Oui, des assassins!” Octave Lapize spat at the reporters. They ate it up. A surefire conduit to the murderer in question. Henri Desgrange was a man whom viewed sadism as a sales surety. His magazine’s sales soared with tales of torrid heat and heroic dust encrusted racers. Desgrange’s 1910 Tour de France saw riders crossing the Pyrennes in earnest for the first time in the tour’s history.
Readers of L’ Auto lapped up lurid tales of blown bodies and suffering souls. Octave Lapize struggled up the mountain pass with one gear and minimal brakes. His look at the reports and barely audible oaths laid bare his pain. His task was tedious and terrifying. Pedal an exceedingly simple bike over farm roads and goat tracks for 3000 miles in the heat of a French July. It is said there are over 350 distinct cheese varieties in France. There were at least that many ways to a kill a cyclist in 1910. Often brake pads were leather, and rims wood. Barely adequate brakes and exhausted riders and treacherous rock strewn mountain switchbacks combined into a perfect storm of diabolical descents.
The stage ran 326 kilometers. 202 miles. A double century where just one of the climbs topped 7000 feet. Lapize completed it in 14 hours and some change. One gear. No support. His helmet a driving cap, his Oakley M-Frames: flying goggles. The 2011 Tour featured the Tourmalet in a stage lasting a mere 126 miles. The winner of this past summer’s Tourmalet stage won it in 6 hours. The entire stage was paved, generally with fresh tarmac.
I am watching John and Brandon stiff leg it up Frosttown Road. It’s a corker in places, a 17 percent grade rearing its ugly head after over a mile of already steep climbing. The climb starts in the sun and just keeps getting hotter and wider, big sweeping turns soaking up solar rays and throwing back moral melting mojo crushing heat. As it gets harder the bargaining starts. Ok legs, take me to that twisted pine, and I will let you relax. You lie to your legs. You curse them when they call your bluff. They know your tricks.
I am driving today. A pile of cameras on my seat next to me. Spent film canisters and empty coffee cups and Sparks in the CD player. I watch the bargain, the rejections, the determinations, the grimace smiles. I’ll hop out 500 yards ahead, at the top of a rise that will see them kick hard and conquer. Point the camera down stream. Only time for one shot. Focus. There are no second chances, no redone shots. No SD card with gobs of memory for 32 HD images in 6 seconds. Focus. Tighten aperture. Click. Back in the car.
It’s going to be 60 miles. 60 scant miles. Pack it with as much huge riding as we can. We’ll cross 2 mountains, do 8 dirt roads, cross a trout stream that a moments before had a Jeep stuck in it, eat bagels, down 3 coffees and 6 espresso shots, and return to Frederick tired, famished and in dire need of a pint.
The ride is about finding the hidden, the forgotten, the new, the exciting, and hopefully the impossible. Limits are what define us. What we cannot do is as important as that which is within our reach. Feeling the outer limits of where we are as cyclists and where we are as humans is central to a sense of place and being that can only be found on foot or on a saddle. You do not know South Mountain is a geological torture chamber with countless micro jewels until you have summited the mountain in every way possible. Our units of measure are too often defined by our greatest technology, not our most intimate. I strive for a return to intimacy, and extend a hand to help others find the same.
You should feel lost on a ride. To feel like your house is very far away. Your cell phone won’t work. You are somewhere new, spiritually and physically. You have brought yourself to this brave new world, and must also find your way home.
Octave Lapize suffered because he wanted to suffer. He wanted to see if he could make it. He also wanted prize money, but ultimately you do not risk your life for prize money. You risk it because you have to, to know that which is worth knowing. Yourself.