A Guided Tour
We were on the last climb of Stage 15 of the 2003 Tour de France, on the famous Luz-Ardiden, the final mountaintop finish of this year’s Tour. All of the other riders had dropped away and I was left with only one person – a teammate. The crowds grew bigger and louder as we neared the summit. They cheered us as we climbed the final kilometer, yelling in French, English, Spanish, German and numerous other tongues. We both stood out of the saddle and hammered over the finish line, well ahead of Lance Armstrong, Jan Ullrich, Tyler Hamilton and the other contenders!
Hours ahead, in fact.
OK, you ask, was this some sort of fantasy or dream? Well, yes and no. It was a fantasy I’d paid for. We were several days into Chris Carmichael’s 2003 Tour de France Training Camp, essentially a fantasy camp with Lance Armstrong’s personal coach.
I had signed up during the first week of the 2002 Tour and through word-of-mouth ended up with a group of 20 people, including seven or eight Aspen riders. We followed the Tour from the Pyrenees mountains to the finish in France. Carmichael Training Systems (CTS) ran the camp, mimicking the experience of riding on a pro cycling team. The $7,500 camp, for racers and hardcore riders only, also offered an insider’s view of the Tour that only the coach of the Tour favorite could provide.
It did not disappoint.
Our group of 20 riders had a staff of 10, in addition to Carmichael. We had five soigneurs (all-purpose trip planners, cooks, drivers and physical therapists), a team mechanic, coaches, masseuses and assorted other staff members. Almost the entire staff had worked for pro teams. Head soigneur Noel Dejonckheere was the former team director for both the 7-Eleven Team and Team Motorola, and had turned down the job as team director for U.S. Postal. He currently runs U.S.A Cycling from his home in Belgium. He knew more about the Tour than anyone I had ever met and was friends with just about every American involved in the Tour.
A day in the life
Every day in the Tour was different, and every day was different for our group. We would normally wake up around 6 a.m. for breakfast. We would head out on our bikes an hour later and ride between 50 and 75 miles. If the Tour was in the mountains, we would ride mountains. If it was in the flats, we would ride the flats.
The bulk of our riding occurred in the morning. We would have a team car leading the way and one bringing up the rear. If we got a flat, they would immediately install a new wheel. When we ran out of water, they would hand us a new bottle. At every fork in the road there was a car pointing the way. All we had to do was ride, and it was an easy rhythm to get into.
Every day was interesting, but the mountain stages were the most fun. We would take a different approach to each day’s final climb than the Tour did, and we’d arrive on the climb four or five hours before the Tour. Cars weren’t allowed on the course on the day of the race, so we would load up with water bottles and Power Bars and hit the climbs with the coaches.
Riding the climbs was surreal. Up to 500,000 people would line the course from the bottom, in increasing numbers as we went up. As they meandered, spoke with friends and jockeyed for the good spots, we’d have to dodge them on our bikes. The road would be painted with the names of all of the big riders, and some of the lesser-known ones. My favorite was “Beloki 2004,” referring to the second-place rider who had broken his femur earlier in the race. The fresh paint would stick to our tires and a few of us narrowly escaped getting painted ourselves, as fans excitedly swung their rollers out of the paint cans and onto the pavement.
It was the world’s biggest tailgate party. People had Winnebagos, cars, tarps, tents and all types of food. Most of them had camped out the night before. There were beer tents and mobile souvenir trucks everywhere, speakers blasting out of their roofs.
Hundreds of people rode up the course. Many were racer-types, but most were ordinary people riding every type of bike imaginable, from hardcore racing machines to dusty, one-speed town bikes they dragged out of the garage for the day. People wore backpacks filled with baguettes, and just as many walked up the hills as rode them.
There were lots of Americans. They were identifiable by their helmets, something few Europeans seemed to have. Everyone was happy, friendly and excited.
The climbs themselves were tough. There were signs at every kilometer telling how steep the average grade was for the next kilometer. The average grade of Independence Pass is 5 percent, but these hills ranged from 7.5 percent to 10 percent, and the switchback corners hovered between 12 percent and 14 percent. We happily “relaxed” when the grade hit 7.5 percent.
Independence Pass climbs roughly 4,000 feet from Aspen; we climbed between 5,000 and 10,000 feet on certain days. Tour riders climbed significantly more than that.
Our group usually rode to the top of the climb and then dropped down a couple of kilometers to our camp, where the CTS staff had typically parked a van and set up a tarp, chairs and the satellite dish. We would change our clothes and they would feed us mass quantities of food and protein shakes. While we watched the Tour on TV and mingled with the international pool of neighbors, a pre-race parade of sponsors driving souped-up floats would toss T-shirts, caps, candy, key chains and pens to hyped-up spectators. It was like a Super Bowl halftime show on wheels.
We could tell from the TV when the riders were getting close, but the true sign was when the helicopters started to buzz overhead. The riders would pass by, close enough for us to see the sweat on their faces and the determination in their eyes. We would yell and scream encouragement, especially to Lance and the U.S. Postal riders, not knowing if they heard us or if they had us completely zoned out. Some of the riders would see our team director Noel and wave or ask him questions about what was happening ahead.
It never ceased to amaze me – whether we were on a flat stage, an uphill, a downhill, or a time trial – how Armstrong and Ullrich moved noticeably faster than the other riders. To the naked eye they were much quicker than the best riders in the world!
Once the excitement had passed us by, we would brave the chaos of thousands of cars, riders and walkers retreating down the hill that we had climbed. We would fight our way through the masses, often riding another 25-30 miles before reaching our hotel between 8 and 8:30 p.m. After a quick shower and a massage, we’d head to dinner. Former U.S. Postal rider Frankie Andreau walked in and talked to me in the middle of my first massage. Outdoor Life Network announcers Bob Roll and Phil Ligget came over to say hello to some of our staff. The advantages of traveling with Chris Carmichael and friends are numerous.
Dinner would end at 11 and then we would have our only free time of the day. This was our only chance to do laundry, check e-mail, call home and explore the towns.
The friendly French
Every few days we would transfer to a new hotel, boarding a van at the end of the stage and driving for a few hours. Even this was a highlight, as we would get inside story after story about the Tour from Noel. The Tour moves across France quickly, especially in the days before Paris, and even the riders were being driven about 150 kilometers before and after the flat stages during the last week.
One of the most amazing parts of the Tour was seeing how this huge show would roll into a town the size of Carbondale and set up an event bigger than the World Series. Within hours of the finish, almost everything would be gone.
The French people were fantastic. Everyone seemed happy to see us, from the people we met in cafes to the groups that sang to us from their porches as we rode by. (In America, the most common reaction for a cyclist is a honking car horn.) Most of the French people liked or respected Lance. Many wanted him to win, and openly cheered for him. Those who didn’t cheer still admired his talent.
I didn’t meet anyone who had a problem with Americans, although there were a number who didn’t like George Bush. They readily admitted, however, that they weren’t completely happy with their government either.
We experienced all of the different types of stages. We got to see all of the top riders warming up for the time trials, everyone but Lance just yards away from the public. We saw the competitors ride through a feed zone, where they’re handed bags of finger food, energy bars and gels, and also saw the awkward moment of Lance relieving himself while riding. Like most others, he simply hung off of the side of the bike while leaning on a teammate.
There were descents where motorcycles would bottom out on the corners trying to keep up with the top riders. We didn’t meet anyone who wasn’t caught up in the excitement of this exciting Tour.
The finish line
Before we knew it, our two weeks were up and we were in Paris for the final day of the Tour. We had been there for some of the most exciting moments in Tour history – Lance’s crash on Luz-Ardiden, Ullrich’s crash in the time trial. Armstrong had essentially wrapped up the Tour the day before, but Paris was just as exciting as the other days. There were a million people on hand to see the Tour finish on the Champs Elysees, lining the course more than 30 people deep. Carmichael had us sitting in the U.S. Postal grandstand, 30 yards from the finish line. This was a party. There was a huge tent, fully catered, and everyone was celebrating Lance’s victory. We had front-row seats to watch the riders come around the course 10 times to finish the three-week race. I have never seen Lance look so happy. Hearing “The Star-Spangled Banner” and watching Lance receive his trophy with the Arc de Triomphe in the background almost brought tears to my eyes.
Even after all of this, the show wasn’t over. There was a huge parade for the 100th anniversary of the Tour, and most of the surviving Tour winners were driven past in sports cars from the year that they won. Greg LeMond was conspicuously absent.
After the parade, each team rode by. The U.S. Postal boys came over to our grandstand and waved and yelled back to us as they took their victory lap. The CSC grandstand was right next to ours, so we got a big “thumbs up” from Tyler Hamilton as well.
Then, suddenly, it was over. After two weeks of almost nonstop action, including 450 miles on the bike, buckets of French food and Bordeaux wine, very little sleep, rubbing elbows with cycling royalty and all the tense moments rooting for Lance, all that remained was a long night on the town in the City of Lights. One of the last things we saw on our way back to our hotel was the Texas flag flying over the U.S. Embassy.
It took a few days to get back on my bike once I returned to the Roaring Fork Valley. It may be different than France, but what a beautiful place to ride! When I need a little inspiration as I ride up Independence Pass, I peer down at the specks of white paint still stuck to my tires. Next year I will bring some paint of my own – “Armstrong 2004.”
Rick Schultz is a business owner, cyclist and self-described Tour de France geek who lives and rides in Aspen.
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