I wanted to travel around Europe with Christin because she was a hyper-planner, the type of person who made a to-do list before brushing her teeth. I figured if I traveled with Christin, the precise route would be laid out perfectly in advance, and I could just tag along mindlessly for the ride. She was spending her summer gallivanting around the Old World, and I had just finished coaching a ski camp on a French glacier and needed some downtime before flying back to the States. I also had this longstanding dream of seeing a stage of the Tour de France in person, and Christin was up for the adventure.
But in May of 2009, two months before we met up at the hostel in Geneva, we were having a tough time finding a hotel room in Verbier for the night before the Tour was scheduled to pass through town. Emails in broken English from Swiss addresses returned to our in-boxes with harsh news. We were crazy Americans for thinking we would be able to find a single hotel room or bed in a hostel for anytime in the whole week leading up to the race. The entire town had been booked up since the official Tour route was announced back in October. Stupid Americans.
When we had nearly given up on being berated by hotel owners via the internet, Christin received a miraculous email. One establishment, Hotel Les Touristes, had a room with two single beds available for July 18th. I tried to book it. Teresa, the manager, wrote back to tell me there was a misunderstanding and the room was not available. I was beginning to realize that travel agents were still useful even in the era of the internet. A few more emails exchanged with Teresa revealed that there was a room, and it would cost each of us roughly $50 USD. Breakfast was included. While this was the most expensive room we booked on our entire low budget excursion, it was not only the last available room in all of Verbier, it was also most likely the cheapest.
Though I had secured the reservation, I was still nervous about the room’s availability. I spent the first few days of the trip wondering what we would do if we got all the way to Verbier and had nowhere to stay. We figured we would just stay up all night, or try to befriend some nice European gentlemen with a room. My mother had shared with me, quite unprompted, the story of the summer she spent backpacking around Europe in her twenties when she found herself a ‘nice German boy.’ “They’re all over the place,” she told me. “Two cute American girls—you’ll find somewhere to sleep.” But we were really trying to avoid last minute decision-making.
It was a rainy morning in Lausanne, Switzerland when we departed for Verbier via a quick stop in Montreux to catch a bit of the world famous jazz festival. On the Montreux train station platform, we put our luggage in a locker and Christin wasted Swiss Franc after Swiss Franc trying to figure out how to lock it. It was a long travel day, and we were pissing away our coins in order to free ourselves of my wheeled duffel and her backpack. After the music and re-boarding a train or two, we eventually came upon the St. Bernard Express which took us to the valley below Verbier.
From the valley floor, we rode a four-person gondola to access the village of Verbier. We had an address of our hotel, but little sense of how far it was from the center of town. So we began to descend the main drag and wandered down the steep switchbacks, me pulling my duffel and Christin lugging her pack. Every step we took downhill was calculated as a step back uphill we would eventually have to take with our gear after the completion of Stage 15. Around the turn of an unsuspecting switchback, roughly 2km and several hundred meters in elevation from the gondola station, we came across our lodging.
Over 100,000 spectators invaded the town the next morning, and as we emerged from our down duvets in our incredibly comfortable beds, we realized the splendid luck that had befallen us. Directly outside our bedroom window, the giant inflatable 1km to go banner spanned the road.
Prime viewing real estate was going faster than a gentrified SoHo loft, so we scoped out a high-walled switchback that gave us a look at both the turn below and the 1km mark. The lovely innkeeper who gave us free jam but who spoke no English indicated to us in hand signals and French (which Christin understood, sort of) that we could keep our luggage at the hotel all day and could use the facilities when needed. We abandoned our bags for the time being and set up camp at 10am alongside a Euro couple who had plenty of wine, bread, and cheese to share throughout the day.
Lance Armstrong had catapulted himself into my life as a sort of idol, and I had a naked Annie Leibovitz print of him riding a bike for a Vanity Fair photo shoot hanging on my bedroom wall. It was belittling for the male suitors in my life, but a girl has got to aim high. Christin and I enjoyed the fanfare of the pre-Tour circus very much, but we were both anxiously awaiting the arrival of Lance. The television helicopter hovered nearby, and we could see an Astana team kit weaving around the lower switchback toward us. “How will we know if it’s Lance?” Christin asked. I replied, “He’s the only guy on the team wearing a black and yellow Livestrong helmet. Everybody else has team issued Astana helmets.” That’s when Alberto Contador came dancing around the turn.
Without hesitation, Christin hit the start button on her stopwatch function so we’d know how much time Lance was down to Contador. As seconds ticked by and became minutes, we yielded our hope for the American Dream. Armstrong eventually rounded the bend with the support of his other teammate, Andreas Klöden.
The results felt devastating, but not as devastating as the trudge we still had back to the gondola in a crowd of 100,000 people with all our luggage. We weighed the option of walking down the mountain to Le Châble train station instead and reasoned it was about 7km of gravity-assistance versus the 2km twisting, turning uphill climb. Sheer distance won the debate and we began the hike. I lost Christin amidst the chaos for several minutes because she stopped to take a picture of some Swiss dudes tooting their horns.
It was hot, we were sweating profusely and fellow members of the swarm kept walking into the duffel that lagged just behind my ankles. Christin was stealth and agile and able to make the necessary jukes to advance our position in the river of people. As we approached the queue for the gondola, I had flashbacks to my childhood when I demanded a ride on Space Mountain at Disney World despite the never-ending line that snaked in front of the rollercoaster. But we were in Europe, and I had just come off nearly three weeks of elbowing people and planting my poles in front of skiers in lift lines at Les Deux Alpes. Christin was equally skilled at the subtle art of European line negotiation. So we began to assert our presence and fill in gaps wherever they appeared.
A group of American guys near our age realized we had overtaken them when we came face-to-face on one of the double-backed rows, Christin and I clearly in the lead. “Hey!” one of them shouted, “You’re like totally cutting.” I shook my head at his ignorance, chuckled to Christin, and replied, “We’re kind of pros at this.” An hour later we boarded a gondola and returned to the valley below. The long train ride back to Geneva still loomed on the horizon and our day was barely halfway over.
[vast majority of photo credits go to Christin who, thankfully, takes as many pictures as she makes to-do lists]