To France for a bike race by Galen Stilgebauer

My first time to France was in 2013.  My wife Ann and I came over to spectate the 100th edition of the Tour de France and do some cycling while following the race.  Since that time we have been fortune enough to visit Italy and watch the Giro d' Italia in 2016, 17' and 18'.  

This year we moved to northern Italy for a year and wanted to try and take in some more of the European cycling season.  At the beginning of July, our cousin Spencer contacted me and said that he wanted to come over and visit us before he had to start school in early August back in Boulder.

Ann and I already had plans to go to France for a couple of weeks, so we invited him along for what would not only be his first experience in Europe, but also his first time seeing a grand tour.  The week before he showed up I was riding a bunch and ended up riding 300 miles with over 35,000' of climbing.  That was the biggest week of cycling for me since 2016.  My fitness was coming back and I was excited to do some big riding.

The first day Spencer was here, I took him on a few of my favorite roads around Bassano del Grappa.  We rode some short punchy climbs and ended up in Asolo just in time for the cappuccino cut off at noon.  We kind of need to hustle back to the apartment as we were given a "hard out" of 1:30.  That time came and went and I believe we finally got our Volkswagen Up loaded and on the road by 2:30.

We had quite the drive ahead of us.  We needed to make it to Annecy by 9pm and that was at least a 6 hour drive.  It's an incredibly beautiful drive across northern Italy and then you reach Mont Blanc.  I'm a little bummed that I didn't even stop to take one photo, but we really had to try and make this time cut off.  

As we arrived in Annecy, there were honking car horns and crazed French soccer fans all over the place.  France had just won the World Cup and the people were loving it.  It was easy to get caught up in the excitement.  I may have honked my horn a couple or maybe 50 times.

The tour had a rest day the next day and we decided to do a ride around Lake Annecy.  With a flat bike path around half the lake and a cycling friendly road on the other side, we set out for a 25 mile spin to get the legs ready for what was to come over the next couple of weeks.

During our ride we spotted riders from a few of the pro teams and even had a close encounter with Andre Gripel.  It's an interesting sensation that happens when you ride your bike next to a body of water on a hot day.  All we wanted to do was go swimming and after the ride that's exactly what we did.  If  you're ever there and have the chance to take a dip in that water, it's highly recommended.



The following day was to be our first day chasing the tour.  It was stage 10 from Annecy to Le Grand-Bornand and it was the first day the race went into the mountains.  I'm no climber, but I do enjoy the process of getting up a big mountain.  Your body falls into a rhythm and you just get through it.  At least that's how it is for me.  This year I came to Europe with a couple of new ways to document the racing action.  I bought a Rodeo labs ( Traildonkey and had Jpaks ( out of Denver make me a custom frame pack in order to allow me to carry camera gear on the bike and free my back from the pack.  Both of these things work great, but it makes getting up the climbs even more difficult.  It's like pedaling an Ebike up the mountain without any of the E.  The bike is pretty heavy with this set up, but for me it's totally worth it when I come away with some good images.


When you go to ride ahead of a stage, you need to start pretty early.  Like 6 hours before the stage early.  The police start to close roads to vehicle traffic and getting around is pretty tough.  If you're on a bike it's not really a problem until maybe 30 minutes before Le caravan starts rolling.  With some creative navagating, we arrived in Thorens Glieres.  This was to be our starting point.  The race would have already climbed a cat 4, cat 1, and a HC before reaching this point.  We planned on riding the course to the Col de la Colombiere after first tackling the Col de Romme which is a 8.8 km climb that averages 8.9%.  Like most of the climbs over here, the first few km's are quite steep and then there's a bit of letting up.  By the time we reached the bottom of the Col de Romme we'd already ridden 40k (25 miles) and were feeling pretty good and warm.  Those first few pitches really packed a punch though.  After riding for an hour on mostly flat terrain, it takes a little while for the body to adjust to the new rhythm.  

Spencer is a fly weight and got his first taste of what I call "tour watts".  It's pretty cool that many of the spectators that have been positioned on the road side will cheer you on as you make your way up the mountain.  He was flying at times!  As cool as it was to watch him disappear up the mountain, I could only think to myself, he'll regret that later.  Following the tour is similar to racing it I would guess.  It's a marathon, not a sprint.  The efforts you do early, you pay for eventually.  We all learn these lessons at different times and this being his first tour, I figured I would let him learn them on his own.

After summiting the Col, it took a bit of convincing to get Ann to descend down into the valley and to the base of the Colombiere.  She was hesitant about the effort of climbing back out and the 3hr ride back to the car.  She had also been doing a lot of riding back in Italy and I convinced her she would be fine.  We arrived at the base of the next climb just around the time that the roads would start being closed for the caravan.  I wanted to find a good spot to shoot some photos, but I was also getting hungry.  Ann and I decided to descend a few switchbacks back into the village below and Spencer continued to climb up the race route.


Luckily for us, Ann and I found a bar with a TV, cold beers, and delicious sausages with fries.  We indulged, and indulged heavily.  I think it was after the second round of beers, I thought we should probably try to get ahold of Spencer and let him know where we were.  5 missed calls and another beer later, Spencer called me back.  I let him know what we were up to and we came up with a plan to meet up a few turns up the mountain.  Ann and I downed our beers and shoved the remainder of the fries into our mouths and hit the road.

The king of the panini!

The king of the panini!

The Caravan had passed through and the race was on its way soon.  The fans that had been waiting on the roadside were thirsty for action.  Powered on by tour watts and beer, I put in a short effort.  Lots of cheers erupted as I rode by.  30 seconds later I was dead.  So much for tour watts.  Just around the corner from my effort, Spencer was waiting.


The race vehicles began rolling through and I found a vantage point from which I wanted to take some images.  It's always exciting when the racers come through.  Everyone has been waiting there for hours.  Usually drinking.  The first rider through was Julian Alaphilippe - Wikipedia.  He had gone on a solo breakaway and by the size of his lead, looked to be on his way to a stage win.


The French fans get whipped up into a frenzy when their countrymen come through.  Soon the yellow jersey wearer, Greg Van Avermaet, would come rolling through followed by the sprinters and the other riders that had been working earlier for their team leaders.  Setting up on a climb is the best way to see your favorite riders.  Even though they may not be climbers, they still come through pretty quickly.  They are in the world tour after all.


After the riders came through and the beer buzz had worn off, it was time to ride back to our car.


 35 miles, 4000' and an emergency pizza stop for Spencer, we were back at the car.  We changed out  of our cycling kit that we had spent nearly 10 hours in, loaded up the bikes and attempted to head back to our hotel in Albertville.  I say attempted because in a rush to get out on the bikes, I had accidentally left the headlights on.  Most cars these days have an automatic switch for the headlights.  Not our car.  Oh no, that would be too much to ask.  Luckily, just as we discovered the battery was dead, there was a nice French woman that pulled into the parking lot.  With some help from Google translate, we were able to communicate our issue and she was willing and able to help us out.  This would not be the last time we had an issue with our car, but that's a story for another time.  Two hours  later we would be back in our rooms and ready to rest up for another day of adventure following the biggest bicycle race in the world.