Great movement is afoot. The tides of change rise with the moon and deposit treasures of all sorts on the shore of our cycling beach. Holy Moses! That’s a horrible metaphor.
Anyway, so far we’ve seen: Contador to Sungard – SaxoBank, Greipel to Omega Pharma-Lotto, Fränk and Ändy Schleck to Luxembourg – TBD, Jurgen Van de Walle to Omega Pharma – Lotto, and many more strong support riders shifting allegiances and lining up behind new leaders.
The one that sticks out for me is Team Radio Shack. This is a sponsor that got into the sport based on the ability of Lance Armstrong to draw eyeballs to their brand at the world’s biggest sporting event, the Tour de France. Now that Armstrong has ridden his last Tour (not to mention the questionable attention he’s attracting while under federal investigation), the Shack has a very large hole to fill.
Wanted: Tour de France winner not named Contador.
Johan Bruyneel and his seemingly deep-pocketed backers have to do something big, and they need to do it now. Star of the future Taylor Phinney is not going to win the 2011 Tour de France. We could talk about when the young American star WILL be ready to vie for the French podium, but we know it’s not going to be next year, so that leaves the transfer market.
With Contador estranged from Bruyneel, the next, obvious choice is Ändy Schleck, who looks like the only rider with a shot at besting the Spaniard. Schleck has left Bjarne Riis’ Saxo Bank team, but the Luxembourg-based squad he’s rumored to be leading has yet to coalesce. Though the overwhelming odds are that that team will in fact form, is there the outside possibility that Schleck could be coming to America?
The shadow player here could be Trek. With Armstrong’s exit, the American bicycle maker is losing its best representative in the pro ranks. Of course, Contador and Schleck both rode Specialized bicycles to Paris this year, and that can’t sit well with the big wigs at Trek. They too have a stake in placing a big winner at the Shack, if only to peg back Specialized who seem to have taken over as the top US brand.
As unlikely as it seems, a case could be made that Radio Shack and Trek need to make a hard run at Schleck or suffer the financial consequences. It’s no secret that the young Luxembourger has maintained an almost obsequious attitude toward Armstrong over the past year. Is that simple respect or business savvy?
If this odd scenario doesn’t play out, who will lead the Shack next year? Will they really bet their season on the aging legs of Leipheimer and Kloeden? Or is there another possible answer that we’re just not seeing? Does Janesz Brackovic become the new kid on the block? How salable is he as a marketing asset?
What do you think?
Photo: Jake Schoellkopf/ASSOCIATED PRESS
I used to have a cyclocomputer, a not very fancy one. It told me how slow I was going. It gave me my average lack of speed, my top slowness and the paltry total distance I’d covered. I hated it.
Of course when I first affixed its magnet and wired its sensor, I was excited. So this is what 25mph feels like. So that’s how far it is from my house to the end of my second water bottle. All this new information was fascinating. I used it to formulate boasts to friends about how much further I was riding than they were and how much faster I had climbed this hill or descended that one. I used it to measure my progress from the chilly beginnings of spring to the stiff breezes of leaf strewn autumn. And on some level, I just accepted that this was part of the equipment, part of the way you rode a bike.
Last summer, Wired told me about the boom in personal metrics measurement. Suddenly this trend that cycling has been following for years was spreading and “booming.” People loved and felt inspired by statistics. And with the proliferation of devices from Garmin and others that would quantify your work in dozens of different ways and allow you to make bar charts and graphs and multicolored pie representations of your everyday grind, who could blame them?
Why generate sweat when you can generate stats?
One day, about two years after I’d purchased my first such device, I was struggling into a headwind up a false flat staring down at its digital readout. 14.1 mph. Grunt. Groan. 14.2 mph. Muttered curses. 14.3 mph. Pain. Strain. Incredulity. 14.1 mph. Back and forth like this for a few minutes, all the time with my head down, all the time bouncing between 14.1 and 14.3 mph, in other words, working hard for no real gain with my head down and a growing frustration.
At some point, I had a revelation. I reached down, unplugged the computer and slid it forward out of its bracket, depositing it in a jersey pocket, before lifting my head, seeing both the forest AND the trees and riding off on my merry, if deeply fatigued, way.
I realized in that moment that I had, at some point over the preceding years, ceased to ride my bicycle. I had begun to ride my computer, and, in the end, it had ended up riding me. I had stopped collecting experiences on my bike and resorted only to collecting statistics. Perhaps worst of all, I had stopped seeing where I was going. I was the computer. The computer was me.
Computers don’t ride bicycles. They compute.
It was shocking to me how much more I enjoyed riding once I stopped measuring my rides. I became more aware of my form and position on the bike. I live in a beautiful part of the country, and I began to see it. I got faster, if not in actual digital terms, then certainly in my heart, because I felt faster. I swore then to reaffix my computer only after deep and careful thought about what doing so would get me.
I’m not sure where that thing went. I think it’s in a box in the garage.
Obviously, I understand why professionals use these tools. They earn their living by generating large numbers. They tune their rides by percentage of max heart rate or by speed intervals or by sustaining specific efforts for specific periods of time. And of course, the tools have become more and more sophisticated. The simple measurements I was taking years ago don’t complete the basic functions on today’s most basic units. There are GPS and power meters. There is software to chart progress (or lack thereof) over days/weeks/months/years.
Clearly, racing cyclists of every category who want to get better will want to measure their workouts and most of them do. I can see that even casual cyclists take some great satisfaction from the accumulation of data. I might just live in that odd middle space where I am neither casual in my cycling, nor very much interested in racing. I suppose though, it matters what and whom you are racing.
A zen master once said, “When you are drinking tea, only drink tea,” and, for me, this applies to the bicycle as well. When I am riding my bike, I try only to ride my bike. I don’t concern myself with speed, fitness or progress. Those things are elusive. They come and go. When I ride, I become fit. I progress. I go fast. Except when I ride myself right out of fitness, speed and progress. The form dips and swerves. The consequences of my riding change and shift, but the riding is always there.
For me, measurement started as a curious and entertaining diversion, but ended as an obstacle. Somewhere along the fault line of the pro-hobbyist divide, technology and science have interceded. Those who wish to race, if not professionally, then certainly as the pros do, have followed them down the statistical path. It is, perhaps, a hobby within the hobby, neither bad nor good, but simply another thing you can do with your bicycle.
I’ve left it far behind now. Occasionally I wonder exactly how fast I’m going, but the thought passes. I’m going fast enough.
When I was last in the Maritime Alps, roughly ten years ago, I did a ride that has remained on my list of all-time greats. That loop, starting and finishing in Barcelonette, was included in the tour I’m doing now. Indeed, it was one of the features that attracted me to this tour.
In broad strokes, the ride heads south from Barcelonette. A few kilometers out of town you turn right and begin climbing the Col d’Allos. It’s a 19km Category 1 climb and reaches 2247 meters. You descend until you reach the left turn that begins the climb up the 12km ascent of the Col de Champs. It tops out at 2045 meters. Then you descend to the left turn that leads to the climb up the Col de la Cayolle. The ascent of the Cayolle is 20km and reaches a height of 2326 meters; as such it is an hors categorie climb. From there you drop back to Barcelonette. Easy peasy, provided you think of 75 miles and 10,500 feet of elevation gain as easy.
I know the jump between feet and meters can be a bit confusing; sorry for that. I’m pulling data from multiple sources and there’s a bit of a culture clash, and, frankly, it’s all I can do to get this post done tonight.
Unlike the climbs we did in the northern Alps, the gradient was more consistent with each of these climbs. My legs say it was generally between five and seven percent, though there were exceptions.
The descents off of each of these climbs were to adult fun what Disney Land was to childhood fun. To do three descents of such variety, beauty and fun on a single day hardly seems possible. I commented to another rider when we stopped for a photo that I was having a “pinch me” moment. I just needed to make sure I really was there, really was having that much fun. Honestly, though, my dreams are never this good.
Were someone to compile a bucket list of great rides, this is a sleeper that should make everyone’s list. The climbs aren’t super-famous, but they each share a rich history and should rightfully be given their due respect. I’ll do another post that comments on some of the history of the climbs I’ve done on this trip. On two occasions today I actually stopped on descents for photos just because I couldn’t believe how beautiful the scenery was and the fact that the roads winding through these landscapes had an elegant line, sweeping and looping like a Bach melody.
Even if I lived here this isn’t a loop I could do weekly. It’s extraordinarily difficult, but the reward that comes from looking out at the Alps from those passes, threading those descents and rolling back to the hotel gives a satisfaction that most races I competed in could never match. Years from now when I’m too old to ride, today is a day I’ll recall and that will suffice for what I can no longer achieve.
Ten years ago this past June I entered the Ubaye Valley with a group of friends on a tour of Provence and the Maritime Alps. We dropped out of the mountains to the west and into a tiny town called Barcelonette. Though the town was founded in the 13th century, it features an unusual cultural quirk—the inhabitants have a fondness for Mexico.
It started with a pair of brothers who moved from the nearby town of Jausiers to Mexico in the 1800s where they proceeded to make a fortune. Back home, news of their success spread and others emigrated and began businesses. Unfortunately, not everyone was so successful and many returned to France.
When they returned home to Barcelonette they brought a taste of their (briefly) adopted home with them. Mexican flavors were blended into dishes and Mexican influences infiltrated the architecture and art.
Barcelonette sports another unusual feature: The valley it sits in is surrounded by a number of high cols. A cursory list would include the Col d’Allos, the Col de la Cayolle, the Col de la Bonette, the Col de Vars as well as Pra Loup.
A spur road off of the Col de la Bonette, called the Cime de la Bonette, loops out at the pass, rising to 2860 meters (9383 feet), making it the highest paved through-road (not dead end) in Europe, according to Michelin and local signage. As claims go, it’s true enough, but it’s a weak achievement, relatively speaking, as the cime is a road to nowhere. Still, climbing up the steep loop is well worth it as the views from the top are to spectacular what the Ferrari California is to sports cars.
When my group reached the Col de la Bonette in 2000, high walls of snow drove down the balmy air temperature, giving the breeze a walk-in freezer vibe. The pass itself had just been plowed through but the road to the cime was impassible. We really couldn’t even tell where the road went.
Today, I got to amend that ride and climb to the top of the Cime de la Bonette. The 24km climb averages a bit more than six percent, but when you reach the cime, the road kicks up to more than eight percent, making the final 400 meters surprisingly difficult.
By the time you reach the top you’ve been above the treeline for at least 7km, so views of the surrounding valleys are completely open.
The Cime de la Bonette is the high point of our tour and the third time we’ve ascended above 9000 feet. Our second occasion to climb past 9000 was just yesterday when we did a simple out and back climb to the top of the Col Agnel which rises to 2744 meters (9003 feet). It’s the highest international pass in the Alps, and the road leads to Cuneo, in Piedmont, Italy.
Both the Agnel and the Bonette were used in the 2008 Tour de France. Both were given the rank of hors categorie.
Knowing that we had two big days ahead of us, most of us chose simply to turn around after reaching the top. It was difficult to resist dropping down the other side. The views, even for the Alps, were stunning, but the descent was steep and we heard that the restaurants in the nearest town were booked solid with lunch reservations.
Our hotel was in the town of St. Veyran, half way up the climb from Chateau Queyras, making the climb roughly 10km, not the 20 it is from Chateau Queyras.
And while I have previously wished that we were sleeping at sea level, or something close to it, the fact that I didn’t have any nausea on yesterday or today’s climbs, and experienced a minimal loss in wattage on either the Col de Vars or the Cime de la Bonette today leads me to think that maybe I’m beginning to acclimate to the altitude.
I seem to be managing the fatigue to some degree. I’m not crushed by it, but it’s hard to ride even at a tempo pace on these incredibly long climbs. I’ve found myself thinking, “Okay, 12km to go; that’s the length of Latigo Canyon in Malibu. Okay, 8km to go; that’s the length of Piuma in Malibu.” The lengths of these climbs are just surreal.
The memory from today that lingers with me is of descending the Cime de la Bonette. The portion of the descent above the treeline offered extraordinary views of the road ahead and I could see whether or not cars were coming sometimes up to 500 meters ahead, which gave me the chance to take the whole of the road as I dropped down the shoulder of the mountain. Even below the treeline, the sightline was good and I only had to hit my brakes for the switchbacks.
The weather is, finally, spectacular.
I’m in the middle of nowhere, a landscape very reminiscent of California’s Central Valley, driving my car with the stereo turned up, deep in my own thoughts and not looking at instrument panel when I notice I’ve missed a turn I’m supposed to take. I double back, make my turn and start to accelerate, but nothing happens.
The car will still drive but won’t do more than about 20 mph. I pull over to figure out what to do about my car. I’m in a casino. The phone rings. It’s a reader who ordered special RKP-embroidered boxers. I recall his name and tell him I mailed them out before departing for a trip.
And in this dream, I have business partners. One is the son of an old industry friend. As it turns out, the reader who is calling me is standing next to me in the elevator and is flabbergasted to meet me. We both marvel at the coincidence of location.
The meeting takes moments. Nothing is decided. Everyone leaves.
I’m left to drive away from the middle of nowhere in a car stuck in first gear.
There’s a bit of salt water in my left ear, just that little bit you can’t get out and drives you crazy. On occasion I am still discovering some heretofore unidentified patch of sand dried to my skin. My hair has that brittle feel it gets when the sea and sun are allowed to work on it for days on end. I have been, Dear Watson, on vacation.
As some of you have by now surmised Padraig and I are both on summer holidays this week, he on an epic trek across legendary peaks, I at the beach with the family. It remains to be seen which of us has undertaken the more grueling adventure.
Vacations are almost never what you think they’ll be. I had primed myself for hours of peaceful riding with the Atlantic Ocean hard by my side, but then the first day in this sleepy beach haven I seriously compromised the function of my left big toe with an ill-advised game of beach soccer. Unable since to push off on my left foot, my bicycle was given an impromptu break of its own, in our beach cabin’s mildewy garage.
That humble cabin affords no television or internet signal whatsoever, so it is only by dint of a quick trip through town that I was able to learn that Bjarne Riis has managed to land with all four paws on the ground, a clever trick that answers most of the questions I asked in a piece about the aforementioned Dane only a few short months ago. Could his new team win Roubaix, Flanders AND the Tour next season? How do you say, “Hell, yes!” in Danish? Old Bjarne has now, officially, earned a vacation of his own.
After sitting on my ass for several revolutions of the Earth on its axis, I was beyond ready to remount my bike and, whatever the toe might have to say, to don the uniform of the Red Kite People, if only to roll as far as the local barrista. I have an image to maintain after all, and the lotion-slathered hordes of this quaint hamlet had to be made aware of our fair site here. It was my job to make them aware that our target market is slow, hobble-footed cyclists with large, caffeine-addicted simians on their backs. Birds of a feather, and all that.
Three miles into my ride I had already begun to violate my stated goal of simply spinning along the coastline, pushing no mean gear, sweating no unnecessary sweat. I saw a rider on the hill ahead and my inner-idiot stomped on the pedals, and then I was on his wheel. After a quick breather I said, “Good morning,” and moved past to take a pull. He seemed glad for the break. It was hot and humid, and were both already in full lather. We began to ride and to chat. I received the basic information: New Jersey, Environmental Engineer, three rides a week, in groups, loves his Orbea carbon, and his kids.
We worked our way down the beachline until I began to worry that my hall pass was nearing expiration. We exchanged fist bumps and I slowed for an about face when all of a sudden a fellow blew past going the other way, head down, legs churning. I looped fast and sprinted for his wheel. I didn’t catch it nearly as quickly as I’d hoped to, but I never do.
My new friend was wearing headphones, and it was only a good-natured smile and a willingness to shelter in my slipstream that indicated any initial connection at all. We went on like that for a bit, quietly, quickly, when I nearly pole-axed a jogger, straying like a Belgian dog across the path. We both laughed aloud as our non-wheeled friend WHOOPED and skipped out of the way.
Then the headphones came off and a real conversation got under way. My friend (Specialized Roubaix Elite) was a bit older than myself, tall, thin, with the reedy legs of a natural climber. He talked to me about riding the Rockies with his son, about commuting on Long Island and about losing his wife to ovarian cancer just a year ago.
After retiring early (he couldn’t have been 60), the wife took ill for the second time. The first had been breast cancer. Just as they were starting a new life together, she was gone. “It sucked,” was his summation. He went back to work. I asked if retirement hadn’t suited him. “Oh, fuck no!” he laughed. “I loved being retired.” But after losing his best friend, a lucrative job offer gave him some purpose, some way to keep from drifting in self-pity.
“I’d say I could imagine,” I offered, “but that would be a lie.”
I told him some of my story, happily married, two little boys, and he said, “It’s not going to get any better than that. Your next ten years will be the best time of your life. Enjoy it.” We were quiet again for a bit after that. The flat of the rail trail we’d been working had given way to some back road rollers. The ocean blinked in and out of site between the trees.
On the climbs we rode side-by-side.
Next I learned that his father had just died. He was back in this little beach community to spend some time with his mother, to get his head straight, and to process another large helping of grief. “It’s all about the attitude, isn’t it?” he said, and glanced at me sideways.
We were coming back into the town I was staying in. He asked for directions that would double the distance we’d done together, and I gave them. We stopped. We shook hands. Friends. I don’t know his name.
And then I rode up a lane and over a dale and around a bend and into the dirt driveway of our cabin, sweaty, and tired.
Two little boys can make a mockery of a vacation. My gimpy toe had foiled my plans to unwind into headwinds, to sweat out the impurities of the day job and breathe in the salty sea air. I was in a crap mood, hot and tired, when I left, but when I returned I was restored, in part, yes, because I’d ridden my bike, but also too because I’d connected with another person who reminded me what kind of luck you need to have your vacation ruined by two little monsters of your own making and to still have the pretty girl who gave them to you to pat you on the head and send you out on the goddamn bike to begin with.
Photo of Aad van den Hoek by Cor Vos
I’m currently staying in the village of St. Veran. It lies at the highest elevation of any French community that is occupied year-round. We’re in the Queyras, a region of France so deep within the Alps that even as these mountains go, this is out-of-the-way.
The last two days would rank as two of the harder days of riding I’ve encountered on a back-to-back basis, save for the fact that the day into Val d’Isere was stunningly hard. The ride was difficult by any standard, but the cold, wet, wind and minor bonk put me in the whipping shed.
When we left Val d’Isere (which lies at 1930m) two days ago we immediately embarked on the 16km climb of the Col de l’Iseran. For us it was only 16km (only!), because by staying in Val d’Isere, we were effectively cutting the climb in two. The north ascent, from Bourg St. Maurice, is a whopping 47km. We rather conveniently knocked out the first 31km just getting to our hotel.
As we neared the top of the 2764-meter Iseran, the temperature dropped precipitously and while there were clouds, no rain fell. What did happen was that snow started to fall. It was a flurry, to be sure, and a light one at that, but snow says a thing or two about temperature and if snow is falling, it’s not exactly balmy.
The descent of the Iseran involved far fewer turns than most of the Alpine cols I’ve climbed on this trip and I’m not one to ride the brakes for the sake of it. Without a GPS I would periodically check my speed by seeing if I could get the 50×12 high gear I had to bite. No dice. If I can’t even get the freehub to catch I’m north of 45mph. My fingers would have been more comfortable gripping ice cubes. I kept telling myself that the only thing that would alleviate the numbness was less altitude; the faster I dropped, the warmer I’d get. My high speed also kept me ahead of traffic. The few cars I encountered pulled over to let me by.
A big chunk of the day involved riding down this river valley through Modane and toward St. Michel de Maurienne. Despite a near constant loss of elevation we rode more than 50km directly into the teeth of the wind.
My preference would have been to head for St. Jean de Maurienne and sleep at the lowest altitude possible. Instead, we ascended the 18km to Valloire, but fortunately the last 4km are downhill into the ski town. Of course, that left the Galibier hanging, sword of Damocles style outside the window of our hotel.
We began yesterday by climbing another 17km to the top of the Col du Galibier. The pitches of eight and nine percent come at your legs as a bullfighter—a poke here, a jab there. The final 12 percent stretch to the top of the pass is the coup de grace. No matter how cold it is at 2645m, you stop. You have to. You can’t not get your picture at that sign. It’s like trying not to look at a car crash.
The descent off the Galibier: Big fun. The left turn at the Col du Lauteret and the drop into Briançon in Saturday traffic: Not priceless. As I and one of my companions threaded traffic into town one woman with a baby in her car shut the door on me—nearly putting me into a rock wall—with such verve that a dispatch was sent to Los Angelenos and a collective cheer went up. With her bumper inches from the wall I squeezed through in the debris-filled gutter and my companion suggested that she might do well to have a romantic encounter with one of the regions Turkish denizens. My French isn’t so good; there’s a fair chance that it was less a suggestion than an outright command and the encounter he had in mind might not have been of the candlelight variety.
The north ascent of the Col de l’Izoard starts meters from the south side of town with no ceremony. After riding through town for several kilometers in dense traffic, we made a tight right turn and the road suddenly turned up. The word “shocking” came to mind. I made a U-turn and headed 50 meters back into town for a Coke and tarte citron before letting the firing squad do their bit. Blindfold? Thank you. Cigarette? Yes.
The Izoard was one of the more forested and less spectacular ascents I’ve done. At least, that was the case until I climbed above the treeline. Then it was a stunner. However, marking progress was a challenge. The signs counted up and the math didn’t seem likely to add up to what I thought the actual length of the climb was. While it’s helpful to go from 15km to 16km, the climb was (according to Michelin) 21.5km long and when I saw 25km I knew that not everyone was working from the same set of figures. Climbs get longer when you can’t count them down.
Think back on the narrowest road you’ve ever descended. Now, think back on the twistiest road you’ve ever descended. Add them together. What’s that spell? Casse Déserte. The Casse Déserte is the section of the Izoard that looks a bit like a moonscape and is the highest portion of the road on the south face. Boxers aspire to be this brutal.
It’s, uh, shy on vegetation. Fausto Coppi used this section to help seal his reputation as the greatest climber of his generation. It is in this several kilometer stretch that the memorial to Coppi and Louison Bobet was erected. The monuments were mounted to a rock outcropping perched of above a mortal expanse. Riders climbing the south face enter this section following a very brief downhill and in July it bakes them like the day’s pain.
If I had the fitness, I’d do repeats of the Casse Déserte. It looks like a spectacularly demoralizing ascent and as drops go, roller coasters wish they offered such thrills.
Without needles of cold wrecking my fingers, I relished the drop down the rest of the Izoard. I had a bigger gear, a 50×11, but still couldn’t get it to bite too often. And while I thought that meant I must be close to 50 mph, the road surface and visibility gave me confidence that I was, if not outright safe, then at least under adequate control, kinda like when you have a firm grip on a cobra just behind its head.
The climb up to St. Veyran bore one striking similarity to the climb up the Col du Telegraphe. The higher I climbed, the better I felt. My fastest pace came in the last two kilometers before entering town.
I have no idea what’s going on.
When I do European tours, I ride them for a few different reasons. First and foremost is my desire to see a place that is not les Etats Unis. Second is my desire to have a genuine adventure—to do some hard riding and have some thrilling descents. Also, I like to encounter the frustration that comes with getting lost in a strange place, eat new foods, struggle with a foreign language and meet fascinating people.
In the course of doing all this, I generally hope that I’ll gain some new insight into myself, that I’ll learn something that adds a level of understanding or complexity to my world. Sometimes that understanding comes in the guise of plumbing new depths as a rider, or it may come as a newfound appreciation of foreign cultures and their subtleties. On a few occasions it has unfolded as an existential curiosity about why I bother to ride a bicycle and why I choose to write about it.
To be honest, right now, I’m in a very different place. It’s, shall we say, much more elemental. I feel like some rookie cop who has heard that gang members may shoot at him, but then, when confronted with his city’s mean streets, looks at his partner and says, “Dude, they’re shooting!”
I have gas enough to fill a hot air balloon. I’ve developed diaper rash by the end of the ride most days. Back home, I almost never eat red meat; here, I have some almost every day because the alternative would almost certainly result in bonking. As a result of all the red meat, I smell weird. Not just body odor, mind you, but the gas is foul and even my urine reeks. I’m eating so many calories—or at least trying to—that I’m pooping at least twice and sometimes three times in a day. And yes, they smell like someone opened the fridge a week after the power went out.
I went into this trip with the best fitness I’ve had in years. Three days of cold and wet mauled me, forcing me to burn matches I was saving for later in the trip. Yesterday was the killer, arguably the tour’s queen stage, in which we climbed the Col du Galibier, the Col de l’Izoard and into the town of St. Veran, which lies in the shadow of the Col d’Agnel, about two-thirds the way up.
Or is it really as bad as I think? It took me most of the day to ride 64 miles, but we also climbed at least 10,000 vertical feet including two hors categorie cols. I road at a subsistence pace because the fatigue goes down to the bone, but any time the gradient wasn’t 10 percent, I could get on top of a real gear, not the bailout 34×32 (more on that in another post).
RKP‘s Top 10 Reasons Padraig Rode Like Crap:
- I’ve got a pinched nerve that kills my neck if I go too hard and long.
- My mother called to say she was joining the Jesuits.
- Sleeping at 2000m altitude has eliminated the notion of recovery.
- I can’t process beef protein unless it is accompanied by beer.
- My legs are too tired to pedal a low gear at a high cadence.
- My iPod died.
- This is the sixth day in a row I’ve climbed more than 7000 feet.
- Ugly may only be skin deep but cold goes all the way to the marrow.
- Maybe I shouldn’t stay up until midnight installing bike parts.
- I’m saving my strength for the really hard days ahead.
As it turns out, at least one of the reasons above is really true. First correct guess gets RKP stickers.
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.
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.
The descent off of the south side of the Col de Saisies is a terrific drop with switchbacks and gentle chicanes. However, for those looking for more impressive views and a descent worthy of Mel Gibson’s career, there’s a small road at the end of town that takes a different, far more switchbacked route to the valley below.
I’ve been dreaming about riding this road since the first time I rode it, back in 1999. It’s a double-chevroned affair, pitching between eight and 10 percent most of the way down.
After Monday’s ride, an amusement park attraction like this road was just what we needed.
You won’t see any pictures from Monday’s 80-ish miles and more than 8000-feet of climbing (over the Col de Cou and the Col de Feu) because it rained the whole day (though there were a few minutes here or there in which water stopped actively falling from the sky). I was well prepared, but it’s not the sort of ride I’d want to do for two straight weeks, nor was I willing to sacrifice my camera.
Light rain greeted us at breakfast but by the time we were ready to pull out of Taninges, the rain had stopped and the streets were beginning to dry.
We rolled from the hotel and headed for the Col de la Colombiere, a Category 1 climb used in this year’s Tour de France. In fact, we rode a fair chunk of stage 9’s course. At 16.5km, the Colombiere was tough, but the worst was reserved for the final few kilometers at the top, enough so that the climb averages 6.7 percent. We made a quick stop at our van for food and drinks and began the drop, which, all things considered was probably my favorite descent of the day.
Coming over the top of the Colombiere, I was amazed at just how quickly the road sank and I was reminded of this Graham Watson shot of Dag-Otto Lauritzen coming over the top of the Col du Glandon in 1988. The look on his face says it all.
The next climb we tackled was the Category 2 Col des Aravis. On the whole, it wasn’t so bad; at 7.6km and an average gradient of 5.9 percent, it reminded me of a fair number of climbs I do in Malibu. It was chilly at the top, and we spent just a short time at our van before heading down to the town of Flumet for lunch.
Immediately upon crossing a bridge in Flumet you begin the ascent of the Col des Saisies. This Category 1 climb averages only 5.1 percent, but that figure is deceptive. There are kilometers that average three percent while other kilometers average eight percent. The changes in pitch were disruptive to my rhythm, but honestly, the flatter pitches were welcome.
The best news of the day was that Albertville—no, we didn’t continue on to the Col de la Madeleine—where out hotel was located, was 26km away and nearly every meter was downhill.
We’re taking some liberties with the actual Route des Grandes Alpes. When we ride out of Albertville, the route heads up the Cormet de Roselend, some 24km uphill from the point we finished the descent of the Col de Saisies. That’s not what we’re doing Wednesday.