Securing a frame I could pack and travel with easily was only half of the solution to the problem before me. I know from experience that I wouldn’t have been one of those riders to get stronger while racing a Grand Tour. I needed to build the Seven up with a component selection that would permit me to ride through fatigued legs in the second week.
Due to some availability issues and a hold-up in customs, I had to start the trip with a Campy Record 10 group with a 34×25 low gear. However, following a frenzied cab ride in which I learned the average European mortgage term is 50 years and the winter fare for a cab traveling from Albertville to Geneva was triple what I paid, I gained possession of the group of parts and was able to install them just in time for the climb up the Col du Galibier.
A brief note on installation of Red and Apex parts: This was the first time I had ever worked on SRAM components. While I’ve had the opportunity to ride them some, I’d never installed any previously. I know from talking to shop mechanics that there is a love for SRAM based on how easy their stuff is to work on, but I’d never experienced it for myself. Let me just say, ‘I get it.’ I honestly don’t think the installation could have been smoother. The point where it was most noticeable was in running the cables through the levers. With every lever from Shimano and Campagnolo through which I’ve ever run a cable, there has always been a bit of fiddling to get the cable to run through the guide hole. I’ve never gotten it on the first try. With SRAM, all four cables went through on the very first try. I couldn’t help but take note.
In three hours I had all the Campy parts removed and the SRAM parts installed and adjusted. To me, that’s shop mechanic speed, not fatigued guy working in the rec room of a hotel.
The linchpin in this operation involved the removal of the Campy freehub body from the Easton EA90 SLX rear wheel and the installation of the SRAM-compatible Shimano freehub. I’d never done it before and wasn’t convinced I had all the right tools. The operation proved to be quicker and easier than instant coffee—not to mention more satisfying—in part because it required little more than two 5mm Allen wrenches.
Let’s back up a second. Triples have been the stock-in-trade for non-PROs riding in big mountains for years. There are some features to like, such as pairing a 12-25 cassette with 53/39/ 30-tooth chainrings. In that setting you always have a familiar gear and the jumps between cogs once you’re into the third ring are tiny. However, most people I talk with believe triples have serious shifting issues (I didn’t experience that in years of using a triple with Campy). You also hear complaints about extra weight, wider Q-factor, too many duplicated gears and cost. To switch a Shimano bike over to a triple requires you to purchase a crank set, bottom bracket, a front derailleur, a long-cage rear derailleur, chain and, usually, a shift lever and cassette.
Adding an Apex rear derailleur, cassette and a new chain to as SRAM-equipped bike simplifies the solution in terms of cost, familiarity and labor.
By the time I switched out the parts on my Seven, I was in need of some lower gears. I had suffered through two days of shockingly steep grades, and while I would probably have been okay if the road had never tipped steeper than 7 percent, it had. A lot. Hell, the shallow pitches on the Col de Pré had been 7 percent. And while I needed something lower than a 34×25, I wasn’t so sure I needed a 34×32. But the folks at SRAM were confident (if not downright adamant) that I’d put the 32 to use if it were there.
My fear was that I’d end up with a nine-speed cassette as I’d never use anything lower than the 28. Well that concern was laid to rest the first time the Col du Galibier hit 10 percent. How many times have you known you were in your lowest gear and yet reached down to try and downshift out of some Hail Mary hope? Well, I did just that and—lo!—the derailleur gave me another gear. With the fatigue I was experiencing it was hard to turn the gear over as quickly as I would have liked, but the 32 became an integral part of my riding for the rest of the trip.
My concern that I’d end up with a nine-speed cassette was realized, however. I almost never used the 11. The nature of the descents I was riding included switchbacks the way sharks have teeth. After braking for a switchback, the gears I found myself most often using to sprint back up to speed were the 13 and 15. Long straits that give you a chance to wind out a 50×11 were as rare as fans of offshore oil drilling.
My preference would be that they ditch the 11 and add a 14, which is a cog I’d use a great deal more. Jumping from the 15 to the 13 when upshifting was large enough to be frustrating; I’m accustomed to the presence of a 14. Similarly, the jump from the 19 to the 22 took some getting used to, as did the 22 to 25 jump; you notice that bigger jump when upshifting, though under downshifting it didn’t bother me too much. In the cassette’s favor is the 25 to 28 jump, as is the 28 to 32, which might appear large on paper but were utterly welcome out on the road.
If I’d had two full weeks in the Alps on this group, by the end the only shifts I would have noticed would have been between the 13/15 and the 19/22. If they’d offer a 12-32 that included a 14, I promised I’d shut up.
Karma dictates that someday I’ll go ride in the Rockies at 11,000 feet without proper acclimatization and due to the combination of zero oxygen and screaming fast descents I’ll be grateful for both the 11 and the 32 in the same cassette. Once that happens, I’ll come back and delete the above two paragraphs.
Naturally, the question of weight is going to arise. I have yet to reassemble the bike and weigh it in its current configuration, but I’m guessing it’ll be about 18 to 18.5 lbs. The big gain in weight compared to its last build (when it was 17.0 lbs.) comes from the S&S couplers, which added just less than 10 oz. to the frame’s overall weight. The rear derailleurs weigh nearly the same, though the cassette increased in weight by about 100g, though I suspect it will have a much longer life. SRAM sent me the Apex crank and bottom bracket, so that increased the bike’s weight by roughly 250g.
I’m not sure everyone will do the math the way I did, but in my view this bike gives me a truly versatile travel bike solution. What it comes down to is this: I’ve got a bike that will be convenient to fly with no matter where I go. It will be inexpensive to fly with as well as the most I’ll be charged is just $25 per flight. Thanks to the titanium frame and largely aluminum components (the only carbon fiber is the fork, bar and shift levers), even if the case takes some serious hits, it’s unlikely any damage rendering the bike unusable will occur. It’s still light enough that I should survive any group ride I hook up with. With 700C wheels I don’t have to deal with the odd handling inherent in a bike using 20” or 24” wheels. And because it’s a bike I’ve owned for years, the handling and fit are utterly familiar—which is handy both on long climbs and fast descents.
S&S couplers have been on the market for a good 15 years. When they first came out, I was suspicious of their function and safety. They are more time-tested than our love for the Internet. And while they’ve had devotees for years, they were never a super-popular solution to travel. Today’s travel costs have finally made their value readily apparent.
Is this a permanent solution? Probably not, but I believe this should cover my travel needs for at least the next five to seven years.
Is it the perfect solution? Also, probably not, but airlines seem to be increasing both their charges for bicycles and their hostility to anything requiring care. Traveling to far-flung lands without a bicycle is like going to a great restaurant that omits the salad and the dessert. I want the whole meal.
When I think back on the coldest, wettest and, ultimately, hardest days I’ve had on the bike, I can’t come up with any where I was seemingly inches from disaster the whole day. This is one of those stake-in-the-ground days. Spoiler alert: It hasn’t made me feel more PRO.
Wednesday, we rode from our hotel in Albertville to the top of the Col de la Madeleine via the northern route. A whopping 26 kilometers to 2000 meters of elevation. I’d forgotten that more than a few of the kilometers tick by with average gradients of nine or 10 percent. It’s a climb of a level of difficulty that other than the Rocky Mountains, very few places in the United States have climbs that can compare. There’s just no way to prepare for a climb this hard unless you live in the shadow of a mountain, a big one.
And in one of the only events of my life where I found a flat to be a relief, after we had finished our Cokes and slices of pie, I grabbed my bike and discovered—Quelle surprise!—I had a very flat tire. Suddenly, the soft rear tire I had imagined was slowing my progress over the last 4km wasn’t so imagined.
So that’s why I was so slow at the end.
Thursday’s route was simple enough on paper. Leave the hotel in Albertville, climb the Cormet de Roselend, descend into Bourg St. Maurice and then tackle the gentle ascent to Val d’Isere. But paper is for fiction and toilets.
Our group decided to climb the Col de Pré before hooking up with the last 7km of ascent to the top of the Cormet de Roselend. For the record: When someone tells you, “The Alps aren’t as steep as the Pyrenees,” what they are telling you is that they’ve watched Versus and they’ve heard Phil and Paul say that the climbs in the Alps used by the Tour de France aren’t as steep as the climbs used in the Pyrenees.
I’m here to tell you that the Col de Pré is one of the toughest climbs I’ve ever done. Category 1 or not, there were sustained pitches of 10 and 12 percent. What passed for a false flat was six percent. And as I mentioned, it was raining. As a matter of total fact, the higher we climbed, the harder it rained. I don’t know how that works in cold weather. I’ve been places that were hot and the rain evaporated before getting to sea level and I’ve seen snow at 2000 feet turn to rain by sea level, but I’ve never experienced no rain at 2000 feet become driving rain at 5000 feet. There’s a mechanism to this and I need it explained to me.
We reached the pass and headed for the van for food and other assistance. At the time, I was wearing bibs, base layer, jersey, arm warmers and rain cape. My legs were slathered with an embrocation from Sportique that I’ll be reviewing soon. I pulled on knee warmers (knee warmers over embro is a first for me) and one of our guides who was driving the van gave me his Campagnolo wind breaker to add on top of my rain cape. I was still cold—numb toes, even.
The descent of the east face of the Cormet de Roselend was almost recklessly fast because my brakes didn’t work too well. It seemed to take an extra 100 feet to get them to bite. I was sleeted on for several kilometers, which added a novel sting to the rain. Think of it as a cold sandblast at 40 mph. And then there was the Peugeot Clio that raced me down the first pitch, passed me and then left me no room to pass and half the braking distance I needed upon entering each turn. With each successive turn I wondered if I’d have my own personal Davis Phinney moment with its back windshield.
Eventually I did find an opportunity to pass the Clio but by this time the descent was even steeper and what I had yet to realize was that I had so thoroughly burned through my brake pads that the reason my fingertips hurt was because I was bottoming out the lever against the bar. Who knew?
I approached one right-hand switchback only to see a camper swing into view; I braked even harder, to little avail. Just as I was to breathe again a motorcycle swung into view, and another, and another. I realized that my choices given my tepid drop in speed were to turn hard and hope I don’t end up on my hip—which seemed unlikely—or shoot for the outside of the switchback and pass—no matter how hazardously—between motos two and three.
The driver of moto three shook his head at me just as you would for anyone after they had committed an act that, if deliberate, would qualify as the dumbest thing you’d seen this year. I suppose he was a bit frightened. Not half as much as I was.
In Bourg St. Maurice I found a bar and ordered chocolat chaud, twice. My companions arrived during my second, ordered one each and before I could get a sandwich and Coke, were out the door. The caloric math for me wasn’t good. With roughly 30k to ride—and all uphill—I knew my tank didn’t have the reserves, but I vowed to stick with the boys (the buddy system is smart, right?) and make for the hotel. It wasn’t long before I’d downed the last of my Shot Blocks and an Accel Gel.
As expected, I did have to turn to one of my companions with 10km to go and announce that my personal idiot light was on. I made for Tignes, just 4km for our hotel and marched into the first bar I found. Despite the tobacco fog, I marched in and two Cokes and one Nestlé crunch bar later I was big-ringing it through the last four tunnels.
As tough a climb as the Col de la Madeleine was, when I think hors categorie, I will forever associate that phrase with today’s ride, not yesterday’s. I’m told (and I have to rely on others because my Garmin isn’t working) the ride was 60 miles and not the 8500 feet of climbing I tweeted, but a whopping 10,000. That’s 133 feet of climbing per mile—the highest ratio I’ve ever personally encountered.
I assumed at some point I’d reach an existential curiosity about what I was doing. ‘Why bother?’ is a fair question. What I didn’t expect was that I’d be so close to hypothermia for hours on end and that I’d encounter a descent so dangerous that I’d wish, simply, for it to end. When you can’t enjoy one of your favorite pursuits in the world, the questions start coming. And while the questions might be troubling, the answers are even more so. I can’t trust a sun dial built for anything that rises in the west.