L’Etape du Tour: The Journey
Words & Photos || Gary J Boulanger
Pedaling a bicycle through the French countryside, I found, is on the short list of many friends who ride. Participating in the popular L’Etape du Tour ranks highly on this list, and it was through the graciousness of Trek Travel that I experienced France—specifically Annecy—for the first time beginning July 4.
Despite my level best to prepare for everything, the first fly in the ointment appeared on the evening before my transcontinental flight from San Francisco to Geneva, Switzerland. I packed everything but my bike, which I saved for last. After removing the wheels, seat post, saddle, rear derailleur, stem and handlebars and carefully bubble wrapping everything in my work stand, I laid the mummy-like machine in the Trico hard shell case.
This was when the tension began.
My Trek Madone Series 7 sports a 60-centimeter frame, and the extended carbon nub and cap replaces a standard seatpost. This proved troublesome, because the frame set wouldn’t fit in the case; it was too tall. I didn’t have the necessary tools to remove the Campagnolo Super Record crankset, and with the sweat beading on my brow and back, I decided to email my guide Elizabeth in France to see if they could secure me a stock 60-centimeter Trek Domane 5.9 in time for my arrival. Thankfully it was early morning France time, and she acknowledged my request, putting my anxiety to rest. This would prove highly fortuitous on the remainder of my trip.
My original departure included a direct flight to JFK in New York, with an ample two-hour plus layover before continuing to Geneva. At 38,000 feet, more than halfway across the United States, a 15-year-old girl sitting two seats away from me began having seizures. Flight attendants came to her aid, as did three passengers who were doctors. The gentleman next to me and I were asked to relocate, and after calming her down with oxygen, it was decided to make an emergency landing in Chicago so she could receive medical attention. Thankfully her parents were with her, but this meant turning the plane around, adding an extra two hours to our flight. We arrived in New York just as my plane was taxiing toward the sky, bound for Geneva.
After checking available flights on my smartphone, I decided to make a beeline for the United ticket counter. A later flight bound for Frankfurt had some seats available, and after a 90-minute delay in a crowded gate full of Euros and a few Americans, it was wheels up toward Germany.
Many flying United Airlines domestically know that the food service is abysmal, so it was a pleasant surprise to be fed like a king on the Lufthansa flight, even in economy class. I tried watching a movie to pass the seven hours, but took solace in a lengthy chat with a pleasant woman from Connecticut named Mona, on her way to meet someone special in Florence. Conversation flowed, running the gamut from childhood to marriage, expectations met and dashed. Recently divorced, she was also at a career crossroads, while I was days away from celebrating my 24th wedding anniversary in Paris. Ironically, I would spend it with my friend Richard Goodwin, with plans to tour the Hutchinson tire factory on July 9, while my lovely wife was back in Mountain View.
Once we reached Frankfurt, it was a mad dash to get through security and customs to reach our short flight to Switzerland. With sweat dripping off my nose, I boarded a shuttle and gathered my thoughts, knowing that I’d missed my train to Annecy from Geneva.
Touching down in the country that produced Fabian Cancellara and discreet banking practices, I found out my luggage was on a later flight, and it would be two hours before it arrived. I purchased a bus ticket after calling my wife to tell her I was running late, and finally reached Elizabeth from Trek Travel to say the same. The bus took an hour, and thankfully a cab was waiting for me at the Annecy station, whose driver was a jovial Frenchman who was thrilled to hear I was in France to ride my bicycle, and who was equally excited to meet an American with a French last name. I was more than relieved not to have brought my bike in its hardshell case after the delays, reroutes and airport sprints, not to mention the $400 it would have cost round trip.
Nearly 30 hours after leaving home, I arrived at the breathtakingly beautiful Palace de Menthon on Lake Annecy, which would be my home through Monday morning. After checking into my room, I quickly brushed my teeth, changed into something a bit more formal, and met my Trek Travel contingent, with whom I relayed all the delightful anecdotes and details of my journey.
In the hotel dining room, I met an Australian, three Brazilians, and other Americans from California, New Orleans, New Hampshire, Oregon, Colorado, Washington, D.C and Wisconsin. We shared a meal, drank some wine, and got the lowdown on the final preparations for the Big Ride, which included an early breakfast and a 73 kilometer ride on part of the L’Etape course the next morning.
Despite only sleeping for 90 minutes on my journey to France, my roommate Bob and I spoke like summer camp buddies until 1am, covering the gamut of what it’s like living and riding in California. With a full stomach and heavy eyelids, we opened the window, set our clocks, and drifted off to sleep, where my dreams of floating over water on a hardshell bike case were interrupted five hours later with a hearty ‘are you ready for some riding?’
Coming Next: ‘Savoring the moment’.