2002 Tour de France journal: Introduction

I'll be off traveling quite a bit this next week and month, and so I'm going to drop in some old content. This week, in honor of the last days of the 2005 Tour de France, I'll toss up entries from a journal I kept from my first in-person visit to the Tour de France, in 2002, with Carmichael Training Systems, run by Chris Carmichael, Lance Armstrong's coach.

Introduction (July 2002)

I have this recurring nightmare. It’s the day of final exams in school. I wander down a hallway filled with students on their way to different classrooms. Lockers line the walls on both sides. This must be high school. I know the subject of my next final, but I can’t remember which classroom it’s in, because I haven’t attended a single class all semester. Even if I find the classroom, how can I pass the exam? I haven’t cracked open the textbook once. My heart is racing, and I try walking faster, glancing in every door to see if I’ll recognize the teacher or any of the students, but my legs move slower and slower, and the students in the halls grow sparse as everyone finds their rooms. The faces of the passing students regard me with pursed lips an grim stares as if they see my predicament written on my face. I’ve been exposed.

It’s July 20, in the late morning, and I’m having the cycling equivalent of my final exam nightmare, except I’m awake. More than that, I’m being cooked alive. For a brief second, I think my nose is running and I reach up to wipe it with my glove. No, it is just sweat, pouring off the top of my nose onto the top tube of my bike like a small waterfall. Up ahead, through the trees, a grey tower is visible, seemingly miles away, at the top of a grey, desolate mountaintop. It darts in and out of view as the road before me snakes back and forth.

Around every turn, I hope for relief from the steep uphill grade, but instead I’m greeted by another stretch of rising pavement leading to the next turn through the forest. The bike beneath me is in the smallest possible gear, 39-27, and still I can barely turn the pedals over. My bike computer displays my speed as 9. That would be wonderful, except I’m in Europe and the unit of measurement is kilometers/hour, not miles/hour. The sweat beading off my forehead has collected on my Oakley wraparound sunglasses, mixed with the dirt in the air. The view ahead of blurs.

Around another switchback, and suddenly the road rises to an 11% grade, my heart sinking by the same amount. I feel my bike decelerate as if I’ve ridden into a patch of tar, so I stand out of my saddle to try and muscle through this ridiculous stretch. My left quadricep immediately cramps, and I drop back onto my bike seat with a grimace. On the right side of the road an old Frenchman stands next to his RV vehicle and looks at my face as I crawl by. He’s seen this before and realizes what has happened. I haven’t studied enough this semester, and now, on my first exam, I’ve been exposed. Whatever happens, I have to maintain enough speed to stay upright. Please don't let me fall over.

It’s the second day of the Climbing Stages bike camp with Carmichael Training Systems, and I’m climbing Mont Ventoux. I’m 14 kilometers away from the top of the mountain.