It’s impossible for me to say just where or even how my love of mountains developed. It’s been a part of my life, as much as my personality, for as long as I can recall. Though I grew up in a place that was essentially flat—Memphis—I was drawn to elevation even as a boy. My first trip to Vermont marked me for it was the first time I’d ever seen real mountains. On hikes, I didn’t want to turn back until we’d scaled to the very top of the mount; ascending to within site of the top simply wasn’t good enough for me.
Later, my sense of what it meant to spend time in the mountains was shaped by Jack Kerouac’s novel Dharma Bums. Late in the book Gary Snyder’s character, Japhy Ryder, says something about how you can’t fall off a mountain. It became a kind of Zen koan for me, an idea I needed to continually prove or disprove as circumstances warranted.
When I left the South for New England, the first thing I did on my bike was begin riding up the nearby mountains. Whether on my road or my mountain bike, I’d ascend as high as roads or trails would take me. I never tired of looking down on my town and picking out landmarks, examining the contours of the real-life diorama.
One of the symptoms that comes with this obsession is a love of maps. I collect maps the way some people collect autographs. I study their contours, the curls of roads, the shades that imply terrain and imagine rolling over those roads, of course at speeds even the pros would admire.
Ten years ago I had the misfortune of arriving in the Eastern Sierra for an event with my fitness compromised by the flu. Near the end of what would otherwise go down as the best climbing form I ever gained, I quit the event I had planned to do battle. In the years that followed, as I explored the Alps, the Pyrenees and the Santa Monica Mountains, my mind would return to the Easter Sierra and linger on its interminable ascents.
Something in those mountains frightened me.
A few weeks ago I began doing some research on the Sierra in earnest. What I found intrigued me. Between Nine-Mile Canyon at the southern end of the mountains and Monitor Pass near the Nevada Border, there are a baker’s dozen climbs. Most dead-end below passes that can only bike hiked over during the summer.
Most of the climbs are hors categorie, that is, they ascend more than 1500m or 5000 vertical feet. Worse—or better, depending on your view—they often average grades of more than six percent. Pitches of 11 to 15 percent are not uncommon.
I was able to plan a four-day escape. Unfortunately, a California heatwave that was supposed to break didn’t. So while I planned to do two climbs per day most days, by the time I returned to the floor of the Owens Valley following my first ascent of the day temperatures had soared into the upper 90s (and on one occasion was 107). A second climb in that heat, alone, seemed foolhardy.
Ultimately, I selected four climbs that were among the hardest I’ve ever encountered anywhere in the world. To position them properly, they must be compared to the greatest climbs of both the Alps and the Pyrenees.
The Col du Galibier is 21 miles (34km) long and rises to a height of 8677 feet (2645m). Total elevation gain is a massive 6955 feet (2120m). Now, imagine that crossbred with the Col du Tourmalet’s 7.4 percent average gradient.
The four climbs I did easily make the top 10 of the most difficult climbs I’ve ever undertaken. The shortest of the bunch, Onion Valley, ascended 5200 vertical feet to a height of 9172 feet. Its 7.8 percent average gradient conceals the fact that there are long stretches at 9 and 10 percent, as well as how the final 5 miles of the climb average almost 9 percent.
If the climb to Onion Valley seemed difficult, then the road to Horseshoe Meadows was calculus for the bicycle. Its maximum elevation of 9751 feet may not be as high as the top of Mount Evans, but the fact that it gains 6854 feet over 23 miles means it is both steeper and gains more elevation. Take that, Colorado!
The climb to Mosquito Flat was my longest single day on the bike while there. I rode from Bishop, climbing Lower Rock Creek before making a brief descent and then beginning the climb up to the Crowley Lake turnoff, which leads to the climb of Upper Rock Creek.
The terrain was tight and the road cut a long, lazy slash up the mountain. This was not the Alps, where roads are asphalt love letters to the terrain that shaped much of Europe’s evolution. No, these roads are business, and are expressions of a desire to reach a destination rather than explore the contours floating out of this valley. In that regard, the climb up Upper Rock Creek reminded me of some of the Pyreneean roads that led from France into Spain. Those north/south corridors, unlike the famous climbs used in the Tour, followed cradles between peaks, winding only enough to avoid the inevitable rivers that flow due to melting snow.
By the time I reached Mosquito Flat, I’d climbed 6729 feet, and attained an elevation of 10,172 feet. It’s the highest paved road in California and one of fewer than 30 roads that reach such a height in the continental United States. Though the average grade was only 5.1 percent, there were pitches as steep as 11 percent. I was amazed to note how following a long pitch of 9 percent that 3 percent feels flat. I’ve experienced it before, but it never fails to surprise me.
Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.
And we thought we’d seen surprising riding.
To this point in my life, today’s stage 18 is the single most thrilling single stage of what has already been the single most surprising and dramatic Tour de France in memory.
Lest anyone have harbored any doubts that this was the most exciting and unpredictable Tour de France in a generation, today served as the incontrovertible evidence that we haven’t seen a Tour this wide-open since most of the audience started school. To quantify the number of variables still in play that could determine the final podium of the Tour de France hardly seems possible. I’ll put it in perspective this way: Were this a Hollywood script, the Schleck brothers would be condensed into a single character and Basso and Cunego would have been written out of the storyline in the Pyrenees, along with Contador. Voeckler, Evans and just one Schleck is about the maximum that the average Hollywood script doctor will accept. Tinseltown prefers its conflicts binary, just like football.
Those many storylines are what make stage 18 superior to Greg LeMond’s victory in the final time trial of the ’89 Tour de France (or any other stage of that year’s Tour), Floyd Landis’ reversal-of-fortune ride to Morzine, dare I say, even Lance Armstrong’s 2003 win atop Luz Ardiden on a broken bike.
Armstrong went into that stage with only 15 seconds on Jan Ullrich and 18 seconds on Alexandre Vinokourov. However, The Euskaltel duo of Haimar Zubeldia and Iban Mayo were more than four minutes back and guaranteed to lose boatloads of time in the final time trial, so everyone watching knew there were only three guys who could win the Tour.
Going into today’s stage less than four minutes separated the top eight on GC. By this point in the race, we don’t ordinarily have so many riders seemingly in contention.
Here was the GC this morning before the start:
|Thomas Voeckler (Fra) Team Europcar||
|Cadel Evans (Aus) BMC Racing Team||
|Fränk Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek||
|Andy Schleck (Lux) Leopard Trek||
|Samuel Sanchez (Spa) Euskaltel-Euskadi||
|Alberto Contador (Spa) Saxo Bank Sungard||
|Damiano Cunego (Ita) Lampre – ISD||
|Ivan Basso (Ita) Liquigas-Cannondale||
|Tom Danielson (USA) Team Garmin-Cervelo||
|Rigoberto Uran (Col) Sky Procycling||
Of the top eight, only Cunego and Basso really had ceased to be spoken of with the reverent tones reserved for potential victors. Each of the top six were a storyline unto themselves. Voeckler was defying the odds. Evans was riding like a potential winner. Fränk Schleck was the one of Leopard-Trek’s one-two punch. Brother Andy was the whiny but gifted climber who made the threat of his brother so dangerous. Sammy Sanchez was strong, courageous, unpredictable and … willing to work for Contador. And Contador, though he seemed not to be his usual self, was still too strong to be disregarded.
The younger Schleck’s attack may have worked for one simple reason: Contador didn’t have the legs to respond. Had he been stronger, it seems likely he wouldn’t have allowed last year’s bridesmaid to ride up the road, so strong is the rivalry between the two. Following his terrible descending in the rain on stage 15, Schleck did a fair drop down the Col d’Izoard on his way to catching teammate Maxime Monfort; that alone made his attack redemptive.
For years, the GC race at the Tour has been derided because the players wait for the final climb and then attack with everything they have. At last, with Schleck’s attack, we saw an act of courage, where in his own words he was “all in.” Schleck even admitted that the ride could have gone either way
We’ve entered an era where the afterburner attacks must be used rarely and late in the stage, if at all. The question of what we’re left with as options was answered less by Schleck than the old fox, Francesco Moser, who we are told spent some time with the brothers last night. Though Moser never triumphed at the Tour, he knows a thing or two about wily victories.
Can we give Moser some sort of prize for helping to animate the race? In truth, he did little more than remind the Schlecks of how Grand Tours were won during the age of Merckx. Tonight, all the contenders will go to bed seeing this race with new eyes.
It took guts and determination for Evans to tow the shrinking peloton the way he did. It’s an inglorious path to victory, but he has proven he won’t go surrender to anyone. And for those who wonder why he allowed Andy to ride up the road, when he was clearly such a threat, it was the smartest thing he could do with brother Fränk sitting on his wheel. A counterattack by Fränk could have destroyed Evans’ ambitions, which are only currently wounded.
Both Voeckler and Contador have conceded defeat, the latter just this afternoon, the former every day since he donned the jersey. What’s comical here is how we have every reason to believe Contador and zero reason to believe Voeckler. Never in the Tour de France has a rider spoken more derisively of his chances while riding with such determined ferocity. He’s not giving up and the only thing coming out of his mouth that we can trust is carbon dioxide.
Perhaps the most mysterious ride of the day was delivered by Voeckler’s teammate, Pierre Rolland. As the one teammate left in the lead group on the Galibier, he would have been an obvious choice to help Evans with pace making. Based on his one trip to the front, it seemed that he didn’t have the horsepower to help much, but I suspect there was an additional force at work. Should an additional attack have come (that one didn’t says a lot about how infernal Evans’ pace was), Rolland was there to help pace Voeckler back to the leaders. He was the proverbial ace up the sleeve, as proven by the fact that he finished sixth on the stage.
Only 1:12 separates four riders with a classic Alpine stage to go. Unfortunately for Thomas Voeckler, even if he doesn’t lose a second to either Schleck on l’Alpe d’Huez, he is likely to lose at least a minute to Andy in the time trial. Last year Voeckler—with no pride or classification on the line—gave up almost three minutes to Schleck in the final, 52km, ITT. Even if he rides out of his skin on this 41km test, preserving his lead seems unlikely.
That’s a shame. A spot on the podium is an inadequate reward for Voeckler’s revelatory ride, his tenacity, his poker, his leap of faith in himself.
But the real man of the day is Andy Schleck, who presented himself to us today as a man of real courage, a man of daring. Of course, Schleck’s daring is minor when compared to what Contador attempted. If Alberto-freakin’-Contador can’t pull off the Giro-Tour double at the age of 28, with six consecutive Grand Tour wins under his belt, then I say we are unlikely to see it accomplished again. Armstrong knew not to attempt such a sweep. Will this chasten Contador from trying again? And what does this spell for his relationship with Riis?
With three days to go, only one thing seems certain: Whoever stands atop the podium in Paris will have earned our respect on their way to a deserved win.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
On this, the Sunday of the Tour, I’ve been taking stock of the race up until now. The short answer is that this is one of my favorite editions of the Tour in years, probably since the 1990s. I like the Tour best when the race seems wide open, when the obvious drama of the event is how its outcome can’t be guessed by either experts or its newest followers.
To be sure, I think the eventual winner will have the last name of either Evans or Schleck, but that’s three possible outcomes and a bad day by any of them could open the door to Basso, Contador or—gasp—Sanchez or even—double gasp—Voeckler! Jens Voigt observed that Voeckler is riding on credit; few would argue that he hasn’t already overdrawn his account. But while we’ve been waiting for him to fold as any interloper is supposed to do according to the race’s script, he has shown more than mere tenacity. His surges to bring back the likes of Basso and Schleck seemed to irritate Schleck the younger, judging from his elbow waves.
What I saw in Voeckler was a man who will not go quietly, won’t concede that he’s a pretender to the throne. I can’t recall seeing a rider more out of his element ride with greater courage than when Voeckler launched that massive acceleration to go after Basso.
What has surprised me is how many journalists, bloggers and friends have complained of uninteresting and negative racing. Perhaps I was watching a different race. What I saw on stage 14 looked like the sixth round of a ten-round title fight. Each of those attacks would have crumpled mortal riders. Watching for who might attack next and when the attack did come watching for who was slow to respond kept me leaning into the TV and breathless.
We have four mountain stages left. The first two end with descents (yay, I like descents), while the final two end atop hors categorie climbs. Tomorrow’s stage into Gap is one where a breakaway with no-name riders might, finally, work. We’re bound to see some fireworks on the climb to Sestrieres, but it’s unlikely to result in any significant shakeup to the GC. Would could be interesting, though, is the steep descent off of the Cote de Pramartino with less than a half kilometer of flat to the finish. I wouldn’t be surprised if Voeckler punched it on the descent.
Some race fans won’t like it, but the big moves that decide the race will happen on the Galibier on their way to Serre Chevalier. The riders can’t afford to wait for l’Alpe d’Huez to try to blow the race apart. The Col Agnel is, based on my experience, steep enough that many domestiques will be rendered useless long before the race reaches the foot of the Col d’Izoard.
A word on stage 19: It’s as classic a mountain stage as can be devised. Begin the day with a downhill warmup to the foot of the Col du Telegraphe. After 12km of climbing, give them a brief (4km) descent to recover before throwing them at one of the most feared climbs in cycling, the 18km up to the Col du Galibier. Don’t expect a break including any favorites to go there, though. The descent from the top of the Galibier to the foot of l’Alpe d’Huez is nearly 50km and except for the upper portion of the Galibier, it’s not a technical descent; a group can haul ass (that’s a technical term) for le Bourg d’Oisans.
We can forgive the riders if they seem a bit conservative, even tentative. While the stage 14 attacks can’t be called timid, the responses in most cases were an only-as-much-as-necessary effort to keep the opposition in check. With the race this tight, one wrong move could dock you six spots on GC.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Fans of ultra-tough gran fondo/cyclosportif events have just been given a dream come true. The French promoter OC ThirdPole has announced a new event called La Haute Route and is the multi-stage gran fondo. The seven-stage event will encompass 700km from Geneva to Nice.
If that concept sounds familiar to you, the event is in broad strokes very similar to the Route des Grandes Alpes trip that I did last summer with Erickson Cycle Tours. Our route was based on the historic auto route through the Alps. This route will leave out the loop rides and out-and-back rides we did that broke up our adventure. Even so, the course will encompass some 700km and Alpine climbs with famous names—not Miley Cyrus famous, but nerdy bike-geek household famous. Think Galibier.
By the time riders reach the Promenade des Anglais in Nice they will have climbed roughly 18,000 meters—some 59,000 feet.
Basics of the route include:
* 7 days in a row, from the 21st to the 27th August 2011
* 716 km over 7 stages
* 14 peaks and 18,000 meters of climbing
* 4 high altitude finishes
* Start: Geneva, Switzerland
* Finish: Nice, France
* 5 overnight host cities : Megève, Les Arcs / Bourg-St-Maurice, Serre Chevalier, Pra Loup, Auron
Registration is already open and is a seemingly reasonable 595 euro before 12/31 and 630 euro after the first of the year.
Every rider will receive:
* Official travel bag (to be used by each competitor)
* Mechanical support (in the race village and during the race)
* Food/drink supplies during the race and at the finish of each stage
* Access to a secure bike park at each stopover
* Cleaning service for the bikes at each stopover
* Massages / rest and recovery at the finish
* Pasta party organised every night
* Transfer of personal luggage from the start to the finish of each leg
* Transfer of bike bags and covers from Geneva to Nice
* Accommodation at different levels and return shuttle (Nice-Geneva) as an option
Honestly, if an entry to this accompanied with a hall pass isn’t the gift of the year, I don’t know what is.
Learn more here: www.hauteroute.org
I’m going to let you in on a depressing little secret: Most people don’t read. It has it’s upside, though. I don’t think it’s possible to publish too many books on cycling, the Tour de France, indeed, even on Eddy Merckx. Those of us who actually read will swim in enjoyment while those who don’t read won’t threaten us with the sudden influx in interest in, say, Eddy Merckx’ stellar 1972 season (though you’ll be able to read more about that in the upcoming issue of peloton magazine).
I say that because I’d like Jean-Paul Vespini to write a whole set of books on the major climbs of the Tour de France. In addition to The Tour Is Won on the Alpe—which is about l’Alpe d’Huez—I’d like to see one on Mont Ventoux, and others on the Ballon d’Alsace, the Col du Galibier, the Col du Tourmalet and the Col de la Croix de Fer.
Of course, I don’t think Vespini would want to do that. The thesis of The Tour Is Won on the Alpe is that no single mountain has been more pivotal in the Tour de France than l’Alpe d’Huez. It’s a line-in-the-sand thesis. It really doesn’t leave any room for nuance.
Vespini uses the very facts of history to lay out how each time l’Alpe d’Huez was included in the Tour de France, it’s role wasn’t just important, it was downright pivotal. He shows how winning the stage won’t ensure victory in Paris; rather, pulling on yellow in the town of Huez is a sign of things to come.
It’s a charge not without its romance. If you are a Tour hopeful, you had better be prepared to deliver greatness on the Alpe. If you can’t muster there, history has shown your hopes are just fantasies.
Of course, history will show Vespini’s theory isn’t bulletproof. Laurent Fignon’s first two ascents of l’Alpe d’Huez ended with him pulling on the maillot jaune and keeping it straight to Paris, though in ’89 he only kept it until Paris. Greg LeMond losing the jersey on l’Alpe d’Huez only to take it back in Paris doesn’t follow the script.
It is that single fact more than any other that makes me want to see Vespini take his ability to connect dots and form theories and apply his considerable intellect to the Col du Tourmalet. How many other climbs have appeared in the Tour de France more often than the Tourmalet? After all, there are a million routes through the Alps, but any route through the Pyrenees that doesn’t include the Tourmalet seems incomplete.
What would Vespini say of other mountains? What would he discover?
Beyond refreshing our memories of the stages up l’Alpe d’Huez, Vespini does much to show how behind-the-scenes maneuvering made l’Alpe d’Huez a fairly regular part of the Tour. These are lively characters in a fascinating town. The stats he amasses over the years are a who’s who of greatness; that Laurent Fignon holds the record for the most high-placed finishes (five) is yet another indication of just how great le professeur really was.
As winter reading goes for cyclists, I think it’s only fair that prose should conjure the July sun to remind you of the sting of sweat in your eyes. Vespini’s book is a veritable greatest hits collection from epic days of the Tour de France.
By now, you’ve probably seen the route of the 2011 Tour de France. It is, if nothing else, a substantial departure from the last 10 or so Tours. It would be easy to fault this edition for a lack of time trialing kilometers. After all, there’s no prologue, only one individual time trial and the team time trial is so short a rider could crash on the start ramp, ride alone for the entirety of the course and still finish inside the time limit. To do so, would be to misunderstand the race.
The lack of time trial kilometers really just underscores the central feature of the 2011 race: This is a race for the climbers, pure and simple. The course can’t ensure it’s winner, but it does much to select the most fit athlete.
So what makes this a climber’s tour? With six mountain stages, the 2011 Tour is in keeping with the last 10 Tours. What is different, however is that this edition has four mountain-top finishes. You have to go back to 2002 to find an edition that had more than three mountain finishes. In that year, won as you may recall by Lance Armstrong, five out of six mountain stages finished at the top of a significant (Cat. 1 or hors categorie) climb.
The Pyrenees come first in 2011. The three stages begin with a 209km assault on Luz Ardiden, the first mountain finish of the race. The stage from Pau to Lourdes really only has one challenge, ascending the Col d’Aubisque followed by the bump of the Col du Soulor. It’s okay, though. The next day makes up for it.
The 168km stage from Saint-Gaudens to Plateau de Beille seems short, but takes in five climbs culminating in the climb that is likely to reflect the Tour’s final victor. History holds that the wearer of the yellow jersey atop Plateau de Beille wins in Paris.
The difficulties don’t end there. The five stages leading to the final stage into Paris leave the sprinters no scraps. Following the second rest day on July 18, the riders face a medium mountain stage, a high mountain stage, then the stage from Pinerolo to Serre-Chevalier—the Col du Galibier. To get there they have to climb the 2744-meter-high Col Agnel, which is very steep in its final kilometers, followed by the the 2306-meter Col d’Izoard and finishing with the first-ever finish atop the 2645-meter Col du Galibier. This 189km stage could see some talented riders fold.
And even if all the favorites come through the mountain-top finish atop the Galibier, the next-day’s stage will present a challenge of a different sort. The final mountain stage of the 2011 Tour isn’t the typical stage where that begins with a big climb before heading into flatter country. No, riders tackle the north side of the Galibier, climbing the Col du Telegraphe and then ascending Galibier before descending to the town of le Bourg d’Oisans and scaling l’Alpe d’Huez.
The typical Alpine stage runs from 150-200kms (roughly 90 to 125 miles). However, this stage is only 109km long; that’s less than 70 miles. Racing will hopefully prove to be furious.
The very next day is the Tour’s final time trial. At 41km, it’s short, reinforcing just how important the climbing is to the race, but for racers tired from four consecutive days in the mountains, this could be another chance for fatigue to crush someone’s aspirations (and season).
After the uninteresting course in 2009 and a nearly as uninspired 2010 race where the most interesting mountain stage didn’t end at the top of the mountain, 2011 holds the promise of a truly epic race.
The stages: (mountain stages in bold, * mountain-top finish)
July 2, stage 1: Passage du Gois-Mont des Alouettes, 191km
July 3, stage 2: Les Essarts-Les Essarts, TTT, 23km
July 4, stage 3: Olonne-sur-Mer-Redon, 198km
July 5, stage 4: Lorient-Mûr-de-Bretagne, 172km
July 6, stage 5: Carhaix-Cap Fréhel, 158km
July 7, stage 6: Dinan-Lisieux, 226km
July 8, stage 7: Le Mans-Châteauroux, 215km
July 9, stage 8: Aigurande-Super Besse Sancy, 190km
July 10, stage 9: Issoire-St-Flour, 208km
July 11, rest day
July 12, stage 10: Aurillac-Carmaux, 161km
July 13, stage 11: Blaye-les-Mines-Lavaur, 168km
July 14, stage 12: Cugnaux-Luz Ardiden, 209km*
July 15, stage 13: Pau-Lourdes, 156km
July 16, stage 14: Saint-Gaudens-Plateau de Beille, 168km*
July 17, stage 15: Limous-Montpellier, 187km
July 18, rest day
July 19, stage 16: Saint-Paul-Trois-Châteaux-Gap, 163km
July 20, stage 17: Gap-Pinerolo, 179km
July 21, stage 18: Pinerolo-Galibier/Serre-Chevalier, 189km*
July 22, stage 19: Modane-Alpe d’Huez, 109km*
July 23, stage 20: Grenoble-Grenoble, ITT, 41km
July 24, stage 21: Créteil-Paris/Champs-Elysées, 160km
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.
I’m in the middle of nowhere, a landscape very reminiscent of California’s Central Valley, driving my car with the stereo turned up, deep in my own thoughts and not looking at instrument panel when I notice I’ve missed a turn I’m supposed to take. I double back, make my turn and start to accelerate, but nothing happens.
The car will still drive but won’t do more than about 20 mph. I pull over to figure out what to do about my car. I’m in a casino. The phone rings. It’s a reader who ordered special RKP-embroidered boxers. I recall his name and tell him I mailed them out before departing for a trip.
And in this dream, I have business partners. One is the son of an old industry friend. As it turns out, the reader who is calling me is standing next to me in the elevator and is flabbergasted to meet me. We both marvel at the coincidence of location.
The meeting takes moments. Nothing is decided. Everyone leaves.
I’m left to drive away from the middle of nowhere in a car stuck in first gear.
I’m currently staying in the village of St. Veran. It lies at the highest elevation of any French community that is occupied year-round. We’re in the Queyras, a region of France so deep within the Alps that even as these mountains go, this is out-of-the-way.
The last two days would rank as two of the harder days of riding I’ve encountered on a back-to-back basis, save for the fact that the day into Val d’Isere was stunningly hard. The ride was difficult by any standard, but the cold, wet, wind and minor bonk put me in the whipping shed.
When we left Val d’Isere (which lies at 1930m) two days ago we immediately embarked on the 16km climb of the Col de l’Iseran. For us it was only 16km (only!), because by staying in Val d’Isere, we were effectively cutting the climb in two. The north ascent, from Bourg St. Maurice, is a whopping 47km. We rather conveniently knocked out the first 31km just getting to our hotel.
As we neared the top of the 2764-meter Iseran, the temperature dropped precipitously and while there were clouds, no rain fell. What did happen was that snow started to fall. It was a flurry, to be sure, and a light one at that, but snow says a thing or two about temperature and if snow is falling, it’s not exactly balmy.
The descent of the Iseran involved far fewer turns than most of the Alpine cols I’ve climbed on this trip and I’m not one to ride the brakes for the sake of it. Without a GPS I would periodically check my speed by seeing if I could get the 50×12 high gear I had to bite. No dice. If I can’t even get the freehub to catch I’m north of 45mph. My fingers would have been more comfortable gripping ice cubes. I kept telling myself that the only thing that would alleviate the numbness was less altitude; the faster I dropped, the warmer I’d get. My high speed also kept me ahead of traffic. The few cars I encountered pulled over to let me by.
A big chunk of the day involved riding down this river valley through Modane and toward St. Michel de Maurienne. Despite a near constant loss of elevation we rode more than 50km directly into the teeth of the wind.
My preference would have been to head for St. Jean de Maurienne and sleep at the lowest altitude possible. Instead, we ascended the 18km to Valloire, but fortunately the last 4km are downhill into the ski town. Of course, that left the Galibier hanging, sword of Damocles style outside the window of our hotel.
We began yesterday by climbing another 17km to the top of the Col du Galibier. The pitches of eight and nine percent come at your legs as a bullfighter—a poke here, a jab there. The final 12 percent stretch to the top of the pass is the coup de grace. No matter how cold it is at 2645m, you stop. You have to. You can’t not get your picture at that sign. It’s like trying not to look at a car crash.
The descent off the Galibier: Big fun. The left turn at the Col du Lauteret and the drop into Briançon in Saturday traffic: Not priceless. As I and one of my companions threaded traffic into town one woman with a baby in her car shut the door on me—nearly putting me into a rock wall—with such verve that a dispatch was sent to Los Angelenos and a collective cheer went up. With her bumper inches from the wall I squeezed through in the debris-filled gutter and my companion suggested that she might do well to have a romantic encounter with one of the regions Turkish denizens. My French isn’t so good; there’s a fair chance that it was less a suggestion than an outright command and the encounter he had in mind might not have been of the candlelight variety.
The north ascent of the Col de l’Izoard starts meters from the south side of town with no ceremony. After riding through town for several kilometers in dense traffic, we made a tight right turn and the road suddenly turned up. The word “shocking” came to mind. I made a U-turn and headed 50 meters back into town for a Coke and tarte citron before letting the firing squad do their bit. Blindfold? Thank you. Cigarette? Yes.
The Izoard was one of the more forested and less spectacular ascents I’ve done. At least, that was the case until I climbed above the treeline. Then it was a stunner. However, marking progress was a challenge. The signs counted up and the math didn’t seem likely to add up to what I thought the actual length of the climb was. While it’s helpful to go from 15km to 16km, the climb was (according to Michelin) 21.5km long and when I saw 25km I knew that not everyone was working from the same set of figures. Climbs get longer when you can’t count them down.
Think back on the narrowest road you’ve ever descended. Now, think back on the twistiest road you’ve ever descended. Add them together. What’s that spell? Casse Déserte. The Casse Déserte is the section of the Izoard that looks a bit like a moonscape and is the highest portion of the road on the south face. Boxers aspire to be this brutal.
It’s, uh, shy on vegetation. Fausto Coppi used this section to help seal his reputation as the greatest climber of his generation. It is in this several kilometer stretch that the memorial to Coppi and Louison Bobet was erected. The monuments were mounted to a rock outcropping perched of above a mortal expanse. Riders climbing the south face enter this section following a very brief downhill and in July it bakes them like the day’s pain.
If I had the fitness, I’d do repeats of the Casse Déserte. It looks like a spectacularly demoralizing ascent and as drops go, roller coasters wish they offered such thrills.
Without needles of cold wrecking my fingers, I relished the drop down the rest of the Izoard. I had a bigger gear, a 50×11, but still couldn’t get it to bite too often. And while I thought that meant I must be close to 50 mph, the road surface and visibility gave me confidence that I was, if not outright safe, then at least under adequate control, kinda like when you have a firm grip on a cobra just behind its head.
The climb up to St. Veyran bore one striking similarity to the climb up the Col du Telegraphe. The higher I climbed, the better I felt. My fastest pace came in the last two kilometers before entering town.
I have no idea what’s going on.