Osmo sponsored the 2012 Rêve Tour, a group of six women who rode the Tour de France course one day ahead of the official race. Rêve was a major success, with all six women riding the two thousand-plus miles across two mountain ranges all the way to Paris. Heidi Swift, who covered the ride for Peloton magazine, shared her recollections of the ride with us here. We’ll be posting Heidi’s notes in two parts. We found her words inspirational, and hope you will too. –Eds
When we spoke before you all left for France, you mentioned that the Rêve Tour was a way to “humanize the Tour de France.” Do you feel like you all have done that?
Definitely. There were so many people that thought this ride was impossible and we proved that it isn’t. It’s incredibly hard, but not impossible. Every day I tried to provide a running total of our mileage and elevation gain. The elevation information is very hard to find elsewhere and I think it really helped people get a realistic sense of the scope of these stages. Total climbing ended up around 152,000 feet, which is about 7,600 feet average per day for 20 days. The longest climbing day was around 16,500 feet in just 100 miles (in the Alps). Prior to this ride, I would have looked at those stats and thought that there was no way I could do it. Now I know you just get on your bike and pedal – like any other day, but a whole lot longer.
You also mentioned that you thought each of you was going to change in major ways. How did you change?
I have a feeling I’m going to figure that out in the next few weeks and months. It’s been six days since we stopped riding and the reality of things is just starting to sink in. One unexpected result is my own questioning about the cost of endeavors like this. This goal became a singular focus for me this year: so much so that I may have neglected some important things a little bit too much. I risked health and relationships and income. I remember texting my sister before I left and telling her that I would do whatever I had to do to finish, that I would die on the bike if I had to. I was exaggerating but some part of me meant it: by the time we hit Stage 10 I was in so deep emotionally that I would have done almost anything to have us finish. There was a lot on the line. It felt a little like summit fever – I was spellbound. On the Champs-Élysées it suddenly all felt like it was ok, like it was worth it, but it’s easy to feel that way at the end. In Stage Two when Maria and my roommate Jennifer hit the pavement in a crash I had the exact opposite feeling. I thought, “We’re too bold. This is too dangerous. Someone is going to get seriously hurt.” We were lucky and everything turned out ok in the end.
You guys rode over two thousand miles in three weeks. Was there one mile that stands out above the rest?
The final mile leading up to the finish was transformational. This is the easy answer, but I really had the sensation of clarity during these few minutes. The Champs-Élysées was awash in noise: car horns, applause, shouting, noisemakers. We rode six abreast and everyone on the sidewalks stopped to watch the procession and cheer. A few blocks from the Arc de Triomphe we began to see our families and friends in the crowd – an emotional moment after so long away from home. I didn’t expect our finish to be so sensational and, like I said earlier, I remember thinking, “It was all worth it.”
I am guessing you consumed a huge number of calories along the way. What was the most memorable meal or snack you had?
Our Garmin computers showed that we burned about 3500-4000 kilojoules on the bike each day, which doesn’t include after burn and normal metabolic burn. For memorable meals, the day that we rode into Rouen stands out. We got lost riding to the hotel from the finish and had no idea where we were. It was one of the longer stages—around 150 miles—and had been a bad day for me: I was cracking. My phone died just then and I was not able to call our support crew for information. I remember we were standing outside the Tourist’s Office while Kate was inside trying to figure things out and Jennifer could see that I was coming apart at the seams without recovery food and drink. She handed me a salty meat stick from her jersey pocket and I almost cried. When we did finally find our hotel, Kate went straight out to a pizza place down the street and bought four pies. Official dinner was at a Chinese restaurant nearby but I couldn’t imagine waiting to sit down, order and wait for food to be made. Instead I laid down on Kate and Kristen’s hotel room floor and ate 7 pieces of pizza while we laughed about the day. I also drank an ice-cold Heineken. Believe it or not, I had a really great ride the next day!
As a bike rider you had never ridden the kind of back-to-back miles that you rode during the Rêve Tour. Did you learn about your strength and ability to push harder and go further as a result?
I think by stage four we had all surpassed any previous training or riding volume, so we just sort of held our breath and waited to see what happened. Waking up in the morning was the most difficult part: we often got only 5 or 6 hours of sleep and the alarm always went off early. The first few k (or 50k in my case!) were rough and then it seemed like our legs just remembered what to do and did it. It was definitely a lesson in learning not to underestimate mind and body. I could not have been more surprised by the way I adjusted to the constant fatigue and demands: the first week was an adjustment period and then it started to feel like business as usual. You get up, you ride. That’s what you came to do. No questions. Maria probably had the most poignant experience of pushing herself through hardship after she was clipped by a car and sustained a hairline fracture in her tailbone. The day following the incident she had to do some serious mental battle: I imagine that her experience completing the Paris-Brest-Paris brevet helped a lot. Either way, it was a very impressive comeback and a true testament to the power of the will and the strength of the human spirit.
Will you be a better cyclist having completed the Rêve Tour?
This is a great question. I think the answer has to be yes. Any time you put in this kind of volume, you elevate your game a little bit. It took me a long time to realize how cumulative this sport is – you don’t build real fitness overnight. It takes years and years and with every passing decade your body develops muscle structure and memories that you only gain with miles logged. Doing this ride was a lot of “money in the bank” in terms of long-term fitness. I’m not very fast right now, but I can definitely ride forever.
You started the Rêve Tour as a group of six women who did not know each other very well. How did the group come together? Were there specific instances that built group cohesion?
I’m actually not sure that the group ever did come together in the way that we’d hoped. There were personality conflicts that were never really resolved and interpersonal issues that lingered. Rêve Tour was a success because we all finished, but it was a failure in terms of this social component. In the aftermath, I think we all wish this part of the ride would have been different, but it was a very big ask to develop a “dream team” in three weeks on bikes during the most stressful physical event any of us had every undertaken. This ride would have been hard to do even with six of your closest friends—we did the best we could with the circumstances at hand.
How did your teammates help you? Did it matter that you had other riders to ride with or could you have done the Rêve alone?
It would have been extremely hard to do alone. Despite some of the conflicts that existed in the team, there was a lot of mutual support that happened. Kristen Peterson is an incredibly strong rider and spent a lot of climbs with me keeping me laughing and smiling, sometimes handing me food on bad days. The emotional support was an important factor. Kym Fant and I had one amazing climb together (up the Grand Colombier) during which we took a beer hand-up from a crazy German superfan. My roommate Jennifer was always on top of getting our room key as fast as possible so we could get in and put our feet up. We all helped each other carry our huge bags up flights of stairs, brought each other food, made each other recovery shakes, shared medication, shared sunscreen, shared chamois cream, blocked for each other when there wasn’t an easy place to go to the bathroom in privacy – you name it. Kate was the food-master, always darting out to markets or pizza joints or kebab windows to get everyone a special treat.
Aside from all that stuff, the shelter of the six-pack when we were not with the Dutch peloton cannot be underestimated. Kristen and Kate, the two strongest riders, took a lot of very long pulls to deliver us into the mountains with the freshest legs possible. On flat, windy days with the Dutch group when one of us would get popped from the main field, someone (usually Kristen or Kate) would go back to pace them back in. I think you can do this ride alone, but I can’t even begin to imagine how hard it would be.
There was a group of Dutch men riding some parts of the course with you. Was that just luck that brought you guys together? How did the two groups help each other?
There was actually a group of 32 Dutch (and a few Belgian), including four women. Michael Robertson, who put Rêve Tour together and managed our group, is a partner in the company that sells the grand tour experience to riders like this. So, essentially, our sponsorship money paid the costs for us to be a part of this group – included in hotel reservations and meal arrangements – but we were treated a bit separately. We had dedicated support vehicles, dedicated photo car, dedicated photographer and dedicated staff.
We knew about the Dutch group before we went to France and had discussed the possibility of rolling with the Dutch/Belgian group if the pacing made sense. Being able to roll in their peloton during the first few windy stages was definitely a lifesaver (I generally hate being in large groups like this but could see from my power meter that we were saving energy), but it also contributed to some of our early problems as a team of six. There was a big debate about whether we should keep riding with them.
Still, we made a lot of good friends in that group. Chatting in the large peloton helped pass the time and they taught us a lot about riding in the wind. I began to call them “our Dutch family” – even with our stark cultural differences, it’s hard not to feel connected to people when you are going through the same extreme experience together.
Was there a point at which you knew you would make it to Paris, when any sort of personal doubt vanished?
Before we left, I said in several interviews that if we got through the queen stage (16) I believed we would make it. Unfortunately, the queen stage did not go very well for me. I was feeling decent on the first climb when a freak accident occurred and a small branch ravaged my drive train and badly bent my rear triangle. Our one Rêve Tour spare bike had already been used after a crash in Stage 2, but I was lucky enough to be able to borrow a bike from one of the support staff. It was a little too big and we didn’t have time to obsess over the fit, but it got me over the climbs that day. Back and knee pain notwithstanding, it was a bit of a miracle that I was able to keep rolling forward to keep the Rêve Tour dream alive. I rode the bike for the next two stages while we waited for a replacement to arrive. Unpredictable things like this kept me from ever feeling truly confident about making it to Paris until we were actually rolling up the Champs-Élysées together. We were super lucky to finish: something of this magnitude requires more than fitness and determination, you have to also have to get (and stay) lucky. I can’t emphasize that enough.
(Read Part 2.)