The Bucket List

The Bucket List

One of the hallmarks of first-world life is the bucket list. Only people living in the first world can contemplate a list of great accomplishments that their lives will somehow be incomplete without having experienced. For most of the rest of the world, just living a life free from poverty and food insecurity is pretty darn good. If you can add a good education for yourself and your kids, you’ve done awfully well.

For many of us, there’s this list of Forest Gump-like accomplishments that when aggregated would have been unthinkable for most Americans and Europeans just 30 years ago. Nothing against that list. I want to see the world and its incredible diversity.

What ought to make up that list? That’s a fair question. For cyclists, it’s frequently dominated by the big. Climbing l’Alpe d’Huez, the Col du Galibier, the Telegraphe, the Tourmalet. It’s hard to knock that desire. Certainly, I succumbed to it. The siren song of the Col de l’Iseran gave me one of the most uncomfortable days I’ve had on the bike. The snow, the hoarfrost, the bitter cold, they make for a great story, but it’s not a ride I want to do again … at least, not in those temperatures.

I’m as guilty of selling the suffering as anyone out there. It’s in suffering, in our supplication to a larger effort, the effort to strip the world down to its least denominator that we learn startling truths about ourselves. Those efforts can reveal much about how we define ourselves, the achievements that give us satisfaction, the terms we use to define our lives. So while there’s a real and valuable place for those pursuits in our lives, I admit that there are times when I wonder if it shouldn’t be balanced with other exploits that demand not quite so much of us.

This notion has been rattling around in my gray matter for almost 20 years. When I was younger, I wanted nothing but the toughest challenges I could throw myself at. Anything less seemed like a wasted opportunity. Then one day on a climb in the Vercors tour company owner Glenn Erickson confided in me, “The high Alps are what people come to ride. It’s the gentler rides here in the Vercors that get them coming back.”

It made no sense to me at the time.

Fast forward a couple of years and the final day of yet another Erickson trip saw me climbing mountains in the Cote d’Azur. These climbs, compared to the leviathans of the Tour, were more modest in both elevation and grade. Rather than three hours in ascent, these more modest mounts required but an hour, and on the drop, their grades, which never top six percent, made descending a playful exercise where gravity seemed not so deathly.

The same experience played out a few years later in the Pyrenees. While climbing the Tourmalet and Marie Blanque sold the trip, the most enjoyable riding was in the Basque Country near the coast, where the climbs didn’t pierce the sky, the sloping roads looped and wound back toward town and velocity seemed not so terminal.

I’ve just returned from a week of riding in Corsica and I find myself asking the same thing yet again. Why don’t more cycling vacations focus on a really enjoyable riding? I respect that many tour providers out there try to keep the rides short enough so that they don’t become death marches over multiple hors categorie climbs, but what I don’t understand is why more tours don’t focus on the Western Pyrenees, the Cote d’Azur, Corsica.

The Corsican terrain was the sort of breathtaking that only happens when mountains drop into the ocean. And steep, a term that’s as relative as spice, isn’t how anyone describes these roads. The velocities aren’t terminal, the turns consistent, cambered.

As valuable as it is to take time off to stretch oneself, there’s something to be said for heading out for a ride in a foreign place in simply reveling in its beauty, relishing what it means to have the good fortune to be alive and riding a bike in a place of unfamiliar charms. There’s as much to be gained by recharging as there is to discharging.


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  1. Andrew

    Absolutely. I go to Europe with some frequency to visit a friend in Zurich, and we typically go off to do the “bucket list” rides- Stelvio, Gavia, etc. But in all honesty, the riding in the “foothills” right around Zurich and the lakes is better, much better. Up and down and up and down and around and “wheee !!” as opposed to “and now we will miserable for the next 3 hours”.

  2. Shawn

    Because we’re maximizers. Good enough is for everyone else: we can afford the top, the best, the supreme experience. We don’t go to the mountains and leave the summit sitting on the table. That’s for the weak. We ride the same bikes as the pros so we can ride their courses too. We don’t settle for a merely good — we demand greatness. We’re Americans, and we go big or go home. It’s who we are.

    Who’s with me? C’mon now! Let’s rise to the peak! F-yeah!

  3. RSN

    Agreed. One of my favorite cycling trips was based from a hotel on Italy’s Adriatic coast. The largest climb was 70 miles and 1400m up to San Marino, but most days were under 60 miles and 1000m of rollers. And then we’d finish in time for salumi and a swim and a nap.

  4. Quentin

    Mt. Evans in Colorado (28 miles, 7000 foot gain, 14000 foot summit) may well be more extreme than any climb in a grand tour, so Americans simply wanting to challenge themselves in a big way needn’t cross the pond to do so. I suspect the appeal is ultimately about riding the roads you saw your favorite pros ride on TV, another case where the influence of professional racing on cycling culture sometimes makes us forget the fact that we probably all started this because it was fun.

  5. Rick

    I was fortunate enough to finally do a “bucket list” ride at the end of September in Tuscany for my 50th. It was the Rapha Tuscany Retreat and it was a fantastic time. We had a home base that all rides started and ended at (with the exception of a one way ride to Siena one day). We were very lucky in that the weather was perfect (80F and sunny) and a good group of people. A variety of skill levels from lifetime riders to people only riding about six months. It accommodated all of these skill levels; there were opportunities to ride hard, especially going uphill – which being from Chicago – I am definitely not used to. I am in pretty good shape for my age and with my late season fitness level found this to be just right for me. One of the best parts was riding on Strade Bianche. It ended a couple of days before L’Eroica, so while I got to visit Gaoile and see them setting up we left before the actual race. Now the challenge is saving up to do it again- either in Italy or somewhere else. The Tuscan countryside is simply stunning.

  6. Winky

    A couple of buddies and I spent great week in Piedmont a few years ago. Wonderful. Nothing like suffering on the monster climbs of the Pyrenees. But I keep going back to Pyrenees, not to Piedmont. Strange isn’t it?

  7. Michael

    I just got back from spending 3 weeks in Wales. Country roads, up and down, small tracks, no traffic. It was bloody brilliant.

    I spent the same amount of time last year in the Vosges region. Stellar riding!

    3 years ago it was Slovenia. WOW.

    I far prefer off the beaten path great riding area than heading to the Alps, Pyrennees et al.

  8. Patrick

    After 15 years criss-crossing Europe, checking off famed passes and routes I was pleasantly surprised to find a Midi-Pyrenees 10-day trip last summer very enjoyable. Rolling country roads, foothills, farms, yet also sizable passes. Nearby Foix has lots of charm and was a daily stop for large cold pints. Highly recommended. We stayed at Bed Breakfast Bike Pyrenees which set up everything, even carbon Specialized rides:

  9. Mark in Bremerton

    Wife and I did a self-guided tour down the Danube on a tandem two years ago. After I adjusted my mindset from “how fast can we go” to “slow down and enjoy the sights”, it turned into a magical ride. We’re planning another next summer around Lake Constance – a little tougher but the views will be killer, not the climbs. Try the company Hooked on Cycling out of Scotland for these. We were very pleased with their arrangements.

    (Just getting acquainted with RKP after Fat Cyclist’s Thanksgiving day announcement).

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