Six by 21: Taking on the Tour de France

Kym Fant’s hair is a beacon in front of me. A long, blond ponytail flying in the Parisian wind—the flag of our tribe announcing our arrival and our intention: We are taking Paris by storm. From my position just behind her, I can see the Eiffel Tower in the distance. Kym’s face is turned slightly toward it and I can feel her smiling. We are six women riding into the very heart of France. We are six women riding toward the Arc de Triomphe. We’ve been riding bikes together for three weeks straight. Now it’s all about to end.

In 21 days we have covered the entire 2012 Tour de France course, riding each stage one day ahead of the pro men’s race: 2161 miles with 155,000 feet in total elevation gain. We found our way over 25 mountain passes, spent 155 hours sitting on tiny saddles, and consumed close to half a million calories. We broke two bikes in separate accidents, suffered through crashes and road rash, and pedaled despite lung infections and allergic reactions. We were struck by cars, cheered by Tour-crazy fans, soothed by beer and pizza, and bolstered by the unflagging support of friends, family, and complete strangers.

This final run into Paris is precarious—taxis dart in unexpected directions, cars make kamikaze maneuvers, and the path is littered with medians, islands, speed bumps, and other road furniture. Kym’s hair jumps and dances in front of me—her tiny body even smaller now after so many miles. We are all transformed and whittled down. More hardened, broken, strong, and fragile than we were when we arrived. Now, as we traverse the final miles, we are smiling, laughing, chatting, yelling, dodging, navigating, and unbelieving. When we hit the Champs-Élysées, we are crying. We can’t help ourselves. A wall of emotion unleashed. Relief and joy in waves. We’re exhausted, elated, delirious, and amazed, considering everything that has happened, that we’ve even made it at all.

We were struck by cars, cheered by Tour-crazy fans, soothed by beer and pizza, and bolstered by the unflagging support of friends, family, and complete strangers.

We do not step off the bikes. We do not get in the car. We do not cut short the route. We do not stop. We do not stop. We do not stop.

The original idea was simple: form a team of six women and send them to Europe to complete the entire Tour de France together. Photographer Michael Robertson and I dreamed the whole thing up over dinner one night in mid-December 2011. We were both working at a team camp for a professional women’s cycling team and we were enamored with their energy and pluck, but we also understood that, in many ways, they were somewhat inaccessible to women who were just starting out in the sport.

What if we put normal women—not physiologically superhuman athletes—into an extraordinary situation and told the story in words and pictures? What if we used the biggest cycling race in the world as the stage? Could we inspire more women to ride bikes? Could we get them to ride farther and more often?

Robertson was the creative director of a company on the ground in Europe that could handle logistics. He would photograph the entire ride. I would do the writing and could guarantee media play with the support of my magazine, peloton. We started recruiting riders and looking for sponsors—by February, Cannondale was on board in a big way and we had most of the team selected. All at once it struck me: This thing is actually happening. I better start riding my bike. From then on, Robertson took over the monster task of logistics and organization and I started training 18 hours a week. 

Many people go to France to ride portions of the Tour. Some even do most of the route, opting to rest or ride in the support van for just a few parts of stages. Our objective from the beginning was very specific—to ride every single kilometer.

We do not step off the bikes. We do not get in the car. We do not cut short the route. We do not stop. We do not stop. We do not stop. No exceptions, no breaks, no compromises. We made a television commercial for Cannondale stating as much, and when that spot ran for the first time, the stakes suddenly felt very high. They called us the Rêve Tour SuperSix and we were all in. No turning back.

 

Stopping for a water break in the Nord Pas de Calais region of northern France.
— Photo by Michael Robertson

July arrives before any of us are really ready, but suddenly we find ourselves at a quaint inn in the Netherlands preparing for Stage One. We’ve come from all over and have only ridden together as a group a handful of times: Kate Powlison and Kristen Peterson from Colorado, Jennifer Cree and I representing Portland, Kym Fant from Santa Rosa, California, and María del Pilar Vázquez from Puerto Rico. 

The first week of the Tour sneaks up on us. When you watch these stages on television, it’s tempting to feel a little bored. The pro peloton rolls along seamlessly, stretching into a long line every once in a while under the pressure of acceleration from the sprinters’ teams but otherwise moving uniformly along the relatively flat roads.

We call these flat stages, but we should probably qualify that: “Flat,” in this case, means 6,000 to 8,000 feet of climbing a day. We roll through farmland that seems never-ending, sitting in with a peloton of Dutch and Belgian riders who are also attempting to ride every stage. 

Morning comes with a 6:30 a.m. wake-up call and an 8 a.m. rollout. On the way to the starting towns each morning, the van is quiet with nervous energy—I spend the time reading through the notes of support we are getting via email and social media. As we begin pedaling each day, the countryside is cool and crisp and full of possibility—blue and green in the small hours, warming to yellows and salmony-orange hues in the late afternoons. The road to Paris is dotted with tiny villages, each with its own church, homemade Tour de France decorations, and multicolored flags flying over the main thoroughfares.

We ride for eight or nine hours a day, twice as long as it would take the pro men to cover the same distance. We share cookies and candy bars and pepperoni sticks—whatever is in the food bin. At the rest stops when we are hurting and deflated, the staff cajoles us to smile or laugh, anything to keep spirits up. They show up with cakes or quiches, fresh fruit, and chocolate.

Every day when we finish a stage, we get into the van and look around at one another in disbelief. Another one in the books. We’re one day closer. Our celebrations are muted and cautious but earnest. We are careful not to become too excited too early, terrified we might jinx our good luck. The volume of that first week is almost incomprehensible: nearly 1,100 miles in eight days. But by the time we make it to the first rest day, new sensations are beginning to mingle with the delirium of fatigue: hope, optimism, faith

We might actually pull this off. We might actually finish this thing. 

Judging by the communication from home, the betting crowd did not expect us to make it this far. Every day when I post our progress to Twitter and Strava, people react with amazement: They are still riding! They are still going! People from all over the world send us emails of encouragement. Those messages, maybe even more than our food and sports drinks, become our fuel. We ride because they believe. We believe because they believe. We want to prove them right.

But we still have to get over a couple of small mountain ranges: The Alps and the Pyrenees await. A friend sends me a sobering text the night before we head into Stage 10, which will gain 16,000 feet in 99 miles: “Now the real Tour starts.”

Indeed.

The mountains deliver something that none of us counted on—respite. Shelter from the high winds of the plains, the chance to ride alone at our own pace instead of clinging desperately to the wheel in front of us, a moment to look around and realize the profundity of what is happening. We climb together, we climb separately, we climb steadily. Toothy mountains rise and roll, and we can look ahead and see the narrow road snaking away from us and disappearing to some summit we try to visualize in our minds. Our pedaling is methodic and purposeful. In the distance, lovely Swiss cows nod their approval, massive cowbells clanging like melancholy wind chimes.

The mountain stages take us 10 or 11 hours to complete, and the tops of the passes are teeming with motor homes, tents, vans, cars, and rabid fans. In the early evenings, they are grilling sausages and drinking wine, potbellied old men sitting around card tables shouting to us: “Allez! Allez!” I take an ice-cold-beer hand-up from an enthusiastic German fellow 5k from the top of Col du Grand Colombier.   

When we pass Norwegian fans or flags, I yell “NORWAY!” at the top of my lungs, just to make them cheer. On the final climb of the Queen Stage, after a fairly disastrous day during which I break my bike in a freak accident and have to climb 17,000 feet worth of mountains on a borrowed rig that doesn’t really fit, a man pulls a can of Coke from a cooler and puts it in my hands as I pass by. It remains in my memory as one of the best beverages I have ever consumed. 

Later in the Pyrenees we ride through a throbbing, black storm and when we hit the summit there is a great mob blocking the roadway, dancing in the rain, smoking joints, sloshing beer. I have to get off my bike to walk my way through the crowd. I politely decline the joint I am offered and head off down the long, frigid descent on the other side of the mountain. Halfway down, with numb hands and chattering teeth, I regret my decision not to stay and party.

— Photo by Heidi Swift

By the final week of the Tour we are crazed with summit fever. We are not stopping for anything or anyone, ever. There’s no going back, no next time, no could’ve been. We are focused, determined, fixated, unflinching.

Then María gets hit by a car.

The car bumps her from the side as we’re rolling through a roundabout, knocking her to the ground. Ambulances, police cars, statements, hospital, X-rays. She gets back to the hotel around midnight and never manages to sleep. Hairline fracture on the tailbone. Pain shooting through her when she gets on the saddle. In the morning she looks at me and says, “If I can finish today’s stage, I will finish the whole thing. I know it.”

I know it, too. María has deep brown eyes, an intense personality, and a stubborn spirit. This is a woman who has ridden 750 miles in 3.5 days with essentially no sleep during the 2011 Paris-Brest-Paris. If anyone can do this, it’s her. She shoves off that morning with pictures of her three sons taped to her top tube for inspiration. There must be some magic in those smiles, because she is right. She finishes the stage and she finishes the Tour. 

If I can finish today’s stage, I will finish the whole thing. I know it.

There were many reasons to cry as we rode through the chaotic crush of the Champs-Élysées to our finish but happiness topped the list.

There were many reasons to cry as we rode through the chaotic crush of the Champs-Élysées to our finish, but happiness topped the list. Our families, whom we’d missed for nearly a month, lined the median in front of the Arc de Triomphe and then tackled us when we finally pulled up in front of the monument. Back home, supporters in the States were waking up and learning that we’d made it. Inside of us, the reality of our ride was setting in—an impossibility made real, a million doubts conquered, self-imposed limitations shattered.

Our ride was called a Dream Tour, but the irony of that is what we actually did was help people wake up. Friends, family, strangers, and ourselves.

After a speaking engagement when I got home, a man approached me and said, “I was the guy in my office who was betting against you. I told everyone there was no way you could do it. I’m sorry I didn’t believe—I’m really glad you made it.”

Just then, a tiny 10-year-old girl behind him poked her head around and interrupted, “Not me. I always knew you would make it. I’m going to ride the Tour de France one day, too.”triangle

Celebrating under the  Arc de Triomphe after finishing all 2,161 miles of the Tour de France.

Jimmy Chin

Heidi Swift is a freelance writer and photographer based in Portland, Oregon (with occasional prolonged stops in Lecchi, Italy and Lisbon, Portugal). As the Editor at Large for peloton Magazine, she writes about everything from racing cyclocross bikes in Japan and how to make the best homemade donuts to riding mountain bikes across Haiti. She loves good whiskey, shoots medium format film, reads real books that are made out of paper, and sometimes types on an actual typewriter. She also likes to eat. A lot.  

You can see more of her work in magazines and websites like Switchback, Bicycling, The Ride Journal, Cyclocross Magazine, VeloNews, Rapha.cc, Travel Oregon Magazine, and 1859 Magazine. She is old enough to remember when blogs were cool and foolish enough to continue to maintain one: 
Blog  |  Photos |  Twitter  |  Instagram

 
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