Craig Zelent "Tour de France"

on . Posted in TCSD Conversation

This month’s article is more of a summer vacation story I wanted to share about our trip to France and Denmark taken by my wife, Laurie Kearney, and I.  The focus of the France portion was to spectate at the Tour de France.  We continued onto Denmark for me to race in the Duathlon Long Course World Championships.

Tour de France
We departed the US on 7/19 and arrived in Paris on 7/20.  Our plan was to drop my bike case off at our Paris hotel which would later be our home from 7/24-27.  With that task accomplished we took a train from Paris to Grenoble where we rented a car.  We were traveling lighter than planned as 2 pieces of luggage had been lost by Delta Airlines.  The luggage which was mostly my clothes and running shoes was finally delivered on 7/23.  For the night of 7/20 we had reserved a hotel room that we thought was in Grenoble, but in all actuality it was in Geneva, Switzerland.  Geneva was going to be too far a distance to drive to that night and still be able to see the L’Alpe d’Huez stage on 7/21.  Of course, all the hotels in the Grenoble area were booked.  We learned all of this while asking directions at the Best Western Hotel Grenoble.  They had no rooms, but I had noticed a couple of PowerBar vehicles in their parking lot.  Laurie and I were both wearing identical PowerBar shirts (we looked like twins and I am sponsored by PowerBar) and now I hoped to make a friend.  Within minutes a man named Benjamin, a Key Account Manager from PowerBar Europe appeared in the lobby.  I introduced myself and Laurie to him and told him our dilemma and that I was a PowerBar athlete.  His room was too small for additional people to crash in, but he graciously offered us his shower so we could at least have a fresh start.  This was really a kind gesture on his part and so now Laurie and I had a clean start.  We left Grenoble at 8pm and slowly drove the 30-mile traffic jam with thousands of others in 3.5 hours to Bourg d’Oisans where the L’Alpe d’Huez stage would start the next day.  Amazingly without knowing Bourg d’Oisans we found a very quiet side street where we “slept” in the car. 

Upon waking the next morning we were only ½ mile from the start house for the 15.5k (9.6 miles) individual time trial (“Race of Truth”) up L’Alpe d’Huez.  We poked around the start area for a couple of hours and then started our hike up L’Alpe d’Huez.  The first 2k were flat and fast and then the road “pointed straight up” as the cycling commentator Phil Liggett would say.  L’Alpe d’Huez has 21 switchback turns and walking up to a point between turn 1 and turn 2 in the 90+ degree heat was far enough for us.  The 1 million+ spectators and the riders were all going to cook on that hot road.  The TDF has what they call the caravan which drives through the race course about 1 hour before the riders.  The caravan “warms up” the crowd and hands out free stuff.  Laurie and I did a great job of catching their stuff.  The time trial started at 2pm with the last place rider in the General Classification (GC) starting 1st and the 1st place rider (Lance Armstrong who had captured the Yellow Jersey signifying the top spot the previous day) starting last at 5pm.  It was awesome once the race started.  The helicopters were flying shooting video for television and the crowd became very enthusiastic.  I found a 3-foot high cement guard rail that I could stand on for a better vantage point.  I took so much joy watching Laurie cheer for the riders.  She absolutely loves the TDF and it meant a lot to share this experience together.  Lance did not have the fastest time when he went past us, but at the end of the day he won the stage convincingly by over 1 minute.

The following day, 7/22, was a 204.5k (127 miles) mountain stage from Bourg d’Oisans to Le Grand-Bornand.  We saw the riders 2x on this day.  First they flew past us during a flat section at the 56k point, Ste Marie de Cuines.  There was a break away which was absorbed later in the day.  We jumped in our car and drove to where we saw the riders again at the 166k point, Bluffy.  Team Postal had caught the breakaway and was in total control at the front of the peloton.  While waiting for the riders in Bluffy we met a very nice couple from Orange County – they helped Laurie inflate the thunder sticks which we caught from the caravan.  The OC couple were self proclaimed experts on the thunder sticks since they originated along with the Rally Monkey during the Angels 2002 World Series run.  This couple told us how committed they were to seeing the previous day’s L’Alpe d’Huez stage.  They arrived in France on 7/18, rented an RV and went straight to the top of L’Alpe d’Huez where they lived, mountain biked and partied for 4 days.  They said it was crowded at the top of the mountain the entire time they were there.  I can see why people are drawn to the beauty of the French Alpes since they were my favorite part of the trip to France.  Once all the riders went past us, we jumped in our car and found a bar that had the TDF on television.  We watched Lance win another stage in an exciting sprint finish behind the efforts of his teammate, Floyd Landis who lives in the San Diego area and has spoken to the TCSD. 

7/23 was a restful, touring day for Laurie and I in the resort town of Annecy.  My luggage arrived and I went for my first run of the trip along Lake Annecy.  It was beautiful.  We toured the Chateau d’Annecy which houses the Museum of Annecy sitting atop a hill overlooking the town and Lake Annecy – a gorgeous view.  We also checked out the Palais de L’Isle, a former prison on an island in the middle of the main Annecy canal.  We had a couple of great meals at the sidewalk cafes.  We met another couple from Indiana who impressed us as their tour group happened to have dinner with the Outdoor Life Network TDF announcers Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwin the night of the L’Alpe d’Huez stage.  We were very envious as Phil and Paul are stars in the cycling world.  For a football fan this would be like having dinner with John Madden.

Saturday, 7/24, was the Besancon 55k (34 mile) individual time trial.  The start and finish areas were only 6k apart so we spent time in both areas.  Again the riders overall place determined their start times with the leaders starting last.  The earlier riders had to ride in some heavy rain, but that only lasted for an hour before it turned into a beautiful day.  Laurie and I were all decked out in our rain ponchos so were were fine.  We really could not get near the Team Postal warm up area.  But we did get right up next to French superstar rider Richard Virenque as he was warming up on a wind trainer.  Once again Virenque finished the TDF wearing the Polka Dot Jersey signifying the best mountain climber.  Lance won this stage as well so he was 3 for 3 in the stages we had seen so far.  I think that should be worth a cut of the winnings.  After this stage we boarded a train for Paris.

On Sunday morning Laurie and I woke up to a wonderful 10-mile run together.  Paris was very peaceful at 7am.  We knew that would change soon enough.  We had a great breakfast at a sidewalk café and met a family of 4 from Austin, TX, the hometown of Lance Armstrong.  They had no idea the TDF was going on until they arrived in Paris.  They were the nicest family and very sports minded, but Laurie and I could not believe people from Austin would not have the TDF marked on their calendar in permanent marker.  Honestly by this point I was rather burned out on giving the TDF a big spectating effort, but Laurie still had all the energy in the world.  We found her a front row place to watch on the Champs Elysees at 11:30am.  We agreed I’d return at 3pm knowing that the riders would not appear on the Champs until after 4:30pm.  In the interim I walked around and actually ran into a San Diego Tri Club friend named Mike Huovila who had re-located to Paris 2 months earlier.  By the time I got back to Laurie’s area at 3pm I was about 6 people deep on the sidewalk.  Over the next 90+ minutes without being obnoxious I was able to inch forward and be right behind Laurie when the riders started their 8 circuits of the Champs. 

As everyone knows by now Lance won his 6th consecutive TDF.  No rider has ever won the race 6x, not to mention consecutively.  We celebrated the victory by sharing dinner with Tri Club members Dean and Christy Rosenberg.  And then we celebrated some more at Monday breakfast with Tri Club members Frank and Debbie Gallo.  On Monday and Tuesday, we toured the Paris sights.  These included Notre Dame, Arc de Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower and a Seine River boat tour.  We also saw that the Paris hotel Lance stayed in flew the Texas flag.  As they say, “Don’t Mess with Texas!”

Duathlon Long Course World Championships
On the evening of 7/27 we flew to Copenhagen to start the Denmark portion of our trip.  In Copenhagen we toured the Rosenberg Castle, the National Museum and took a run where we successfully found the Little Mermaid statue.  It was so nice to interact with English speaking people.  On the 29th we took a 2-hour train ride to the small sea side town of Fredericia.  There was basically nothing to do in Fredericia which was perfect for me to rest up for my race.  I did ride the 40k (25 miles) bike course on the 30th and managed to get a flat tire about 4 miles from my hotel.  I had trouble fixing the flat so I resorted to hitching a ride.  The race announcer named Martin stopped and gave me a ride.  Martin owns a window company, but his job for the race is to make all the announcements on the public address system on race day, the pre-race course talk and the post race awards ceremony.  Martin totally took care of me.  He drove me to see the Team USA bike mechanic, then on to a bike shop to purchase a new tire, back to the Team USA bike mechanic and finally dropped me off at my hotel.  The guy was the consummate host.  His warmth was very representative of the people we met in Denmark.

Most races in the US start early in the morning – by 8am.  But the World Championship races I’ve competed in have often started later in the day.  This event began at 10:30am in 80+ degree sunny skies and such a late, warm start does impact how you will eat and drink prior to the race, especially a long race like this one.  This being my 8th time on Team USA I did a pretty good job of managing my race morning nerves and getting some good calories down before 7am.  It really is an honor putting on the USA racing outfit and it is a thrill for me every time.  I have much to be thankful for.

They opening 20k run was closer to 21k (13 miles).  The opening run was 4 laps of a 5k course.  The run offered everything I like – some hills and trails through the downtown part of Fredericia.  My time was 1:20:12 (6:09 per mile) which put my in 9th place out of 33 men in the 40-44 age category.  I was the 2nd of 4 Americans.

The 120k (75 miles) bike was comprised of 3 laps of a 40k course.  The bike had some rolling hills as we got out in the countryside.  There was 1 steep hill, but it was only ¼ mile long.  Since the bike portion was in the middle of the day, the winds were always a factor, but at least the road surface was smooth and fast.  Over the years my biking has really improved, but I knew these guys would crush me at this level.  My bike time was 3:56:21 which nets out at 19mph.  I declined from a 21mph 1st lap to a 20 mph 2nd lap to less than 18mph on the final lap.  In other words, I was paying for that 1st run!  When I got off the bike I had dropped to 18th place, but was still the 2nd American. 

The final 10k (6.2 miles) run was 2 laps of the downtown 5k run course.  I got off to a very ginger start as my feet had fallen asleep towards the end of the bike.  Finally my “puppies” woke up and I started moving along at least as well as everyone else in my neighborhood.  On the final lap of the run as I descended a hill I was bombarded by a major cramp to my hamstring.  I immediately stopped and rubbed it out.  Laurie happened to be at the bottom of the hill and witnessed that nasty episode.  I guess there is a first time for everything as I had never gotten a debilitating cramp like that on the run.  I was surprised this happened because I had taken 16 Thermalyte tablets on the bike.  I think the difficult nature of the run, bike, run scenario was primarily responsible for the cramp as opposed to any nutrition shortfalls I might have made.  At any rate, I nursed my way along to a 46:25 time on the final run which moved me up to 16th place and I remained as the 2nd American.  My final time including transitions was 6:07:03.  The race announcer, Martin, gave me a good send off as I crossed the finish line.  He even broadcast that “Craig’s wife Laurie is spectating today and she’s done too many marathons for him to count” (104 marathons now in 48 states.)  We both got a big kick out Martin’s comments.  It is new friends like Martin along this journey of training and racing that give me so much pleasure and pride in multi-sport events.

The winning time in my age group by an Italian man was 5:15:05.  The Netherlands was 2nd in 5:19:05.  At least the other American, John McGovern, ahead of me got a bronze medal by placing 3rd (5:19:37) and he was the fastest American amateur across all the age groups.  And bringing great joy to the American team was Greg Watson who won the overall World Championship gold medal as the only person to go under 5 hours on the day as he finished in 4:56:42.  How do they do that!