Dan Hughes long has been a big fan of the Tour de France, so it's not uncommon to find him glued to the tube when the grand bicycle race rolls around every July.
But when the Tour hits stage nine a week from today, expect Hughes to be positively rapt.
Hughes, owner of Sunflower Outdoor & Bike Shop, was one of three Lawrence men who headed over the pond last summer to ride some of the Tour's classic climbs, including the legendary Cols du Telegraphe and Galibier, which will be featured in Tuesday's ninth stage.
"Watching the Tour this year, it'll be half - like when I'm looking at a stage like Stage 9 - where I'll be, 'I know that road, I know that turn, I know that climb,'" Hughes said, "and being excited about that, and then half, 'My God, look how fast they're going.' It'll be recognition of where you were and awe of how fast they're going."
Hughes and local dentists Joe Gatti and Mike McBride might not have approached the speeds of the pros who will ride up the big French hills at the Tour, but they covered the same vertical gain.
"Riding them definitely gives you a lot more perspective," McBride said. "You can't appreciate the steepness of how long those climbs are. And they are going along so easily. You can't appreciate their level of ability until you ride there. They make it look easy. Cameras just can't make it look as steep as it is."
And then there's Gatti.
Gatti insists he's not a "tour geek" like Hughes, but even Gatti couldn't help but be impressed by the epic climbs and the men who ride them for a living.
"It definitely gave me more appreciation for their skill level," Gatti said. "I just can't imagine flying down those descents. I'm not going to say climbing's easier, but I was better prepared for that. But descending : I've never descended like that before. You're flying down those descents, and they have these little walls, 18 inches high. If you go over the wall, you're down 1,000 feet. There's no room for error."
Trekking with Trek
The three Lawrence riders headed to France as part of a Trek Travel trip.
Trek Travel - a branch of the Trek Bicycles - arranges cycling-themed trips to various locations, including France, Italy and Spain.
Hughes is a Trek dealer, and he said Trek was encouraging its dealers to make a Trek Travel trip.
He was more than happy to oblige.
"We wanted to do something that was a challenge for us," Hughes said. "I was lobbying to do some of the cobbled climbs. Riding a bike uphill is not my strength. I'm a big guy. I prefer to stay on the flat ground. Now, Dr. Gatti is 140 pounds dripping wet, so he wanted to go on some of the classic, epic climbs."
Their six-ride-day trip certainly gave them plenty of those.
In addition to Telegraphe and Galibier, they went up Forclaz and the legendary Alpe d'Huez.
For Hughes, it was a dream come true.
"For someone like me, to be riding up the Alpe d'Huez and to see somebody's name on the road, it just makes your adrenaline pump that much more," Hughes said.
His travel companions, however, weren't so awed - at least by the history of the climbs.
"I just went on the climbs," McBride said. "I didn't know their names. I was just happy to get to the top."
"To be honest," Gatti countered, "I just went for a ride. I didn't really pay much attention to one over the other. I just rode."
That said, the day up the Telegraphe and Galibier stood out.
The two came on the same day, and though the weather at the time of departure was decent enough, the temperature gradually dropped as the cyclists rode - 50, 45, 40, then 35 degrees.
The wind was gusting to 20, maybe 30 mph. And it began to sleet.
"It was completely epic," Hughes said. "We got to the top, and my legs were a bright, lobster red. I could barely feel my hands. And we all had huge smiles on our faces. There's no way you can ever forget that."
"Everybody know about Alpe d'Huez. On a scale of 1 to 10, that was about a 6 or 7," Gatti added. "But Telegraphe and Galibier, that was a 9 or 9 1/2 on the day we did it. It was epic."
Flatlanders hold their own
So how to three veteran cyclists from the flatlands of Kansas prepare for some of the toughest climbs known to man?
"You really don't," McBride said. "The best you can do is get in as good of shape as you can."
Nonsense, said Gatti, the admitted true climber of the bunch.
"We have more hills around here than people think," he said. "We just don't have the long, sustained hills. But when you get in those big climbs, we weren't racing. You get in a rhythm and get in a smaller chainring, and after the first couple of miles it just becomes the ride."
All three men said that though they couldn't prepare for the hills, they could prepare their fitness, so they hiked their mileage.
They were putting in 300-mile weeks leading up to the trip, and, to hear Hughes tell it, they didn't embarrass themselves when the road starting pointing up.
"When we showed up, we introduced ourselves and said we were from Kansas," Hughes recalled. "Everybody was like, 'Oh, Kansas is dead flat, you'll be at the back.' But I think we surprised a few people. I think there was a little of that posturing, competition to see who's the best. But once you're out there, and you're all riding in the cold up the Galibier, then everybody's shivering at the top, that competitiveness disappears. We survived this."