A “madeleine” is a little, spongy French cake shaped like the shell of a scallop. The cake was immortalized by Marcel Proust, in “Du Côté de Chez Swann,” when the delicious taste of a madeleine soaked in tea revives the narrator’s senses and brings back a childhood memory. As I was cycling up the high-mountain pass col de la Madeleine in my native French Alps last month, I had a Proustian reminiscence: the taste of the lemon-flavored madeleines I used to eat as a child.
Since the start of the cycling season, my parents estimated they’d cycled about 3,000 km. I had mainly trained on a stationary bike, with the exception of a hilly 30 miler around our Pennsylvania home and a few climbs up my favorite local mountain in the Alps, col du Granier. Training on the stationary bike had worked to prepare for the Galibier, so I figured it would work for la Madeleine, which is shorter and easier.
The climb started off with 3 km of steady slope averaging 8 percent to 9 percent: there was no time to warm up. I discovered a novelty in my mountains: an increasing number of roads — especially those leading to famous Tour de France passes — have signs every kilometer announcing the average gradient of the following kilometer. It can be both a blessing and a heart-breaker: I was relieved when I saw a 4 percent sign after the steep slopes of the first few kilometers, and crushed in the second half of the climb when encountering several signs for 9 percent or more in a row. There was a downhill section around kilometer 10, and an easy slope at kilometer 19, which allowed my legs to recoup before heading to steeper sections.
As I approached kilometer 16, I recalled the TV coverage of the Tour at the same spot a few days earlier: I went up in the saddle, pretending I was one of the riders. I could hear the voice of Laurent Fignon, a former professional cyclist and now a commentator of the Tour on French television. Fignon, who won the race in 1984 and 1985, was diagnosed with intestinal-tract cancer last year. This year, he was still commenting on the Tour live, in a raspy voice altered by a tumor affecting his vocal folds.
Andy Schleck, the young rider from Luxemburg, should attack if he wants to leave behind Alberto Contador, the 2009 race winner, I remembered Fignon saying. That’s what Schleck did a few moments later, but Contador went up in the saddle and stayed in his wheel. Schleck took the lead of the race and the yellow jersey at the end of that stage, but he lost the overall race to Contador 1 1/2 week later by 8 seconds.
I didn’t attack anyone. In the final kilometers, a cyclist in his 40s or 50s, passed me. I expected him to go faster, but he slowed down, so I went up in the saddle and passed him back. At the top, I was greeted by the clinging bells of a herd of cows after a two-hour ride. My father followed about 20 minutes later and my mother about 10 minutes after that. After taking pictures, I decided to add a solo ride down the other side of the mountain, adding about 10 kilometers and visiting another place of my childhood: Saint Francois Longchamps, a winter resort where I used to ski.