers on the side of the road, reminding me of my slow and steady progress. Higher up, the road winded beautifully through dense forests giving me shady spots to aim for and the periodic reprieve from the sweltering heat. I played this game as well as counting my pedal strokes in mind exercises that became somewhat routine by now. A small crest in the road, signaling flatter terrain pushed me to pick up my pace, the next marker signaling 4km to go. With the good news that this monumental day was a short distance from being conquered, I stood and punched at my pedals speeding the progress.
I was reveling in this mindset, riding on the left hand side of the road hugging the shade, when a female rider in a shining white kit came descending. She wore a puzzled look on her face as though I was breaking cycling tradition by riding in her lane. I had no time to stop and explain the situation, but this made me realize that I needed to be a bit more attentive to my surroundings. Keen glasses on, I looked up and noticed another rider up ahead. Were they coming down or going up? Ahhh they were going up!!! Hunting hat on and putting them in my cross hairs, I sped up into somewhat of a tempo, quietly closing the distance upon my unsuspecting prey. The closer I got, the more into focus the picture of the rider became.
Helmet with gray tufts of hair pocking through the air vents, short shorts adorned by a pink band and what looked like a tan jersey, gave me the impression that I was pedaling towards one of the female species. But alas, how mistaken I was! Upon pulling even with the rider I realized “she” was a very small, tanned “he”, out of the saddle with no shirt on, wrestling a Lapierre road frame with flat mountain bike bars, bar ends and time trial extensions. The rider had clipless shoes which showed some inclination towards appropriate outfitting but overall the guy looked like a bad joke. In spite of this curiosity, I smiled kindly showing teeth and forgetting my long day in the saddle, I said the most cheery “Bonjour” known to man. As we all know, this was an attempt to hide my cruel intentions of inevitably dropping this guy. Greeting someone you just caught with extreme courtesy shows gentlemanly grace in some sort of cycling eulogy in that your presence simply signals the funeral of their conquering dreams. Needless to say, my catching this rider, was the final shovel in completing the guy’s grave. Meet you pallbearer monsieur!
The monsieur returned the greeting; also smiling and showing crooked teeth (an omen of what was to come).
Good, now with the formalities out of the way and since I had closed the gap on this guy so quick, I expected the progress to continue, but for some unknown reason baffling to me, my front wheel never seemed to get past his.
Hmmm… I now found myself in somewhat of a predicament so I did what the cycling rule book clearly calls for: Stand up and drop the bastard!!! Out of the saddle I stood and accelerated quite valiantly expecting to put the shenanigans to rest and this guy in his place. But he accelerated as well, triggering dark clouds to rise into my soul, similar to the realization that I stepped in shit and the smell was staying. I sat back down, gripped my hoods and applied some serious wattage to the back wheel. There, that should punch this guy’s ticket…or should have done it but, unfortunately, my nemesis continued to stand and throw himself back and forth across his top tube, matching my pace. I had now locked horns, breathing hard and quickly running out of options. I could hear him breathing as well, so since I believe to have a higher pain tolerance, I stood once more, shifted and started sprinting; all form out the window. No deal, the devil matched my front wheel advancement, leaving me to drown in a hopeless despair I had never experienced in all my years of riding.
By now, my muzzle was tingling from lack of oxygen, the lactic acid in my legs was feeling like sandpaper and my morale was draining at an alarming speed, but I stayed in it simply because I could see the top where the road flattened. Needless to say so did he. We crossed the cattle guard together and I sat up signaling the conclusion to my effort. Surprisingly he did not, because to the right, another section of black tarmac veered into a formidable profile of the final switchbacks to the actual top. Seeing this put the final nail into my coffin which gently slid into the hole I dug. From the cracks under the lid I watched this shirtless, grey haired, mountain imp continue his ghastly bike dance away from me. I felt broken, demoralized and robbed. What revolted me the most was that initially when I caught this guy, I had glorious visions of dropping him like a bad habit. Now, dispossessed, weaving like a drunken man, I was watching this cycling caricature steal my dream of glory and doing a better job with it that I could have done, leaving a black skid mark on surface of my pride.
The steep switchbacks only served to give me time to reflect on the situation and to figure out what exactly happened. After a few minutes, I realized how well I had been set up and played; how he dressed, the way his bike was set up, how quickly he let me catch up to him, etc.
But the clear eye of my conscience was able to rise above the current situation and look at this as part of the greater context. Maturity kicked in, allowing me to feel slightly more at peace and accepting the hand that I was dealt. Up to that point I went through the routine of riding like flipping through a deck of cards but on the Col de Columbier day, I had the misfortune of being dealt the joker; at this I smiled.
Cresting the top, I found the main character splayed out in a plastic chair no doubt counting the minutes to my arrival and reveling in his glory. He came up and smiling shook my hand. Through Manu I found his name to be Gilles, pronounced “Jeeel” a very “French” name labeling a very “French” attitude. He was a 65 year old retired school teacher, residing in the village at the bottom of this climb. Like a troll protecting his bridge I suspect Gilles exuded similar protective sensibilities towards his Col du Grand Columbier.
Since one of this year’s Tour stages goes up the same Col, I don’t expect him to take kindly to the mass assault on his mountain and drama is bound to unfold. Should you plan on watching this stage, keep an eye out for a small figure in black and pink shorts bobbing side to side in front of the peloton. His name is Gilles.
Bertrand and Richard and were already at the top and upon the others’ arrival, I had to share this story. We laughed and took pictures memorializing the experience and obtaining proof of Gilles’ Machiavellian display of cycling assassination…of yours truly.