Le Grand Tour: Stage One
467 kilometres — it was a number at first, and then a line traced on a map. From Paris to Lyon, down the Loire valley and across to the Rhone — it was a geography that I only really knew from wine bottles. Places such as Sancerre, Pouilly, and Beaujolais evoked only tastes. In 1903, Maurice Garin won the stage and became the first-ever leader of the Tour. 467 kilometres — it was another era, another sort of racing. I wondered what it was like.
At 5:30 a.m., we set out from our hotel and made our way to the Café au Reveil-Matin in Montgeron, site of the first Grand Depart well over a century ago. A drab, unassuming building, it’s still a workingman’s bar, a place where you’d never believe that history had been written. The gaudy sculpture on a nearby roundabout and tiny memorial put up by the French Audax association seemed out of place.
We stopped and made a few photographs, but there was no time to waste. We were scheduled to arrive in Lyon at 11:30 that evening and we were already running late.
The rest of this story occurs on a timescale I’ve never before encountered. The best way I can describe it is that it was like broiling myself alive with a lighter.
All that remains are ashes, fragments of memory. The hours passed and kilometres accumulated. The sun rose in the sky. My world transformed from thick woods and dead straight roads packed with cars to meandering lanes and vast green fields patched with trees and rose-gardened villas. I pedalled and pedalled and pedalled and lost myself in the rhythm. Five hours in, we crossed the Loire and began to head down the river. If it wasn’t for the wind, it would have been idyllic.
There’d been a stiff breeze that morning, but I’d had the trees for protection. Now that I was more in the open, it was blowing straight at me. There I was, in the middle of France, climbing Dutch mountains. It’s not as if I was riding especially hard. It was just unrelenting.
After 200 kilometres, I was tired and grumpy. My knees were sore from the near-constant pressure and my reserves were almost empty. I motioned to the guys. It was time to pull over.
Guy roared ahead in the car. The sound of his motor filled me with envy. He found a bakery, 30 kilometres on. For the next hour, I suffered.
That baguette might be the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten. Crisp and chewy, with goat’s cheese and raw ham — my legs were stretched out, and the sun shone down on me. Boats floated down the canal. It was another lazy summer day. The cold water sparkled.
We were only halfway through though and we were still behind schedule. Get back on your bike, Guy said. That first pedal stroke was torture.
Before long, I’d found my tempo again though, and before long, my tempo was about all I was aware of.
I was only my body, numb to the beauty around me. When I next looked up, 100 kilometres had passed, and the land seemed more southern. More red and beige, with gnarled pines, there were hills now, and the roads were more narrow and twisting. We listened to the finish of the Tour on the radio. The guys wanted to find a McDonalds. There was one ahead. They’d drive on then come back and find me.
That Coke that they brought me — cold, sweet nectar — saved me. I began to press on the pedals, a little foolishly. There’s a climb coming up, Guy said. I didn’t believe him.
There was though — the Col du Pin Bouchin. What do I remember? The light, falling softly over purplish hills; a golden ribbon ahead of and behind me; the guys’ shouts of encouragement; the descent into darkness.
For the last 50 kilometres, every bump on the road was lit up in the xenon glow of the car’s headlights. I was shattered. We entered Lyon on a main road, then descended down into the bustle of honking horns and drunken revellers in the centre of the city. The Saône was twinkling. Its banks were lit up. There were grand old buildings and beautiful bridges. We crossed the water. One kilometre to go, Guy said. I hit a wall.
The organisers of the Tour were bastards from the start. That final kilometre up into old Lyon was horrible, with grades that neared 20%. I finished on autopilot.
So, the first stage of Le Grand Tour is done, the first side of l’hexagone is behind me. 467 kilometres — I might not remember each one of them, but I’ve known them with my body.
Keir Plaice is riding the route of the original Tour de France.
Check out this stage on Komoot.