ASHEBORO — Dave Fowler fulfilled a bucket list item when he cycled a stage of the Tour de France.
The 58-year-old software consultant from Asheboro has been riding bicycles for 35 years but hasn’t done any racing since he was in his 20s. He entered races when he was dating his future wife, Julie, who went with him to the events.
They were living in Indiana when they got married. For their anniversaries, Dave would ride 162 miles across Indiana and Julie would follow him in a car.
So, when Dave wanted to enter the L’Etape du Tour, an actual 105-mile stage of the Tour de France, Julie was more than happy to spend time with him in France. The race, held on July 10, was for amateurs and a prelude a couple of weeks prior to the Tour.
“I’ve been following the Tour for about as long as I’ve been riding,” Dave said. “We went to watch it on our honeymoon in 1991 and saw Greg LeMond,” an American who won the Tour three times. “We went back in ’94 before we had children. I saw the same stage that I rode.”
That stage is Alpe d’Huez, named for its finishing place in the French Alps. That’s 105 miles from the start at Briancon, with 15,800 feet of elevation gain, or more than twice the height of Mount Mitchell.
“The Tour rates climbs from 4 to 1,” Fowler said. Four is easy and one is difficult. But there is a “beyond” category and the stage he rode has three climbs considered beyond. The first is 13 miles long, the second is 18 miles and the third is 7.5 miles.
“There were 16,000 registered but I don’t know how many started,” he said.
Registration is online and the spots filled up in three minutes.
“There are 16 starting waves of about 1,000 each,” Fowler said, “I was in the 10th group.”
Each applicant must show proof of being able to do the race, mostly a doctor’s note. Fowler said he “went with a race group of 50 and the leader was an ex-Tour rider. I met a lot of people from all over the world.”
And close to home. “I saw people from West Lafayette, Ind., where my mother lives. They were in the same group.”
The amateur race is called L’Etape du Tur, or The Stage of the Tour. It’s put on by Aso Amaury Sport, which also puts on the Tour de France.
Since the race climbs as high as 8,600 feet, Fowler said, “I was prepared for wind chill on the way down.”
However, France, as well as most of Europe, was enduring a record heat wave.
“The heat index was 100 degrees, which is highly unusual,” he said. “Only 8,900 finished. I heard hundreds of ambulances and saw helicopters. I saw hundreds (of people) beside the road in a spot of bother.”
Although Fowler had hoped to finish among the top half, he wound up “toward the tail end. I had terrible back spasms and had to stop several times. I was in survival mode. But I took a lot of cool pictures. I wanted to enjoy it. I hope to go back.”
Fowler said he wasn’t the oldest rider but he did see mostly younger cyclists and some women. Preparation for such an event is imperative for all ages.
“My training regimen was nine months really hard with good friends,” he said. “I did hill repeats on Caraway Mountain” west of Asheboro.
Fowler wanted to familiarize himself with his racing bike the day before the race. He joined a group to a mountain, where most chose to turn around and go back. One man, however, “talked me into going to the top, saying there was a monument up there that he wanted to see.”
Once they got to the top of the mountain and over to the other side, the man couldn’t find the monument. “I had to ride back up and then down the mountain. I shouldn’t have done all that the day before the race.”
The racing bicycles had electronic shifting and Fowler said he “heard stories of batteries giving out. I asked the mechanic if my battery was charged and he said, ‘Oui.’”
Despite the distance, the “beyond” climbs and the back spasms, Fowler was impressed with the event. “There were thousands of people along the roadside,” he said. “A lot of them camped out and were probably staying for the Tour de France. It was a big party.
“Once I ran out of water and a family gave me some from a trash bag,” he said. “I hoped it was clean but I was thirsty.”
Later, while walking with Julie on a street in Paris, a man saw Fowler’s racing jersey and wanted to speak to him. “He pointed at my jersey and said, ‘Did you do that?’ I said yes. He asked, ‘Did you finish?’ Yes. ‘So did I. Good job.’ That made me realize the magnitude.”
Dave and Jule were in Paris on Bastille Day, France’s Independence Day. During the festivities, they saw President Emanuel Macron, lots of military equipment and multiple flyovers. They parked under the Eiffel Tower to watch a massive fireworks display. They took a dinner cruise on the Seine.
They also rode a bullet train from Paris to Geneva, Switzerland, traveling 330 miles in three hours. “It was cool watching the countryside go by.”
Would Fowler do it again? “I really want to, depending on where it is next year,” he said. “I love riding in Europe. I love French culture, the smell of fresh bread. It was part of my bucket list.
“One COVID lesson I learned is don’t put things off.”
Fowler finished 8,289 out of 16,000 starters. His time was 10 hours and 52 minutes for 105 miles and 15,813 feet of climbing.