The king’s stage of the “Tour de France” leads over the passes “Col du Galibier” and “Alpe d’Huez” – that’s almost 5000 meters in altitude. Andreas Haslauer, who went along, describes the “incarnation of voluntary suffering” in his experience report and explains why one can feel like a legend when one reaches the goal.
Andreas, my best buddy in elementary school, wanted to be an actor because he really liked Thomas Gottschalk in Die Supernasen. Pierre, who watched “Captain Future” every afternoon, wanted to fly into space. As an astronaut for NASA, that was his plan. I sat in front of the television all day in 1983.
I wasn’t interested in cartoon characters from space. I adored the heroes on earth, the gladiators at the “Tour de France”. Saw a blond boy like me dashing up the mountains with a headband on his head. I want to be like that, I thought about Laurent Fignon. I annoyed my parents until they bought me a silver racing bike like that. One with fender and bell.
My parents didn’t want to afford expensive clothes for me. Lycra gloves? I stole my mother’s winter gloves. Of leather. headband? I had to use my old belt for that. I was adamant that I would be the German answer to Fignon. The blond boy won the “Tour” at the age of 23. When I was ten, I pedaled up the Zollberg in Esslingen to Ostfildern, to my friend Anja. That was exactly “four” meters in altitude.
Now save articles for later in “Pocket”.
Today, almost 40 years later, I’m at the start. In Briançon, capital of the Southern Alps. I want to do what “Le Professor” – as Fignon was called because of his intellectual glasses – did in 1983 in the yellow jersey. I want to know how it feels when you ride the king’s stage of the “Tour de France”. And that’s why we, I mean my buddy Sebastian and I, signed up.
We drive the “L’Étape du Tour” from “Briançon” to “Alpe d’Huez” – four days before the pros rush through: 167 kilometers, 4700 meters in altitude. “Anyone who manages to get up there on the same mythical climbs and in the same conditions as the pros is a legend,” says Christian Prudhomme, the “Tour” director.
Sebastian and I don’t feel like legends, we’re fed up. First we have to struggle over the highest pass of the “Tour”, the 2642 meter high “Col du Galibier”. Then it goes over the “Col du Croix de Fer” (2067) and finally up to “Alpe d’Huez” (1850). All in all, that’s 72 kilometers uphill! No wonder Prudhomme’s predecessor, Jacques Goddet, once said that it was imperative that the tour preserve an “inhuman side”.
Julbo, one of the world’s largest eyewear companies, invited us to this inhuman undertaking. We all ride together in a team of professional athletes, hobby pedallers and journalists.
Whether the people in the Alpine town are called “Chamonixer” or why they are even looking for crystals up there, I really don’t have time for such questions. Instead, I soak up the atmosphere of the 16,000 bike enthusiasts at 7.15 in the morning.
Above us, nothing but yellow tour flags, around us ascetic men with shaved legs, tattooed arms, and tacky jerseys. But the number of those who have branded jerseys for local bakeries and breweries on their backs still predominates. The “Süddeutsche Zeitung” calls it a “color massacre”. With my Ryzon jersey, I’m more of a “silly rooster” department.
It starts. With our carbon bullets, we roll past legends like Fausto Coppi, Bernhard Hinault and Eddy Merckx, whose likenesses are reminiscent of huge banners in the starting area. Andreas de Block, professor at the Catholic University in Leuven, explains the importance of these old warhorses.
“Merckx’s popularity is further illustrated by the fact that for Belgians, July 21, 1969 is not the day Neill Armstrong became the first man on the moon. For us, it’s the day after the day Merckx won the Tour de France for the first time.” I’m getting scared and anxious. The tour is not a sporting event, after the Olympics and the World Cup, the tour is the third largest sporting event on this planet. With twelve million people along the route, it is the largest freely accessible sports festival on this planet.
Eat like God in France, I think, and after only 20 minutes I’m stuffing my first bar. “If you don’t do anything to your body in the first hour, you’re missing it and you’re being passed on,” professional cyclist John Degenkolb once explained to me. He should know, after all, the man from Frankfurt has already won the nasty cobblestone race “Paris-Roubaix” – also known as the Hell of the North.
He said I should eat and drink 90 to 120 grams of carbohydrates per hour. Ok, and how much is that? These are two bars and a drinking bottle with carbohydrate additives. So I start chewing the dry things up and washing them down with water.
Stip and I – high on carbs – chat. We plan to enjoy this day when the track is only closed to us and no cars. It’s a relaxed atmosphere. We enjoy the rising sun, which warms us racers more and more – above all, we are flashed by the environment. The “Hautes-Alpes” region is located in south-eastern France, right on the Italian border.
Two days later, I found out on Wikipedia that the region was named that way because the highest mountains in France are located here alongside the peaks of the Mont Blanc group. And what am I doing? Drive straight towards the “Col du Galibier”. Great idea! Aksel Lund Svindal, the ski champ and road bike fan, once said that it’s difficult when you have to motivate yourself to do something you’re afraid of. I’m scared because the writer Javier García Sánchez wrote that the “Galibier” “eats your morals”.
I don’t notice anything, my legs feel good. The only ones who overtake me are hunger hooks. So “competitors” below the 65-kilo limit. I don’t see them as comrades-in-arms, but as youngsters out of competition.
With my 80 kilos I have no chance compared to a Nairo Quinatana from Colombia with 59 kilos. Much worse: compared to the boys, I look like a Russian bear who gets to ride a bike through the Manage for a circus act. Why? If I want to ride the same as a Quinatana, i.e. 400/450 watts, I would have to pedal more than 600.
This is of course physically possible. For maybe ten seconds. “One”, says Degenkolb, who wants to end up on the podium in Paris, not only has to be light and able to pedal a lot, but also be mentally incredibly strong. There wouldn’t be that many of them in the world. I guess I don’t belong on John’s list. Or?
Those who are too embarrassed that they have to give up after such a short time are busy typing around on their mobile phones like a Bavarian “Gschaftlhuber”. True to the motto: “Keep driving, there is nothing to see here.”
They shouldn’t be embarrassed at all. After all, the pros are no different. Because he didn’t see himself up to the “Galibier”, Gustave Garrigou is said to have yelled at the organizers as “bandits”. Letting him cycle up a mountain like that is “no longer a sport,” Eugène Christophe said in disgust. “This is forced labour!”
At the top of the Galibier I’m waiting for Sebastian, who was taking pictures below. After all, “Stipi” is a photographer. When he’s there, we put on our jackets and thunder 20 kilometers towards the first aid station. Sixties dart past us like arrows. The more the gentlemen have on their ribs, the faster gravity carries them down.
And how! It is always a good idea to set short-term goals. My goal is not to be shot down by a hairy torpedo that weighs more than 100 kilos. It works, we reach the first feeding station. We chug nuts and raisins, fill our pockets with bars.
We continue to “Saint Jean-de-Maurienne”, where the “Col de la Croix de Fer” awaits us, a 29-kilometer climb with an average gradient of 5.2 percent. Actually nothing bad. However, when we come to the area officially declared red by the organizer, we are exactly there within seconds. The lactate hits us in the thighs immediately. That wouldn’t be so bad. However, I feel like a chicken in the oven. The sun is burning above me, sweat is shooting out of every pore.
Cyclists were chatting before, but now it’s quiet. The only thing you hear are high-tech machines above the 10,000 euro mark, purring like little kittens with their electronic circuits. This noise is only disturbed by people sitting on them and panting from the last hole.
Stipi scolds like a reed sparrow. “Dude, what are we doing here?” he asks. I got my answer from Peter Sloterdijk. He says: “You don’t criticize mountains, you climb them or leave them as they are,” says the philosopher. Stipi drives on.
I look at my watch: “Seven kilometers an hour”, I’m at full speed, pedaling like a madman. And the pros? Drive almost three times as fast. “You can understand that what these men are capable of is beyond anything that mere mortals can comprehend. This is almost reminiscent of a theological study: you need the first degree of initiation to understand that you don’t understand anything,” says Sloterdijk, who likes to go to Mount Ventoux in his free time.
According to Sloterdijk, the most witty thing that has ever been written about the tour comes from the sociologist Roland Barthes. In an essay there is a passage in which Barthes describes the Tour summits such as “Mount Ventoux” as a “god of evil” who demands sacrifices.
Barthes equates the heroes of cycling with the warriors of “Homer” in the Iliad. For him, the original duel between “Hector” and “Achilles” among the drivers is repeated. Anyone can fight on the flat, but whoever remains capable of fighting to the end on the worst mountain is “Hector” or “Achilles” for that reason alone.
I feel like one of them. Maybe it’s because I screw in a bar every 20 minutes. It seems to me like a child who was allowed to drink a coke for the first time on vacation. Not a trace of tiredness, instead I’m super excited. That’s why I can’t wait for Stip and I to leave the second aid station six kilometers below the summit. Like a sewing machine, I step up onto the “Col de la Croix de Fer”, in German: “Eisenkreuz-Pass”.
The name is program. Quite a lot of participants have to make a cross, give up. DNF, Did not finish. goal not reached. I, on the other hand, overtake driver after driver, just crank past them. I am worried. Am I overdoing it? Or is this continuous pedaling at a snail’s pace correct? It’s just right for me, a little too fast for Sebastian. At the top of the “Col de la Croix de Fer” I quickly whistle in an espresso, Stipi a water with a lot of salt. “Good for the household,” he says.
Departure, down direction “Alpe d’Huez”. Before we head to the Finale Furioso, we’ll have a rest at the last station to fill up our empty tanks. Bananas, marble cake – everything has to go in, after all, my sugar limit, which would probably have killed any diabetic long ago, shouldn’t drop. Stipi doesn’t want to eat anymore.
However, I keep talking to him until he finally eats something. I want to avoid that he experiences starvation like Jan Ullrich did in 1997. When he arrived on the mountain in “Les Deux Alpes” he was so broken that his supervisors had to push him to the hotel on his bike.
There they loosened his cramped fingers from the handlebars, dragged him into the room and undressed him. After that they put him in the bathtub, fed the poor guy. After having three bowls of muesli and half a dozen bananas stuffed into his mouth, he went to the restaurant to “fill up his stomach”.
We’re going to do it. Let’s go to “Alpe d’Huez”! As soon as I turn the corner to the left, I see a straight stretch that doesn’t remind me of a street but of a ski jump. What? The piece from “La Ferrière” isn’t even declared red, I think to myself as the first people get out of “L’Étape du Tour”. The thermometer shows 34 degrees. How are we supposed to crank up “Alpe d’Huez” at 34 degrees, which the writer Garvia says will “tear you to pieces”?
I am not alone. That’s what happened to professional cyclist Rolf Aldag. Richard Virenque, who was in possession of the mountain jersey, was also the overall leader. As a result, Virenque had to slip into the yellow jersey for the “Alpe d’Huez” stage, while Aldag, as second, had to slip into the red and white dotted mountain classification jersey.
“I knew I wasn’t going to live up to the jersey,” he recalls. It was a disgrace he would never experience again. Already on the first hill, the “Côte de Megève”, Aldag was left behind like an old grandmother. And it came as it had to, Aldag was one of the last to reach the top: “I don’t think a polka-dot jersey has ever climbed up there so slowly,” Aldag concludes. Ouch.
I’m in good spirits even when I’m slow. Next to me, more and more are giving up. You can see some of them, who suddenly sprint five or ten meters up like crazy with the very last of their strength, then collapse, drained of juice and power, before getting off their bikes. And it is precisely this image that is to be drawn up over the 13.8 kilometers and 21 hairpin bends. Men and women completely exhausted, leaning their heads on the handlebars.
These are the ones who still have a glimmer of hope to be able to continue. I divide them into “Category I”. In “Category II” the pedalers only lie exhausted next to or under their wheels. You have lost all hope.
Just like the competitors in “category III”. They hang over railings or their bikes and puke out gallons of the isotonic drinks they’ve been downing all day. “Rien ne va plus”, nothing works anymore.
Will Sebastian make it? I try to reach him, but he doesn’t answer the phone. So I keep pedaling and am confident that he will at least be Category IV. These are the hobby racers who can no longer “race” but only run. I wonder what else motivates someone with completely bruised legs to run eight to ten kilometers up a mountain in such uncomfortable cycling shoes (they have clicks on the bottom). I dont know.
How do I motivate myself? I think of John Degenkolb. There is a picture of him driving up the pass with a beer in his hand, his favorite picture. He has that as a background on WhatsApp. “It’s crazy,” he says of the pass, where at least a million people are always lining the route.
Degenkolb: “In the last few meters, I often don’t see anything anymore: Bengalos everywhere, shouting everywhere, horns everywhere.” On the day that the pros are out and about, it’s a mixture of the Munich Oktoberfest and Mallorcan Ballermann: men in green Borat- Strings, half-naked women in cowhide dresses, garishly lit pyro torches. You can’t see anything, smoke everywhere. Hurray the goat!
I’m sure that if Sebastian, my Dutch mate, manages turn 7, he will make it to the top. Because “Alpe d’Huez” is the mountain of the Dutch, because in the 70s professionals like Joop Zoetemelk or Hennie Kuiper won the brutal stage. The experts are still puzzling to this day as to why the nation of all things is so successful there, whose country is almost half a meter above sea level, a quarter even below it.
What I will only find out later is that Sebastian never saw this curve. At this point he is in the ambulance, a mixture of exhaustion and heat stroke. In the evening over a beer (Sebastian is drinking water with salt again) I explain to him that this kind of thing happens to even the best. Charly Gaul, the climber, once had to be taken down by ambulance on Mont Ventoux, Eddy Merckx even passed out and needed an oxygen tent.
A heat stroke like that really isn’t that bad, I tell him. It’s just a pity that we can’t take the photo. I wanted to cross the finish line hand in hand with him. Like Bernard Hinault and Greg Lemond. Hinault promised Lemond in 1985 that he would help him win the Tour the following year. And kept his word.
Incidentally, Jens Heppner almost got a heat stroke on a hot day like today. A fan meant well and wanted to pour cold water over his head. However, he caught the thermos of coffee and poured warm coffee over his helmet. Luckily it was no longer boiling hot, but still somewhat unsuitable for cooling at 40 degrees. “In addition, his jersey looked as if he had gotten in the way of a slurry tanker,” writes Jürgen Löhle in his book “Curious Rad Stories”.
This also mentions the story of Jan Ullrich. He had to go to the toilet on the way to “Alpe d’Huez”. Doing business at the side of the road would take up too much time. Team spirit was required. So the colleagues formed a circle around Ulle, who then pulled down his cycling shorts to do his business in a Telekom cap. Löhle: “It is not known whether someone finally fished this very special souvenir out of the ditch.” At least the doping agency did not find it. That much is certain.
Unlike Marco Pantani who tested positive for Epo. “Elefantino”, as the 52-kilo Italian was called because of his protruding ears, managed the ascent to “Alpe d’Huez” in 37:35 minutes. Totally crazy. “Marco’s way of climbing mountains was unique.
Giving his competitors insane looks – half masochistic, half sadistic, and sometimes throwing down his bandana in defiance, he delighted viewers and confused his rivals. He enjoyed looking his competitors in the eye as they struggled up the mountain,” says the book Philosophy of Cycling.
I’m not even halfway through after 37 minutes, keep pedaling. I’m beginning to understand Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, who was once a professor of psychology at the University of Chicago. He compared extreme athletes with borderline patients. Both would gladly and voluntarily inflict pain on themselves.
I do not have another choice. It pulls me further up. Even if such comparisons are out of the question, it looks like I’m driving on a battlefield. People are crouching everywhere. Two days later after the race, the news came that of the 17,000 who started, only 9,000 finished.
So 8000 were left behind. Karl-Heinrich Bette, Professor of Sports Science at the Technical University of Darmstadt, calls what we are doing the “economy of expenditure”, the “incarnations of voluntary suffering”. However, for many, giving up is not an option. Or as the yellow signs along the route proclaim: “Pain Is Temporary, Glory Is Forever”.
Sloterdijk, the philosopher, has an explanation. Gentlemen around 60 want to prove that they are not yet old-fashioned. Sloterdijk, who also lives in France: “The lack of evidence was acute: one is equipped with an intuitive image of one’s entire life span, and despite the innate carelessness that helps us not always perceive the passing time, there are turning points where one thinks to feel how it goes in free fall. Turning 60 is such a turning point.”
I still have a few years and a kilometer to go. I pedal again, get everything out of my cadaver and think of Jean de Gribaldy, a racing cyclist. He says: “Cycling is not a game, cycling is a sport. Hard, unyielding and relentless and you have to give up a lot. You play football or tennis or hockey. But you don’t play cycling.”
500 meters to go. Because races are won by those who can suffer the most, I go all out. Hundreds of spectators appear in front of me, cheering on me and everyone else. My legs are begging to stop this crap, my lungs are screaming, “I’m about to explode.” Two days later I start coughing. “Exercise cough” is what the doctors in Stuttgart explain to me.
It doesn’t matter, I’ve reached the finish line, I’ve mastered the beast “Alpe d’Huez”. I feel like a real legend. At least like a little one. At the foot of the pass, I really would not have believed that I would be able to do that. However, over and over again I babbled the good old Hinault saying “As long as I breathe, I will attack”. I thought the same way of Andreas and Pierre, my Swabian schoolmates.
I have to call them this week. For one thing, I want to know if you’ve become an actor and an astronaut. On the other hand, I have to tell them about my heroic story on the tour, that – at least today – I feel like a real professional cyclist.