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.
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.
The Amaury Sport Organization has announced another unusual Tour de France route for 2010. Just as the 2009 route broke with tradition and started in the south of France, the 2010 route will break with at least one important tradition. However, it will pay homage to one of the Tour’s most enduring traditions, the Col du Tourmalet in a big way.
In broad strokes, the route sounds familiar enough. There will be two time trials, the first of which is the prologue, the second being the final time trial that falls on the Tour’s next-to-last day. There are six stages in the Alps and the Pyrenees, with just three mountain top finishes. Four stages will contain what the organizers call medium mountains and nine stages will be flat.
The Tour will begin Saturday, July 3 with an 8km prologue in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. In years with even numbers, the Tour traditionally starts in a nation outside France and will ride two or three stages in other nations before entering France.
Again, in even numbered years, such as this one, upon entering France, the route typically continues a streak of cool, wet stages across the north of France as it begins a counterclockwise loop around the country. Ultimately, this results in hitting the Pyrenees Mountains first. For 2010, however, the route makes a gradual zig-zag from Rotterdam on its way to the cities of Brussels, Spa, Porte du Hainaut, Reims, Montargis, Gueugnon and Station des Rousses, before hitting the Alps first. Along the way, we know the riders will hit some hills and cobbles known in the Spring Classics.
The 2010 route features just two days in the high Alps with one, the stage into Morzine-Avoriaz culminating in a mountain top finish. The two stages will be broken up by a rest day, which suggests the ASO wants the riders rested for a second hard day in the Alps. And while the stage to Morzine-Avoriaz will fall in stage 8, on Sunday, July 11, the second Alpine stage, which will take in three Category 1 climbs before tackling the hors categorie ascent of the Col de la Madeleine will come in stage 9, on Tuesday, July 13. Set your Tivo now.
The finish in the town of St. Jean de Maurienne will be followed on stage 10, Wednesday, July 14, with what Tour organizers call a “medium” mountain stage. While exact route details haven’t been released just yet (more on that later), don’t think for a second that this will be an easy day. The route travels from Chambery to Gap and can be expected to take in several climbs in the Chartreuse Mountains before climbing through the Vercors on the way to Gap. The stage could feature a half-dozen climbs, or more.
The following Sunday, July 18, is when the real fireworks start, so if you were afraid of a repeat of this year wait-till-the-last-minute-to-determine-the-winner route, welcome to your nightmare. To be fair, the final week will be dramatic, if somewhat unusual in that the rest day won’t be at the beginning of the week, Monday, a week following the last rest day, but on Wednesday, July 21, some nine days after the last rest day. The riders should be sufficiently weary by this point.
Sunday, July 18, features the second of the mountain top finishes, with riders ascending the excruciating 2001-meter Port de Pailheres before tackling the final climb of Ax-3 Domaines to finish at the ski station there; both climbs average more than eight percent.
Stage 15, on Monday, July 19, the riders tackle what is supposed to be the second of four days in the Pyrenees, but the stage is, by Tour de France standards, relatively tame. There is but one climb of more than 1500m, the 1755m Port de Bales, which comes, thankfully, very near the end of the stage.
In stages 16 and 17, on Tuesday, July 20, and Thursday, July 22, is the 2010 Tour’s most interesting feature: Two acents of the Col du Tourmalet. On July 20 it comes mid-way into a mammoth climbing stage that features the Peyresourde, Aspin, Tourmalet, Soulor and Aubisque. Unfortunately, the stage also features 41km of gentle downhill following the day’s final descent off the Aubisque. Whoever wins the stage is likely to weigh more than 60kg (132 lbs.), unfortunately.
On July 22, the race gives us its queen stage and while it won’t have the most climbing by meter (that came on stage 16), it will be the most interesting day of the race. Following the climbs of the Col de Marie Blanque, the Col du Soulor (both Category 1), the race will climb the Col du Tourmalet for the second time and for only the second time in history the stage will finish atop the mountain. The last time that happened was 1974.
On the first ascent of the Tourmalet on stage 16, riders will approach from the Col d’Aspin, passing through the town of Sainte Marie de Campan before ascending the Tourmalet’s somewhat easier eastern flank, passing through the ski village of la Mongie on the way to the top. However, on stage 17, riders will approach from Argeles-Gazost and climb the mountain’s more brutal western flank. While both sides average a 7.4 percent gradient, the western side is much steeper near the top with long stretches above 12 percent and the last 100m or so at 15 percent. Because there is barely room enough for the bar that sits on the scalpel of a ridge, riders will likely descend the 4km to la Mongie to meet up with support staff, team vehicles, climb the podium and, of course, give a sample for doping control.
Stage 18 gives the riders a bit of a chance to recover with a flat stage headed for Bordeaux wine country. Stage 19, on Saturday, July 24, features a 51km time trial from Bordeaux to Pauillac through the dead-flat vineyards of the world’s most famous wine country. A transfer later that day will position riders for the annual parade into Paris.
Unlike the route introduction of many previous years, the ASO did not reveal all of the route information for each stage; that won’t be done until June. For many stages, the roads the riders will travel can be deduced from the towns situated at the foot of the climbs. If the riders pass through Argeles-Gazost and less than 20km later they are atop the Tourmalet, they can only be climbing the mountain’s western flank. So why withhold information about the route? While there could be a few reasons, there is one easy answer: Tour groups.
The ASO has done what it can to cut down on tour groups poaching premium watching spots. Tour companies advertising Tour de France itineraries have been sent cease and desist letters instructing them not to advertise such an itinerary unless they pay a fee (a rather exorbitant one last I read, one that would render any such tour an operating loss). On the Tour’s web site is an ad inviting folks to become Tour de France VIPs; the link takes you to a menu of three English-speaking and one French tour companies: Englishman Graham Baxter’s Sports Tours Int’l, the Aussie operation Bike Style Tours and a newer American outfit called Custom Getaways. On the French side is Ronan Pensec Travel.
It can be presumed these four operations are getting the same (or similar) hotel selection that the teams get, which will give them an advantage over any non-fee paying operation and when it comes to watching mountain stages, it’s locationlocationlocation. A well-chosen hotel will mean the difference between riding to your day’s end and getting in a car, van or bus and riding for an hour (or three) to your hotel.
Word from several insiders is that Trek Travel’s constant poaching of premium stage watching locations (complete with fenced-off, client-only areas) and hotels so chapped the ASO, they realized they had to clamp down on everyone. While some tour operators decided to focus on other locations in July (Dolomites, anyone?), others just bill their Tours differently; Trek Travel calls theirs Lance in France, which can mean but one thing for a tour starting July 3.
So what does this route mean for the racing? Naturally, we’re not likely to see a clear leader until the final week. Strategically, Alberto Contador is likely to race against Lance Armstrong and hope, a la Bernard Hinault, that blows the race apart. Armstrong will race The Shack against Contador’s team, no matter what team that is, attempting to wear them down and isolate Contador. Saxo Bank will race the brothers Andy and Frank Schleck as two sides of the same card.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International