Hors Categorie

The Col de Pré was crazy steep by any standard.

When I think back on the coldest, wettest and, ultimately, hardest days I’ve had on the bike, I can’t come up with any where I was seemingly inches from disaster the whole day. This is one of those stake-in-the-ground days. Spoiler alert: It hasn’t made me feel more PRO.

Wednesday, we rode from our hotel in Albertville to the top of the Col de la Madeleine via the northern route. A whopping 26 kilometers to 2000 meters of elevation. I’d forgotten that more than a few of the kilometers tick by with average gradients of nine or 10 percent. It’s a climb of a level of difficulty that other than the Rocky Mountains, very few places in the United States have climbs that can compare. There’s just no way to prepare for a climb this hard unless you live in the shadow of a mountain, a big one.

And in one of the only events of my life where I found a flat to be a relief, after we had finished our Cokes and slices of pie, I grabbed my bike and discovered—Quelle surprise!—I had a very flat tire. Suddenly, the soft rear tire I had imagined was slowing my progress over the last 4km wasn’t so imagined.

So that’s why I was so slow at the end.

Thursday’s route was simple enough on paper. Leave the hotel in Albertville, climb the Cormet de Roselend, descend into Bourg St. Maurice and then tackle the gentle ascent to Val d’Isere. But paper is for fiction and toilets.

Our group decided to climb the Col de Pré before hooking up with the last 7km of ascent to the top of the Cormet de Roselend. For the record: When someone tells you, “The Alps aren’t as steep as the Pyrenees,” what they are telling you is that they’ve watched Versus and they’ve heard Phil and Paul say that the climbs in the Alps used by the Tour de France aren’t as steep as the climbs used in the Pyrenees.

I’m here to tell you that the Col de Pré is one of the toughest climbs I’ve ever done. Category 1 or not, there were sustained pitches of 10 and 12 percent. What passed for a false flat was six percent. And as I mentioned, it was raining. As a matter of total fact, the higher we climbed, the harder it rained. I don’t know how that works in cold weather. I’ve been places that were hot and the rain evaporated before getting to sea level and I’ve seen snow at 2000 feet turn to rain by sea level, but I’ve never experienced no rain at 2000 feet become driving rain at 5000 feet. There’s a mechanism to this and I need it explained to me.

The red kite is always good news, as was the easier grade.

We reached the pass and headed for the van for food and other assistance. At the time, I was wearing bibs, base layer, jersey, arm warmers and rain cape. My legs were slathered with an embrocation from Sportique that I’ll be reviewing soon. I pulled on knee warmers (knee warmers over embro is a first for me) and one of our guides who was driving the van gave me his Campagnolo wind breaker to add on top of my rain cape. I was still cold—numb toes, even.

The descent of the east face of the Cormet de Roselend was almost recklessly fast because my brakes didn’t work too well. It seemed to take an extra 100 feet to get them to bite. I was sleeted on for several kilometers, which added a novel sting to the rain. Think of it as a cold sandblast at 40 mph. And then there was the Peugeot Clio that raced me down the first pitch, passed me and then left me no room to pass and half the braking distance I needed upon entering each turn. With each successive turn I wondered if I’d have my own personal Davis Phinney moment with its back windshield.

Eventually I did find an opportunity to pass the Clio but by this time the descent was even steeper and what I had yet to realize was that I had so thoroughly burned through my brake pads that the reason my fingertips hurt was because I was bottoming out the lever against the bar. Who knew?

I approached one right-hand switchback only to see a camper swing into view; I braked even harder, to little avail. Just as I was to breathe again a motorcycle swung into view, and another, and another. I realized that my choices given my tepid drop in speed were to turn hard and hope I don’t end up on my hip—which seemed unlikely—or shoot for the outside of the switchback and pass—no matter how hazardously—between motos two and three.

The driver of moto three shook his head at me just as you would for anyone after they had committed an act that, if deliberate, would qualify as the dumbest thing you’d seen this year. I suppose he was a bit frightened. Not half as much as I was.

In Bourg St. Maurice I found a bar and ordered chocolat chaud, twice. My companions arrived during my second, ordered one each and before I could get a sandwich and Coke, were out the door. The caloric math for me wasn’t good. With roughly 30k to ride—and all uphill—I knew my tank didn’t have the reserves, but I vowed to stick with the boys (the buddy system is smart, right?) and make for the hotel. It wasn’t long before I’d downed the last of my Shot Blocks and an Accel Gel.

As expected, I did have to turn to one of my companions with 10km to go and announce that my personal idiot light was on. I made for Tignes, just 4km for our hotel and marched into the first bar I found. Despite the tobacco fog, I marched in and two Cokes and one Nestlé crunch bar later I was big-ringing it through the last four tunnels.

As tough a climb as the Col de la Madeleine was, when I think hors categorie, I will forever associate that phrase with today’s ride, not yesterday’s. I’m told (and I have to rely on others because my Garmin isn’t working) the ride was 60 miles and not the 8500 feet of climbing I tweeted, but a whopping 10,000. That’s 133 feet of climbing per mile—the highest ratio I’ve ever personally encountered.

I assumed at some point I’d reach an existential curiosity about what I was doing. ‘Why bother?’ is a fair question. What I didn’t expect was that I’d be so close to hypothermia for hours on end and that I’d encounter a descent so dangerous that I’d wish, simply, for it to end. When you can’t enjoy one of your favorite pursuits in the world, the questions start coming. And while the questions might be troubling, the answers are even more so. I can’t trust a sun dial built for anything that rises in the west.

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  1. Randomactsofcycling

    What a day!
    This is coffee shop fodder for years to come. It’ll only be a couple of days before you begin to recollect this punishment with a smile! We cyclists are funny like that.

  2. Souleur

    I have never had such privilage, but I do understand from some that the Col de la Madeleine is perhaps as hard of a climb as anything in Europe, right up there and perhaps harder than w/Alpe d’Huez and Tourmalet.

    I’ve had cheap hard days in the midwest, some in the Rockies. Days like this in Europe, which I am not about to say I have had, are ones you find yourself. Stripped down to your essence, stripped of pride and guts, you find just what your made of. Its distinguishing for ‘the rider’. Its not for those who quit, and lets admit it, that is the easy thing to do and far too many of our friends and non-cycling neighbors would go back to the hotel spa.

  3. Jim

    Some of the better rides I’ve had, in retrospect, have come on days where I got stripped down to survival mode, tested myself and came through. There was this day at camp in early March when it snowed, I got dropped in the mountains, the left crank arm fell off, I got wayyy lost, rode up dirt roads to mountain tops, then got back to the hotel near dark, hypothermic, out of food, after cruising in the last 10 miles on a shoulderless 4 laner that I guessed would lead to the right destination. In our hearts, we know that experiences like this are why we do it; to test ourselves, to bury ourselves so deep that the troubles at work, home, in our past or looming in our future are off the map for a few hours or a day or two. It’s no consolation when we are truly suffering, but after, we have the kind of good and true pride that can’t be stripped from us, a pride stemming from real achievement; as well as having had peace in our minds for having undertaken a couple hours of struggle. Well done, Padraig; you came through. Hang in there.

    1. Author

      Thanks for the great and supportive comments everyone. Yesterday was really more than I bargained for. Today is the Iseran and I’m just hoping it’s not so steep as, well, as anything I did yesterday.

  4. Marco Placero

    Padraig, there is no explanation other than that you’ve ascended to the realm of the Cycling Gods. The spirits of Coppi and Anquetil are watching you, so push down harder on the pedals!

    1. Author

      Marco: I’ve met a cycling god or two and put their pictures on my wall. But I am little more than the cautionary tale, a Sisyphus who thinks the work is fun.

  5. Gary

    Please keep the stories of your cycling heroism coming. I love personal accounts of epic climbs… and the descents. Every year I hope to one day ride in the “tire-tracks” of the great racers of Europe. Every year it seems I have to settle for living vicariously through the stories written by intrepid cycle-adventurers, such as you. In the meantime, I’ll keep training for that day and when I finally get there, I won’t forget to pack a couple spare sets of brake pads.

    Thank you.

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