The Void

A few of the usual suspects: (l-r) Joel, Adam, Eric, Rob, Gary and Padraig

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

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  1. Pingback: The Route des Grandes Alpes: the Maps : Red Kite Prayer

  2. Larry T.
    Ciao Padraig,
    While I’m glad you had a great time in the Alps with Erickson Cycle Tours I must take issue with some of your comments about nobody being out there to fill in once they take their (much deserved, I’m sure)retirement.
    We at CycleItalia have put together tours featuring the Legendary Climbs of the Giro as far back as 2000, after 10+ years working for another high-performance tour operation that I believe pre-dates Erickson’s, so I’m confident in saying our experience at least rivals Glenn’s.
    We offered two itineraries for mountain fanatics in 2010. They are viewable by using the links at the top of this message.
    As to the “no shuttle” idea — this is a claim often made by our competitors and one we find confusing. One way or another you, your bike and your luggage need to get to the start/end of the actual riding routes. Major airports are rarely within riding distances of these great routes (though with Geneva you are fortunate) but even with Geneva as a base I believe there are few direct flights, so one usually has to fly into a major hub, then connect, via air, train, bus, etc.
    With CycleItalia, you’re picked up at this major hub (Milan’s MXP for these mountain tours, Rome’s FCO for others)eliminating one more chance for your luggage to be lost or mis-directed.
    Once everyone has arrived at our HQ, assembled their bike and enjoyed a shake-down ride and welcome dinner, we do make a van transfer the following morning directly into the mountains so the rides are “all mountains all the time”. From that point on you ride from hotel-to-hotel unless you choose to use our support vehicles which have a seat for EVERY participant at ALL times, something not so common with our competitors. At tour’s end you are shuttled back to the HQ hotel to pack your bike and enjoy a farewell dinner before airport shuttles the following morning. As there is no industry-standard definition of “fully supported tours” your readers should understand the price charged for any tour takes into consideration the services included such as lodging, on-road support, meals, (and whether wine is included with those meals) bike rental, airport shuttles and lots more. More services usually result in a higher price, but as someone once told me, “you might not always get what you pay for, but you NEVER get what you don’t pay for!” so a claim of “$4000 for two weeks” could be a bargain – or not, depending on ones definition of a “fully supported tour.”
    In closing I’d like to suggest your readers shop around. Just this year we ran into a fellow (not literally, he was coming up a climb we were descending in Liguria) who used to ride with Glen but this year joined a tour run by someone who used to work with Erickson, just as clients who used to ride with the operation we worked with “back in the day” switched when we created CycleItalia in 1998. There are a lot of choices out there — truly “something for everyone” as they say.
    Finally, for those who’ve yet to enjoy cycling in Europe — when you look back upon your life, will you remember the things you bought — or the things you DID?
    Our clients tell us over and over the cycling vacations they enjoy with CycleItalia have truly changed their lives and we know that’s not limited to just our vacations — it’s true of them all.

    1. Author

      Larry: I’ve got nothing but respect for you and the work you do. By all appearances Cycle Italia is a class operation.

      I’d really rather the comments section not get competitive, but I’ll respond to a few questions you raise:
      1. Many of my observations regarding the tour concern the France and the French Alps specifically. Contentions about Italy and anyone’s knowledge of Italy don’t seem applicable.
      2. The “claim” about shuttles isn’t theirs; it was mine. I was picked up at the airport and driven to the hotel from which we started. I didn’t get in a van again until I was driven to the airport in Nice, some 750 miles and 92,000 feet of climbing later. I don’t go to Europe to be driven around, full stop. That said, everyone who wanted a shuttle or even to skip a day of riding got that opportunity.
      3. $4000 with Erickson gets you, at minimum, a two week tour with lodging each night. Accommodations are usually two star, though some three stars creep in from time to time. All breakfasts are included and all but two dinners are included. On the road support can vary from guide to guide, but ours was exceptional. I saw the van once or twice each day and they always had snacks, water, soda, sometimes sandwiches and always a floor pump, which came in handy one day.

      These points are moot. Erickson’s operation is shrinking, rather than growing, but as you point out, there are many great choices out there; one of Glenn’s former guides who you met in Liguria, Larry Smith, is a very knowledgeable guy with great insight into fantastic roads for cycling. He also descends faster than gravity will permit. Larry started a new company called VeloSki Tours.

      I hope you’ll consider the spirit in which this post was written was about my idea of fun and how I like to tour. I’m not saying it is how everyone should do it, nor do I think it would work for everyone, but Glenn’s idea of fun frequently lines up with mine.

  3. Lachlan

    For me, this (your trip) is the stuff that defines why we ride, and what cycling is all about.

    Even if we don’t all get to do it very often, if at all!

    Thanks for sharing. I’m sure everyone is riding that little bit further, harder and higher thanks to it.

  4. Pingback: The Route des Grandes Alpes: the Maps | RKP

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