Bill Gorton's legs were burning, his lungs were aching and his heart was pounding. He knew he was pushing his 56-year-old body to the limit — and he couldn't have been happier.
That's because the Lexington lawyer was realizing a dream of riding a bicycle up the Col du Galibier, L'Alpe d'Huez and other famous mountain passes through the French Alps. These steep roads have long vexed Tour de France racers — and attracted amateur cyclists, like Gorton, who are determined to show that they can climb them, too.
"It's something I always wanted to do," said Gorton, who practices environmental law at Stites & Harbison. "As you get older, you realize that if you're going to do some things you have always wanted to do, you just have to do them."
The century-old Tour de France is more than the world's most famous bicycle race: It is a three-week rolling carnival around France. More than a million people line the routes to camp, party and cheer on the competitors. Many bring bicycles to ride the routes before or after each day's stage of the race.
Several hundred spectators do what Gorton did: They pay several thousand dollars to a tour operator who will organize rides for them, book hotel rooms along the Tour de France route and provide logistical support.
Gorton rode beside Le Tour for five days last month with 25 other cyclists from the United States and Canada, ranging in age from 20-something to 70. They paid about $3,500 to a Nebraska-based tour company, Velo Echappe (www.veloechappe.com). Traveling with Gorton was his friend Joe Chappell, who is on the University of Kentucky's plant and soil sciences faculty.
Some rides were on that day's race route, a few hours before the racers barreled through. Others were on nearby climbs that are famous from past Tours. Each day after their ride, the cyclists would join tens of thousands of fans to watch the race's daily finish and enjoy the party atmosphere.
Gorton said he was pleased with Velo Echappe, which he found through an advertisement in Bicycling magazine (www.bicycling.com). There are many other tour operators with similar packages, some for less and many for more, depending on the quality of meals and accommodations provided. With a thorough Internet search, you can find dozens of companies offering Tour de France cycling vacations — and online reviews of what customers thought of them.
Once Gorton booked his tour, he faced months of preparation. "This was very intense," he said. "If I hadn't worked so hard to get in the best shape I could, I may not have survived it, much less enjoyed it."
Gorton spent last winter in the gym, focusing on strength exercises and spinning on a stationary bicycle for two hours, three days a week. He teaches a weekly spinning class at the Beaumont YMCA. In good weather, Gorton logs about 2,500 miles a year riding country roads throughout Central Kentucky.
Gorton's biggest training challenge was hill-climbing. Central Kentucky's rolling landscape is filled with small hills, but there are only a few steep ones of more than a mile, along the Kentucky River.
Hill-climbing was the essential cycling skill for this trip: During the five days Gorton and Chappell rode through the Alps, they climbed more than 28,000 feet. Some hills were as long as 10 miles, with grades of 6 percent to 12 percent. "One morning, they pointed up to this little snowy spot on the mountain and said, 'That's where we're going today,'" he said.
Although the climbs were tough, the descents could be terrifying: steep hills that went on for 20 miles or more. Gorton's arms ached from long periods of gripping his bicycle's brake levers. The narrow roads were filled with oncoming cars and dozens of other cyclists. There were long tunnels lit only by the headlights of oncoming cars reflecting off the walls. Guardrails along many steep descents were hardly up to American standards.
"If you had a misstep and went off the edge, you would be toast," he said. "And when you would hear clanging, you had to be careful; you could come around a corner and find yourself in the middle of a herd of cows."
Gorton loved the Tour de France's festive international atmosphere. In one village after the day's ride, Gorton said, he and Chappell noticed an especially attractive young Italian woman and her boyfriend. She seemed to be noticing them, too.
Finally, she walked over and said, "Are you from Lexington, Kentucky?" It turned out she had been a UK student and had worked at Pedal Power bike shop on Maxwell Street, where Gorton and Chappell are customers.
Gorton said this vacation gave him some insights that will be useful in a new role back home: He was recently elected chairman of the Kentucky Bicycle and Bikeway Commission, which advises the state Transportation Cabinet on cycling issues.
"I didn't see a fat kid the whole time I was there, and very few overweight people," Gorton said. "Our urban geography since World War II has been so based on the automobile, but in Europe people walk a lot, they bike a lot."
Gorton said that, with support from Mayor Jim Newberry and several Urban County Council members, Lexington is becoming much more friendly to cyclists and pedestrians. Still, Kentucky has a long way to go. "We're going to find ourselves having to retrofit our infrastructure for what to Europeans seems like common sense — more walking and biking," he said.
France's Alpine scenery was impressive, but Gorton developed new appreciation for the country roads of the Bluegrass. "We ride in one of the most beautiful places in the world," he said, noting that in France, he met a cyclist from Boston who was planning a biking trip to Lexington. "There is no reason we shouldn't be a premier cycling destination."
More than anything, though, Gorton's Tour de France adventure was about proving to himself that he could do it. He could tackle the toughest bicycle climbs in the French Alps, even if he was a lot slower than those young Tour de France racers.
"You spend a lot of time by yourself on a trip like this, just pedaling, and a lot of things go through your head," Gorton said, mentioning a lot of cycling-as-a-metaphor-for-life stuff. "But the bottom line is this: Whatever your dream is, pick a goal and go do it."