We veered off the highway at the hamlet of Saint-Michel-de-Maurienne, entering narrow shaded streets, swooping past sleepy cafés. Above, a cloudless blue sky stretched over the French Alps. I have a fresh baguette and half a dozen power bars tucked in my jersey. Ahead, my brother, brother-in-law and wife are riding their carbon racing bikes in tight formation, switching the lead regularly but never pushing the pace. This was just the warm-up, a time to stretch legs and compose ourselves for what would come.
Without warning, hand-painted words appeared on the pavement; "ALLEZ! ALLEZ!" (Go! Go!) And with that, the road reared up ferociously. Dropping through our gears, the "granny ring" offered little solace. Our legs screamed and our breath came in gasps. Instinctively, I stood on my pedals, hoping to end the pain. "Save yourselves," my brother counselled. "You'll never conquer the Galibier. You can only hope to survive it."
Thirty-five kilometres ahead, and 2,120 metres above us – the equivalent of four CN Towers stacked atop one the other – lay the windswept summit of Col du Galibier. European cyclists historically ranked climbs from Category One (hardest) to Category Four (easiest) until 1979, when a fifth ranking was deemed necessary: hors catégorie, or "beyond categorization." Galibier is one of only 34 such ascents. The Tour de France – which changes routing every year – has passed this way an astounding 32 times. We were entering hallowed ground. And the site of childhood dreams.
Growing up in suburban Toronto during the 1980s, my brother and I made unlikely Tour de France enthusiasts. We were gym rats addicted to basketball until we stumbled across late-night footage of the storied race and couldn't tear ourselves away. In a time before Lance Armstrong popularized road racing in North America, our friends scoffed at the new obsession, suggesting biking on television was more boring than golf. We knew better; they just didn't get it.
We relished the complex strategies, the unthinkable suffering, the speed and heroics. Fast-forward 30 years, and my brother – now a long-time bicycle guide leading tours through the wine regions of Europe – had organized a special celebration for our mother's 70th birthday. For two weeks, our extended family rode together through rolling vineyards, enjoying the miracle of harvest. Bodi, my then two-year-old son, shouted encouragement from a trailer towed behind, and Mom, sitting atop a speed-assist bike (with battery and tiny engine giving her boost), often left the group in her wake.
Always hovering in the distance – and in our imaginations – were the giant climbs. At last, we had entered the Alps, where Mom and pregnant sister chose to take a break, and offer encouragement from the van. As we settled into the climb of the Galibier, we sought a pace that allowed conversation, although few words passed. The gradient was unrelenting; coasting, even for a second, was out of the question.
Only weeks earlier, the Tour de France had passed this way, and the pavement beneath our saddles was awash with chalk and paint: messages of encouragement in a panorama of languages. Hup Lance. Je t'adore Andy! Believe. Perhaps it was delirium, but I imagined the crowds pressing in, and found constant encouragement in the ghosts of their cheers, painted faces and frenzied flags.
Throngs of other riders surrounded us, even on a weekday. Some had made their pilgrimage from distant countries and continents, but most were French, for road-biking in France is akin to canoeing in Canada; part national identity, part heritage, all pride. And on we pressed, after an hour reaching the summit of Col du Telegraph, a preliminary pass guarding the Galibier. Lawn chairs waited outside; water and snacks were restocked. Five minutes later, we were off again, climbing.
Farmhouses and stone fences drifted past. Forests fell below, and craggy hillsides rose ahead, a distinctive black road snaking across their flanks. The air chilled, and we donned thin jackets.
Four hours after mounting our bikes, the summit loomed into view. Entrepreneurial photographers had set up kiosks at the final hairpin turns, as they do every day of summer when hundreds of riders, if not thousands, tackle the ascent. After snapping our picture, they sprinted to tuck business cards into jersey pockets in case we wanted to purchase a memento.
And then it was over. Exhausted cyclists, well-wishers and curious sightseers crowded the parking lot. Friendly strangers cheered our arrival in the crowded parking lot. Music played. Vendors hawked snacks and memorabilia from the trunks of cars. We rolled to a stop, and hugged shakily, pulling on warmer jerseys and preparing to launch ourselves into a spine tingling descent toward the resort town of La Grave. In a few hours, we would gather around a table of fondue and fine wine; such are the luxuries of riding in France. But for a moment, I paused to soak it all in.
Few golfers ever stroll the fairways of Augusta. Only the most select hockey players step on the ice of an National Hockey League arena. But in France, anyone can wander onto this mythic stage, where every summer 10 million spectators watch 200 cyclists battle themselves, each other and the mountains. For a rare moment, I was once again that young teenager in a musty Etobicoke basement, screaming delirious encouragement at his parents' television. Then I clipped in, and began the soaring descent.
Special to The Globe and Mail