Daily Herald editor, avid cyclist shares his Tour de France experience

  • Schaumburg cyclist Neil Holdway summits the Col des Tentes in the Pyrenees in July.

    Schaumburg cyclist Neil Holdway summits the Col des Tentes in the Pyrenees in July. Courtesy of Manuel Pizarro

 
By Ralph Banasiak
Along For the Ride
Updated 8/28/2022 9:38 AM

A dedicated Schaumburg cyclist lived my Tour de France fantasy, cycling five days in the Pyrenees, viewing a mountain stage finish and cheering racers along Paris's Champs-Élysées on the final day.

Daily Herald Deputy Managing Editor Neil Holdway finally claimed his 50th birthday gift from his wife -- a 2020 trip deferred twice by COVID-related issues. Besides compiling autumn biking guides, night editing and serving on the Herald's editorial board, Holdway takes his cycling seriously.

 

In this edited exchange, Holdway recounts his TdF immersion in Lourdes and Paris, France, this past July.

Banasiak: Why the Pyrenees?

Holdway: Lourdes was Thomson Bike Tour's choice, nestled within the Pyrenees, near all the Tour de France's great Pyrenees climbs. Plus, it's a historic city with options for nonriders.

Since Thomson offers each week of the Tour, I chose the last week, partly for scheduling reasons, and because it offered a Paris extension to view the finish. Difficulty of the climbs vs. those in the Alps also factored, though I learned I wasn't really saving myself much hardship there.

Banasiak: Did you ride every day?

Security and cycling fans mob the Col de Peyresourde finish line awaiting the Tour de France racers on Stage 17.
  Security and cycling fans mob the Col de Peyresourde finish line awaiting the Tour de France racers on Stage 17. - Neil Holdway | Staff Photographer

Holdway: I rode five days. I passed up riding on Hautacam. I didn't think I could handle the beyond-category climb after struggling with Tourmalet on my second ride. Having seen it, I probably could have handled it, though the finish would have been tough.

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One optional day, I rode a largely flat route. No riding in Paris; we got basically front-row seats 75 meters from the Champs-Élysées finish, watching the final eight laps.

Banasiak: How does an organized tour work?

Holdway: I brought my own shoes, gloves, helmet, pedals and saddle, all at their suggestion. I rented the bike, a nice Felt, sporting electronic shifting, cables all within the frame, and, most importantly, a 32-tooth cassette ring!

Thomson prepared "Sport," "Performance" and "Epic" routes each day, Sport being the easiest, but still including the crucial climb. On the Tourmalet day, if I had selected "Sport," I would have done only the Tourmalet climb and come back down.

But I wanted more, so I chose "Performance," including 1,200 feet of climbing fairly early out of Lourdes, then some relatively flat riding. I completed two-thirds of the Tourmalet climb, was sagged up, then rode the whole descent.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Banasiak: Any Chicago area thigh-burner hills to prep for the Pyrenees?

Pyrenees switchbacks on the Gavarnie/Col des Tentes have no parallel in the Chicago area.
  Pyrenees switchbacks on the Gavarnie/Col des Tentes have no parallel in the Chicago area. - Neil Holdway | Staff Photographer

Holdway: This was tough. It put me at a real disadvantage compared to most of my tour mates living near and training on U.S. mountains. I rode through Barrington Hills a lot -- Ridge and Spring Creek Roads my favorites -- otherwise in the Barrington area, good workouts over long rides.

I rode through Campton Hills some. Those rollers are no Pyrenees. Each year I bike in Wisconsin, this year purposely choosing hillier routes surrounding Madison. That helped some. I still wasn't ready for Tourmalet's relentless ascent, especially on only my second day. Its largely 8% grade over the final 11 km, follows 5 km at 7%.

Thomson advises that you can train just by regularly pushing yourself in some way, riding a big gear to boost speed or tackling even rolling hills. I found that to be true to a point.

Banasiak: Any surprises?

Holdway: Despite my difficulty with Tourmalet, it is possible to ride up a major mountain, gaining 5,000 feet elevation in a single ride. Your pace may only be 5 mph or even 3, but it can be done. Particularly with the right gear ratios, like at least a 32 on the cassette!

Banasiak: Any advice?

Holdway: I actually was very intimidated by the climbs from the moment we booked this trip. Contemplating the climbing stats only made it worse. I learned not to dwell on them. Most of even the big climbs have forgiving, less steep parts that give you respite on the way up.

People had to tell me several times just go and enjoy it. If you have to sag or sit out a day, so be it. Meanwhile, the descents are so fun!

Also, know that this kind of tour, besides the riding, is demanding. Much transport is involved to get up close to the Tour stages, not to mention a lot of transport just to get to the Pyrenees.

Banasiak: Anything else?

Holdway: The big descents: You have to squeeze the brakes pretty constantly, which does hurt your hands and wrists. You're not a Tour de France pro. You're advised to be cautious, and I was, allowing only 34 mph as top speed. But they sure were fun, and the scenery unbelievable, especially on Col des Tentes/Gavarnie.

Midwest Tandem Rally

Tandem bikes rule in Racine, Wisconsin, at the 2021 Midwest Tandem rally.
Tandem bikes rule in Racine, Wisconsin, at the 2021 Midwest Tandem rally. - Courtesy of Ford Sakata/Chicago Area Tandem Society

Picture more than 400 cyclists simultaneously mounting and pedaling off on their bikes. Now divide by two. Result: Midwest Tandem Rally's mass start Saturday, Sept. 3.

Chicago Area Tandem Society hosts the 46th annual rally Sept. 2-5 in Decatur, already registering more than 200 teams, plus individual cyclists.

Event chairperson and CATS vice-president Ford Sakata "hopes to get around 220. Pre-COVID our numbers were closer to 300. Participants are primarily from the Midwest, but we have people coming from 28 states, plus France!"

The more the merrier on a triple tandem at the 2021 Midwest Tandem Rally in Racine, Wisconsin.
The more the merrier on a triple tandem at the 2021 Midwest Tandem Rally in Racine, Wisconsin. - Courtesy of Ford Sakata/Chicago Area Tandem Society

Based at the Decatur Conference Center and Hotel, the rally rolls Friday with an ice cream ride and citywide photo hunt. Saturday and Sunday rides offer route options with rest/lunch stops strategically located. A Labor Day breakfast ride wraps up the rally, which also includes seminars, vendor areas and social activities.

• Join the ride. Contact Ralph Banasiak at alongfortheridemail@gmail.com.

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