ANNECY, France (VN) — Bon Courage. I remember the little boy who yelled it to me, while I was pedaling at 3 kilometers per hour up an asphalt wedge, my cold skin shining in the hot sun.
Bon Courage, a woman said, and then a man, and then countless others. Bon Courage. Literally, it means “good luck,” but it’s more of an expression of encouragement. Don’t give up. Hang in there. Have courage. Be better.
Across France in July, it’s a two-word fight song. Bon Courage. Men and women, boys and girls, yell it at the tiring Tour de France riders, and at the motion-picture peloton itself, a comet of color and skin. Their calls join in symphony of wind and ever-whirring hubs.
But on this day, they hung the words upon me and some 14,000 others as we rode L’Etape du Tour, a hugely popular event put on by Tour de France organizers that allows a mass of cyclists of all shapes and sizes the honor and the agony of riding a stage of the Tour, closed roads and all.
And I very much needed good courage, though I didn’t know I would need such rations throughout the day. The stage on offer was the Tour’s final stage this year, Annecy-Annecy Semnoz, what will be the final stage in the Alps on Saturday, and the last chance to quarrel over Chris Froome’s table scraps.
The route’s vitals: 12,000 feet of climbing in just 80 jagged miles. One category 2 climb, three cat. 3s, one cat. 1, one and the final task, the hors catégorie ascent of le Semnoz, an 11-kilometer monster with wretched teeth and face-melting breath cloaked beneath a blanket of grass and trees. It doesn’t sound famous because it isn’t — yet.
We slithered out of Annecy early in the monochrome morning, the sunlight halved neatly by the Alps. The race was on early, and most of us went out fast, covering the first 10 kilometers, and the only flat section of a six-hour ride, at a quick clip. The first climbs went by fast, and the descents faster still. I flicked my elbow a few times for one of the 20 riders behind me to pull through, but something must have been lost in translation.
A man in a small village rang a cowbell as we passed, and I gave a few 50 mile-per-hour thoughts to the fact that I was on a brand new Project One Trek Madone I’d designed, that I was off for a few days of covering the Tour de France as a journalist, that I was pedaling through a dream life at that second in those mountains on those closed roads with those people up early with coffees, watching us streak through their stone towns. We even had private aid stations — serious, envy-inspiring, first-class help — thanks to Trek Travel, staffed with people who smiled at me and seemed to care if I cracked. If it gets better than that, I don’t know about it.
It was on Mont Revard (15.6 km at 5.6 percent), the second to last climb, that I first remembered hearing it, as my shoulders began to rock. Bon Courage!
Good courage, I thought. Good luck. Have it, find it, at least look for it. Hang in there. This was a Tour de France stage, and we were all a part of it. I felt almost bad for degrading it with my squeaky pedal stroke, and my Tour de France journalist fitness (thoroughly lacking in courage).
The chorus got louder. I took a hand-up of some sausage product that I immediately spit out, and stopped at an aid station at which I ate 10 cookies. Upon cresting the Revard, the road opened up in front of us in great swaths, and a hundred of us went 60 miles an hour, diving into turns as if we were swallows, just inches from one another. I’d never felt that good on a road bike, ever.
By the time I’d reached the middle of Semnoz, though, I’d never felt that bad on a road bike, either. Each revolution felt rectangular, and it was as if someone turned my lights out. All the shouts for good courage were lost on me, just words cast into my flickering brain. I hadn’t paid the bills, and the debt collector was fierce on this day.
The fumes of a few Cokes carried me to the finish, amid an ocean of cyclists. Some going fast, and many more just like me, pushing an imaginary rock up a mountain with their front tires. In those long kilometers, I was going backward and right out of the back of every group I’d ever ridden in.
Bon Courage. I looked, and found little. But I did try.
I was away from the heat now, and into the clouds. I rode straight through the madness of the finishing corral, and to the top of Semnoz, where it was quiet. As it turns out, Tour de France stages are really hard, and this was just one. My head was a mess, of what I can’t even recall. I recall a sign, one of hundreds. Of course, it said “courage.”
Just one moment later, Michael Mayer, Trek’s road brand manager, arrived, and we stood together, sure of the thing that had just happened. We’ve now ridden Paris-Roubaix and Annecy-Annecy Semnoz together, and immediately agreed the Tour stage was much harder, though now I’m not so sure. Immediate events do strange things to memory.
I leaned my bike against the final post, marking the top of Semnoz, and pondered what would come on the Tour stage today. A reckoning, for sure. And then, I thought of the people on the road, for the pros and for us, and the things they yelled and the paint on the roads.
Sometimes we don’t seek what we end up with on a day like that, and it becomes much larger than a bike ride through France. I write things all the time, thinking I know who should do what and where in a bike race because it seems to make tactical sense. But if I learned anything that day, it’s that if people could attack, they would, and the things these riders do on a daily basis are unquantifiable to an average endurance athlete. It’s a losing game to compare yourself with those guys though — you’ll never stack up.
Two weeks later, as this Tour was winding down, I stole away early one morning to ride the legendary Alpe d’Huez, before a stage start. The Alpe had suffered a hangover from its party the day before, and there were no small children urging me up the 21 bends.
But I could still hear them. Bon Courage. And I went with more courage than I’d come with.