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Just as we were tweaking our bikes for a climb up the Col d?Haltza in the French Basque country I paused in my tire pumping and gazed at a stunning church across the road from where we parked in the small village of St Etienne de Baigorry. I could see that the massive wooden door was open so I motioned to my fellow rider, Peter Pastore, whom I knew would be interested in exploring with me. Peter often missed early Sunday morning rides back in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" /?>
Connecticut, with the now notorious Dunk Rock Roadies, to attend Mass in
East Guilford , CT. Here, we had a chance to get a quick spiritual hit before a 14-kilometer climb to see the 2003 edition of the Tour de France come over the
Western Pyrenees and descend down to the
Bayonne. We clattered over the cobbles in our cleats and popped through the church door by stepping down into a dark grotto. It was another world of hushed tones and colors, a world of red and brown shadows cut by streaks of yellow and orange light. When we moved forward gingerly into the narthex we heard clearly the low murmur of a pipe organ. The church organist was pushing keys and pulling levers to come out with a perfect Bach fugue that filled the holy air. We stood a minute and both took a charge of the sublime energy that we could tap into later. Our team doctor joined us briefly; he understood where real strength comes from and he disdains energy bars. We all knew we would need all the energy we could possibly muster as the first four kilometers of the upcoming col averaged over 11% gradient.
The Thomson Bike Tours peloton mounted bikes and proceeded up the valley through two small towns toward the initial phase of the
Col d?Haltza. We all grabbed baguette filled sandwiches in yet another classic small French village, St. Jean Pied de Port, and noted the presence of increased gendarmes. We had stayed in a glorious 11 th C restored castle in Hondarribia the previous night but knew that Basque separatist activists had set off two bombs a short distance down the coast yesterday. But our minds were not on the coast now, but on the mountains. This was the last mountain stage and the last time our group of intrepid riders would see the Tour live and we all wanted to get high up the mountain and see the best. Generally, the higher up you climb the better chance you have of seeing more critical efforts and leaving some of the hoopla and crowd behind. The elements seemed promising as the crowds seemed sparse and the weather was perfect, bright and mountain valley crisp with high clouds. The valley we rode through was primarily filled with small farms raising cows, goats and sheep. We wound through a warren of stonewalls which even made jaded Connecticut