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Counting Snakes

From issue 13 • Words by Heidi Swift w/images from Robertson/Velo Dramatic, InGamba & Swift

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I love riding my bicycle. It is this thing that I do when I’m sad or happy or angry—this thing that calms and comforts me. It is my way to see new places, to make my days into exploratory romps. A few hours to be alone or maybe, on a rare day, spend time with a friend.

Sometimes I ride my bicycle hard, with purpose and plan. Sometimes I ride my bicycle in a meandering way that feels like floating. Right now? This year? Getting ready for this big ride in France? I ride my bike mostly with a sense of duty and sometimes with a little trepidation.

We are riding every stage of the 2012 Tour de France course. We keep stating that over and over again as if by writing and speaking it we can will it into reality. Will ourselves over the Alps. Will the strength into our legs.

The thing is, no matter how much I ride my bicycle this year, I cannot possibly ride it enough. That’s a truth that squeezes me sometimes at night when I am trying to go to sleep. I wanted to log 4,000 miles before landing in France in late June. I won’t make it. It’s going to be okay, but still.

With this opportunity gleaming so big and bright in front of me, have I done enough? Did I do it justice? Could I have done more? I don’t want to feel like I could have done more.


I have become the most boring person alive. It’s ironic, isn’t it? I’m about to ride the biggest ride of my life—a ride that people claim they would wait a lifetime to have a shot at. I should be really fucking interesting right now. I should be really compelling. Instead, I go to bed early and sleep like I’m dead. I wake up even earlier and start working. I strategically eat vitamins and supplements and a carefully crafted breakfast. Every single thing I put in my mouth has to serve a purpose now. Food has become fuel, medicine, science. I wake up and think about a route. I wake up and think about TSS scores and power meter calibration and the strap around my chest that holds my heart like a lasso, measuring everything.

Then I ride my bike. Despite the duty and the trepidation, this is still often the best part of my day. No matter how complicated we make it, how much we try to fuck it up with gear and gadgets and expectations, the bicycle always stays the same: you get on and pedal and it rolls forward. It is shocking simplicity in motion, transforming regular bodies into poetry. We cut through the world at a nice clip and still have time to notice things.

Throughout the winter in Portland, I mostly have time to notice the subtle nuances between 35-degree rain and 39-degree rain. Down by the river the world is wet and huddled and dark. When I climb into the hills, the rain turns into snow, dusting the pine trees and melting as it hits the pavement. On these days, tree branches fall and force road closures. Getting home is ten detours followed by hot chocolate.

Why am I doing this again? People ask me that a lot. I’m going to tell you a secret: I don’t know the answer.


When I’m not riding my bike, I work. In the beginning, I reasoned that working was recovering. I’m sitting down, after all.

Then I got sick. Then I got sick again. I tried to work a little less. When I worked less, I made less money. I tried not to worry about the money. They say that stress is my number one enemy. I launched a war on stress. Turns out going to battle is not the way to relax.

I wanted the first six months of this year to be a sacred little capsule of simplicity: ride, sleep, eat, laugh. Such are my fantasies.

It wasn’t happening so I packed my bags and flew to Tuscany. Escape hatch.

I went to a town called Lecchi to meet a man named Joao Correia. I was there to write a story about his company, InGamba Tours. Basically they package magic and wonder and long descents and massages and philosopher-shoemakers and pretty Pinarello bikes and foodgasms and great wine into one week-long trip. By the end of the seventh day you’re so happy you can’t recognize your own heart anymore. By the end of the seventh day you’re so tired that you want to weep and crumple and fall into someone’s arms. So you do. Those arms belong to Raul.


You come to InGamba knowing you will get massages from a professional soigneur. It’s part of the package. You think of this as a set of hands and a moment of relaxation. You imagine yourself closing you’re eyes after a hard ride—a bit of kneading and pressure sorts you out.

Instead, you get Raul. Raul the leg whisperer. Raul the clown. Raul the mime. Raul the comedian. Raul the great. Raul forever.

You fall in love with him. You can’t help it. Neither could I. And he loves you, too. Because that is why he breathes. To take care of people. To take care of you. To take care of me. The word soigneur means “one who takes care of others.” This is not just about massage. Everyone who meets Raul will learn that. Everyone who meets Raul will learn something they did not know about how to love each other as human beings. His is a selfless, devoted, invested kind of care.

Raul takes care of my legs every day that I am in Tuscany. On some days he also rides with me, observing the way I climb or shift gears. When we climb with fast groups, he puts a hand on my lower back and takes the edge off of my threshold effort. He always asks for permission first. When I run out of water, he hands me a fresh bidon from his cage. When the fireworks go off in the front of the group, he sometimes gets caught up in the fray. Then he sits up, supermans on his saddle and drifts back to me. Laughing.

Later when he works my calves, he props my leg up on the table and leans his head against my knee—eyes closed—and disappears into his work. There is a conversation shared between fingers and muscles as he kneads his way into the very details of my pedaling, the shadowy forms of my doubts and insecurities, the secret hopes guarded in my heart. By the time he’s done, he knows more about me than I intended.

He pats my shoulders after he finishes, pausing sometimes to sit on the couch and chatter at me in his broken Italian, which is the language where we meet. Somewhere at the intersection of my 70% comprehension and his 30% speaking proficiency, he tells me things about my riding and my legs and how I’m going to be fine when I get to the Tour. He knows it. He taps a closed fist against his chest emphatically, closing his eyes and shaking his head side to side in a way that actually means yes. Yes, Heidi, yes.

I’m almost certain that Raul thinks I’m batshit crazy, but as our time together winds down I can see that he loves the Crazy in me. And isn’t crazy love, the only kind of love worth loving? In some sense, if I can pull this off, it will be because of that man and the way that he took care of me for four short weeks in May.


The Crazy is the only explanation for how I got to this point. When Michael Robertson first lobbed the idea to ride the entire Tour de France route at me, it looked like the fattest pitch I’d ever seen. A little high and outside. I reached out with my bat to crush it—this is second nature. I don’t have to think about it. You see that ball coming and you fucking take it deep. No questions. The Crazy kicked in and took over.

Not only did I volunteer to go do it, I said I’d do it alone if I had to. I said I’d camp in between stages if I had to. Can you imagine me there on the side of the mountain, head poking out of my little tent cooking pasta over a Jetboil stove?

I can. I did. I was all in from the beginning. One hundred percent. And I had no idea why. That’s what’s special about this ride: it grips you.

Each woman that we invited to the team had this sensation—an unexplainable compulsion. It’s not that you want to do it or that you would love to do it, it’s that you have to do it.

That is poignant and compelling and, frankly, a little terrifying. Over the course of chasing this we’ve sacrificed relationships and careers and all kinds of things we love. We’ve become people we don’t recognize. We’re tired and exhausted and broke and out of vacation days, but goddamit, we are going to finish this ride.

Where do we stop? When is the cost too great? We’re extremely average women having a go at an extremely extraordinary dream: how much will we sacrifice? We don’t have time to think about the answer. We just keep training.


Sometimes when I am tired of measuring my rides in watts or miles or meters gained, I count snakes instead. The roads in Tuscany are teeming with them.

Ten snakes in one ride! That must have been a leg breaker. I can remember each snake exactly. The most vivid is long and thick and brilliantly green. Fresh kill: pool of blood still red, body still round and moist. Supple body in a heap, head pointed back at me as I approached it. Eyes closed.

All of the rest were smashed relatively flat, brown and brittle bodies that have been shriveled up like so much fruit in the sun. Dried snake. Snake jerky.

Two years ago when I was touring alone through central Oregon, a car killed a five-foot-long rattler just as I was approaching it in the roadway. It popped like a balloon. Gruesome relief. It was dusk and I was racing the sun. I pedaled faster as the body writhed behind me.

Why so many snakes? I looked it up one day trying to figure out what it all meant. Snake symbolism goes back forever and ever and can be tied to everything from fertility to medicine to poison to vengefulness.

The rattler was some kind of sacrifice, I reasoned. The rattler meant something. You can find a lot of meaning in just about everything after you’ve ridden 95 miles through the desert on a bike that weighs 70 pounds. Give me two hours in a tent after a sponge bath and a dinner of top ramen, and I will spin you all kinds of meaning. Believe it.

The snakes in Tuscany aren’t as important. Except for the juicy green one. He was a warning, I wager. An omen. I spend the next long climb trying to work it out.

One thing about training this much: way too much time to think. It’s more dangerous than I care to admit.

Are there snakes in France? The answer is yes: adders and vipers mostly, but also viper asps. Handy should we become defeated and wish not to be taken alive. Cleopatra would be proud.


Regarding defeat, here are the options: there are no options. This is how it feels, anyway. Defeat is not an option. We do not step off these bikes. We do not get in the car. We do not cut short the route. We do not succumb to stage 16 (197 km with 20,000 feet of climbing, including the Tourmalet). We do not stop. We do not stop. We do not stop.

So, what if we stop? We’ve all thought about it. The probability of failure is perhaps more real than the possibility of success. Have you seen those mountain stages?

But think of all the things that we would never do it we only attempted feats that were sure bets. How boring to know the outcome before the start. This ride is fraught with unanswered questions and the possibility of failure.

From that initial conversation over dinner in which I contemplated sleeping in a tent, we have grown to a fully sponsored team of six. At our second team camp, Cannondale is out in force with designers, mechanics, product managers and marketing representatives. Cameras, film crews, interviews, voiceovers, photo shoot rides, bike builds. The crush is a little overwhelming—day after day of production, group meals, location transitions, matching socks, caravans. Riding slowly with the front tire three inches off the rear bumper of a shiny black Suburban filled with videographers. “Move into that slice of light over there.” “Hand her a water bottle.” “Stand up.” “Sit down.” “One more time, with a little more gas.”

Everyone is in it for something, but the universal payout is Paris. All of this will be somehow empty if we don’t make it. No matter how many photos we take, no matter how beautiful the video, no matter how good my story is at the end of the ride, they’ll fall short if we don’t find our way to the Champs-Élysées.

We’re loaded with an intense sense of responsibility. To sponsors who have supported us and family members who have endured our endless training schedule and team camp travel and financial needs. To employers that have given us leeway. To communities that have rallied in support. To people who have told us they believe in us, that they know we can do it, that it has already made them question their own limitations. No pressure.

Add to that the fact that we’ve stood up as a group of women and have become symbols by default. Symbols of the strength and pluck of female cyclists. The strength of women in general. Symbols of courage or stupidity or more likely some constantly shifting balance of both. Symbols of dreaming big and fucking going for it. Of living life without limits. Of rejecting barriers.

That’s a lot to carry, and at the end of the day we cannot take responsibility for the hopes and dreams of others—or the lot of women in the cycling world—but we’re probably going to try. It’s in our nature. We can’t help it.


It’s been a heavy year for me. Preparation for this ride has made me more introspective and unsure of myself than I could have ever predicted. I have learned in great detail the very real edges of my physical shortcomings. I have pushed against the walls of myself, kicking and screaming, demanding more. I’ve been writing about it as honestly as I know how. Buried deep inside of all of the fear and apprehension is a single, shining truth: I fucking hate to fail.

The Chicken Soup for the Soul version of this ending says something about the victory being in the journey. The meaning in the story. The inspiration in the countryside. The triumph in the challenge, no matter the outcome.

But the reality is, we threw down the gauntlet. We tapped our cleats and spit on our batting gloves and got in the box and pointed the bat at deep left-center. We called it. And now we have to do it. We can’t just start it. We have to finish.

Every one of us—Kym, Jennifer, Kate, Maria, Kristen and myself—has laid everything on the line for this. We’re all in. No looking back. No regrets. No back-pedaling. No fear. No stopping. No Chicken Soup for the Fucking Soul. We’re pedaling to Paris. Together.

Because this is the biggest moment we could never have imagined for ourselves. This is brighter than we ever thought we’d be. We have 21 days to pedal into history. Twenty-five proper mountain passes to conquer; 3,479 kilometers to cover. Ten thousand doubts to dismantle.

Six batshit crazy women and their bicycles. One big fucking ride.

Roll it, ladies. Let’s do this.

From issue 13. Buy it here.