The title of this post is in honor of my Full Throttle Endurance teammate Guillaume, who organized my triathlon team's recent cycling trip to France. The team was taking a break from cycling, gawking at some beautiful French scenery, and having our photos taken by obliging tourists ("say, 'frommage!'"), but it was time to get on with the ride. Turning to Guillaume, someone innocently asked, "Hey, Gee, where are we going?" His response, "I don't know, but we are going there."
In much the same spirit, John and I have returned from our European vacation. We have many stories to tell - food related and otherwise. But the first story is mine. It's an epic tale with action, adventure, 125 km per hour wind gusts, an airborne dog, a nervous breakdown and a champignon omelette with hot chocolate.
So, tuck in, reader, because you are going there.
As I mentioned, the first leg of my vacation was spent cycling in the south of France with my triathlon team. We cycled a challenging terrain, covering anywhere from 50-75 miles a day and riding some segments of the Tour de France course.
I imagined rolling hills peppered with crumbling but cozy stone farmhouses, fields of lavender and wild flowers, medieval towns, and lots of post-ride cheese plates. The trip delivered on all those counts. Headed by Guillaume, our hotels, meals and cheese plates were all lined up like canards in a row.
Two memorable meals for me included the softest, richest nuggets of beef I have yet sampled....something like melted chocolate truffles of the meat variety.
While another finished with an elaborate cheese plate, in which I partook heartily and have no clue as to the identities of the individual cheeses.
Our riding courses were also predetermined. We were all aware before the trip commenced that we would be scaling the intimidating Mont Ventoux. With an elevation of 6,273 feet and an average grade of 7.43%, we were all appropriately intimidated, scared, apprehensive and downright terrified.
The night before, we soothed our terrified bellies at a French gelateria. I chose a salted caramel flavor, but was tempted by the blue "Mont Ventoux" marshmallow gelato (as that is how your legs feel after ascending to the peak).
Our ride began benignly enough. I was quiet during the ride to the mountain, inwardly terrified of what lay ahead. As Guillaume warned us, "it will be a battle only with yourself."
Luckily, I had company. My teammate Colleen and I ascended the mountain together. I honestly don't think I could have done it without her, so I must take a moment to thank her (THANKS!). In the two hours it took us to climb to the top, we didn't talk much. Talking was impossible in the face of the effort of climbing, but it was enough to know she was there. She and I climbed for two hours. Sometimes slowly and painfully, sometimes just slowly, and sometimes we threw in a little "weaving action" to give our legs a break.
So what happens when you've been climbing a relentless, switchbacked mountain for 2 hours, finally see the top and are greeted with hurricane force winds? You get blown off your bike, that's what. Or at least I did.
No sooner did I reach the summit area (grunting like a wild boar from the effort) than the full force of the winds that Ventoux is famous for launched me right off my bike and into a cozy snowdrift. I had three consecutive thoughts during this episode:
1. Thank goodness I landed in the snow....those rocks over there look sharp.
2. I should get up, this is going to get cold quickly.
3. I can't get up, I'm pinned to the ground by the wind.
At this point, I made some very dramatic "leave me, save yourself" arm motions at Colleen, which she graciously ignored. When I was finally able to get up, I noticed a stream of my other teammates making their way down the hill, by walking, staying low and hanging on to their bikes for dear life (lest they blow away and take the owners with them).
I made my way across the top, trying to get to the pathway downhill, only to be smacked down again in the middle of the street. So, I sat there, in the street, holding my bike by its back wheel so it wouldn't blow away. As I was using all the strength in my right arm to hold it down, I had the following thoughts:
1. Well, I could just sit here and wait for the wind to die down.....sometime next month?
2. I should let go of this bike and just let the mountain have it if it wants it so badly.
3. I should really move, I'm in the middle of the street and there are cars.
So, I began pushing my bike to the side of the street, as I still couldn't manage standing, to avoid the cars that refused to stop and help.
Finally, I got up for the second time and began walking downhill, crouching low so I would be less of a flight risk.
At this point, Colleen asked me if I'd like to get on my bike and try riding downhill. I had a hard time conveying the terror in my soul at the very idea, as the winds were still raging full force, so I said meekly, "I think I need to walk for a little while longer."
After a while, I tried riding. I went full white knuckles, clenching the breaks with all my hand strength, one foot clipped into my pedals, the other one out just in case I had to make a quick escape....to where I do not know.
This was really not the best way to achieve forward motion. I would have done much better to ride, as the wind was taking advantage of my slowness and messing with me. But I was really, really scared. Really scared.
When I finally made it to the restaurant, where we were meeting the team for lunch, I had a meltdown. I cried about three separate times, on various people's shoulders (thank you Billy, Tommy and Stacy).
I then consumed two hot chocolates and a champignon (mushroom) omelette with fries, without much idea of how it tasted, or if i was even hungry. I also realized I was very cold.
My teammate Billy summed up the adventure accurately, when he told our guide and van driver, "You said it would be hell, but you didn't mention it would be life threatening."
Luckily, our destination village of Mazan was quaint and charming. I found the following diversions, including an ages-old bread oven (can you say pizza?), a man selling white asparagus from his flat window, and a very friendly salumeria (French sausage!).
I did get back on my bike the next day. I had a fantastic morning ride, packed with lovely French bucolic scenery, medieval towns and a pizza lunch!
The pizza was average, but I enjoyed sitting in the restaurant's warm porch, surrounded by carbohydrates and teammates retelling their Mont Ventoux stories, which included other people being knocked sideways by the wind, a small dog being launched straight into the air (subsequently caught by his owner), and bikes lifted into the air like kites.
As I had to leave the group early to make my way to Milan for Iaciofano family madness, I took a car to Aix en Provence the next day with my teammate Nicole. In Aix, we found a plethora of gourmet shops, including one featuring a cookie bar of epic proportions.
We each claimed an empty tin which we loaded with strawberry, orange, anise, and chocolate "biscuits," some filled with jam or chocolate. I have only a few left, which I'm protecting like Golem watches over his ring. My PRECIOUS! Seriously, though, I'm sure this shop is a tourist trap, and I fell for it hook, line and sinker. And I would do it again. The cookies are buttery and soft - not too crunchy or crumbly. The fillings keep the round versions moist, while the oblong versions are perfect for coffee dipping.
For lunch we enjoyed a damp (it was raining) picnic of what Nicole called, "a fancy pig in a blanket." Her description is accurate, as it was essentially a challah-like loaf of bread stuffed with a mild creamy cheese (like a ricotta) and lardons. C'est magnifique!
By the time I arrived in Milan to meet the family, I didn't know where I was going, but I was going there.
I was four trains in, had tried speaking a few different languages of which I know not all that much, and had received a free extra croissant from the Milan train station cafe attendant. I must have looked hungry.
Confused and hungry seems to be a good way to introduce the Italian segment of the trip. John and I will continue to entertain you with our Italian adventures this week and next, giving you all the tips, tastes and triumphs.