We got the news around Christmas time that our riding buddy Alex would be moving back to France in the spring. I remember looking out over the city in disbelief from the Griffith Park Helipad. You could see traffic backed up all the way down Vermont and the usual helicopter working its way around downtown. This news hit me hard. Alex was the first person I started riding with in LA. I remember seeing him ride by Menotti’s every morning on his way to work while I held down the espresso bar. One day we crossed paths and made plans to ride.
When he told us he was leaving, I instinctively blurted out “we’ll come visit you this summer.” Knowing damn well that we had never attempted a trip like this with bikes before. Not to mention road bikes with brakes and gears. We wasted no time throwing around ideas until eventually the Tour De France came up. How epic would it be to visit our homie, ride legendary routes, and tag along with the pros as they tour France? We all agreed to make the most of Alex’s time left in LA and headed back down the hill.
It wouldn’t be a proper send off without one last ride to remember and Santa Barbara seemed like the perfect destination. No one really felt like dishing out the $25 for a train ticket home so it was decided that we would attempt to ride to there and back. 200 miles is a long day in the saddle for a seasoned cyclist, not to mention most of us would be on track bikes. The eight of us left my house around 4:00 am. Our first stop was a Starbucks in Oxnard to refuel and catch the finish of the Paris Roubaix on our phones. We continued on smoothly up the coast, reaching Santa Barbara around 11:00 am. At this point a few from the group decided to opt out and catch the train back. The rest of us grabbed some food and headed to the beach.
We hadn’t ridden a mile before our friend Ramon’s phone rang. He answered the call, after about 10 seconds he laughed immensely and hung up. The train couldn’t fit our friends bikes so they would be joining us for the 100 mile trek back. Around Ventura, Alex, Jason, and I decided to pick up the pace and race back to LA. Jason had the smallest gear ratio out of the three of us, so he would launch attacks off the the front trying to spin away. With 40 miles and a couple large rolling hills to go, both Alex and I knew to conserve our energy. At the bottom of the Zuma Beach hill Jason popped. Next thing I know, drool is coming out the corner of my mouth while Alex and I trade drafts every mile. As soon as we were about to turn off the PCH and hit the bike path, Ramon and JP came zooming by us to win the race back to LA. It was hands down the best day I’ve had on a bike with friends. I was glad we could send Alex off on a high note.
Fast forward 3 months - Ebbie and I are pulling into the international terminal of LAX and I realize I forgot my spare camera battery charging back at the house. If this is any indication of how the trip was going to go, we were not in luck. There was no turning back so we thanked our friend Zane for the ride and headed into the terminal. The feeling of giving your bike to the baghandler working the oversized drop off must be similar to a mother handing over her newborn for the first time. You just pray and hope that everything is the same when you get it back on the other side.
We landed in London, took a train into the city, and made our way to the Airbnb. In the morning we woke up early and headed back to the train. Thinking back on it now both of us would agree that what happened next was probably the most stressful part of the trip. As we got to the train station it was eerily quiet. We paid for our tickets and made our way to the platform. About halfway up the stairs a train arrived and opened its doors. All of a sudden we were swarmed by hundreds of people in suits with briefcases. I used my bike bag as a shield and squeezed my way up the stairs. I saw an open door and made my move. Once I was in the train I turned around to see if Ebbie had followed. He was nowhere to be seen and the doors had already closed. We hadn’t even been abroad for more than 24 hours and we were already separated. I immediately went to call Ebbie, only to find out that my headphones had a broken speaker. Thanks Apple.
I took the train all the way until it ended and found my connector to St. Pancras station. Meanwhile, Ebbie had caught a train that was experiencing delays. This gave me enough time to figure out that we would be able to bring our bike completely built on the train to Paris in the morning. After about 20 minutes Ebbie arrived and we called our Uber to Rapha HQ. We were welcomed by our new friend and fellow Rapha barista, Stefano. He gracefully caffeinated us while filling us in on any tips and tricks we may need to navigate the city. We proceeded to build up our bikes and planned to meet him later in the evening. It just so happened that the pros were climbing the iconic Alpe d’huez on this day during the tour. Ebbie, Alex, and myself would be attempting this climb in less than 72 hours, so Ebbie and I decided to catch some of the stage at each of the Rapha clubhouses around London.
After the stage was complete we met up with Stefano and our good friend Duke to get a local tour. I must say that riding on the left hand side of the road in London is terrifying. Nevertheless, we channeled our inner fixie and made our way around town. An hour or two in we decided to grab a couple beers and head to Hyde Park to catch up and say goodbye.
The following afternoon we were welcomed by Alex at the train station in Paris. He swiftly put together a delicious meal before we headed out on the town, the benefits of having chef friends. Around 2am we found ourselves passing a deflating soccer ball, leftover from the World Cup celebrations, back and forth for several kilometers until we were home.
Early the next morning we picked up the rental car and drove 8 hours to Grenoble. Grenoble is the most beautiful city I’ve ever visited. At the end of every street a part of the surrounding mountains rose above the buildings, humbly reminding you that they were not to be underestimated. We grabbed dinner, along with groceries, and made our way to the base of the climb. The closer we got to Alpe D’huez you could tell the tour had just passed through. We parked in a parking lot with a bunch of other campers and waited in the car until sunrise. As the the sun rose you could feel the tension in the air. Alex would be attempting this on his brakeless track bike. We all had full confidence in his climbing skills, but 21 switchbacks are no joke when descending brakeless. The beginning of the effort is around 7%, so Alex decided to go full gas from the start. He quickly overtook several groups ahead of us and instantly became the most popular rider on the mountain. Other riders did not want to get dropped by him, so they would relentlessly launch attacks to get ahead only to be caught by Alex around the next turn. He made it 9 switchbacks before deciding that the gradient and turns would be too difficult to descend. Ebbie and I pushed onward and made it to the top in about 40 minutes. We grabbed a quick beer and took a few photos before heading down to meet Alex.
At this point in the trip we didn’t really have a plan. Our next Airbnb reservation was 4 days away in the Pyrenees and there was plenty of riding to be done. We decided to take a minor detor and headed to the iconic Mont Ventoux. Luckily we found a last minute place to crash in the small vineyard town of Violes. It just so happens that almost every store or restaurant in southern France is closed on Sunday and Monday, but there was a small pizza spot with exotic toppings and local wine open down the street. Post dinner we decided to spin out the legs while doing hot laps like children racing around the town.
Our alarm clocks rang early the next morning. We kitted up and made our way to the base of the mountain. Before we left I punched in the address for the summit into Google Maps. About 10 km into our ride we ended up in someone’s backyard on a dirt trail. This is when I realized that we should have probably planned our route instead of relying on our phones. Regardless, we eventually came across the road we needed and started our ascent. Once again Alex set the tone and eventually rode out of sight. Ebbie and I played cat and mouse together until we met up with Alex several KM’s up the road. All of us had run out of water and at this point the lack of food was starting to get to us. Alex decided to play it safe and turn around. The steep gradient and thinning of his tire would not be a good combination if he needed to slow down or stop. Honestly I know down deep Ebbie and I wanted to turn around too. Nevertheless, we continued our slow and painful journey. About 5 km (3 miles) from the top there was a small restaurant that was actually open. We crawled our way through the door and I did my best in broken french to request two cokes, two beers, and what I thought was ice cream. The dessert I ordered was large bread chunks over ice cream drowned in almost a gallon of french liqueur. Ebbie couldn’t stomach it so I finished it myself and we hit the road. As we got closer to the summit the landscape changed drastically. The terrain went from thick forest to being completely exposed with no trees at all. The final push took us about 45 mins and it was hands down the hardest climb I have ever done. At the top we took a couple photos and grabbed some souvenirs before heading down to meet Alex in the town of Bedoin.
Another night without a place to stay lead us south to the small beach town of Valras-Plage. After riding all afternoon, the beach sounded like the perfect way to unwind before our trek to the Pyrenees. As the sun started to set no one had the energy to search for a last minute Airbnb, so we grabbed our coats along with the last of our wine and burrowed ourselves into the sand. In the morning we made our way to Carcassonne. This was our first opportunity to catch a glimpse of the tour. A couple dozen people crowded around the pop up stage while the announcer hyped up the pre race caravan on its way through. Finally, after a few hot hours in the sun, Julian Alaphilippe emerged in the polka dot jersey followed by the rest of the peloton. After the ceremony we grabbed some groceries and continued our journey west.
The last stop on our trip around France was a tiny town deep in the Pyrenees named Eaux-Bonnes. In three days the the tour would be passing through town on its way down the hill to Laruns. We posted up in our Airbnb, found Alex a road bike, and planned the rides for the week. Our first day was spent climbing up the Col ‘Portalet into northern Spain. Out of all the climbs on this trip I personally found Portalet the most beautiful. The effort starts off gradual but picks up as you make your way higher into the mountains. About 2 miles from the top we encountered a flash hail storm that caught us all by surprise. We picked up the pace as we crossed into Spain and found shelter at the summit in a small cafe. The bartender saw that we were cyclists and quickly turned the TV to the finish of stage 17. It was quite an experience to hear the announcer screaming in spanish as Columbian rider Nairo Quintana secured the stage victory. By this time the sky had cleared and we were able to make our way back down the mountain.
The next day brought us up the Col D’ Aubisque. This climb finishes around the same elevation as Portalet but in half the distance. Needless to say it was a bit more difficult and the altitude got to me. Per usual Alex took off from the start, leaving Ebbie and I no choice but to dual it out for second. Ebbie led for the majority of the climb until about a mile from the top I caught a glimpse of him in the distance. I made one last attempt to catch him but quickly realized it was too late. Around the corner was the summit covered with hundreds of cyclists and fans waiting for the tour to arrive the next day. At one point several large trucks pulled up and started setting up the what would be the KOM marker for the climb. We took a couple photos, left some stickers, and made our way back to Eaux Bonne. The rest of our afternoon was spent preparing dinner and catching the rest of the days stage. Around 6:45pm we cracked the last beer in the fridge, and in a panic rushed to our phones to search for aopen grocery store. The closest one was 5 miles down the hill in Laruns and closed at 7pm. Ebbie and I grabbed our bags and rushed out the door. I honestly don’t think Ive ever descended so fast in my life. We were flying through the apex of the turns and descending down the straights on our top tubes like Julian Alaphilippe had displayed just days prior. As I arrived the cashiers had started escorting customers out the door so I had to slither my way in. Ebbie eventually joined me in loading up our cart for the next day. We knew that most stores would be closed tomorrow so this was our last chance to get supplies. By supplies I mean a 24 pack of Kronenbourg, a bottle of Ventoux Rose, and two bags of Doritos. If you didn’t already know France has way better Doritos flavors than the US. I threw the beer in my backpack, took my shirt off because it was terribly humid, and we made our way back up the hill.
Our last day in the Pyrenees was the only day of the trip that actually felt like a vacation. We slow roasted a chicken all day while drinking beer and watching 180km of the days stage. Occasionally we poked our heads out the window to see the fans that had made their way up the hill. With 20km and the sound of helicopters in the distance we headed down to the street. Earlier in the day I scouted out a vantage point that would give me the perfect view as the peloton descended through the city. I wasn’t in position for more than 5 minutes when all of a sudden everyone in the town started shouting. I fumbled my camera out of pure excitement. I have to be honest. The first few shots my eyes were closed. I had flown half way around the world for this moment and I took the damn photos with my eyes closed. It all happened so fast, the lead group of riders flew past me and down the hill. Not sure if I got a clear shot, I opted for a new point of view. Ebbie and Alex were outside the building waiting for the peloton to come around the corner. I posted up with them and snapped photos as all of our favorite riders buzzed by. After the main group passed we dashed back up stairs to catch the finish.
A hop, skip, and a 12 hour drive later we found ourselves in Paris again. Exhausted from the drive, we decided to stay in our first night back. The rental car needed to be returned the next morning and paying a late fee was not an option. Other than getting separated in London the trip had gone perfectly up until this point. We hadn’t even gotten a flat! As we are hopping on the bikes and parting ways with the rental car, Ebbies rear derailleur shot off and went straight into his wheel. Quite possibly one of the worst mechanical problems we could have faced. Not to mention the tour would be arriving in just a couple hours. Luckily the wheel did not endure damages and after several failed attempts we were able to turn the bike into a single speed. Crisis averted, we made our way back to where we were staying and got ready for the final stage. By this time Paris had turned into a circus, vendors started selling Tour De France merchandise on the sidewalk and beer mysteriously got more expensive. We probably walked 5 miles trying to get the best view of the riders as they paraded around town. Just in time, we caught the final lap and the podium from about 100 yards away. Once the festivities had wound down we made our way to the base of the Eiffel Tower and drank wine with new friends until late in the evening.
Our last few days were spent making the trek back across the pond and saying our goodbyes along the way. To be honest, I don’t believe Ebbie or I expected this trip to go as smoothly as it did. It was by far the most ambitious adventure we’ve ever attempted to date. It goes to show that it doesn’t take a lot of planning or money to have the experience of a lifetime. As cliche as it may be, say fuck it and don’t look back. Just remember to pack light, travel far, and it’s never too late.