are sometimes smooth and silky, and other times tired and tight.

Friday, May 11, 2007

In search of Wim van Est

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Last week I was in Pau, France for a work related project. Some might find the word “work” a misnomer, because my job was to ride stages 17 and 18 of the 2007 Tour de France, but that’s another story.

While the plan was to head north, seeing as I was in the vicinity of the Pyrenees for the first time, and with my bike, and that the mountains were less than 30 kilometers away, I could not resist the urge to climb at least one of the famous cols from the Tour de France, namely Col d’Aubisque.

To bike racing aficionados, the Aubisque conjures up memories of the story of the Dutch cyclist Wim van Est. van Est wrote his name into Tour de France lore after falling 70 meters down into a ravine, while wearing the Maillot Jaune, as he misjudged a corner descending the Aubisque. Apparently it was his first time climbing a ‘proper’ mountain. The bad news was van Est lost the jersey that day, the good news was that he wasn’t seriously injured, and as an added bonus, his Pontiac watch kept on ticking.

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Wim van Est, climbing back up from the ravine he fell into.

This year the Tour de France peloton will ascend the Aubisque after already riding 200 kilometers, and climbing several mountains. I, on the other hand, chose to depart about 20 kilometers away, from the town of Arundy.

The warm up ride, in damp, overcast weather, was uneventful, although I found myself wondering if it was such a good idea to climb a mountain with legs that were stiff after sitting in a car for 12 hours the day before. I had also forgotten the specifics of the Aubisque: how long it was, and what kind of percentages the climb had, and to make matters worse I only had a 39x23, which I was afraid was a tad too heavy for what lay ahead.

Fortunately there was a sign at the base, just outside of Laruns, which provided the info I was looking for. It’s 16 kilometers to the top, with the tough stuff coming after the half way point. Considering the time of year, my fitness, my lack of ambition at achieving a good time, and most importantly my lack of climbing ability, I figured it would take me about 1:15-1:25 minutes to reach the top. With that in the back of my head, I got started.

I’d love to elaborate on what went through my head, as I ground away in my easiest – if that’s what you could call it – gear. Unfortunately, I went into a kind of trance. I remember seeing a monument to the left side of the road, somewhere in the first few kilometers. I wondered if it was for van Est, but it turned out to be a memorial for Resistance fighters killed by the Germans. I remember taking the right in Eaux-Bonnes, when I should have taken a left. I remember riding through a few tunnels, right before Gourette, and seeing some pro-Basque independence graffiti, but written in French. I remember seeing “Floyd is Innocent” scrawled next to the Basque graffiti. I remember seeing an enormous replica of the polka-dot climbers jersey from the Tour.

What I don’t remember seeing is van Est’s monument, which turns out be a plaque. Maybe I was too cross-eyed to see it? Maybe, probably, it was on the other side of the Aubisque, on the roads leading down to Argeles, which were closed.

Eventually I made my way to the top, although I can’t tell you how long it took me. What I can tell you is that as someone who lives in the flatlands, I can understand how van Est could have easily misjudged a corner descending the Aubisque, especially when you’re doing it in early May, and you lose the feelings in your fingers.


Anonymous said...

Very nice read. You're quite the writer. Sounds like you have an interesting job. I would love to ride in similar terrain one day. Who knows.

Arron said...

ok, i will bite, what kind of job has you riding the stages of the tour? we must know! later.

Shaver said...

it's a book where various folk were asked to ride over various stages of the tour. similar to the book 'french revolutions', but primarily visual.

chances are i'll post more about it in mid-june.

CyLowe said...

Well done, O.

What's next? Marie Blanc? Hautecam (sp)? Madelaine (?)

Epic stuff.

Oh yeah... Floyd is.... Floyd. That is all.