When I left you a couple of weeks ago, I was about to hop on my bike, leaving behind the charming town of Saint Émilion and head east to the tiny village of Pineuilh where I would be staying at Château de Vacques, a small winery that also has rooms available for overnight stays.
Back when I was a European cycling tour guide, I rarely stopped along the ride to take pictures. As a former bike racer, it seemed anathema to come to a complete stop, pull out my phone, take a picture or three, and then ramp it back up again. The idea, for the most part, was to go as fast as I could, stopping for any reason was contrary to that primary goal.
Besides, at least I thought at the time, I would certainly be by whatever place it was again, and I could always capture the moment then, I guess. The other reason I never took pictures? That is what tourists did and I, after all, was not a tourist, I was the guide.
Just a brief glimpse into my twisted thought process.
It’s not pretty.
This trip, however, was going to be different for a couple of reasons. First, I was only “guiding” myself as I was traveling alone. There was no pressure to be anywhere at any given time and no need to display either my ability as a cyclist (I was once decent, but certainly not anymore) or as a guide (I long ago accepted that I have a horrible sense of direction and that I really should never be put in a position to “guide” anyone anywhere).
Second, it was quite likely that this would indeed be the first and last time that I traveled these roads, certainly by bicycle, so I needed to go against my natural inclination to ride hard and stop and smell the roses a bit.
That was the plan.
On day one, the plan flew out the window, effectively, as it was pouring down rain and there was no way in the world I was going to ride in that. On day two, I encountered a biblical experience with thousands and thousands of bugs, in countless massive swarms, hovering right at head-level. Disgusting. I dared not stop on that short ride lest those little bastards should further organize and make the ride even more regrettable. (I did manage to take two pictures on day two, but one was a picture of a dozen or so bugs plastered on my shin, so I am pretty sure that doesn’t count.)
Well, day three, the 30 miles from Saint Émilion to Pineuilh, was not much better. Yes, it was sunny and dry and the bugs, for whatever reason, had returned to pre-apocalyptic levels, meaning I came across only a handful of swarms the entire ride. But. Not a single picture was taken during the roughly two-hour ride.
So much for resolutions.
The ride, albeit short, was also a bit challenging since I had not climbed a meaningful hill in about six years (I live in Houston, which is completely flat). While living in Philly, I fancied myself at least a decent climber, but all that is now firmly in the rearview mirror as I climb hills now like a four-ton blue whale (and might even look like one).
There were a total of five climbs on the route and the first four, while far from “fun”, were at least manageable (in other words, I might have actually looked like I knew what I was doing on them albeit in super-slow motion). The fifth, however, was another story.
When I got into Pineuilh, essentially a suburb of the slightly larger (but still quite small) town of Sainte Foy (why Sainte Foy needs a suburb, I am not quite sure). As I got to the end of the directions on GPS device, I saw a sign for Château de Vacques (my home for the night) and it pointed up the fifth hill.
I am not a religious person but….
Holy mother of Jesus.
Not only did it go pretty much straight up (it ranged from 17-25% grade), but it was at best gravel, and at worst wilderness.
To give you an idea of how steep….
- Most driveways in the U.S. are between 2-5%.
- It is strongly advised to have the grade in parking structures no steeper than 7%.
- L’Alpe d’Huez, the famed climb in the Tour de France, averages just under 8% (but is also eight miles long).
- Lombard Street in San Francisco (the twisty one) is 18%.
So this was as steep as Lombard Street and about a third of a mile long (0.6 km), and about halfway up, the “road surface” (I am being really kind using both “road” and “surface” here), got even worse right when it hit 25%. As any self-respecting cyclist would attest, the worst thing you can do as a cyclist on a hill is to get off and walk. Terrible. It would be better to roll back down the hill and try again than to walk it.
Hell, it would be better to roll back down and spend another two hours trying to find a way around the hill than to start hoofing it before the top.
The problem was that there was no other way up and I knew that I could try going up that hill another thousand times and I was likely to get no further.
So I did it. I got off my bike and walked.
And the walking was tough.
And you have no idea how difficult it was to write those last two lines.