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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.

(Scallop-shell shaped madeleines de Commercy. February 2007. Source: Bernard Leprêtre.)
I’ve made it a tradition while vacationing in my parents’ home in the Alps to climb at least one of the passes classified as “hors catégorie,” or beyond classification, that were included in that year’s Tour de France. These are the most difficult climbs in the world’s most difficult bike race. I rode Alpe d’Huez, probably the most famous climb in the U.S., last year, and col du Galibier, one of my favorites, in 2006 and 2007.
I had no choice this year because the Alps were short-changed in the Tour de France: three stages, out of 20, and only one hors catégorie pass: col de la Madeleine — which wasn’t named after the cake. None of the mythical Alpine passes was included in the 2010 edition: no Alpe d’Huez, no Galibier, no Iseran and no Mont Ventoux. Meanwhile, the Pyrénées mountains in the southwest of France got five stages and five hors catégorie climbs.
The Tour’s riders climbed the col de la Madeleine on July 13, the fifth and final pass in the 204.5 kilmeter (127 mile) ninth stage between Morzine-Avoriaz and Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne.
A few days later, my parents, my husband and I drove to the bottom of the col for our own, more modest, ride. Ahead of us was a climb of 26 km, with an average gradient of about 6.4 percent and peaks at more than 10 percent: for every 100 meters you ride, you gain 10 meters in elevation. Overall, we were about to gain almost 1,600 meters in altitude. My husband would reprise his precious role as “voiture balai,” which can be translated as “sweeping broom car.” It’s French cycling jargon for the mini-bus that follows the last riders in the Tour and picks up those who drop out the race. Except my husband drove ahead of us and waited at the top: there was no dropping out possible.
(The road to col de la Madeleine, with view of Mont Blanc in the background.)
My parents, age 62 and 63, had come back the day before at 5 a.m. from a weeklong cycling trip in Corsica. They averaged 100 km a day under temperatures that topped 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahenheit). A week before leaving for Corsica, they’d come back from their annual cycling ride from their home in the Alps to their apartment in Nice, climbing hors catégorie passes such as Mont Ventoux and carrying their own bags.

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.

(There’s no train to col de la Madeleine, but cows get to watch cyclists passing by.)

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.

(The cycling family reunited at col de la Madeleine.)

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