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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