the queen stage
Yesterday’s climb up the Loze was the hardest thing I’ve ever done on a bike. And I’ve done lots of things on a bike. I’m absolutely smashed to pieces after Stage 2.
I do everything right from a recovery and a fuel standpoint. I get a massage after Stage 2, I try to get as much rest as possible, and I make sure to take in a good blend of carbs and protein.
I need to do everything right if I’m going to make it through Stage 3 – the Queen Stage of the bike race. Stage 3 has been on every cyclists mind since the course was revealed. And it’s often been the talk of the peloton. Everyone is scared as hell of Stage 3.
Why? Because it’s an epically hard day.
90 miles. 15,600 feet of climbing. Madeleine. Glandon. Alpe d’Huez. Names that echo in eternity for all cycling fans.
A 15.25-mile climb. A 13.25-mile climb. And cycling’s most iconic climb to top it all off. Over 35-miles of pure climbing.
This is a Tour de France day. Possibly even harder.
On fresh legs, today’s stage would be incredibly challenging. I don’t have fresh legs. In fact, I wake up the morning of Stage 3 and I feel absolutely horrible.
I have a headache for the third day in a row. This time, it’s a throbbing headache, likely the result of sleeping at altitude (our hotel was at 5,200 feet). Energy-wise, I feel spent. I’m exhausted from two hard days of cycling and I once again haven’t slept well. And I’m struggling with the fact that I haven’t ridden as well as I expected. I post a pre-stage video on Facebook in which I state that I’m feeling kind of like a large walking, talking trash bag.
This is going to be rough.
As I go through all the pre-race matriculations – eat breakfast, put clothes on, bike prep, water bottles, getting luggage ready, etc. – I’m dreading the day. I’m not excited about it, and I’d probably rather not even do it.
No matter, the bike is pointed to the start line. The start line is probably 5 minutes from our hotel. As I slowly get the pedals turning, I find myself lost in the beauty surrounding me. Red and orange clouds kiss the mountains that are surrounding us on all sides. Daybreak revealing the utter majesty and vastness of the Alps. It’s stunning.
Here I am cruising around on my bike, being treated to the most tremendous beauty imaginable. What could be better than this?
Seriously. What could be better than this?
I’ve dreamt of moments like this since I first saw the Tour de France. And here I am. Living it. This is amazing. What the hell do I have to be worried about? Discouraged about? Nervous about?
And just like that, the switch has been flipped. I’m ready to enjoy today. I’m going to dive into this day. Fully immerse myself in this experience, because I may never get it again. I’m going to ride the same mountains that the most famous names in all the sport have ridden. I’m going to suffer. I’m going to work. And I’m going to absolutely cherish every minute of it.
Stage 3 begins with a 15-mile descent. We’re descending off the final climb of the day from Stage 2 – the Loze. It’s a cool way to start the day. Especially for my newfound confidence and eagerness. It’s like starting the day off by saying “Hey, look how awesome I am. I climbed all of this yesterday.”
The descent off the Loze will drop us of right at the base of the Col de Madeleine. Holy crap. We’re about to climb the Madeleine!
I’ve seen this climb on multiple tours. Each time I’m amazed that the TV broadcast can go to commercial 3-5 times before the climb has even concluded. It’s a looooong climb. And it’s an absolute must-do for any cyclist. And I’m about to ride it!
Madeleine is perfectly suited for me. It’s a gradual, consistent climb that doesn’t really ever get too steep. It’s a climb where I can utilize my high climbing cadence to spin my way up the slopes. Quick and light on the pedals. Kill the climb with cadence. That’s my style.
Although…I don’t really want to kill this climb necessarily. I want to ride this climb aggressively but well within my limits. It’s too long of a climb on too long of a day to take any chances. If I go out too hard on this climb, I’m going to take an already hard day and make it exponentially harder.
If I need any reminder to keep a lid on it, I’ve got one every single kilometer, when those nice, little signs that I told you about in the last blog, pop up. I see the first marker, and it says 25km to go. This is unbelievable. A 25km/15-mile climb. Time to do some epic climbing.
Most of the time, when I’m in the right climbing rhythm, I tend to ascend a little more quickly than the cyclists around me. This rings true in the early miles of the Madeleine. It’s definitely a nice boost of confidence, but to a certain extent, it really doesn’t matter at all. I’m climbing Madeleine how I need to. Nothing else matters.
Madeleine is a fun climb. For the first 10km or so, the road meanders through varying terrains – some pastures, some forests. The road snakes playfully so as to provide a view of where you came from, as well as a view of where you’re going.
After about an hour of climbing, the big mountains are in view. To the best of my memory, the mountains are almost in a J or even a U shape. And you see one, solitary, small road that is determined to wrap itself all the way around the mountains.
Each turn brings with it a new, even more awesome view than the one previous. By the time we hit the 5km to go marker, Mont Blanc’s imposing figure, along with the surrounding mountains – our playground on stages one and two - now becomes visible. Mountains as far as the eye can see.
With 5km to go, I feel the tinge of fatigue that is simply unavoidable when you’ve been climbing for over 90 minutes consecutively. But I’ve ridden this climb really well, and I will continue to ride this climb well. I should be feeling tinges of fatigue at this point. I shouldn’t concern myself with them.
After ten more minutes of climbing, we get what might be my favorite view of them all. The road has taken us to a horseshoe, where we can admire the peak of Le Madeleine. We feel incredibly close to the mountain at this point, and the detail that I can see as the sun hits the slopes is remarkable. I wanted to fully immerse myself in today’s stage. I feel fully immersed at this point.
There are now only a few kilometers to go. I’m almost sad to see this climb come to an end, because I have truly enjoyed it. But we’re approaching the two-hour mark with very little respite on the legs. The body is ready for it to be over, and after snapping a few more photos and videos, I suppose that I’m ready for it to be over now too.
We hit the summit, I get off the bike to snap one last photo, and to get some fuel in.
Fuel is going to be a critical component on today’s stage. I’m going to be on the bike for 8ish hours, and the climbing is going to burn tons of energy. I cannot risk going under on fuel. I remind myself of this at the top of the Madeleine, and throughout the stage, as I continually take in calories even though I may not necessarily want to.
Madeleine – done. Two big boys remaining on today’s stage. But for now, it’s time to descend. And you guessed it – a long climb means a long descent.
It’s chaos for the legs. Two hours of getting pummeled. Nearly an hour of not having to work at all. Rinse and repeat.
I’m getting more and more comfortable with the descents, but I again don’t take any risks at all coming off the Madeleine. I’ll make up my time on the climbs. Plus, I enjoy looking at astonishing views of the Alps versus gluing my eyes to the tarmac. If I lose a little time because I’m stopping to smell the roses, so be it. I’ll remember those views long after I forget exactly how long it took me to complete the stage.
The descent ends virtually right at the beginning of our next climb - Glandon. This one is merely a 13.25 mile climb (as compared to the 15+ miles of Madeleine). Piece of cake, right?
Glandon gains nearly as much elevation as does Madeleine though. Despite it being two miles shorter, Glandon gains 4,800 feet while Madeleine gained 5,100. In other words, Glandon is no slouch. Steeper, and still long as hell.
Glandon is also not nearly as consistent as Madeleine. The climb flattens out for about a mile at almost the halfway point. From there, it gets steep, with the remaining miles coming in at 10%+ gradients.
I’ve prepared myself for Glandon to be the hardest climb of the day. We’re not even halfway through the stage, so we don’t even have the mental boost of it being the last climb of the day. It’s going to be where the fatigue kicks in heavily, and we’ll still have to drag ourselves up arguably one of the harder climbs in all of cycling (Alpe d’Huez).
I’m glad that I’ve prepared myself this way, even more so when I’m about halfway through the climb and I’m not being treated to the same amazing views that distracted me on the Madeleine. Glandon is kind of meh. Beautiful – don’t get me wrong, but nothing compared to what we’ve already seen. We meander through pastures and along a stream, but the dramatic mountains aren’t exactly in sight.
With 9km to go (a little less than 2/3 of the way through the climb), the scenery improves. Not that it matters too much – the climb is the climb. And thus far, I’ve found the climb to be challenging but doable. I’ve been able to get into my climbing rhythm and my cadence keeps me spinning my way up the mountain at a rate that I’m pleased with.
After a few more kilometers, the Glandon finally shows us what its got in store for us. We’re suddenly surrounded by mountains, and we can see a road bravely winding its way up what appears to be a really steep slope. It’s daunting. You look up and see nothing but road and climbing ahead of you. All the while knowing that it may be 20 or 30 minutes before you even make it to the road that you can see above you.
The climb is the climb. And today I’m determined to keep my spirits high. But the Glandon is testing me in all ways.
I lose a little bit of the mental edge and allow myself to start thinking about the next climb. I tell myself that I’ve only got a little more of Glandon left, then Alpe d’Huez, then the surprise of a lifetime. I get to tell my girlfriend that I’ve booked her a surprise trip to France. Can’t wait!
Thinking about that phone call injects just a little more energy into my body and mind. I’ve been all alone on the climb, and even just knowing that I get to call my partner and talk to someone who understands me, buoys my emotions.
The recalibration comes at the right time, because the steep stuff now awaits. The road ahead is so daunting. It’s laid out in front of us. Mocking us. Challenging us. It’s not changing. It’s not making any concessions. Here I am. Climb me if you can.
I’m burning a lot of matches in the last 3 kilometers of the Grandon climb. But unlike previous stages, I don’t allow myself to fret over the amount of energy that I’m expending. I’m calm and confident. I’m expending this much energy because that’s what it takes to get over this climb. I’m not working too hard, or not saving enough energy, or all those other ridiculous thoughts that I allowed myself to fret over on previous stages. I’m riding this climb as I need to, and when I get to the next climb, I’m going to do the exact same thing.
I’ve got this thing figured out. Stage 3 – I’m not afraid of you. Haute Route – I’m not afraid of you.
Make no mistake though, Glandon is tough. It punches me right in the mouth. The only difference is that I’m better able to take the punch today.
I hit the summit and I remind myself that I’m smashing the hardest stage in the hardest race. I’ve got one more climb remaining and then I’ve conquered the stage that put fear in everyone’s hearts in the months leading up to this race.
Alpe d’Huez – bring it on.
The descent off the Glandon is long and fast. Brimming with confidence, I convince myself to let it rip on the descent. No more doubts. No more fear. I’m going to smash the hardest stage in every way possible.
That decision is only made though after I’ve seen what looks to be nice, wide roads, and a very good road surface. I’m still not descending as quickly as other cyclists, but I’m holding my own.
I’m beginning to love descending. The views on the descent are always the most amazing, and leaning your body and bike into the corners is really quite fun. It’s almost hypnotic.
And as I’m gaining more and more confidence and slipping further and further into my state of hypnosis, a bee flies directly into my helmet. How is this even possible?
I feel the bee squirming around in my helmet, but I’m locked in. I’m not going to jam on the brakes and stop midway through this descent. The bee will find his way out of my helmet, and all will be well.
Until it’s not. And until it stings me. I keep plunging down the mountain.
The bee sting is almost a welcome distraction. The pain in my legs doesn’t even register anymore.
After a few more minutes the descent has flattened out, and there’s even an uphill at one point. I use the uphill to bring the bike to a halt and I quickly rip off my helmet and readjust it. A bee sting. Seriously? Whatever. Next stop: Alpe d’Huez.
We now have 10 kilometers in the valley before we hit our final climb of the day. I latch on with a group, and for the first time all stage I’m not alone. As with day two, the miles in the valley don’t feel great. My bike seat is once again proving uncomfortable and I honestly just feel bored by the miles in the valley. It’s like a cab ride from the pre-party to the actual party. No one looks forward to the cab ride. Just get me to the damn party. Let’s go.
I stop off at a feed station at the base of the climb to make sure that I have enough fuel to finish off the day. It’s going to be another 75ish minutes of climbing. I put down another Cliff Bar – my third or so on the day – and grab some quick fuel as well (gels). I’m thinking a quick shot of carbs and glucose midway through Alpe d’Huez will give me just what I need to blast through to the summit.
Alpe d’Huez is one of the steeper climbs that we’ll have. Coming in at 8.1 miles and with an average gradient of 8.1%, it’s going to be a rough finish to an already rough stage.
Alpe d’Huez is notoriously steep at the bottom of the climb. Before the stage, I’ve told myself that I’m going to ease through the bottom portion of the climb and then give it all that I have on the last 5 miles or so.
But when I hit the climb feeling very energetic, and when I’ve ridden well all day, that plan goes right out the window. I go for it right away.
At this point in the day, the fatigue is very high for all cyclists. I see it in their body language and on their faces as I go ripping up the climb. It’s high for me too, but I’m not accepting anything less than lighting this climb on fire. Start to finish. Full gas.
Alpe d’Huez is famous for its 21 switchbacks. It’s surreal to be hitting these switchbacks, and to be seeing names of former Tour winners on the placard for each switchback. It’s surreal to be taking this big of a risk on this big of a stage. But Alpe d’Huez lives in lore partially due to it being a launching pad for the bravest of cyclists to go out on an attack. This is my attack. It’s nowhere near as impressive as the pros of the Tour, but damn it I may only get to climb Alpe d’Huez once in my lifetime. I’m attacking.
After 10 minutes of going full gas, I’m wondering if I can sustain this effort. It’s been a long day, and that window could slam shut at any point. But this is my chance. I’m pushing until the legs can’t go anymore. So I re-steady the mind and I settle in to what is going to be a painful ascent.
I’m alternating between seated and standing. When I’ve pushed so I hard that I feel the lactic acid building up, I switch to standing. I remain aggressive when I’m standing, and the different position on the bike seems to be at least holding the lactic acid at bay. I switch back and forth between seated and standing, doing my best to keep the hammer down.
At the halfway point, I’m considering waiving the white flag. We’ve still got five stages after this one. Be smart, Jason.
I am being smart. I am listening to the voice that says that I can do it. I am trusting that all the training miles I’ve put in are going to allow me to smash myself to pieces and to recover in time. I am building my confidence back up. I am punching back, instead of being punched. I am being smart.
Any thoughts of waiving the white flag are quickly dissolved when the camera crew comes riding up behind me. The camera may catch me cramping up and crawling my way up the last mile or so, but they’re not going to catch me waiving the white flag.
I jam a gel in my mouth and hope that it can keep me fueled enough to push to the top of the climb. A minute later, I realize just how depleted I’m feeling. I jam another gel in my mouth. The mind is going to this finish line at full gas. You’re coming with me, body. Whether you want to or not.
The camera crew sticks with me, and they’ve now even got a drone buzzing around me. This is badass. Apparently the camera crew wants to capture the various stages of death. I don’t know which one I’m in right now, but it’s the one that involves drooling on myself, borderline hallucinations, and extreme depletion.
My body is screaming at me to slow down, but I refuse to relent. I do throw the body a bone on a couple of the flatter switchbacks. I use those 10-15 feet to spin quickly and lightly. It’s a brief respite, but it’s something.
I hit the 5km to go marker. 3.1 miles to go. This is rough.
Ok, time to play that game again – the whittle down the km-to-go markers game. This time, I convince myself that I only need to get to the 2km to go mark. From there, the next sign I’ll see is 1km to the finish. If I can push right up until I have nothing left at the 2km mark, I trust that I can dig deep to push to the finish. If I can’t summon every last bit of strength on the slopes of Alpe d’Huez then why am I even riding a bike?
4km to go. Take in some fluids. Grit the teeth. Push.
The next two kilometers feel like an eternity. Eyes glued to the road ahead. The road ahead going up and up and up. Body on the brink of shutting down. Mind struggling to keep the body going.
This is what you wanted, right?
2km marker comes into sight. Time to execute the plan, right?
Too bad it’s not so much a plan. There’s no real strategy at this point. No finesse. Nothing complicated about it. It’s a simple question – how hard will I work for the next 5 minutes?
Five minutes, Jason. You’ve climbed for five hours today and the only thing separating you from the summit is five minutes.
It feels like too much to bear. I’m at the absolute edge. I’ve pushed on this climb alone for 70 minutes. Full gas. I owe this to myself.
The 1km to go sign mercifully comes into sight. I’m totally blasted at this point, but it doesn’t matter. Only another couple minutes. Hang on just a little longer and you’ll always have this memory to be proud of.
Shortly after the 1km sign, the road actually flattens out. Then it dips. What the heck? It’s actually mostly downhill to the finish. Anti-climatic but not unwelcome.
When the road flattens out a little, I’m actually shocked by how I feel. My legs are rubbery and I’m definitely fatigued. But I feel like I could ride Alpe d’Huez at least one more time. I was just in that kind of mood. I was prepared to suffer all day today, and to thrive when times were the most difficult. And I did.
I push to the finish line and I’m so damn proud of myself. I knew that this race was going to smack me in the face. I just didn’t know that it would be on Stage 2. I didn’t know that my low would come the morning of the hardest day of the entire race. And I didn’t know how I would respond.
I responded. And I’m damn proud of the way I responded.
I'm a proud Big Brother, and despite my Little wishing that I wouldn't run so much, a proud endurance athlete. I started my endurance career by signing up for a marathon when I couldn't even complete a 10k, and I started my Big Brother career by volunteering when I wasn't sure I even could offer a youth much. Both processes have showed me that stepping outside of your comfort zone serves as the best method of improving yourself.