High on the shoulder of the Galibier

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.

The Col du Telegraphe can dull the smile on the cheeriest of folk.

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.

The Casse Déserte—it might look familiar from the Triplets of Belleville.

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.

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