When I left home my mind contained a vision. In it I was fit. I was ready. I was unencumbered by obstacles. I’d ride at threshold until 1km to go, whereupon I would bury the needle and arrive at the col marker out of the saddle and a little out of breath. I would descend with mad Formula 1 skills, drifting my bike around switchbacks and sitting up to eat pain au chocolat as I caught cars.
Sci-fi is fun, huh? The last two weeks of my life have been nothing like that. Nothing. Like. That.
Since Thursday or Friday of last week I’ve been dealing with pain from a nerve I pinched in my neck years ago—during a race, of course. The longer and harder I ride without a break, the worse it hurts and that pain isn’t like fatigue. No, it’s closely related to the sensation you’d experience if someone took a letter opener, heated it over an open flame and then drove it into your shoulder with the aid of a ball pen hammer. And while I arrived with good fitness, it’s one thing to be fit and it’s another to climb the Col de la Madeleine at threshold. I might as well try to drive from New York to San Francisco on a single tank of gas.
Eating and drinking on descents? Um, as it turns out, there’s rarely time enough to get a bottle out of the cage before another bend requiring at least a cursory touch of the brakes to keep me corralled to my side of the road. And just where you are in the road is a matter less of debate than one of logic. The safe assumption is that on an Alpine descent any approaching car will be in the middle of the road. Should you be near what would ordinarily be the lane line separating your lane from the lane of oncoming traffic, you would not fare well unless radical course corrections are among your core skills.
Turns came with such rapidity that I almost never used my 11t cog. I generally exited switchbacks in the 13t cog and would sometimes shift to the 12t if the straightaway was longer than 200 meters.
Drifting? Dude. I’ve been watching too many Fast and Furious movies. The closest I came to drifting was my failure to stop on a switchback that sent me shooting between two motorcycles coming up the mountain. On a scale of one to 10, my pucker factor was 36.
Thursday was our final hors categorie climb, the north side of the Col de la Cayolle. All 25km of it. I can say that the descent off either side is long enough to induce braking-caused hand pain. The climb to our hotel in Valberg wasn’t a big, memorable climb used in the Tour, which is to say it was still more than 12km long and took us to 2000 meters. Quite arguably a Category 1 climb.
For Friday, our next-to-last day of the tour, we took in three climbs. The first was less than six km but the other two were 14 and 15km, respectively. In 70 miles we climbed more than 7500 vertical feet. Somehow we managed to utterly miss showers that coated the region in dripping humidity.
The last big climb of the day was the Col de Turini. For those of you who follow the World Rally Championship, that name might be familiar. The Col de Turini is used in the Monte Carlo rally, which is run in January. Picture savoire faire Frenchman relaxedly drifting sideways through snowbanks with a thin rock wall separating them from the expanse of destiny while screaming crowds inch near the car traveling at speeds to high to be legal on freeways.
My experience might have been different from theirs and even my own imagination, but that day was visceral in a way theme parks can only dream.
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.