I write this sitting in a cozy bed, with the window open, listening to the rain that has dampened any chance for a bike ride today. My trip to get here, though, was far less tranquil.
It started with a 6:30 flight from Philly to Charles de Gaulle, a five-hour layover, another two-hour trip to Nice, hooking up with the car and bike rental people at the Nice airport, and a 45 minute drive to the quaint town of Mougins, just up the hill from the far more well-known city of Cannes.
I was fairly proud of the fact that I managed to stay awake for 37 straight hours, a feat that I am sure I had not done before and I would not like to experience again.
The following morning, I got up ready to ride with my friend and host for the week, who had lived on the Côte d’Azur off and on for 16 years. Many of them spent as a professional bike racer.
I have ridden with Bobby many times in Pennsylvania (where he lived when he was not racing) and he is one of the best guys in the world with whom you would ever want to ride. First, you will never have to wait for him. Second, he never lacks a story or two about his days racing. And third, I have never seen him feel the need to show me that he was once one of the best bike riders in the world.
Except when he is in a hurry.
We were riding up a rather short, but not insignificant hill (for the bike geeks out there, it was 5-6%) and I was struggling to hold his wheel (a geeky bike term for “stay with him”). About half of the way up the climb, his phone rang. Without missing a beat, much less a pedal stroke, he calmly reached into his jersey pocket, sat up (took his hands off the handle bars and raised his torso to an upright position), and proceeded to start chatting on the phone.
Normally, perhaps, I would not have thought much of it (although, I would never do it, particularly on a tough-ish climb), but we were going up hill. Seconds after answering the phone call, and apparently as a result of the conversation, he unknowingly (I assume) accelerated while still sitting up, chatting on the phone, and going up hill. I was already pretty close to my limit (and foolishly thinking that he had been too), so I was dropped like a stone (another bike term meaning I could no longer stay with him) within seconds of his subtle, but significant, increase in pace.
A quick recap:
- Riding up a (relatively) steep hill.
- I was hurting but managed to stay with Bobby.
- He got a phone call.
- He went a hell of a lot faster.
- I couldn’t.
- He was riding with no hands.
- I was.
The reason for the sudden change in plans was a phone call from his lovely wife, who indicated that we should meet her for lunch in a town that was about 15 kilometers away, but the kitchen would be closing in 30 minutes. Doing some quick math, that meant we had to ride close to 20 miles an hour through some rather steep climbs to arrive on time.
Somehow (through no thanks to me, I can assure you), we made it just before the kitchen closed, and sat down to a wonderful three course lunch of gazpacho, sea bream, and fresh strawberry tart. What made the lunch all that more enjoyable was a couple of carafes of the house rosé. I had no idea who produced the wine, nor its origin. All I knew was that it was cold, racy, refreshing, and a perfect accompaniment to our very Provençal lunch.
After lunch, we only had a brief distance to travel, less than 10k (6 miles). Right away out of the town of Vallauris, we started climbing. Again, not a serious climb, but enough to make me go into the small ring (around Philadelphia, I rarely shift into the small ring, it is partially an ego thing, but I tend to like to climb at a slower cadence, and usually the hills are neither too long nor too steep). After a couple hundred meters, I shouted ahead: “Heavy legs, huh?” (One can often experience the sensation that your legs weigh about three times their normal weight when, say, after riding for a couple of hours, you stop for a three course lunch with wine.)
His response was short: “Yeah!”
At that point I saw something that I am pretty sure I have never seen on any of the rides I have done with Bobby: he wobbled.
It may not have been a wobble, it could have been actually been a teeter, or even a totter, but there was definitely a bit of vacillation going on. The normally steadfast, rock-solid, riding a line as straight as an arrow Bobby Julich was all over the road, and not going all that fast.
So I did what anyone would have done.
For he had entered my world at this point, the world of the Drunken Cyclist.
I have said hundreds, if not thousands of times, that no one should ever operate any type of machinery while under the influence of alcohol. And I doubt Bobby was anywhere close to being “drunk.” In fact, I would say he was not even “tipsy” (despite his meandering on the road). No, this was a former professional and olympic athlete doing something he had never done before (at least to my knowledge)–riding a bike after a two-hour, three course lunch, with a couple of glasses of wine.
But I had.
On my countless bike tours through Europe, just about every day I would have at least a couple of courses at lunch (I considered it to be very insulting to not have at least two courses with a glass or two of the house wine), which was usually far less from half way through the day’s ride (in fact, I would usually have lunch in the town where we would spend the night, have a bit of wine, and then hammer out the 40 miles or so to the next town). Thus, I knew what it was like to ride after having had a glass or two.
In other words, this was my house.
It was not really an “attack” per se, as I did not really “punch it” and accelerate rapidly: it was only the first day and we were set to ride a lot more over the course of the week, and I wanted to provide no reason for retribution.
But I did look over my shoulder a couple of times and saw no sign of him. When I got to the top of the climb, I did what he had done so many times with me before.
I did not wait long, perhaps a couple dozen seconds, but those seconds were hours in my book. He did not stop, or even slow as he reached me, with my elbows on my handlebars; the classic cycling “waiting” posture. He only uttered one word as he passed: “What?” That utterance had more than an ounce of chagrin in tone, but I did not care, those 20 seconds seemed like an eternity. And I loved it.
On the road, Bobby shortly took over again, and the final climb up to Mougins was pure hell (reaching over 20% in spots). He had re-assumed his role as complete gentleman and did not try to embarrass me at all (although he could have easily). Climbing up that last hill, though, I could only think of that first hill, only minutes after leaving the restaurant, and it convinced me that we needed to stop for lunch every day on our rides, and have a three course meal. And a carafe or two of the house rosé.