We’re sad to learn of the death of Laurent Fignon. To Americans, he is most often remembered as Greg LeMond’s adversary in the 1989 Tour de France, giving the race its closest finish in history.
And while his 58-second loss in the final time trial made for one of the Tour’s most enduring drama’s, Fignon’s legacy is much, much greater. He was known to correct those who met him and recalled, “Ah, you’re the one who lost the Tour by eight seconds” by saying, “No monsieur, I’m the guy who won it twice.”
In fact, Fignon did much more than that.
He announced his arrival on the scene in 1982, just 22 years old, by winning the Criterium International. But it was in 1983 at the Tour de France when he rode his way into the yellow jersey on l’Alpe d’Huez that his fame was minted. The stylish climber confirmed his right to the throne by winning the Dijon time trial four days later.
Bernard Hinault was absent from the ’83 race, and that led to speculation that Fignon might not have been the most worthy of winners. Fignon sealed his reputation by beating Hinault soundly in ’84. Once again, he took the yellow jersey on the climb to l’Alpe d’Huez in a performance that also helped carve the mountain’s name into the mythology of the Tour. Le professeur, a nickname given him due to his studious-looking glasses, won the final time trial yet again, proving his mastery of multiple disciplines. His lead over Hinault by the time the race finished in Paris was decisive—10:32.
For those with an eye on history and destiny, 1989 is and was Fignon’s greatest season. He began the year by winning Milan-San Remo for the second year in a row. He went on to win the Giro d’Italia and the Tour of Holland. By the time he climbed the prologue start ramp in Luxembourg, few thought he would lose the ’89 Tour.
When Fignon attacked a clearly suffering LeMond on l’Alpe d’Huez, it seemed that he would yet again ride into yellow and hold it to Paris. The time trial might not have been a formality, but Fignon was, after all, a Parisian wearing the yellow jersey on a course in his home city. What could go wrong?
History does not record all details equally. Much is made of LeMond’s 58-second victory in the time trial. What isn’t reported as often is that Fignon finished third that day, that he was accustomed to winning the Tour’s final time trial when he wore yellow. One can hardly imagine the shock he experienced.
He went on to win the Grand Prix des Nations time trial that year and rode well at the World Championships in Chambery; his late-race attack was foiled by none other than Greg LeMond.
When LeMond was named rider of the year by multiple news outlets, as well as Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year, Fignon was incensed and asked, ‘Who won all year? I won from March to September. I was the rider of the year.’
Though Fignon did score other wins later in his career, a crash in the 1990 Giro followed by yet another in the early stages of the Tour prevented the anticipated rematch between LeMond and Fignon and he never regained the form that took him to three Grand Tour victories.
The cancer that claimed Fignon just weeks following his 50th birthday began in his intestine and metastasized to his lungs and vocal chords.
Fignon was a man of strong opinions, a rider who believed one should attack in order to win, that a win without panache was worth less.
Let’s remember him by attacking on our next ride.
Images: John Pierce, Photosport International
Years ago I was listening to Cream bassist Jack Bruce being asked about Eric Clapton’s guitar playing. He drew a comparison between Clapton’s songwriting and soloing and the melodies written by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He said that what they both did sounded so simple as to be obvious, but that the choices they made were the result of extraordinary gifts, that their genius made the extraordinary seem inevitable.
Racing is an almost inevitable outcome when two cyclists ride together. That, combined with the sense of open-road adventure that a bicycle engenders when it’s not a routine activity makes audacious rides an almost unavoidable activity.
Many of the world’s great bike races seem to have been created from seemingly obvious choices. Can’t you hear a turn-of-the-century Parisian challenge someone with, “I’ll race you to Roubaix”? The genesis of Liege-Bastogne-Liege seems even more natural: “I’ll race you to Bastogne … and back.”
Some rides, when I hear of them, seem so obvious in their appeal, their adventure, their siren song, that I can’t resist. Five years ago several friends and I traveled to the Sierra for a ride called the Son of the Death Ride.
The route was as simple as simple gets: Ride from the Kern River just north of Kernville (northeast of Bakersfield) in the Sequoia National Forest across the Sierra to Pearsonville, turn around and ride back. The route was estimated to be 138 miles and include 19,000 feet of elevation gain. I’ll spare you the details, but I didn’t manage to finish the ride.
Since that first running the route has been changed slightly. It now starts in Pearsonville and heads to the Kern River before turning around. And while that change may seem academic, it makes a significant difference. It places the high point of the day, 9,200-foot Sherman Pass nearer the midpoint in the day rather than near the beginning and end of the day, meaning the temperature at the top is closer to 60 degrees than 40 degrees. It also means that the day’s fiercest winds blow as tailwinds, though it may not be possible to do the ride without some headwind.
So a big ride through the mountains, right? Well, not so fast. Ordinarily, we think of mountain riding as climb and descend and then climb again and descend again. The elevation profile for the ride reveals that fewer than 30 miles of the ride take place below 6000 feet of elevation. Not a problem for Colorado residents, but for the average sea-level residing Californian, it’s a detail that adds a particularly difficult wrinkle.
These days the ride is called, “That Which Does Not Kill Us Makes Us Stronger,” borrowed from Friedrich Nietzsche. That’s due to a little trademark tangle with the folks up north in Markleeville, California. Frankly, the ride would be better off going by another phrase used on the web site, “The Ride of the Immortals.”
In a world of unsurpassable superlatives, there’s always something that’s better, tougher, prettier, longer, higher … and probably even dumber. Though GPS data has brought the total elevation gain back down to just a nick under 17,000 feet, there’s no denying that a 138-mile ride largely completed by sea-level dwelling riders at altitudes above 6000 feet is ridiculously difficult.
Riding through three distinct climatic zones is perhaps the ride’s best selling point. You begin in the wind-scoured desolation of the dessert and climb up to Alpine forest and meadow before descending into temperate forest. We got lucky with the termperatures this year, but last year temperatures were so high that riders were jumping in the Kern River before turning their bikes around.
Navigation is very simple. I believe, technically, you travel over three roads: Nine Mile Canyon, Kennedy Meadows Road and Sherman Pass Road, though you encounter exactly one intersection prior to the turnaround. Traffic on these roads isn’t nonexistent, but it is exceedingly light. I saw as many motorcycles as trucks, and pickups outnumbered cars probably three to one. The drivers were considerate as they passed.
The ride’s two most obvious challenges are the opening climb up Nine Mile Canyon and the turnaround climb, up to Sherman Pass. Nine Mile Canyon is not nine miles, but 15 miles; go figure. Similarly, the climb from the Kern River up to Sherman Pass is 15 miles. The first climb gains 4850 feet of elevation while the second gain roughly 5200. Grades on both climbs can tip upward of 12 and even 15 percent at times. I saw some bigger numbers than those, but I attribute them to lapses in the GPS signal rather than actual cruelty on the part of CalTrans.
And while those two climbs are stunningly difficult—they qualify for hors categorie status—they don’t dominate the ride. After all, combined, they make up less than one-quarter of the ride. The ride includes three Category 2 climbs (for 3500 feet in climbing), the last of which doesn’t come until mile 115.
Maybe that sounds difficult enough to make for a legendary ride. Or maybe not. For me, the ride sounds like a great adventure, at least, on paper. However, what may be one of the ride’s most important features isn’t what I’d call a selling point.
The road ranges between good and very poor condition. Almost every inch of the road that qualifies as good comes in the first 15 miles in Inyokern County. The rest of the ride takes place in Tulare County and some of the smoother stretches of road come in places where the asphalt was removed and hard-packed dirt remains. The good news is that repairs and repaving are taking place in some locations. Given how bad some of the potholed sections are, we began to wonder just how bad the sections of road were that are being repaved.
The upshot of the road quality is that it was impossible to let the bike run on almost every descent. I was bucked into the air by potholes hidden by tree shadows and the repaved sections were covered with a super-fine layer gravel, making the road surprisingly slippery. Even on the final descent down Nine Mile Canyon the winds blowing up out of the dessert were strong enough that some caution was warranted. The loss in momentum and the resulting time penalty this brought can’t be calculated, but the real cost came in riders’ inability to relax on the descents.
I like a good, hard ride in a beautiful locale. This particular ride is unusual because of just how difficult it is and how remote the location is. The surroundings are gorgeous but the poor condition of the road and its impact on the ride’s difficulty would be difficult to overemphasize.
A quote on the ride’s web site claims it is the “Toughest One Day Road Ride in the U.S.” No credit is given for the claim. I don’t know anyone who has a broad-enough frame of reference to make such a sweeping claim stick credibly. I’ve done most of the hardest rides in California and some rides in other states that were reputed to be difficult. Only two other rides I’ve ever attempted were anywhere near this difficult: the Tour of the California Alps (also known as the Markleeville Death Ride) and the Climb to Kaiser. On three occasions in my life I have ridden a bicycle for more than 10 hours—the Climb to Kaiser, the Son of the Death Ride and my previous, aborted, attempt to finish the original Son of the Death Ride.
The challenge of the ride, no matter what it’s called, seems obvious enough. If you want a ride that can test every aspect of your road riding skills and fortitude, this event will test you as deeply you as might wish to go.
The final Grand Tour of the season is upon us and that can mean only one thing: You’ve planned your Labor Day Weekend. Wait, no, that’s not it. Your kids are back in school. Hmm, maybe, but still not quite right.
Oh, right, your TV is about to get monopolized.
Frank Schleck says he can win the Vuelta, but to do so, he’s going to have to go chainring-to-chainring with all of Spain, including Giro second place David Arroyo and Joaquin Rodgriguez. We’ve got Carlos Sastre, Oscar Pereiro and Carlos Barredo. Garmin-Transitions has brought Christian Vande Velde, though their actual GC guy is Tom Danielson. After Schleck, Arroyo and Rodriguez, how many of those guys really look like anything other than dark horses?
Given the current, tarnished finish on Grand Tour podiums, the real question at stake may be how long it will be before this year’s Vuelta podium is ensnared in a doping scandal. For where the Tour goes in doping scandals, the Vuelta seems to lead by a year or two. When we ask, “Who will win the Vuelta?” we mean now … and after the dust settles.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Following the FGR #35 I knew my reading list would get longer with titles I’d been meaning to get around to, but what I didn’t expect was to run across such great recommendations not just in English, but in other languages as well. Guess I need to work on my French.
With so many great suggestions coming in neither Robot nor I wanted to shut the conversation down by posting the wrap, but maybe in your comments to this post we’ll get a few more suggestions to sustain us through the fall and winter.
It was nice to see that the recommendations weren’t dominated by VeloPress titles. As great a job as that publisher is doing, it would be a shame if folks thought there catalog defined cycling literature. Also interesting to note was how the recommendations to a book leaned toward the literature end of things rather than Graham Watson picture books (of which I have a few in my library).
And while we don’t usually ask new questions in the wrap, I’m going to pose one. In a recent conversation with former Torelli CEO Bill McGann of the masterful Tour de France histories and www.bikeraceinfo.com revealed that sales of the electronic editions of his books are soaring, thanks to Amazon and the Kindle.
How many of you have begun to read books in electronic form and what device are you using?
Securing a frame I could pack and travel with easily was only half of the solution to the problem before me. I know from experience that I wouldn’t have been one of those riders to get stronger while racing a Grand Tour. I needed to build the Seven up with a component selection that would permit me to ride through fatigued legs in the second week.
Due to some availability issues and a hold-up in customs, I had to start the trip with a Campy Record 10 group with a 34×25 low gear. However, following a frenzied cab ride in which I learned the average European mortgage term is 50 years and the winter fare for a cab traveling from Albertville to Geneva was triple what I paid, I gained possession of the group of parts and was able to install them just in time for the climb up the Col du Galibier.
A brief note on installation of Red and Apex parts: This was the first time I had ever worked on SRAM components. While I’ve had the opportunity to ride them some, I’d never installed any previously. I know from talking to shop mechanics that there is a love for SRAM based on how easy their stuff is to work on, but I’d never experienced it for myself. Let me just say, ‘I get it.’ I honestly don’t think the installation could have been smoother. The point where it was most noticeable was in running the cables through the levers. With every lever from Shimano and Campagnolo through which I’ve ever run a cable, there has always been a bit of fiddling to get the cable to run through the guide hole. I’ve never gotten it on the first try. With SRAM, all four cables went through on the very first try. I couldn’t help but take note.
In three hours I had all the Campy parts removed and the SRAM parts installed and adjusted. To me, that’s shop mechanic speed, not fatigued guy working in the rec room of a hotel.
The linchpin in this operation involved the removal of the Campy freehub body from the Easton EA90 SLX rear wheel and the installation of the SRAM-compatible Shimano freehub. I’d never done it before and wasn’t convinced I had all the right tools. The operation proved to be quicker and easier than instant coffee—not to mention more satisfying—in part because it required little more than two 5mm Allen wrenches.
Let’s back up a second. Triples have been the stock-in-trade for non-PROs riding in big mountains for years. There are some features to like, such as pairing a 12-25 cassette with 53/39/ 30-tooth chainrings. In that setting you always have a familiar gear and the jumps between cogs once you’re into the third ring are tiny. However, most people I talk with believe triples have serious shifting issues (I didn’t experience that in years of using a triple with Campy). You also hear complaints about extra weight, wider Q-factor, too many duplicated gears and cost. To switch a Shimano bike over to a triple requires you to purchase a crank set, bottom bracket, a front derailleur, a long-cage rear derailleur, chain and, usually, a shift lever and cassette.
Adding an Apex rear derailleur, cassette and a new chain to as SRAM-equipped bike simplifies the solution in terms of cost, familiarity and labor.
By the time I switched out the parts on my Seven, I was in need of some lower gears. I had suffered through two days of shockingly steep grades, and while I would probably have been okay if the road had never tipped steeper than 7 percent, it had. A lot. Hell, the shallow pitches on the Col de Pré had been 7 percent. And while I needed something lower than a 34×25, I wasn’t so sure I needed a 34×32. But the folks at SRAM were confident (if not downright adamant) that I’d put the 32 to use if it were there.
My fear was that I’d end up with a nine-speed cassette as I’d never use anything lower than the 28. Well that concern was laid to rest the first time the Col du Galibier hit 10 percent. How many times have you known you were in your lowest gear and yet reached down to try and downshift out of some Hail Mary hope? Well, I did just that and—lo!—the derailleur gave me another gear. With the fatigue I was experiencing it was hard to turn the gear over as quickly as I would have liked, but the 32 became an integral part of my riding for the rest of the trip.
My concern that I’d end up with a nine-speed cassette was realized, however. I almost never used the 11. The nature of the descents I was riding included switchbacks the way sharks have teeth. After braking for a switchback, the gears I found myself most often using to sprint back up to speed were the 13 and 15. Long straits that give you a chance to wind out a 50×11 were as rare as fans of offshore oil drilling.
My preference would be that they ditch the 11 and add a 14, which is a cog I’d use a great deal more. Jumping from the 15 to the 13 when upshifting was large enough to be frustrating; I’m accustomed to the presence of a 14. Similarly, the jump from the 19 to the 22 took some getting used to, as did the 22 to 25 jump; you notice that bigger jump when upshifting, though under downshifting it didn’t bother me too much. In the cassette’s favor is the 25 to 28 jump, as is the 28 to 32, which might appear large on paper but were utterly welcome out on the road.
If I’d had two full weeks in the Alps on this group, by the end the only shifts I would have noticed would have been between the 13/15 and the 19/22. If they’d offer a 12-32 that included a 14, I promised I’d shut up.
Karma dictates that someday I’ll go ride in the Rockies at 11,000 feet without proper acclimatization and due to the combination of zero oxygen and screaming fast descents I’ll be grateful for both the 11 and the 32 in the same cassette. Once that happens, I’ll come back and delete the above two paragraphs.
Naturally, the question of weight is going to arise. I have yet to reassemble the bike and weigh it in its current configuration, but I’m guessing it’ll be about 18 to 18.5 lbs. The big gain in weight compared to its last build (when it was 17.0 lbs.) comes from the S&S couplers, which added just less than 10 oz. to the frame’s overall weight. The rear derailleurs weigh nearly the same, though the cassette increased in weight by about 100g, though I suspect it will have a much longer life. SRAM sent me the Apex crank and bottom bracket, so that increased the bike’s weight by roughly 250g.
I’m not sure everyone will do the math the way I did, but in my view this bike gives me a truly versatile travel bike solution. What it comes down to is this: I’ve got a bike that will be convenient to fly with no matter where I go. It will be inexpensive to fly with as well as the most I’ll be charged is just $25 per flight. Thanks to the titanium frame and largely aluminum components (the only carbon fiber is the fork, bar and shift levers), even if the case takes some serious hits, it’s unlikely any damage rendering the bike unusable will occur. It’s still light enough that I should survive any group ride I hook up with. With 700C wheels I don’t have to deal with the odd handling inherent in a bike using 20” or 24” wheels. And because it’s a bike I’ve owned for years, the handling and fit are utterly familiar—which is handy both on long climbs and fast descents.
S&S couplers have been on the market for a good 15 years. When they first came out, I was suspicious of their function and safety. They are more time-tested than our love for the Internet. And while they’ve had devotees for years, they were never a super-popular solution to travel. Today’s travel costs have finally made their value readily apparent.
Is this a permanent solution? Probably not, but I believe this should cover my travel needs for at least the next five to seven years.
Is it the perfect solution? Also, probably not, but airlines seem to be increasing both their charges for bicycles and their hostility to anything requiring care. Traveling to far-flung lands without a bicycle is like going to a great restaurant that omits the salad and the dessert. I want the whole meal.
Even before I knew I’d be joining Erickson Cycle Tours for the Route des Grandes Alpes I began researching a new solution to traveling with a bicycle. For more than 10 years I’ve been using a double BikePro case, which was perfect as long as I was traveling with another cyclist. These days, however, I’ve usually been traveling with only one bike and the way oversize baggage charges have taken off with all the thrust of a Saturn V booster rocket, I’ve been thinking that I need a simpler, less expensive way to travel with a bike.
I investigated each of the airlines to see if anyone going to my destination was still inexpensive, as well as alternative shipping options, dedicated travel bikes such as the Ritchey BreakAway and Bike Friday, having an S&S-coupled bike built for me by Hampsten Cycles or having an existing frame retrofitted with S&S couplers.
I quickly ruled out continued use of my trusty BikePro case as financial suicide. My next choice would have been to have a new frame built by Hampsten, especially after seeing some drawings Steve did. With a slightly shorter, sloping top tube combined with a slightly longer stem, the frame would have packed in the S&S case easily, a fact I’ve come to appreciate more in the last two weeks. However, timeline and expense conspired against us, so I went with Plan B.
My beloved Seven Cycles Axiom has been hanging on the wall of my garage for at least two years, unused. I’m a sentimental fool and couldn’t part with it even though my Felt Z frame weighs two-thirds what the Seven does.
After speaking with Steve at S&S, he encouraged me to talk to Steve Bilenky at Bilenky Cycle Works about retrofitting my Seven. I wasn’t too sure initially; the folks at Seven had noted a number of technical challenges to retrofitting my frame and suggested I consider a new frame instead. However, Bilenky walked me through the procedure, telling me how they take blank titanium couplers and machine them to size. Combined with the fact that their turnaround is quick, I was sold.
At Bilenky a titanium frame retrofit is $850, while steel is only $495. However, when you consider that a steel frame will need a paint touch-up if not re-do, a steel retrofit could be as much if not more than the ti retrofit. The hard case is another $395. Accessories such as tube covers, compression members and cable quick connects can add on another $100 or so.
Considering that some airlines are charging upwards of $200 per flight to transport a bicycle in a normal bike carrier, a retrofit with case and accessories can pay for itself in as few as three trips, all because the case comes in under the magic 62-linear-inch number. While the dollar savings is great, the quality of life increase in being able to take a bike with me anywhere for just $25 per flight means that I can now consider taking a bike along on trips I where would previously have had to go without. It’s hard to put a price on that.
Assembly isn’t as fast as with one of my other bikes in the BikePro case, but I gain added confidence knowing that I’m traveling with a difficult to damage titanium bike, rather than one of my more fragile carbon fiber bikes. All things considered, I’ll take the inconvenience.
Because my Seven frame features a 59cm seat tube (c-c) and a ground-parallel 58.5cm top tube (c-c), I must remove the crankset in order to place the rear half of the frame in the case. The longish lengths of both seat tube and top tube mean that I have to be both careful and deliberate when placing the frame halves in the case; think heirlooms in a moving van.
Fortunately, the folks at Bilenky cut and labeled a set of frame tube protectors made from Cordura, foam rubber and Velcro. The amount of thought I had to put into protecting the frame was nil. All I had to do was follow the directions from Bilenky for the packing order of the parts. To say they have it down to a science is an understatement; it’s a procedure, much like assembling a toy model. There’s a sequence for packing and a precise location for each part; follow it and you won’t have to sit on the case to get it closed.
So that covers the frame and the travel element. However, for a trip with so much climbing over so many days, I was going to need some low gears. The folks at SRAM had suggested I try riding a Red-equipped bike with the rear derailleur and cassette replaced with those from their new Apex group. The combination would give me all the functionality and low-weight advantage of Red with the low gears you can only achieve with the long-cage rear derailleur and dinner-plate cassette from Apex. Game on!
Summer is a time for reading, and I’ve spent most of it working my way through a tall pile of cycling tomes. I read Bernard Hinault’s Memories of the Peloton and Tim Moore’s French Revolutions and Paul Fournel’s Need for the Bike and Ralph Hurne’s The Yellow Jersey and William Fotheringham’s Searching for Tom Simpson and Sam Abt’s Breakaway: On the Road with the Tour de France. There are maybe more, but you get the idea. Cycling? You’re soaking in it.
This week’s Group Ride is about favorite cycling books. Mine include some of the above, but also books by Matt Rendell and Tim Krabbé.
What are your favorites, and why?
There are a slew of training books out there, of course. I tend not to read them, because training seems like a good way to ruin a ride, but I’m open to the crazy idea that some of them are good and useful. I await your sage guidance.
While I have dedicated some good portion of the last few years to getting cyclo-educated, there are still so many books I’ve not read. You would think that for a voracious reader, a narrow genre like ours would be easy enough to conquer in short order, but I’m not finding that to be the case.
If I spoke French the problem would only be worse. Please do not hesitate to name works in foreign languages that you think are superlative. Maybe I’ll sell my wife’s car, buy the US publication rights and get filthy rich off the royalties. Or at least buy said book and hope to learn its mother tongue during my lifetime, so I can read it.
I’m also interested in hearing about some books I’ve not read, but are on the short list for end of summer consumption. Among those is Jean Bobet’s Tomorrow We Ride and Laurent Fignon’s autobiography We Were Young and Carefree. Your reviews greatly appreciated.
As I mentioned in my post The Void, I wouldn’t ordinarily publish each of the routes for a given tour. Travel companies don’t have a boatload of intellectual property and the specific routes they use often feature often feature a stop here or a back road there that makes the riding more enjoyable. However, most of folks won’t get the chance to ride this tour with Erickson Cycle Tours, so publishing the routes won’t actually hurt their business.
Now that I’ve had a chance to quantify my fatigue I’ve created links to each of the routes we rode in sort-of following the Route des Grandes Alpes from Geneva to Nice. While the particulars of my speed and the duration of my rides aren’t particularly accurate (or interesting), I suspect that some of you may be as nutty for maps as I am and might enjoy these.
Since returning from Nice and wrestling with jetlag I’ve been inputting each of the rides I did on my Alpen odyssey with Erickson Cycle Tours. My plan had been to capture each of the rides with my Garmin 705, but as it went south the moment I plugged the Europe map chip in, that wasn’t possible. It has been painstaking work and has involved peeling some waterlogged maps apart. So it goes.
Under ordinary circumstances I’d keep the exact routes quiet in an effort to protect Erickson’s limited intellectual property. There’s more to a great bike tour than just getting over the right cols. However, the impetus to protect isn’t at work this time around for reasons that require some explanation.
Truth told: I don’t know a cyclist who is more familiar with the roads of the Alps than Glenn Erickson. He has been riding these roads for more than 25 years and his initial introduction to these routes came from former Grenoble resident and cycling writer Owen Mulholland—one of the two foremost English-language experts on the Tour de France (the other being Bill McGann). Yet with that endorsement out of the way, Glenn isn’t looking for more business. He’s in his 60s, has Parkinson’s and is likely to gradually wind down his business over the next five to seven years. All of his 2011 tours are already sold out. He doesn’t so much have returning clients as a very extended family.
As much as I want to recommend Erickson Cycle Tours to you, Glenn has asked me instead to focus on the beauty of the Alps and roads that most tour companies don’t go anywhere near. It’s a selfless act, really; one that has left me befuddled.
The lynchpin of a great tour operation is really the relationship management has with the hotels. That’s where Glenn’s wife, Nancy, comes in. She has been the one to nurture the relationships so that when an Erickson group shows up at the front door of a hotel, tour participants are treated as friends of friends rather than Americans, and that’s quite a difference in some places. Nancy has been the one to handle logistics, making sure that hotels meet Erickson’s standards while also allowing them to maintain an exceptional value—generally $4000 for two weeks.
Glenn and Nancy are something of a two-headed genius at creating tours that offer seamless riding. While their perspective seems none-too-extreme on its surface, there’s one distinction that I’ve yet to see another tour company emulate: You never, ever get in the van before a ride unless you ask. Erickson tours are designed so that you ride from one hotel to the next. Unlike every one of their competitors I’ve ever traveled with, no Erickson ride ever starts with a shuttle to the start of the actual ride. The benefits of this particular operational parameter are almost too numerous to name.
Should you wish to recreate the Route des Grandes Alpes on your own, it’s easy enough to find the route (and we didn’t stick to it religiously, ourselves), but with the routes we used you gain the advantage of knowing where you can find hotels that are both good and affordable. It would be pretty easy for a few friends to rent a van and take turns driving sag from Geneva to Nice. And I guarantee you’ll want a rest day (or two) in there somewhere.
It’s my sincere hope that as Glenn and Nancy transition toward retirement someone steps in to offer tours of a similar appeal.
Of course, there was a selfish side to my uploading all my rides to Map My Ride. I’m a data guy and two weeks of exquisite riding with absolutely zero data wasn’t easy to endure. I wanted to know the grand total on my mileage and my climbing. Early estimations were that we’d ride about 1000 miles climb roughly 100,000 feet.
In the past, my experience in the Alps, Pyrenees and Tuscany was that the riding generally hits a ratio of 100 vertical feet ascended for every mile ridden. On this trip there were many days where we blew that ratio to smithereens. There were days where we had more than 133 feet of climbing per mile.
My final tally was just more than 750 miles ridden and more than 92,000 feet climbed. And while those two numbers are super-accurate, the elapsed times given are very approximate. Between the map checks and food stops our elapsed times weren’t something we were too concerned with and I had no way to accurately gauge.
The Route des Grandes Alpes is a rare itinerary, both for its difficulty and in the rarity of the tour companies that have the ability to actually support such a tour. There’s a market for tours that do more than just bag a few cols; the question is who will offer these routes in the future.
Image courtesy Gary Schwenk
When I left home my mind contained a vision. In it I was fit. I was ready. I was unencumbered by obstacles. I’d ride at threshold until 1km to go, whereupon I would bury the needle and arrive at the col marker out of the saddle and a little out of breath. I would descend with mad Formula 1 skills, drifting my bike around switchbacks and sitting up to eat pain au chocolat as I caught cars.
Sci-fi is fun, huh? The last two weeks of my life have been nothing like that. Nothing. Like. That.
Since Thursday or Friday of last week I’ve been dealing with pain from a nerve I pinched in my neck years ago—during a race, of course. The longer and harder I ride without a break, the worse it hurts and that pain isn’t like fatigue. No, it’s closely related to the sensation you’d experience if someone took a letter opener, heated it over an open flame and then drove it into your shoulder with the aid of a ball pen hammer. And while I arrived with good fitness, it’s one thing to be fit and it’s another to climb the Col de la Madeleine at threshold. I might as well try to drive from New York to San Francisco on a single tank of gas.
Eating and drinking on descents? Um, as it turns out, there’s rarely time enough to get a bottle out of the cage before another bend requiring at least a cursory touch of the brakes to keep me corralled to my side of the road. And just where you are in the road is a matter less of debate than one of logic. The safe assumption is that on an Alpine descent any approaching car will be in the middle of the road. Should you be near what would ordinarily be the lane line separating your lane from the lane of oncoming traffic, you would not fare well unless radical course corrections are among your core skills.
Turns came with such rapidity that I almost never used my 11t cog. I generally exited switchbacks in the 13t cog and would sometimes shift to the 12t if the straightaway was longer than 200 meters.
Drifting? Dude. I’ve been watching too many Fast and Furious movies. The closest I came to drifting was my failure to stop on a switchback that sent me shooting between two motorcycles coming up the mountain. On a scale of one to 10, my pucker factor was 36.
Thursday was our final hors categorie climb, the north side of the Col de la Cayolle. All 25km of it. I can say that the descent off either side is long enough to induce braking-caused hand pain. The climb to our hotel in Valberg wasn’t a big, memorable climb used in the Tour, which is to say it was still more than 12km long and took us to 2000 meters. Quite arguably a Category 1 climb.
For Friday, our next-to-last day of the tour, we took in three climbs. The first was less than six km but the other two were 14 and 15km, respectively. In 70 miles we climbed more than 7500 vertical feet. Somehow we managed to utterly miss showers that coated the region in dripping humidity.
The last big climb of the day was the Col de Turini. For those of you who follow the World Rally Championship, that name might be familiar. The Col de Turini is used in the Monte Carlo rally, which is run in January. Picture savoire faire Frenchman relaxedly drifting sideways through snowbanks with a thin rock wall separating them from the expanse of destiny while screaming crowds inch near the car traveling at speeds to high to be legal on freeways.
My experience might have been different from theirs and even my own imagination, but that day was visceral in a way theme parks can only dream.