I recently had a trip to France to realise a life-long dream. That dream was seeing the Tour de France up close and personal, and it was made all the better that my brother accompanied me.
We’ve both been keen bike riders for the past number of years and always loved the watching the TDF from Australia – many a late night every July in the depths of winter watching the riders battle it out across France. It’s one of the world’s greatest sporting events, if not the best. Yes, its been plagued with controversy for years and probably always will be, but that still hasn’t diminished the spectacle that it is. When you’re there on the ground you see the massive undertaking and the work that goes into it by all involved, and you can’t helped but be impressed by it all.
So, in order to get a feel of what it is like to be a rider in the TDF, we headed to the Pyrenees and decided to challenge ourselves to climb some of the mountains that the Tour riders themselves have to get over. Now, to put things into perspective, I think I’m reasonably fit but there are no mountains in Melbourne of any note that rival the Pyrenees. So my training was largely contained to the flat roads and given the demands of work heading up to my break, I just simply didn’t have time to really ramp up to the level I should have. I knew I was in for a massive challenge! And what a challenge it was…
We stayed in Bagnères-de-Luchon, the finish of stage 16 and the start of stage 17. Driving from Toulouse to Bagnères-de-Luchon, you soon get a sense of the size of the mountains. They steadily climb when you enter the valley and just keep going up. We arrived at the town which is surrounded by mountains in almost every direction. From Luchon (600m), you can take a chairlift straight up to Super Bagnères, a ski resort at 1,800m where you get amazing picturesque views. You can also see the highest point of the Pyrenees – Aneto at 3,400m.
I was then faced with knowing that the next day, I had to tackle my first climb – the Col du Portillon – which tops out at 1,260m. This featured as the last climb on stage 16 of the tour this year and we were climbing it on the French side. The climb is around 10km from the base and starts out gently enough at around 1% into a slow rise of around 4% but then kicks up to 11%. This is brutal. Your legs start burning, the heart rate must have been around 180 or higher and if you stop (as I had to) you find it very hard to get going again. And I was only one third into the climb! I could see this was going to take some mental strength and just pig-headedness to get to the top, along with some real pain and suffering.
After the 11%, it flattens out to 8% then 7% but then kicks up to 13%. Again, my heart was pounding like never before and I had to have a second stop. I’m beginning to wonder what the hell am I doing. I’m just on half way and if this keeps up, I’ll be exhausted. My appreciation for the Tour riders is going up at a rate a lot quicker than I was climbing. My motivation was brotherly competitiveness – he has 10 years on me and is a bit stronger! He was up the road ahead of me and there was no way I was going to let him conquer the mountain and have bragging rights! So I persevered slowly, painfully, metre by metre, hairpin turn by hairpin turn, not wanting to look up and break the spirit. I was being passed by other younger, fitter riders, and even riders on motorised bikes (damn them, they shouldn’t be allowed!), watching cyclists coming down super fast knowing that if I get to the top, I can share in that pleasure at least.
The second half of the climb was no easier. There is a small respite at around 1% or so, then it starts up at 5.5% then 8.8% for a couple of kilometres, and then kicks up to 11.5% for a kilometre before “flattening out” at 9%! I’m beginning to wonder why? What an earth am I doing? Why do this to myself? The pounding heart is just saying “STOP, you fool”!
If you really want to know, watch “Le Ride” – a movie about 1 kiwi and 3 aussies in the 1928 Tour De France. Phil Keoghan (Race Around the World fame) sums it up when he says,
“I don’t know why people want to take on these challenges, but I really believe that it’s only by pushing yourself to the borders of suffering and discomfort that you really find out who you are.”
And Phil actually rode the whole 1928 tour route!
Suffering and discomfort. Pretty much sums it up. In my pain, one word came to my mind as I was perspiring like crazy, heart thumping in my chest, on the border of giving up and just turning around and heading downhill – and that word was “stickability”. This word was the one word drummed into us by the headmaster at boarding school in New Zealand all those years ago – “stickability”. We used to think it was a bit of a joke at the time – why is he saying we need this? – but in my suffering on this climb, the word came to mind none-the-less. And I couldn’t get it out of my head. Did I have it or not? Simple question – have I or haven’t I? The thought of giving up kept coming up as I kept grinding my way higher, turn by turn, sweat stinging my eyes, but then I’d see my brother ahead waiting for me, so I’d dig in and pound my way up to him and have another breather.
I must have stopped a half dozen times, but in the end I did arrive at the top of the Col (pass) between France and Spain. The suffering and pain was over (for that day at least) and you are surrounded by others that have also made it to the top which is a great feeling of comradery. I think we’d earned ourselves a beer or two.
So what’s the lesson I learned in my “suffering and discomfort”? No one actually cares how long you take or how many stops you make to climb the mountain. In fact, they don’t care if you make it up. It’s the trying to make it that counts.
But if you do make it, you’re now in a sort of special group of people – ones that have made it up that mountain on a bike – and that includes all ages, young and old (one guy was 73 years old!), all persevered to make it, and from that, I guess you’ve proven you have “stickability”.
The next day we climbed an even higher mountain – Col du Peyresoude. This topped out at 1,560m and was the first climb on stage 17! Wow. Climbing 2 Cols in 2 days. Who would have thought I could do it?
“Stickability” – what a great word – no longer a joke to me but a true measure of whether you can keep going when things are tough and seemingly insurmountable.
There are plenty of analogies I could draw with business but I won’t. People do things tough in all walks of life. This one was purely a personal goal, one I’d always dreamed of doing but one I didn’t think I could. It took “stickability” to achieve it. And now that I have proven I can, I’m planning a return… I’ve got the bug!