L’Etape du Tour: Prologue

On July 3, Paved contributor Gary Boulanger gets on a plane bound for Annecy, France, where he’ll ride his first L’Etape du Tour. Filing travelogue reports throughout his adventure, he’ll chronicle his experience to shed light on what it takes to enjoy saddle time on the same route as the professionals. This first installment sheds light on his preparations, which began many months ago, leading up to departure. Check back often for updates; the 130km L’Etape du Tour takes place July 7.

Words & Photo || Gary J Boulanger

The Tour de France is the largest sporting spectacle on the planet, and with the nervous first-week stages roaring around Corsica before transferring to France, I’m packing my things and heading to Annecy, where I’ll ride the 2013 L’Etape du Tour with 13,499 others on July 7. Unlike the World Series, Indy 500 or Super Bowl, where all one can do is spectate, mere mortals like me can experience a major sporting event on the same playing field as the 198 licensed professionals toeing the start line each day. And, like the professional in the peloton, my preparations for the 130km stage began many months ago, and will continue up until the morning of the event.

My dedication to cycling began in earnest nearly 25 years ago, when I met Steve Smith at Johnson Hill Press in Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin. We were young assistant editors for different trade publications, and I was a former soccer player looking for an athletic challenge. One glance into Smith’s office was all it took to get hooked: the walls were covered with cycling posters and artwork, including a photo of Stephen Roche winning the 1987 world road championship, several cycling trinkets on his desk, and a clothesline with jerseys hanging like laundry, including Bianchi, Molteni, and Systeme U, if memory serves. I saw my future in front of me, and unlike a nervous breakaway heading toward the finish line, I’ve never looked back.

In fact, living in northern California since 2006 has afforded me extended saddle time, and has introduced me to several experienced riders, including former airline pilot and bike racer Lindsay Crawford. I’ve ridden several Dino Rides with Crawford, who has ridden L’Etape du Tour 14 times. I’ve had the pleasure of editing his L’Etape diary since 2008, and his friendship since 2007. I was always impressed by his rigorous preparation for L’Etape, and learned plenty as I committed to doing my first in 2013.

Preparations

It was late January when I set my sights on L’Etape, and the fickle but moderate climate allowed me to get in frequent hilly rides of 25 miles or more five to six days a week, with several rides averaging 35 to 55 miles.

When I moved to Mountain View in mid 2006, I weighed nearly 200 pounds. Some was muscle, but most was due to inactivity and a poor diet. With sporadic riding, by 2008 I hovered around 186 or so, which was an improvement, but my goal last year was to eventually get down to my high school soccer playing weight of 168. Having a demanding job and a family I enjoy spending time with made it difficult to train, but working out of the house helps me set my riding schedule around other responsibilities. I took riding and diet seriously in 2012, and as the frequency of my riding increased, the weight slowly came off.

Frequency, plus plenty of climbing

Living near the foothills of the Santa Cruz mountains is a plus. Mt Tamalpais is only an hour’s drive north in Marin County; I spent several hours riding up and down some of the nicest roads in the country, including Page Mill Road, Old La Honda (east and west), Tunitas Creek Road, Stage Road, Skyline Boulevard, Railroad Grade, and Panoramic Highway. I also didn’t shirk from saddle time when it got into the low 20s, high 80s or 90s, or when the rain came down in buckets. After all, I’m half Belgian, and the lure of a nasty headwind is our training tool (and West Marin is perfect for that, especially in the afternoon).

Once I set my sights on riding L’Etape in early July, I also upgraded my bike. My lightweight-steel Gaansari Van Cleve has served me well since 2003, and while I upgraded all the components in 2009, I wanted a modern carbon fiber machine to prepare for France. I got a 2013 Felt F3 right before Sea Otter, a nice bike with traditional lines and geometry, but with Shimano’s Ultegra Di2 electronic shifting, which I’ve come to love. Because I mostly ride and train alone, I used some REI dividend money to buy a Garmin 510 to track and record my progress; those who know me well understand my need for simplicity, so to upgrade from steel to carbon and no computer to a Garmin must have them scratching heads. It’s made a huge difference in my preparations. I may use Twitter and Tumblr occasionally, but I’ve drawn the line with Facebook, which I deleted on December 31, 2012, and will never go back. My objective is to be a participant in life, not a spectator, and I need all the clarity I can get, which Facebook will never provide.

Trek Travel and the Series 7 Madone

In early March, I spent four days with Brent Steelman in Paso Robles, California for an annual Gentleman’s Training Camp. This was an enjoyable, low-pressure, kick-in-the-pants way to get into shape while enjoying polite conversation (and local wine) with seasoned riders, whose average age was 58. The springboarded me into riding the Giro d’Italia Grand Fondo at Sea Otter in late April; days later I decided to contact Trek Travel about joining them on their L’Etape du Tour trip. It was ideal for several reasons: I’ve never ridden my bike in France, and while my body was slowly preparing for L’Etape, there’s no way I’d feel comfortable rolling solo in a foreign country. By May 7 I secured a spot with Trek Travel, and after a few emails exchanged, arranged my flights with them as well.

With Trek Travel, cost includes use of a Trek Domane 5.9 bike and Bontrager helmet. I opted to configure a Project One Series 7 Madone in Belgian national colors with Campagnolo Super Record, a gruppo I’ve had on the Van Cleve previously. As a Wisconsin native, I also wanted a carbon machine made in Waterloo, and as fate would have it, the folks at Trek built me a 2014 Madone instead, the same machine RadioShack-Leopard’s Jan Bakelants piloted to Stage 2 victory in the Tour de France and into the leader’s yellow jersey. My bike arrived on June 19, with several upgrades over the 2013 model. The engineers shaved 25 grams off last year’s Series 7 frame, while continuing to use the Kammtail Virtual Foil tube shaping on the frame and fork, which according to Trek minimizes drag using a truncated airfoil shape. The virtual tail of the airfoil bends to respond to the angle of the most common crosswinds, significantly reducing drag on the road. With all the large and sharply-shaped tubing, it weighs just 725 grams.

The brakes, integrated into the frame for minimum drag and maximum efficiency, save weight over the 2013 model by eliminating the need for mounting plates and bolts. And, the new edition of the Madone chainstays have been redesigned to increase braking power. So far, my rides on the Madone have been thrilling; after a simple pre-assembly and final tweaks to my position, I’m noticeably faster compared to any other bike I’ve owned or ridden. My Series 7 Madone is a 60cm with 12cm stem and Trek’s H1 headtube option. I chose the Bontrager XXX 31.8 carbon stem and XXX VR-C carbon bars with compact drop for descending French mountains, plus 700x25c R4 Bontrager clincher tires for a bit more rubber on the road (there’s enough clearance for possibly a 30c tire, and definitely a 28). The newly-engineered Bontrager calipers include Carbon Stop cork pads to work with the Bontrager Aeolus 3 D3 carbon clincher wheelset, which uses custom DT Swiss hubs. I also added the Bontrager Bat cages, same as what the RadioShack and Bontrager teams use.

Equipment upgrades and purchases

Trek gave me the option to have the Series 7 Madone shipped to Annecy in time for the run-up to L’Etape, or to my home a few weeks prior, and I decided on the latter because I wanted a few weeks to dial in my fit and get accustomed to Campagnolo after a few months on Ultegra Di2 and four years of SRAM Red before that. So, instead of arriving with my kit and helmet, I’m taking a bike with me, something I haven’t done since visiting Rwanda in September 2006. I borrowed a Trico Sports Iron Case from Brent Steelman, who offered to sell it to me for one of his customers if it works as planned.

I typically ride from my house, with occasional car trips to ride with friends north and south of Mountain View. I realized I needed some new equipment before embarking on a week in France, so I ordered a Uvex Race 5 helmet and SGL 202 glasses to replace my five-year-old Las helmet and Giro glasses, both of which have seen better days. The upper strap on my Sidi shoes cracked two weeks before departure, and my five-year old Speedplay Zero pedals were desperately in need of replacing (I was on my second overhaul and cleats, and a recent muddy trail excursion with Michael Barry in Toronto was fun, but highly destructive to my equipment). I replaced the straps and the pedals/cleats, and made sure to break them in before packing.

I also needed a bicycle race bag, a duffle designed to carry a helmet, shoes and all my riding gear separate from my ‘civilian’ clothes, so I ordered a SRAM race bag after researching what was available. My cycling kit inventory was worse than my helmet and glasses, so I ordered the new Bontrager Cycling Team kit and two Capo kits with gloves, socks, base layer and arm warmers; part of my challenge was all the weight I’ve lost in training. At 169 pounds, all my older clothing was hanging loose from my waist and shoulders, so it made sense to get with the program and get something suitable. My wife is very understanding of the costly upgrades needed every few years, and has given her blessing at nearly every corner.

Bits and bobs

In addition to an updated passport, L’Etape du Tour also requires a signed medical certificate from a family practitioner. My visits to the doctor are only ‘as needed’ (and I haven’t ‘needed’ to go in 18 months or so), so it was a short visit. The nurse asked if I was aware that I lost 20 pounds since my last exam, and with my head held high, I responded proudly with ‘yes I am.’

Long flights and train rides can be a hassle if outlets aren’t available, so I purchased an EasyAcc 12,000mAh USB external battery pack from Amazon to recharge my Samsung Galaxy, iPod and iPad, a nice little $39 doohickey that works like a charm. I bought a simple pair of Smartwool compression socks from backcountry.com after asking Garmin-Sharp’s Christian Vande Velde what he recommended wearing on long flights to combat thrombosis. And, to keep the pain from my pinched sciatic nerve at bay, I cashed in some Wells-Fargo reward money several weeks ago to buy a pair of Birkenstock Milano sandals, which look nice with jeans, pants and shorts. I’m packing as light as possible, and will do my of my reading and writing on the iPad, saving my photo and word editing for my laptop.

Another benefit to riding this year’s L’Etape du Tour is the simple loop we’ll enjoy compared to previous years, which necessitated long transfer to the start line and back again. On July 7, we’ll start and finish in Annecy. Our home base for the week will be the surprisingly affordable Le Palace de Menthon on Lake Annecy, where we’ll put in some training miles in the days leading up to The Big Ride.

Here’s a preview of the course:

Up next: traveling internationally with a bike, via plane and train.

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