WRIT: Tour de Nuts

April 24, 2005 – 1:15 pm

warning: what follows is what will be an occasional feature on this blog. namely, lengthy and hyperbole-fraught writ on some worthless element of my day. tolerate it if you must. “how is this related to the divine espresso?” you ask? it isn’t, really. but it’s my blog. and you could say it concerns a semi-parallel obsession that just might shed light on the primary subject! maybe. you’ve been warned.

“She was chubby and had lots of hair.”

“Who?” I was not picking up this line of thought.

“The baby I had in my dream.”

Thus began one of those days that will become lavishly embellished in the retelling during the next few decades or so. (“You may not remember it, son, but you saw Lance Armstrong whip a pack of cycling mongrels on a Georgia mount called Brasstown Bald. Blew your wisps of toddler hair back over your head and pasted them to your shoulder blades, he did.”)

The whole ordeal left me with hamstrings that feel as though they’ve been flogged with num-chucks (Etymological note: Isn’t it curious how, a mere few months ago, that last sentence would have gone over like a pregnant pole vaulter? But now, if you’ve seen a certain movie, there’s at least a fighting chance that it was mildly, somewhat, forcedly semi-humorous. Then again, maybe not).

Perhaps I’d better be chronological.

Sunny, verve-y Saturday. The sort that makes you not want to do the normal gel in the locks under the reasoning that the breeze will transform you into one of those touseled hunks on an Express poster. Alas, you do not own an airbrush.

Mapped the route over to Georgia, whipped up some strong, Bodum-encased lattes for the lot of us (J&H came, with tyke C) and hauled down the Interstate. Rural Georgia roads followed, which grew rural-er and rural-er, until we hit: Helen! A village in the middle of the Deep South that by some uncanny feat of local government has managed to impose developmental restrictions on every building in town. The end result: you feel like you’re in Germany (IF you keep the windows up. The redneck drawls sort of singe the accordion-and-clog effect). There are thick wood beams on the facade of the local Huddle House, for crying out loud. The BP was done up as Haus das Heidi.

Terrible traffic (I wanted to think because the architecture was that bad). Then some serious mountains. People jamming the shoulders, waiting for Lance, gazing through their camcorders as if the champeen were imminent. But he was two hours behind us. Up through the hills, whining in second gear. “This must be a cat-one,” J surmises. He’s right. This stage is even harder than last year, when it was featured as the best stage in all of cycling by Velo News magazine, and now ends with a category three, then a two, then a one, then the ol’ “hors categorie.” Alpe D’Huez this is not, but it’s pretty much straight up.

Not that I would know. Toward the top, they shut down the route to cars and forced us to park. We had missed an easy drive to the top, it appeared, by a mere couple minutes. And we were stuck in the flat. If we stayed here, the bikes would zing by like a lens smudge. So off we go, two strollers, two ladies and one of them in her third trimester. I am not lying when I say that idle spectators urged us on with inspiring words (including the original and moving “Ole!”) when they saw my flushed, pregnant wife beating a path up Georgia’s highest mountain, for no discernable reason eschewing their perfectly fitting course-side spots for something elusively yon. I believe certain other females wanted to stop long before we’d hiked three miles (heh) but were forced grimly on by the sheer yeoman-like fervor with which the ladye tackled our Alp.

It. Was. Cold. And we all had to pee. Desperately. Though only one of us received a rude, regular kick to the bladderial region. Alas, none felt bold enough to use the woods. This was not France, after all, though by the incline and the bikes and the fervor for the race and the white flags of surrender (kidding!) you could have fooled me.

An hour’s trek, at least, every now and then turning in alarm as a pulsing light seemed to foretell the arrival of the pack. But no. So we pressed on, determined to lodge somewhere on a Serious Climb, the sort where the riders would be huffing and all spread out and Lance drilling them with his death-ray stare and staccato pedaling cadence. On and on and ON we traipsed, until at last the surveillance helicopter signaled Our Heros were at hand.

Turned around. Some CSC dude, number 22, was well out on a solo breakaway. Silly moron. Surely he knew that riders in a pack use one-fifth the energy, that the peloton could reel him in like a seaweed snag, that one of the best cyclists to ever roam the earth was loafing in that pack waiting his chance to drive a spike in his lungs, that this was a “hors categorie.” You must admire that kind of lunacy. And then you must crush it.

Here came the Men’s Pack, and the heart leaped, and we all leaned over the asphalt, and J … forgot his cellphone camera. It had been our only hope after I had forgotten to charge the batteries on by camcorder.

No matter, we’re HERE, and there are the true men who could only be grunting up this ridiculous final ascent in an insanely high gear if they were doping! Wait. No. Except for Lance. He’s clean. He’s racing against andrenally-fatuous, thick-veined, “The Clear”-swilling behemoths on a cancer-ravaged carcass, he is. Of course.

I did see him. That much I know. The stare. The easy breathing. The cadence. The sheath of teammates enveloping him in the pack like carbohydrates around Twinkie cream. He was there, looking all coiled like a cat. Waiting to spring. Floyd Landis, the fastest Mennonite on two wheels, was also in that pack somewhere. And my initial confusion at the new look of the Discovery team jerseys (formerly U.S. Postal) prevented me from deciphering the identities of Lance’s teammates.

It lasted five seconds, if that. One clear look at his face, five feet from mine, and then “poof.” He didn’t stop and say, you know, “Thanks for coming, is the pregnant lady OK?” All we got for our pill-brainedness was a glimpse. And it was exhilerating.

I believe certain accompanying females were aghast that that was it. Ta-da. Spectacle over. Nearby Americans (meaning Those Who Clearly Do Not Appreciate European, and Thus Superior, Sport) joked about, “Well, five hours of waiting and now we’re vindicated. Whooee. Let’s go home.”

Sure, there were other riders. Most fragmented cycling race I’ve ever seen. Lots of small knots of rainbowed folk, some loners, some flat-out chatting away as they zoomed up the 3,500-meter Big Bump Mountain. We got no pictures, no video, no autographs (we had hoped to reach the finish for the latter, but there was no way we could hike another three miles to the “piste.”) But we had the whiff, however brief, of sweaty, spandex-covered men who had pedaled, by no choice of their own directly past our gaping faces. That was enough.

Began the trot back. Did I mention we had to pee? Did I mention one of us had a bladder that was likely folded in thirds by the sheer displacement force of a third-trimester fetus? Yes. Well. We were in pain. But joyous. Like when you punch a guy, and your hand hurts real bad, but it doesn’t really matter. Because you! have! dopamine!

About a half-mile down the mountain, the music of C’s nonstop wailing suddenly ceased. I turned around. Whaaa? Where’d they go? The ladye did not know. One minute J&H had been there, caterwauling tyke in hand, and the next they were gone. Hast there been some rapturial event? I wondered, and began to weep.

Not really. A quad-cab stopped next to us on the highway, and some zany lady flapped her arms about inside the cab. “Too much Red Bull,” I though pitiably. But ah-ha! The lost stroller was in the bed of the truck! Brilliant! They had managed to hijack some charitable soul’s truck for a ride down the mountain. It could have been a Thing, for all I cared, but I think it was a Hemi (obligatory man-grunt here). My shins had begun to feel like they’d made a close alliance with a cheese grater. My surgically evacuated knee was sloshing in a way that made me wonder if the under-duress pee had drained to roomier environs.

“Where y’all pawrked,” the driver asked, his equally non-grammatical wife cooing over our son. This was the sort of guy who would probably put a rubber dear head on his stick shift. Wait, he DID have a rubber deer head on his stick shift. It was a 12-pointer, too. One failed to wonder how one could grasp the lever without scale-model antlers poking through your metcarpals.

The fellow went on to say that he’d never seen a bike race, that he came to see lance and, as he was trying to snap a photo, missed him altogether. Never saw the guy. So you see? It could have been worse. He was agog that we had hiked so far. (Correction: he was agog that the ladye had hiked so far.) The two-mile drive down the mountain reminded me how studly we truly were.

In the car, cold chicken tenders to warm us, the child immediately to sleep, a longer-than-usual pit stop at the Haus das Heidi fueling station for an emptying of collective internal cavities, and home we went.

Could have been worse, could have been better. Next time, we’ll leave four hours early. On the other hand, we have our tale! A day in remote Georgian regions and a rack-full of handsomely sore muscles, all for a five-second of cycling history.

Who won? I dunno. Wait! Lance made a late surge and pushed his buddy Tom Danielson to the top. That would be one of the teammates who appeared to be protecting him on our stretch. Good ol’, glory-sharing Lance — and he passed Landis to do it: “Landis could do nothing but watch in awe as Armstrong cruised up the mountain.” Ha. Good. Evidently Lance calls this new teammate the “great white hope.” Fine. Just win another Tour, first.

Top five in the standings are American. Cool. The stupid CSC breakaway dude was an American. Who knew? And the temperature at the top was barely above freezing. In April! Wow. Also: Lance is second in the sprint standings. Huh? Dude can do ANYthing. Cool photo gallery here.

Coda: It hurts to sit, stand and lie down. The ladye naps. And I am rooting around in the attic for my old Schwinn Voyager. Frame’s heavy as brass, but it might get me up Paris Mountain.