test (n) : a series of challenges intended to evaluate the ability, quality, and performance of something.
I was days away from leaving for a long cycling event in Europe when Jenn asked me to bring along the latest bib prototype. Sure, I said. Love to give them a go. Nothing like 9 days of +100 miles and +10,000 feet of climbing to put their performance to the test. Little did I know that I would be tested too.
The Fireflies are a group of folks from film and advertising who get together to ride the Alps every year to raise money and awareness for cancer research. The ride is a beast. Legendary. It is meant to break you down, a slight version of what it might feel like to experience the challenges of living with cancer. Why would we do this? We all know someone affected by the disease and we want to help in our own little way. Plus, we are cyclists and have a sick twisted relationship with pain.
After much preparation and travel, I arrived in Geneva with a four other Americans where we met up with the european riders for the pre-ride dinner. I looked around. Where were all the girls? I had seen pictures from past years and remember there being tons. Tara, my fellow female American, and I looked at each other… Oh shit, its just us! Not only was the girl quotient low, the badass quotient was high. Wasn’t this supposed to be a bunch of bellied directors and producers who have no time to train? Nope, it was fits-ville, relatively speaking. Oh, great. Pressure was on to keep up with a faster group. Pressure to perform.
Now if you know me at all, you probably have noticed that I am a control freak perfectionist. I do things all the way. If I go, I go hard. I push myself and expect a lot. I set the bar high, then live anxiously to meet it. No room to underperform, let alone fail. This challenge would be no different. I had trained for this and I was determined to prove myself worthy.
Day 1 and we set out. About 500 meters in and we start the first climb. (We will come to find out that is how most days start.) It feels good to get the legs moving. I get a bit excited and push my way up to the front of the group. I feel great! I have been preparing for this. I tell myself to set an easy pace, as we have plenty of days ahead, but with all the nerves and anticipation, I just want to press up the hill. The scenery is breathtaking… flowing waterfalls, cows with clinking bells, snow-capped peaks, and glacial valleys. It looks like a fairy tale. Something out of Hans Christian Anderson. I notice it all but barely stop for a picture. I am in the zone and focused on getting to the top as fast I can.
First summit.. Joux Plane. Check. Lunch. Go. Second summit… The mighty Colombiere. Check. Dinner. Prep for the next day. Then try and sleep even though I am wired to the hilt. This becomes the routine… jamming through the cycle of riding and recovery. Day two is the same. This time the mighty Roselend. Day 3. A triple hitter of Madeleine, Telegraph, and Galibier. Almost 15,000 feet of climbing. Snow at the top. It was grueling but I was still feeling strong.
Challenge #1: Find your snail pace.
Here is the part where I am supposed to meet the real challenge.. the endless miles, the pouring rain, the pain in my legs, the lost motivation… it all coming to a head where I finally break. That low place where I have to dig deep to find the courage to keep going. The challenge came, but not in that form…
Day 4 brings a rest day. What?! Rest day?! We aren't riding? What do I do with myself? Relax?! I did not come all this way to relax. I stewed about the village of La Grave lost and anxious. No direction. No momentum. Endorphin withdrawals. All I wanted to do was get back on my bike and push through the mountains. Perform. Succeed. That is what I came here to do, right?
That is when it hit me… Why was I smashing every hill? Bombing every descent? Was I having fun? Or trying to prove something? Prove what? That I am strong? To who? Everyone else? Is that the test? One of might and recognition? If that is the case, then I already passed, right? I was in my top form and people noticed. I aced this one! Then why did I feel so shitty?
I plopped down on the porch of our tiny cabin. As I sat there, feeling sorry for myself, I noticed a snail crossing the path. He was huge and beautiful with a swirling green shell. He moved so gradually that I had to slow myself down to see if he was indeed making progress. He would slurp forward a centimeter or two, then rest, then move his weird eye tentacle thingies, then rest, then move a centimeter or two, then rest. An hour went by. That is how long it took him to cross the footpath. An hour…. Wow. This dude was killing me. How does he get anywhere at this rate? Wait, that was it! That was what I was missing. He wasn’t getting anywhere. He was there. I had been so focused on the performance. The go. That I forgot to go slow. I forgot to be. To soak it up. To be a tourist. To breathe in the Alp air. Not a chest-heaving gasp to keep up with my Zone 5 heart rate but in a stop-and-smell-the-fresh-wildflowers kind-of-way. The next few days would need to be different.
Day 5 came and there would be no angling to keep up with the front. No jumping on the fastest wheel. I found my groove, which happened to be the same pace as Tara. Side by side, we climbed Col D’Izoard, swapping stories and giggling like school girls. We were a regular rolling slumber party. We took selfies, talked to donkeys, and stopped for pee breaks in the bushes. We would pass the other Flies only to avoid them eavesdropping on our girl talk. We reached the summit way too soon. I did not want it to end. Were we first or last? I have no idea. It did not matter one bit.
Challenge #2: Let it all roll downhill.
As we gathered the group to descend the other side, I caught a glimpse of the switchbacks ahead. My stomach floated. This could be a good one! We had been up and down mountains for days now, and I had been enjoying the descents for the most part. They are long and swoopy and breathtakingly beautiful. That being said, they are also very technical and few times riding in the group I felt pressure to keep up or stuck in an awkward line. I had a brief taste here-and-there of amazing flow and wanted a piece of that now. But what about being present and going slow? Was I about to miss the point again? I pictured myself bombing the descent in my usual manner, focused on the group and my place within it. Not this time. I am just going to let it roll…
I looked around and spotted one of our guides, Martin. Total pro. A wheel I can trust! I jumped to the front of the group to get a good start position. After a short safety speech, we started off. He immediately gunned it. I sprang in to action, clicked into the big ring, and pushed hard to keep up. He looked back and slowed just enough for me to catch his wheel. Here we go! I tucked-in, taking advantage of every spec of draft i could. He is strong and it took every muscle fiber to press the pedals and stay on that wheel. Argh! Pedal. Pedal. Pedal. Push. Push. Push. I was on. Barely. But I was on. The road undulated. The tarmac smooth. The road started to twist and you could see the switchbacks laid out below like a beautiful gray snake in the green grass. I surveyed the turns… no cars. We start to swoop, flowing with the camber of the road, following the race line. Slight left, slight right, back to left, weight shifting as I push with the drops to guide myself through the curves. My body and bike are one now. A symbiotic cohesion of life and machine careening through the epic countryside. Up ahead, the first hairpin. I brake instinctively. Go wide. Line up for the apex. Set the position. Then let go of the brakes and let gravity do its work. Other side of the dog-leg and Martin starts to gap. Fuck! He has more weight. I stand in the drops and sprint to catch the wheel. Heart beating through my ears. Giving it everything I got to catch back on. I do this dance over and over. Swoop, swoop, slow… Set-up, turn, go! Each time i give it my all to keep up. I take a look back and the the group is gone. We have dropped them. Shit! What about my “slowing down”? I look ahead and see Martin barreling ahead. Fuck it. I am so totally present. I charge after him over a series of undulating rollers. Up and over. Up and over. Each time catching a little more speed. The road is straight now, no need to slow for turns. Martin stands and sprints. I stand and give it everything. Hang on for dear life. My head buzzing with the sound of wind, road, and wheels. I am flying. I have never gone this fast before. It is the most beautiful and terrifying feeling in the world. Total awesomeness. We slow as we go through the village and stop for a regroup. I put my foot down. My legs are shaking. My face is plastered with a smile. I am here.
Challenge #3: Take it with you.
Day 6, 7, and 8 fly by. Between the epic climbs (Ventoux!), windy flats (lavender fields), pouring deluges of rain, and exhausted dinners with French table service, I feel like I get to know each and every rider on a soul level. We ride, cry, and bleed together. I am so fully open to everyone, including myself. I feel so supported by the group, the routine, the goal, the mountains. The times I need a wheel, someone is always there. The times I need a laugh, someone is always there. The times I am alone, I have the view. It has all crystalized into a surreal and beautiful experience. I never want it to end. But it has to…
Day 9 comes.. our last jaunt over a few hills and straight towards the sea where we will arrive in Cannes. Back to civilization. Back to our lives. The morning is grey and rainy, matching all of our moods. We set out from the hotel, everyone a bit quiet. Not the usual buzz and banter. We start up the first climb. Feels like a chore. Sure, our legs are tired, maybe they somehow know they can start to give up, but it is really the contending with the end that slows them down, as if they are drawing out every last second they can. We climb as a group in total silence, rain splattering our faces, heads down. I want to cry. Maybe no one will notice in this rain. Then I hear a voice from the back of the pace-line. Singing! One by one, we all start in. Top of our lungs. Exchanging verses. Humming the words we don’t know. If we could have danced and rode at the same time, we would have. We rode like that up and over the crest and there ahead is the sea, crystal blue in the distance. It is all a downhill roll from here.
Arriving in Cannes was a blur. The Festival is on and there are crowds and fan-fair and people everywhere. The vibe is lavish and aggressive… so different than the pure intimacy of our time in the majestic mountains. Such an extreme shift. We all go through the motions, greet our sponsors and loved-ones, and celebrate with champagne, speeches, and photos. After some teary goodbyes, we all disperse.
Its over. Now what? My heart is heavy. The ending. The loss. It all feels so final. All I want to do is be back on the mountain. All I want to do is be back on my bike. The thing I need the most is to ride… moving meditation to clear my head. I look at my bike box longingly. My usual portal to work things out is in pieces, packed up for the flight. Sigh.
I get a text from Tara. Breakfast tomorrow before we go home? Yes! Please! And other messages come too. Emails and calls and texts from everyone. We are all in withdrawals. Yearning to be back in the saddle. I am not alone. And as I talk and share and pour over photos, I realize this is not over at all. What I can’t physically take with me… the friends, the mountains, the moments… They are within me. The more I had let go of the of the performance and recognition, the more I had experienced the journey so purely and directly, and it became part of me. With me. Cemented. Forever. That was the test. To hurdle the mountains of expectation and agenda. To brave the weather of the moment at hand. The bibs passed with flying colors. And maybe I did too.
Words and Images by Tracy Chandler