Since returning from Nice and wrestling with jetlag I’ve been inputting each of the rides I did on my Alpen odyssey with Erickson Cycle Tours. My plan had been to capture each of the rides with my Garmin 705, but as it went south the moment I plugged the Europe map chip in, that wasn’t possible. It has been painstaking work and has involved peeling some waterlogged maps apart. So it goes.
Under ordinary circumstances I’d keep the exact routes quiet in an effort to protect Erickson’s limited intellectual property. There’s more to a great bike tour than just getting over the right cols. However, the impetus to protect isn’t at work this time around for reasons that require some explanation.
Truth told: I don’t know a cyclist who is more familiar with the roads of the Alps than Glenn Erickson. He has been riding these roads for more than 25 years and his initial introduction to these routes came from former Grenoble resident and cycling writer Owen Mulholland—one of the two foremost English-language experts on the Tour de France (the other being Bill McGann). Yet with that endorsement out of the way, Glenn isn’t looking for more business. He’s in his 60s, has Parkinson’s and is likely to gradually wind down his business over the next five to seven years. All of his 2011 tours are already sold out. He doesn’t so much have returning clients as a very extended family.
As much as I want to recommend Erickson Cycle Tours to you, Glenn has asked me instead to focus on the beauty of the Alps and roads that most tour companies don’t go anywhere near. It’s a selfless act, really; one that has left me befuddled.
The lynchpin of a great tour operation is really the relationship management has with the hotels. That’s where Glenn’s wife, Nancy, comes in. She has been the one to nurture the relationships so that when an Erickson group shows up at the front door of a hotel, tour participants are treated as friends of friends rather than Americans, and that’s quite a difference in some places. Nancy has been the one to handle logistics, making sure that hotels meet Erickson’s standards while also allowing them to maintain an exceptional value—generally $4000 for two weeks.
Glenn and Nancy are something of a two-headed genius at creating tours that offer seamless riding. While their perspective seems none-too-extreme on its surface, there’s one distinction that I’ve yet to see another tour company emulate: You never, ever get in the van before a ride unless you ask. Erickson tours are designed so that you ride from one hotel to the next. Unlike every one of their competitors I’ve ever traveled with, no Erickson ride ever starts with a shuttle to the start of the actual ride. The benefits of this particular operational parameter are almost too numerous to name.
Should you wish to recreate the Route des Grandes Alpes on your own, it’s easy enough to find the route (and we didn’t stick to it religiously, ourselves), but with the routes we used you gain the advantage of knowing where you can find hotels that are both good and affordable. It would be pretty easy for a few friends to rent a van and take turns driving sag from Geneva to Nice. And I guarantee you’ll want a rest day (or two) in there somewhere.
It’s my sincere hope that as Glenn and Nancy transition toward retirement someone steps in to offer tours of a similar appeal.
Of course, there was a selfish side to my uploading all my rides to Map My Ride. I’m a data guy and two weeks of exquisite riding with absolutely zero data wasn’t easy to endure. I wanted to know the grand total on my mileage and my climbing. Early estimations were that we’d ride about 1000 miles climb roughly 100,000 feet.
In the past, my experience in the Alps, Pyrenees and Tuscany was that the riding generally hits a ratio of 100 vertical feet ascended for every mile ridden. On this trip there were many days where we blew that ratio to smithereens. There were days where we had more than 133 feet of climbing per mile.
My final tally was just more than 750 miles ridden and more than 92,000 feet climbed. And while those two numbers are super-accurate, the elapsed times given are very approximate. Between the map checks and food stops our elapsed times weren’t something we were too concerned with and I had no way to accurately gauge.
The Route des Grandes Alpes is a rare itinerary, both for its difficulty and in the rarity of the tour companies that have the ability to actually support such a tour. There’s a market for tours that do more than just bag a few cols; the question is who will offer these routes in the future.
Image courtesy Gary Schwenk
The withdrawal of Levi Leipheimer from the 2009 Tour de France due to a broken wrist is a sad twist for the race. It’s a loss on a number of levels, though it doesn’t change the race in the way some may think.
The first, biggest loss is that to Leipheimer himself. He was on stellar form and would possibly have had his second podium finish at the Tour. But this is yet another year where Leipheimer’s potential remains a question mark. Just what can he do as a leader?
The second is obviously to Astana. Only one other team in history has been able to use a guy sitting in the top five on GC to help control the race. When you think of legendary watchdogs, it is hard to find one more capable than Leipheimer.
Psychologically, Lance Armstrong has experienced a setback. Armstrong places a premium on riders’ whose loyalty is beyond question. That said, still has plenty of support in the form of Andreas Kloden and Yaroslav Popovych for when the race hits the high Alps and Mont Ventoux.
Unless Armstrong completely detonates on Mont Ventoux, the 2009 Tour de France will recalibrate our ideas about what a cyclist can achieve as he ages. Even if Contador wins the race, fewer people will think a guy who has had his 35th birthday is incapable of winning a Grand Tour. The question in Leipheimer’s case is will he ever be presented with an opportunity to arrive at the start of a Grand Tour properly trained and supported for unquestioned leadership.
The best thing that could happen for Leipheimer is to take his time healing up and then build back up for a run at the Vuelta a Espana. Of course, should Contador not win the Tour de France—and Armstrong doesn’t have to win, Contador just has to lose—he will likely want his own shot at the Vuelta which would resign Leipheimer yet again to the roll of World’s Finest Domestique.
But what does Leipheimer’s absence really do to the Tour? It means very little to the competition between Armstrong and Contador on a direct basis. Though it is true that Andy Hampsten was forced to chase Bernard Hinault on one occasion in the Alps at the ’86 Tour, it is almost impossible to conceive of a situation in which Leipheimer would have been asked (and Bruyneel would have allowed) to chase down his own teammate. In short, Leipheimer’s greatest threat to Contador was psychological; knowing Leipheimer was loyal to Amstrong may have made him something of a deterrent to Contador.
Leipheimer’s greatest use was always in controlling the attacks of other teams. As a result, his absence will make it harder for Astana to neutralize other teams late in a stage. While that fact may strike many of you as obvious to the point of stupidity, the upshot is truly interesting.
Late-stage attacks from the likes of Carlos Sastre, Andy Schleck or Christian Vande Velde (it seems a little unlikely that Bradley Wiggins or Tony Martin will mount a stunning attack) will give both Armstrong and Contador an opportunity to follow and counterattack. A less neutralized competition should actually increase the fireworks between Astana’s two leaders.
And what of Leipheimer’s post-recovery future? It simply can’t be guessed. Had anyone suggested Leipheimer would return to Bruyneel’s fold to both achieve his best-ever form and be reduced to a support role at Grand Tours, most observant cycling fans would have scoffed. It’s a new take on irony, huh?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International